According to the Oxford (pages 83-86), life in the first century turned on the poles of honor and shame.
Rich men would erect monuments to demonstrate their honor, and as for shame, the social pressure to avoid it was a constant imperative. In such a society, here come the disciples proclaiming a God who made himself nothing — unthinkable — while they themselves rejoiced in moments that tested their resolve for downward mobility.
It’s not like that anymore. Sure, we have notions about what it means to be honorable, and no one likes being shamed. But our social contract isn’t organized around the directive to attain honor and steer clear of a bad name, not like theirs was. We have our own social pressures, analogous yet distinct.
That’s what intrigues me. Analogous yet distinct. We can’t just transplant the disciples’ words and actions into our own time and expect them to bear the same impact. Yet we can translate them.
What were they doing but challenging one of the most entrenched attachments of their day? What were they saying but that this social contract of theirs didn’t always serve the good and shouldn’t always be obeyed, even when the act of abandoning it made one look ridiculous?
Today we don’t uphold those twin values of honor and shame as a basic point of reference in determining how to live — so what are our own attachments? What shape would the disciples’ radical initiative take today? What splash would godliness make among us; what would it challenge?
Two challenges come to mind
The first gauntlet I’m inclined to throw is that the sacred must be honored, not humored, even when it costs, when it’s not convenient or financially-tuned. I’ve been thinking for a while now that the only sacred object we acknowledge as a society is money. I believe that’s wrong. Whatever you call sacred — family, nature, your religion, whatever — must be treated as such, even when it costs.
That doesn’t sound very radical, but if you look at how we behave, it really is. In those moments when one has to choose — when honoring the sacred means losing big, serious bundles of cash — we squirm right out of it. We’re good at coming up with reasons. Let’s not.
My second challenge has to do with the way we expect power to take shape: top-down, hierarchical. I believe that’s not the best or only way, though. I think power-among is a better alternative to power-over.
This challenge is somewhat trickier, though. Power-over is everywhere. We see it at work, in politics, on the playground. Because it’s the water we swim in, the moments where we get to choose between that and an alternative are everywhere, too, which makes it hard to notice them. If we do notice, the choice is likely to seem awkward and trivial: too little to matter, too silly or inappropriate or whatever to do for its own sake. So the thousand microscopic threads of power-over continue to weave a broad and durable tapestry around us.
But I think that if we take each step a little differently, it’s possible to rough out a different destination. It’s possible to unthread one strand after another, unravel the whole and re-weave it into something better.
In my view, these two challenges are analogous to what the disciples were trying to do. They both have the potential to make a person look ridiculous, as did the disciples’ choosing lowliness. They’re both opportunities to change the world into something a little more like the kingdom of God, as was the disciples’ commitment to humility and justice.
The disciples, for their part, didn’t succeed
As the Oxford tells it, the humility experiment began as a back-swing from their society’s obsession with honor, a strike toward something more egalitarian, in which the face of God could be seen in every man or woman, slave or free, Jew or Greek. Yet the force of context is strong. They lived in a system of complex, interdependent social rules, a web as subtle as an ecosystem. That kind of thing isn’t easily dismantled. Paving the way with bright, heroic words of challenge and truth they set out; yet they were not independent of the way things were. Rich and powerful people gravitated to rich and powerful roles, because they were equipped for them, and because they were used to them. Powerless, dependent people needed their help because they had limited resources, and they accepted it because they were familiar with it.
So generations later, bishops were being selected from “more honorable” levels of society (Oxford, page 86), even with the disciples’ words still ringing in their memory: don’t be infatuated with this. Don’t cling to it. There’s a better way. There are other laws to live by, laws to free us.
It’s a story to hold in mind.