This is an ongoing series of meditations on faith, in response to readings from the articles that preface The Oxford Study Bible.
I will trust the reader to dig up the context if the meaning is unclear.
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.
That's not the game 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 accrue 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. We can't just transplant the disciples' words and actions into our own time and expect them to bear the same impact; the landscape is different. 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 like an idiot?
Today, we don't use those twin values of honor and shame as our startin point in determining how to live — so what are our own axes? 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. I've been thinking for a while now that the only sacred object we acknowledge as a society is money; everything else that we call sacred is disposable, if it's not convenient or financially-tuned. I find that intensely wrong. Whatever you call sacred — family, nature, your religion, whatever — must be treated as such, especially 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. How about we don't.
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 some sort of 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 pendulum-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 untied. 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 (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 warning to keep in mind.