Call No One Master

Photo: Marivi Pazos, Unsplash

”The greatest among you must be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”1

If you knock around the Gospels for awhile, you begin to notice a pattern in the sayings of Jesus. He reverses ideas, turns them upside down, bends and breaks them, then shapes them into something new. These are sometimes hard to hear. They run outside the grooves we’re used to; their rhythms and inflections don’t follow common patterns, so that if you’re just tracking the rise and fall of a familiar verse—not really paying attention to the words—he tangles that all up and then you have to pay attention and really listen, not just hear.

So it is with his idea of exaltation and humbling.

By now, we may have read this text so many times that it is worn smooth, nothing there to snag a finger on a jagged edge. If you come to this looking for leadership principles, like those in Jesus, CEO (“How Jesus built a disorganized staff of twelve into a thriving enterprise! Principles of success that can translate into any corporate business!), you will be disappointed.

Humility is like one of those Chinese finger traps: forcing it tightens it down. If you exalt yourself, you will be humbled. If you humble yourself in order to be exalted, you’ve defeated the purpose and you will most likely end up humiliated. Humility or humbleness is almost impossible if you have to schedule it. If you try it on, it won’t fit. It will be too tight, too short, too big, dead false. In other words, humility raised to the level of consciousness becomes pride.

I’ve wondered if genuine humility instead comes from character built over time. How to still the insistent voice that pipes up, “Me! What about me?”

Thomas Merton links pride with despair, the end result of an unwillingness to accept anything from the hand of God because of one’s mountain of pride. “But a man who is truly humble cannot despair,” says Merton, “because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity.”2

The greater the attention to oneself and the greater the position one holds, the more self-pity becomes the drug of choice when others will not bow to one’s will.

Whether one be the president of the country or the president of the church, the principle applies: the higher the office, the greater the responsibility to serve. When the office is greater than the man (or woman), when the officeholder is not equal to the responsibilities—when, in fact, the character and conduct of the officeholder demeans and corrupts the office, the honor of the office may only be restored by a servant who leads, one who is wise and humble.

I doubt this practice of humility would have been intuitive for many rulers in Jesus’ time. Most would not have seen any advantage in it for themselves, and as for principle—well, that’s just some people talking. Machiavelli said there are only two ways to become a ruler: either you inherit it or you take it. The Roman experiments with forms of democracy certainly didn’t extend to their outlying provinces, especially not for the Jews, who had a long history of volatility. Force applied liberally and strategically, would have been their best practices for leadership.

But force applied compresses the mass and conforms it to the shape of the instrument of force. Those in authority beneath the Romans had no other models of governing except the ones they were subjected to. The idea of servanthood in a leadership role would have seemed both insufficient and ludicrous. Where there were clear lines of class, wealth, and privilege, no one in a position of authority would deign to humble himself.

Jesus locates humility as a practice that begins in the family and continues through one’s education. He calls on religious leaders and teachers to be humble, since they are in a position to exploit their authority and their power.

But you must not be called “rabbi”; for you have one Rabbi, and you are all brothers. Do not call any man on earth “father;’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor must you be called “teacher;’ you have one Teacher, the Messiah.3

This is one of those sayings of Jesus which we adhere to by the spirit, rather than by the law. If we read this literally, limiting it to titles alone, we miss entirely the deeper meaning that all of us—leaders and teachers also—are as dependent on God as children are on their parents.

You must not be called Rabbi, says Jesus. You have one Rabbi and besides, you are all brothers. And you must not be called teacher, he adds, for you have one Teacher, the Messiah. These sayings are in the passive voice, thus the responsibility is on us not to encourage the fawning and favoritism that often comes with degrees and titles.

When we talk about titles and honorifics, though, we are treading on ground that is sacred for a lot of people. Titles represent the hard work that was put in, the long nights of study and the exams taken and passed. They speak to the discipline and ambition that it takes to rise to the top of one’s profession, and they serve as a bright dividing line between the entitled and the poseurs.

When I taught at Stevenson University and at Trinity Washington University, the students called me Professor. I rather liked that because it meant that I professed something. What I professed was something that I sincerely believed, although I was not able to articulate it or even demonstrate it to my own satisfaction. But every time I entered a classroom or spoke with a student or graded her papers, it was uppermost in my mind. It was a dual question for the students: ‘What are you doing here?’ and ‘What does your life mean?’

Posed as much to myself as to my students, the questions were a constant reminder that my motives were not always aligned with my outcomes, and I am still, in part, an enigma to myself. The truest desire of my will, only sometimes realized, was that my students should see me as a window through which they could see a path forward to a country they could call their own.

The other warning Jesus gives us is in the active voice: “Do not call any man on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”

Are we to take Jesus literally on this point? In a male-dominated culture, in which the father was the undisputed head of the family, this must have surprised his disciples, if not grated on them. And while not everyone will be a religious leader or a teacher, everyone has a biological father, absent though he may be. The particular points to the universal: our fathers bow to Our Father.

Perhaps Jesus felt this more keenly than most of us. After the incident in which Jesus ditches his parents to discuss with the rabbis in the temple, we hear no more of Joseph. It’s no stretch of the imagination to think of Jesus, the eldest of several siblings, with a growing consciousness of God, his Abba, after Joseph passes away. Jesus was the eldest, the one set apart, special somehow, although he couldn’t say why, and Mary wouldn’t—not yet. All those years so alone; he must have stretched himself upward, opening to the sun and the cold moon and the distant, gentle presence he wished to call “Father.”

Thomas Merton, who struggled with humility all his life, saw it as the way to joy. “It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of true humility and its power in the spiritual life,” he wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation. “Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul. It is the only key to faith, with which the spiritual life begins: for faith and humility are inseparable.”4

To call no one ‘Master’ is a liberating experience. It removes compulsion from our relationships and replaces it, where possible, with a freely given loyalty. Loyalty, when not the blind variety, is a much stronger bond than those cemented through fear and humiliation. When we are free in this way, with a quiet confidence that we are sons and daughters of God, we can be free from fear of anyone.

  1. Matthew 23: 11,12, New English Bible.
  2. Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. Boston, MA: Shambala, 2003, p. 183.
  3. Matthew 23:8-10, New English Bible.
  4. Merton, 184.

Look No Further

Photo: Alex Wigan, Unsplash

”Be content, be content. We are the Body of Christ! We have found Him because He has sought us . . . There is nothing further to look for except to turn to Him completely, where He is already present. Be quiet and see that He is God.” —Thomas Merton1

It is sometimes said that there are two kinds of Christians: the ones who live for the Crucifixion and the ones who live from the Resurrection. The main difference between them is their terminus point, what Aristotle might have called their telos, the meaning and goal of their lives.

The Crucifixion people are concerned with judgment and their salvation. The Resurrection people are ready to permeate the world like salt in soup. There have been millions of crucifixions without a resurrection; there has only been one Resurrection with a crucifixion. Resurrection people stake their faith on defying those odds.

Most of us are brought up to be Crucifixion people. We are told we are born in sin, that sin corrodes even our best intentions, and that this enormous burden of sin has estranged us from God. Our sin results from breaking God’s law and it’s in our very nature to break it. Since the irreversible penalty for breaking the law is death, and since not even God can make an exception, we are doomed. We broke it, we must pay for it. But God has provided a way out for us by sending his Son, Jesus—a perfect sacrifice—to die in our place. The Law’s demands are met, and we are saved—until we sin again.

It’s all contractual, with obligations and penalties, demands and responsibilities. There is a coldness here that runs to the bone. There is an unspoken, but deeply felt understanding between the parties involved that because we can never adequately repay God for the sacrifice made, that we are forever in debt—and God will never let us forget it. In moments of our greatest vulnerability, when we have no resources left and nothing in us that can rise to meet the danger that is coming, the dread that we will have to yet again beg for forgiveness so that we might be saved from our own clumsiness, scours all gratitude from our hearts and replaces it with fear. And perfect fear casts out love.

My experience with this perspective goes back to a preacher whose message week after week never varied: We are dead in our tracks and there is nothing good in us. We must throw ourselves on the mercy of God and cling to the foot of the cross. And it may be that God will look down on us and forgive us for nailing Jesus to the cross. But we dare not move beyond the circle of the cross; there we must remain, drenched in our sins and desperate for the blood of the Lamb, hoping to placate the God we have deeply offended.

Some variation of this no doubt rings out from pulpits from week to week. It is a reaction to the “cheap grace” dispensed by an indulgent god, who regards our sins as faux pas, and who can be counted on to turn the other cheek indefinitely. It is the predictable opposite of the Crucifixion position. In place of the cold calculation of sins, there is the sunny smile of the affable god. Where our sin creates an enormous gulf, there is instead a wave of the hand and a cheerful, ‘No problem!’ This is a god of respectability, whose only request is that we maintain a reasonable semblance of ethicality.

We turn away, instinctively, from both these gods, for they are false—and they reflect back to us a false view of our humanity. In the one we become abject, paralyzed, and terrified. In the other, we are self-centered, smug, and blind to the wreckage we leave behind us.

This provokes in us different reactions. We might redouble our efforts to do life perfectly, keeping lists and analyzing the data. But this is about as effective as Paris Hilton’s T-shirt, which read, “Stop Being Poor.” Or we might kill the messenger, rejecting those who would stop to help us out of the ditches we have crashed into. Another reaction is to throw the whole thing over, confess that we were duped by God and religion from the start, and try to begin again, free from the superstitions we once fervently followed as truths. All of these are ways we cope with cognitive dissonance, in which our actions and our values no longer correspond and, instead, cause us deep distress.

Or we could try repentance, what the New Testament calls metanoia, a turning around to take a new and different path. This is our turning to God, and we are at our most vulnerable in doing so. Because we judge God by our own standards, we find it almost impossible to believe that God has been with us all along, especially when we felt most isolated in our sin. We may resolve to live right, do our very best, and make it up to God. Merton cautions us, however: “The best is not the ideal. Where what is theoretically best is imposed on everything as the norm, then there is no longer any room even to be good. The best, imposed as a norm, becomes evil.”2

Even if we are reflective about our state of being with God, there is in us a nagging suspicion that it couldn’t be as simple as “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” and “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” What will we be free from? In these verses Jesus also says—and could we refute him?—“Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” We are all slaves, then, and the result is that we cannot believe we have been set free. Mental slavery—the acquiescence to the power of a distorting reality—destroys our trust.3

Crucifixion people collapse right here and have not the trust nor the will to stand up. Because they must be the best—and they cannot—they are bound in an endless loop of self-recrimination and guilt. They might experience a momentary high as they imagine Jesus’ death on the cross wiping the slate clean and averting God’s wrath. But in the next moment they are brought down as they sin. They cannot move forward because they regard sin as discrete unlawful actions, which they cannot stop performing.

But sin is like living with a crippling disease, an ongoing state of being. One learns to cope, to find ways to walk anyway, in the faith and hope that one day we shall “run and not be weary.” Until then, we remember both how fragile we are and yet how we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

Resurrection people know their personal history; they know where the cracks are. They know what crippled them and how they got that way. They were listening when Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” and they hoped, with all their heart, that when Jesus cried out to them from his own cross that “Today you will be with me in paradise,” that it was true. For they knew that they were crucified with Christ, but that they would live because it was Christ who would live in them.

They would continue to bear the scars of their battles and to walk with a limp—a reminder of their struggle to give their ego over to God. But most of all, they were emboldened to become salt in the world and to become light where they were, because they had a clear-eyed experience of being loved.

“Be content, be content. We are the Body of Christ! We have found Him because He has sought us. God has come to take up his abode in us, in sinners. There is nothing further to look for except to turn to Him completely, where He is already present. Be quiet and see that He is God.”4

  1. Merton, Thomas. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Garden City, NY: Image Books imprint of Doubleday & Co., 1968, p. 23.
  2. Merton, p. 9.
  3. Acknowledgement to Bob Marley.
  4. Merton, p. 23.

Good People Made Evil

Photo: ATC Commphoto, Unsplash

“We have seen

Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,

Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.”1

Edwin Muir was a Scottish poet, raised on farms on the Orkney Islands, whose family fell apart when they moved to the slums of Glasgow in 1901. They were forced off their farm by high rents, but the move to Glasgow proved even more devastating. Within five years, Muir’s mother, father, and two brothers were dead. Muir himself—who went on to become one of the most respected translators, poets, and critics of the mid-twentieth century—likened the transition to being born and raised in the eighteenth century and suddenly finding himself in the twentieth. “When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two days’ journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time.”2

That fascination with time and our movements through it, forward in hope and turning back in memory, characterized his poetry, which he came to rather late in life. In “The Good Town,” a poem that describes a town where no one had to lock their doors, Muir reveals how drastically it changed after two wars.

The soldiers came back from the First World War, maimed and ragged, to find the countryside divided up, the roads crooked, the light falling strangely. But after the second war the houses that sprang up from the rubble looked like prisons, families and friends were scattered, and all that was good and kind was thrown away. “How could our town grow wicked in a moment?” he laments.

His answer is that in the past the townspeople were swayed to follow good leaders; now “the bad are up . . . And we, poor ordinary neutral stuff/Not good nor bad, must ape them as we can/In sullen rage or vile obsequiousness.” He closes with the epigram quoted above, and adds, “Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace/Look at it well. This was the good town once.”3

The disappointment and regret evident in his tone might be dismissed as simple nostalgia for a past that can only stand in the way of progress, except that it stands as a warning just as relevant today as he thought it to be in the early Fifties: how to fight evil without becoming evil?

In the good town, people went about their lives without much thought given to how their town might devolve into fear and suspicion. In the absence of threat, families took up their responsibilities and cared for others when needed. Vigilance for such freedoms was not pressing because everyone followed, more or less, the example of conscientious people.

But therein lay the weakness, Muir seems to say. Most of us simply follow those who lead, happy in the confidence that they will solve—or at least deflect—problems which we would have to face without them. But when the bonds of community evaporate and the corrupt and cunning thrust themselves into power, we must suddenly “ape them as we can,” either in “sullen rage or vile obsequiousness.”

Muir’s warning takes us to task for our naiveté, while mourning the loss of good will that made life peaceful and harmonious.

***

Recently, an incident was reported in national news in which a couple who wanted to rent a facility for their marriage ceremony and reception were denied on the grounds that the prospective groom was black, and his fiancée was white. The owner explained that the Bible did not condone mixed-race marriages and thus she would not rent the facility to the couple. The groom’s sister asked for clarification, but the woman refused to elaborate. It was simply part of her Christian belief.

The video of the exchange between them, while civil and restrained, went viral. In the aftermath of a wave of outrage, the woman and her husband issued an apology. Having been raised in Mississippi, it was her belief, she maintained, that such marriages were condemned by the Bible. However, her pastor had helped her to understand, she said, that the Bible does not condemn or prohibit bi-racial marriages. She and her husband were sincerely sorry.4

When I read this account, my immediate reaction was to condemn outright such obvious racism being justified by the Bible in the name of Christianity. It was yet another example of an agenda fueled by inbred prejudice, an assumption of white superiority, and a grievance reflex in which evangelicals believe their religious freedoms are in jeopardy. Added to that was the unthinking assumption that one’s dominant culture—in this case white Southern culture—was somehow ordained by God in the natural order of things, and that Christians who questioned or refused to honor that order were disobedient to God’s law as outlined in the Bible.

Then I began to reflect on my reaction. It was not that I regretted it or questioned my beliefs. They sprang into light spontaneously and I knew they were genuine. What I began to wonder about was if my reaction was a mere accident of geography.

If I had been raised in that woman’s culture in the South, growing up with legalized and socially acceptable discrimination and racism, would I have questioned those embedded assumptions? She looked like somebody’s grandmother, the kind who bakes cookies and keeps an immaculate house—hardly the face of evil. Nevertheless, I felt a surge of anger and impatience. In order to suffer from cognitive dissonance, you need to be engaged in cognition. Would I have felt that dissonance, now so evident, had I grown up in the Sixties in Mississippi?

Where I did grow up—in the foothills above the Napa Valley in Northern California—my private Christian college was only fully integrated in the early Seventies, when a group of African American graduates from a Christian academy in Oakland came to campus. It wasn’t that there was an official policy barring them, it was rather that they did not feel welcomed or respected.

With numbers comes strength; one of those young men ran for Student Association president in his sophomore year and won. Gradually, attitudes began to change, and friendships developed. But if those African American teenagers hadn’t questioned the status quo, those embedded assumptions, how long might it have taken for understanding and acceptance to flourish?

We Christians are too easily satisfied with our cultural assumptions. We are living in a country founded upon some of the highest ideals in human history. But the tragic fact is that those ideals, in order to be fully realized, were made possible by our original sin of systemic racism. Freedom, prosperity, and the pursuit of happiness—all of them were premised on the foundation stones of slavery, prejudice, and discrimination. We are enmeshed in this historical legacy.

“The unbelief of believers,” wrote Thomas Merton in 1968, “is amply sufficient to make God [appear] repugnant and incredible.”5 In words startlingly current, he writes, “A ‘Christian nationalist’ is one whose Christianity takes second place, and serves to justify a patriotism in whose eyes the nation can do no wrong . . . The pastors themselves tend to look to the state as a font of divine decisions in the practical order. All dissent in the civil sphere thereby automatically becomes a religious betrayal and a spiritual apostasy.”6

“Rust never sleeps,” sang Neil Young, and we may be sure prejudice and racism never do either. Christians are no strangers to it—it was there from the beginning and it nearly tore the nascent Jewish Christian community apart. It took a strange and disturbing vision for Peter to put behind him centuries of ceremonial religious exclusivism toward all those outside his heritage. Peter, the disciple most likely to get things right about Jesus, was also the one who could show spectacular obtuseness when stretched beyond his norms. Yet, it is Peter, together with John, who responds later to authorities with the words, “Is it right in God’s eyes for us to obey you rather than God? Judge for yourselves. We cannot possibly give up speaking of things we have seen and heard (Acts 4:19,20).”

And what had he seen? Jesus constantly challenging the cultural norms against women, against the poor, against the weak and dispossessed, against the established means for grasping and preserving power. What had he heard? Jesus, setting his face toward Jerusalem and his death, turning to the disciples on the road to say, “What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self? What can he give to buy that self back? (Mk 8:36,37).”

“What matters,” suggests Merton, “is not simply to set conformity over against dissent, to call the one evil and the other good, and be satisfied with that.” In a way that requires patience and humility, it is not enough for the dissenter to accuse and condemn, but “after showing the need for spiritual awakening and constructive analysis, to break open the way to dialogue and keep it open.”7

Edwin Muir was right to be dismayed that good people can become crooked while fighting against crookedness. But he was off the mark to assume that neither the “good” nor the “evil” can change.

All of us fall short of the glory God sees in us, but none of us is beyond redemption.

  1. Muir, Edwin. “The Good Town” in Collected Poems 1921-1951. London: Faber and Faber, 1952, p. 161.
  2. Quoted in “Edwin Muir,” The Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/edwin-muir
  3. Muir, “The Good Town,” 161.
  4. https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/9/3/20847943/mississippi-event-hall-interracial-couple-wedding-religious-exemption
  5. Merton, Thomas. “Violence and the Death of God,” in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, p. 197.
  6. Merton, Thomas. “The Unbelief of Believers,” in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, p. 203.
  7. Merton, Thomas. “The Unbelief of Believers,” in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, p. 204.