By: Eric Conklin
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
— Philippians 2:5-11
This passage exemplifies for me the nature of God’s work in building and sustaining relationships with us. It tells the theological story of Christ’s personhood and God-hood, and the messy, beautiful mix that it is.
Being human—empty made space for God to work fully and completely in our world—is a perpetual state of being emptied out AND being filled up (giving/receiving; loving/being loved) that the Trinitarian God models for us. The Parent gives to the Child, who gives to the Spirit, who gives to the Parent, and so on, although I suspect it isn’t transactional like economically-minded relationships tend to be. This interdependent emptying and filling is the encouragement that Paul offers to the people of Philippi to model in their own relationships.
It is practical and vulnerable theology at its finest. Vulnerability is not weakness, as we are often told, instead, Vulnerability is courageously revealing what is deeply true to another.
Before I got wise to the crippling ways of Empire, I used to read this like filmmakers used to write the character of the popular, but incredibly nice quarterback in a Texas high school. He COULD have done anything he wanted with anyone he wanted to do, but instead he chose to humble himself—to give back to the community that created him. You know, while the other guys were partying, the popular quarterback (Jesus) would be volunteering at the local senior center while also being a tutor at the elementary school. In other words, for those of you who are fans of Highlights magazine, my reading would be that Jesus had the power to be Goofus and get away with it, but chose instead to be Gallant.
But I don’t read it that way anymore. And not just because I had it in for Gallant growing up.
Jesus wasn’t born as a the popular kid. A brown kid, born into the stifling Roman society, family forced into migration to escape genocide, Jesus knew too early the truth of Empire, that it will, when push comes to shove, seek to maintain its power and control at the cost of any human life that stands in its way. Empire will, as he later learned, even collude with religious authorities, their religions often born out of a “resistance” to Empire, and Empire will ultimately even co-opt standards and practices of religion in order to get what Empire really wants: allegiance and money to fuel its growth. Roman and Jewish leaders in the ancient middle east. Christianity and the later Roman Empire. British Empire and the Church of England. The Third Reich and the German Lutheran Church.
The American Empire and...
But while being wholly human doesn’t mean getting it all and having it all like the likeable high school quarterback, for Jesus it meant revealing what is deeply true to his disciples, to his rabbinical colleagues, his “supervising elders,” to holders of power. What is deeply true? What is it like for Jesus to be fully human?
To get so angry he flips tables
To exhibit compassion for and offer healing touch to lepers
To welcome the wisdom of children
To kneel alongside a woman getting stoned to death and call out the stone-throwers
To weep openly at the injustice of death, the death of a friend and his own
Calling out Caesar when he demands too much.
These weren't just good ideas or dusty mission statements, but they were exhibited publicly and vulnerably. And true vulnerability contains an element of risk. If one speaks often, loudly, and effectively enough against Empire, the consequences become real, to the point of death, even death on a cross.
I don’t care much about whether Jesus gets exalted as a result of this vulnerable way of living. The “every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” language has certainly been used to force submission and dominate. However, because God exalts Jesus, it is clear that God is a fan of vulnerability (God is vulnerability!). God is a fan of acknowledging the deep truth of what is—not in pretending, hiding, escaping, lying, scapegoating, or whatever else it is that we do to avoid telling the deep truth about ourselves or our world. Through the pouring out of Jesus’s self that, yes, resulted in his ultimate death, God informs us how we are to react and respond to the manifestation of our collective sins of abuse of power and control.
I have been encouraged and filled up lately by the work of leaders in the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice (IMIrJ, pronounced “Emerge:” http://imirj.org) network here in Portland. IMIrJ has been vulnerably speaking truth and standing alongside the marginalized and standing in the way of Empire’s machine that seeks to dehumanize our siblings who are migrating here to seek shelter and safety from political systems—systems that are often dysfunctional because of our Empire! The leaders of IMIrJ have encouraged me to step out of my own cocooned isolation and to vulnerably walk alongside others who are told that they are not enough in terms of their legal status. Over the course of the summer, through the various actions of IMIrJ reacting to the ICE-detention of immigrants seeking asylum, we as faith leaders simultaneously have poured ourselves out for justice and have been filled up with a sense of hope that can only come in community in these dark times.
The existence of Philippians 2:5–11 gives me hope that those who call themselves Christian will read it and model their lives after it, not in some hope that there will be a transaction at the end waiting for them, but that there is something inherently good, transformative, and needed in our deep truths being known by others.