In today’s reading from Philippians, Paul is quoting an ancient hymn used in the worship of the earliest Christian communities. This “Christ Hymn” begins: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” “Mind” is an inadequate translation of a Greek word, phroneo, that has no real parallel in English. One New Testament professor describes the meaning of phroneo this way:
To have a depth of understanding and practical wisdom, to know how to act rightly, especially in confusing or complex circumstances.
So in considering this verse, I gravitate toward the word “posture” instead of “mind.” “Have the same wise posture as Christ Jesus.” This issue of translation matters because for centuries we have defined Christianity as a matter of holding to certain correct beliefs. And yet this Christ hymn suggests that the first followers of Jesus were concerned mostly with emulating him, with becoming more like him.
This week I chaperoned a bike ride with 4th- and 5th-graders from my kid’s school. Because we were riding on bike paths and streets, the safety rules were really important. Wear your reflective vest. Stay behind Mr. Earnest. And ride single file (ha, ha). All through the ride, the kids jockeyed for position. Despite the rules, they rode several abreast, each one wanting to make sure no one else got ahead. I had wonderful time on this ride—really I did. It was great to see these kids getting out and being active. However, a few blocks away from home . . . I was riding fast, passing a pack of kids, trying to get to the front myself so I could guard the next intersection. Truth be told, I was acting just like them, feeling self-important as I sought to fulfill my safety responsibilities. Maybe you can guess what happened next. One of the kids swerved in front of me without warning. We crashed and I went down. The kid was fine of course! But I was hurt; blood was literally spurting all over the place. I pressed the wound on my leg with the palm of my hand, trying to get the bleeding to stop, while a dozen kids hovered around, fascinated, horrified and very eager to help.
“Let the same wise posture be in you that was in Christ Jesus . . . who emptied himself.” This posture of self-emptying, or, in Greek, kenosis, is central to the contemplative tradition of the church. The idea is that we each have a false self rooted in ego and a true self that is connected to the divine. The ego-driven self is reflected in the behavior of the kids, and me, during our bike ride. This small self is always striving and competing. It needs to be first and best and get the most because it operates out of a constant sense of scarcity, out of a nagging feeling of never being enough, out of a deep fear of not belonging. When we relate to each other from our ego-driven selves, we do a lot of damage. Crashes happen. People bleed. Competition and exploitation become the norm. Jesus’ posture of self-emptying, on the other hand, is about letting go of this small self and its constant battle with insecurity. It means opening space within ourselves that can be filled by connection to others and communion with the divine.
Paul’s description of the posture of Jesus can make it sound like our pain doesn’t matter or our needs aren’t important—especially if we have some degree of privilege: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” It seems to me that this is a caution to the part of us that tries to take a shortcut to own liberation by participating in the exploitation of others. Bell Hooks said:
I am often struck by the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love within the context of community.
This distinction Hooks makes between the spirituality of self-improvement versus the practice of love in community really encapsulates the difference between a prophetic church that takes up the posture of Jesus and a church that instead embodies the values and practices of empire. In her essay “Church” in the 1619 Project, Anthea Butler points out that the Black church has embodied community care by providing a space of refuge and empowerment for the oppressed and by continually confronting the “ills of a society built on chattel slavery.” By contrast, “White Protestant Christianity has focused on an individual’s relationship to God, and personal sin, and legislating mortality.“ (p. 338) The point is . . . we are all wounded, and we all fail to thrive in a society driven by the consciousness of the small self, rooted in the norms of exploitation. We cannot be saved by ourselves. We will be made whole only by fostering a community of shared vulnerability, of giving and receiving care, a community in which everyone gets what they need, and never at the expense of another person’s well-being.
In a meeting this week about the Climate and Equity Plan for Minneapolis, I was struck by the distinction leaders made between individual solutions and collective solutions to climate change. Relying on individual solutions will mean that only a small, privileged group of homeowners will be able to electrify their homes, for instance. This work will be done by the relative few who can figure out on their own how to access the up to $14,000 per household from the federal government and who can afford to pay the expense upfront and wait to be reimbursed by tax credits. A collective solution, on the other hand, means that we can make rapid and comprehensive change. Through well-funded city initiatives we can go block by block to ensure that everyone will be equipped and supported to participate in and benefit from this transition.
Our congregation‘s relationship with ISAIAH is one vehicle for enacting collective solutions. Today in our meeting after church, we will reflect on our own stakes in this work, on why it matters to each of us. How am I, and the people I love, being hurt by the way our systems work now? Where am I bleeding, in pain and in need of care? For me, it’s the mental health of my children. As climate change becomes a daily challenge, and police continue to shoot black and brown people, and queer and trans youth face invalidation and violence, my kids are struggling to have a sense of hope. And I feel the urgent need to show them that even in the face of overwhelming problems, they have agency. I want them to see me joining with others to make change and see that this work can be effective.
The most difficult part of the Christ hymn comes as Paul insists that the wise posture of Jesus involves taking the form of a slave and death on a cross. In the Roman world, the emperor was considered to be God. Our translation says that Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” According to one New Testament scholar, the Greek instead actually says that Jesus did not “regard exploitation (specifically rape and robbery) to be equal to God.” To the empire, divinity had no other meaning than holding the absolute power to dominate, conquer, and enslave. And the cross was an instrument of torture used on thousands to silence dissent and enforce obedience to the emperor. Jesus embodied an entirely different vision of divine power. The power of God revealed in the posture of Jesus is the power of love. The God made known in Jesus chooses to take vulnerable human form, and specifically to share the suffering of the most abused among us. In this way, God affirms their dignity and worth and joins in their struggle for liberation and life.
It’s important, I think, to challenge the idea that being a “progressive and prophetic church” can be boiled down to embracing a certain political platform. Our identity is instead rooted in emulating Jesus, in seeking to become more like the one who emptied himself of all striving for status and gain so that he could be filled instead with the love God. Episcopal priest and author Stephanie Spellers sums it up this way:
When you take something you possess—your bread and power, your abilities and identities, your comfort and control, your treasured structures and even life itself—and release your attachment to it and make it useful to God’s movement, you are practicing kenosis.