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Politics of Scripture

Power, Freedom, and the Humility of Christ

In this hymnic account of Jesus’ person and mission, his preference for and service to others becomes a paradigm for faithful human existence. God’s solidarity with the human race discloses the truth of both power and freedom.

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Philippians 2:1-13 (NRSV)

In the Letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul contrasts different types of power operative in the world in order to encourage believers to forsake certain forms of life and to embrace the freedom that is embodied in Jesus Christ. Disciples are to recognize the radical gift of Jesus’ self-denying compassion and ground their subjectivity in that event. They must become subject to the truth that Christ did not use his divinity to selfish advantage, but instead showed God’s character by loving others sacrificially, a pattern of life Christians are called to emulate. Thus, the truth of personhood and freedom is not autonomy but rather the reflection of God’s life in service to others.

Paul appeals to the Philippians Christians to renew the unity to which Jesus called them. This unity has been strained due to various disputes that Paul judges to be rooted in selfish conceits rather than truly substantive matters. These conflicts are reflective of the bids for power that characterize the world but should not characterize the community of believers. The solution, Paul asserts, is in practicing the same humility exemplified by the Lord they collectively confess. For unlike the overlord to whom the Philippians answered in Rome, Jesus Christ did not use his  power to his personal advantage but rather deployed it to the benefit of others.

Paul’s exhortation is not simply to emulate the self-denying, other-focused attitude of Christ made visible in his life, death, and resurrection. Rather, the Philippians are to allow the thought that impelled Jesus Christ in his mission to shape their own thinking and action. Crucially, they are to take this thinking upon themselves in concert with one another. “Have this thinking in you” is directed not to atomic individuals but to an assembly of subjects who together share a vocation.

Paul issues ethical demands on the basis of a change in condition believers have already experienced in Christ, through the Spirit. In verse one, Paul understates the presence of the Spirit in their midst by saying, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,” to act in this way. He knows that the Spirit is present, that there is encouragement in Christ; he implores his readers to recognize this and draw upon the resources and benefits that are available because of this.

The basis for this exhortation is the event of Jesus’ humility and service. “Have this thinking in you” (2:5) indicates the availability of a mode of subjectivity, one whose ground is the divine and human person, Jesus. Disciples are enjoined to behave in this way because they have been made to belong to this way. Allowing their subjectivity to be formed in accordance with Jesus Christ will bring about a new disposition towards themselves and one another. More than simply mental activity, thinking describes the disposition that gives rise to and is embodied in praxis. There is a thinking that gives rise to strife and selfish ambition, and there is a thinking that gives rise to the humility and love made tangible in Christ. And freedom is found only in the latter.

The disposition disciples are to adopt is illustrated by the movement of God’s life in Christ towards humiliation, death, and glorification. Paul states unequivocally in verse six that prior to his mission Jesus existed in the “form” of God; that is, that his existence belongs in the being of God. This is a startling assertion, as it depicts God descending into the contingency and ruin of human existence. It would be unthinkable had it not happened. Paul is implicitly applying pressure to the common presuppositions of what it means to be God.

For unlike Caesar or any other counterfeit god, there was no anxiety on Jesus’ part regarding his status as God. It is not as though his divinity was something to be hoarded or maintained for his own sake. On the contrary, due to his nature as God, he exercised his divinity towards the good of others. This is why the translation, “Though he was in the form of God” (2:6) is a poor rendering of what Paul is in fact saying: there is no justification for including the word “though” on grammatical, syntactical, or contextual grounds. To understand the incarnation as a concession is to abandon the startling point Paul is enunciating. He is describing to the Philippians how, “Precisely because he was in the form of God,” Christ emptied himself to come to humanity’s aid.

The contrast with the Philippians Christians’ overlord and his ways could not be more vast. Caesar exercised every one of his privileges to perpetuate his status and exert coercive power over others. The true God, conversely, acted according to his nature by putting the whole of himself to use to serve others. Unlike Caesar, there is no deprivation in God, and thus he can “risk” all of himself in the exercise of his freedom.

For freedom is actualized in the willingness to surrender prerogatives, as evidenced by Jesus’s self-emptying (2:7). Paul vividly lays bare how Christ held nothing back from committing himself to the utmost to his mission. God is not afraid to  appear powerless and foolish. On the contrary, he incorporates and inhabits that which is undesirable and of no apparent worth to accomplish salvation. There is, in God, a humility that is proper to his character, and as such, his freedom is exemplified in humble service.

This was so outrageous in its apparent self-demotion that even Jesus’ disciples were often uncomfortable with its connotations. The Lord should not serve, but be served, they reasoned (Matthew 16:22, Mark 8:32). But this reasoning does not reflect the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Fallen humanity imagines a God who rules as a self-seeking autocrat and emulates this fantasy. The true God’s compassionate orientation towards others is a shock to the world’s sensibilities as it refutes the presuppositions regarding freedom we inherit in our fallenness. The lengths to which God therefore goes to restore sinners is a judgment upon our self-aggrandizing efforts to promote ourselves and to establish greater wealth, prestige, and power.

Jesus’ fidelity to his mission was so total that even a humiliating and agonizing death did not dissuade him from it. Paul emphasizes this by exclaiming, “even death on a cross”(2:8). Crucifixion was abhorrent to witness and to undergo. To be crucified meant a slow, painful death, stripped of all dignity. Within the symbolic world of the Roman empire it was an erasure of the human being from history. In the Jewish symbolic universe, moreover, it signified severance from God, given Deuteronomy 21:23. It was a horror the political subjects of the empire never wanted to endure. 

But Jesus did not allow this to deter him from accomplishing his mission. His resolve to obey and thereby to rescue amounted to a negation of the impulse to survive, his human compulsion to flee death overruled by his vocation and his trust in his Father.

In this hymnic account of Jesus’ person and mission, his preference for and service to others becomes a paradigm for faithful human existence. God’s solidarity with the human race discloses the truth of both power and freedom. Paul therefore urges believers to be formed in accordance with this orientation towards God and toward one another and to actualize it in practice through the Spirit God provides, the Spirit in which they already participate (2:1).

The incarnation, Paul insists, is a rebuke to our species’ egocentricity. We presume freedom consists in a negative liberty that must first be true of God. It is a power we attempt to grasp and wield over others. But to grasp at godlikeness is to already fail to be at all like God, as Jesus himself (2:6) does not view power as a thing to be grasped. We, therefore, must not permit ourselves the delusion that freedom consists in grasping at the enlargement of our status or possessions. On the contrary, God exercises his freedom precisely in Christlikeness.

Paul invites his readers into that same substantive freedom. On the basis of union with Christ and participation in his Spirit, disciples are to forsake the modes of living we are conditioned to accept as normal and good and instead embody the character of Jesus Christ. With God’s enablement (2:12-13), these practices and disposition resist and reshape fallen subjectivity, forcibly contradicting the idolatry of self that fuels acquisition, impelling instead the love of God and neighbor.

Paul’s intervention into the life of faith, then, is not a plea to seek refuge or strength in an identity. The struggles and disputes that characterize our existence, both individually and collectively, demonstrate the shortcomings of locating substantiality and political utility in identity.

Vocation, however, is a form of life in which all who are empowered by the Spirit can partake and contribute. It is a task and the means for accomplishing it. For identity, the other is either a means to an end or an enemy to be overcome. For vocation, the other is one to whom responsibility is borne. The world is the other towards whom God, in Christ, has turned in love. This is the thinking that impelled Jesus Christ to the cross and can, through the Spirit, fuel a radical humility that loves the other in costly, concrete ways.

A politics grounded in the incarnation is a communal thinking and acting focused through the prism of Jesus Christ. The hope of unified and Christlike churches is found in the practice of a humility that defers one’s interests and prioritizes others’ needs, a humility which characterized the church’s Lord. For apart from this, Christians will not be grounded in the substance of power and freedom revealed in Jesus’ solidarity with the human condition. The life of discipleship participates in his mission of reconciliation and restoration insofar as it appropriates and actualizes the mind of Christ. And in so doing disciples will find that God is already at work,  empowering them to do so.

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