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Politics of Scripture

Real or Rhetorical Humility

Like the humble talk in the psalm, this hand-wringing fear about a loss of Christian identity in the US masks the devastating power that white Christians wield against others in this country and elsewhere. It is a rhetorical humility in the service of actual power and dominance.

1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!

2 Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.

20 This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.

21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.

22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

23 This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.

24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

25 Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!

26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD.
27 The LORD is God, and he has given us light.

Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.

28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you.

29 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 (NRSVue)

[Editor’s Note: Portions of this essay were published in a “Politics of Scripture” post on March 29, 2021.]

This week, the lectionary offers Psalm 118 as the biblical backdrop to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It is an upbeat and celebratory psalm—fitting for a grand parade! However, the pomp and circumstance of this poem is tempered by expressions of humility from someone described as a “stone that the [human] builders rejected,” completely dependent on God for success (verse 22). Humility, then, becomes the theological frame for the political moment commemorated in the text. But is this humility an admirable, prescriptive model for biblical readers to follow or a performative rhetoric that masks a vice-grip on power?

Psalm 118 appears to have a military context, as a liturgy of thanksgiving for divine aid in battle. The bulk of the psalm (verses 5–18) is voiced by the king, giving a poetic play-by-play of the fight. He was hemmed in, surrounded, about to fall—until they invoked “the name of the LORD” (verses 10, 11, 12) and cut off the enemy! Verse 14 is especially noteworthy for the way that it directly quotes Exodus 15:2, a line from Israel’s victory chorus on the far shore of the Reed Sea. The Exodus refrain, “God has become my salvation,” pops up three times in this psalm (verses 14, 21, 28)—drawing a straight theological line from that prototypical divine victory to this more recent military success.

The liturgical procession implied in the psalm reaches the gates of the temple at verse 19, where the king shouts to the gatekeepers, “Open up!” The priestly guards respond with a request for a kind of authenticating password: “This is the gate of the LORD; (only) the righteous [or “victorious,” Heb. tsadiqim] shall enter through it” (verse 20). [Some of you with a taste for irreverent British humor may find this moment reminiscent of the bridge-keeper scene in “Monty Python and The Holy Grail.”]

This is where the psalm takes an interesting “political-theological” turn. The king does not reply: “I am indeed righteous/victorious! I have prevailed; let me in!” Instead, he responds to the gatekeepers’ challenge with a prayer—a prayer of humility. Turning to address God directly, the king confesses, “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation” (verse 21). Baked into this liturgy (not only here, but also in the battle report of verses 5–18) is a sense of the king’s own powerlessness and utter dependence on God for success. This humility demonstrates the character of the king’s “righteousness”—and the gatekeepers deem it the appropriate password. They pronounce their blessing on the king who comes not in his own name but “who comes in the name of the LORD” (verse 26), and the festal procession continues on, palm branches waving, into the holy space for a sacrifice of thanksgiving on behalf of the victorious king.

I call this a “political-theological” turn because the king’s self-abasing, God-elevating response actually serves politically to reinforce the monarch’s own power, identifying him as the favored recipient of God’s special intervention; it is a performance of humility that communicates a theology of election. I don’t mean to belittle the humility—we may choose to read it as entirely genuine—but we should also recognize its strategic, political benefit to the king’s position of authority as God’s anointed. In light of the king’s special election, those who would oppose him are no longer mere political rivals, they are apostates.

This alliance between the king and God is the subtext of the whole psalm: “The LORD is for me” (yhwh li, verses 6, 7). It puts a political spin on the psalm’s framing keyword, ḥesed (verses 1, 2, 3, 4, 29). The NRSVue translates this word as “steadfast love” but the term is often used to denote acts of loyalty within an explicitly political alliance (for a prose example, cf. 2 Samuel 2:5–6). Psalm 118, then, is framed as a liturgical reinforcement of the king’s unique status as the indispensable connection—the cornerstone (verse 22)—of God’s beneficent allyship to the nation.

The New Testament confers this “cornerstone” moniker upon Jesus (Mark 12:10–11; Acts 4:10–11; Ephesians 2:20; passim), rejected by the religious and political influencers of his day, but raised up by God as the foundation for a new and international movement of God-worshippers. As a Christian reader, I find my interpretation of these New Testament allusions enriched and challenged by putting them in conversation with the political-theological setting of Psalm 118.

On Palm Sunday, Christians remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, just days before his crucifixion. Like the Psalm does for the king, the Gospel tradition emphasizes Jesus’ performance of humility, devoting a full paragraph to the acquisition of a donkey so that Jesus could ride into town on visibly humble conveyance (Mark 11:1–7). As Jesus enters the town and processes into the temple, the liturgy of Psalm 118 is explicitly invoked, as supporters carpet Jesus’ path up to the temple with palm branches (Mark 11:8; cf. Psalm 118:27) and as they recite, “Save us! [‘Hosanna!’ in Aramaic] … Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mark 11:9; cf. Psalm 118:25–26). Indeed, in Mark’s telling, the onlookers connect the dots between Jesus’ performance of humility and its political implications, shouting, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” (Mark 11:10). All of this liturgical theater is aimed at identifying Jesus as God’s chosen vessel.

For me, there is an unresolved tension in this portrayal of Jesus. His humility, performed in his mode of entry into Jerusalem and ratified in his submission to arrest, torture, and wrongful execution, is a central theological tenet of my faith. Jesus’ humility reveals and mirrors God’s own self-giving love, which we are invited to receive, and his humble leadership is offered as an example worth emulating (cf. Mark 10:42–45).

At the same time, this rhetoric of humility is not beyond critique. The use of humility to signal Jesus’ special election delegitimizes the voices of his political opponents (the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, Rome). By contrast, they are often caricatured in the New Testament as haughty, hypocritical, jealous, and power-hungry. Ironically, the rhetoric of humility ultimately reinforces Jesus’ (albeit hidden) status and power. By extension, that rhetoric is deployed to shore up Christian supremacy over theological and political others—whether that supremacy is enforced via persuasion, legislation, or violence.

Those of us who are Christians should not be naïve about this political subtext beneath our theologies of humility and election. Like the psalm does for the king, our identification of Jesus as the cornerstone of God’s purposes communicates a view of election that confers social status and privilege to us, despite our humble sense of ourselves. Even genuine humility may become a mask for, and means of, dominance.

This theo-political paradox is acutely problematic in the United States, where white Christian nationalism has reached a fever pitch. Exclusionary policies toward immigrants and asylum-seekers at our border, callousness toward war victims in Ukraine and Gaza, libelous caricature of gay, trans, and nonbinary citizens, refusal to acknowledge and dismantle racist systems of governance and criminal justice, religiously motivated but ethically dispassionate abortion policies, and the regular demonization of political opponents—all this and more is justified in the name of defending a supposedly humble and endangered (white) Christian heritage.

This sort of Christian nationalism is insidious because it feels humble and peddles an illusion of powerlessness. Drew Strait (recently, on this blog) has characterized Christian nationalism as “superstitious” because rather than acknowledging the true power dynamics with which it is entangled, “it appeals to a culturally fabricated God for cultural privilege, power, and benefits, while denying these same benefits to others.” In a similar move, Christian nationalists likewise fabricate a sense of themselves as a humble and repressed cultural minority, “censored and silenced” (to use House Speaker Mike Johnson’s words), despite the positions of power they hold! In February, in a speech to religious broadcasters, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump promised to create a new task force that would investigate “discrimination, harassment and persecution against Christians in America” in an effort to combat a perceived “anti-Christian bias” in secularized American culture.

But, like the humble talk in the psalm, this hand-wringing fear about a loss of Christian identity in the US masks the devastating power that white Christians wield against others in this country and elsewhere. Its rhetoric of powerlessness appeals to an understanding of the relationship between human dependence and divine election that privileges Christian nationalists (as the humble chosen) and deprivileges those with alternative views, painting them as opposed to the will of God, justifying practices of oppression, marginalization, and violence as the outworking of that will. It is a rhetorical humility in the service of actual power and dominance.

Though I do not consider myself a Christian nationalist, as a white American Christian, reflection along these lines challenges me to evaluate my own theology of election with a hermeneutic of suspicion. When I am tempted to congratulate myself for my spiritual humility, I need to consider how I use humility as an excuse for inaction or as a rationalization for my tolerance of a status-quo that affords me unearned privilege and harms others. Those who are recipients of that harm—those who are in fact minoritized and marginalized by white Christian theologies of election and nationalism—read this week’s texts differently (and profitably) and may find in them resources for a subversive liturgy of resistance from below (in the spirit of the work, for example, of Cláudio Carvalhes or Lisa Allen-McLaurin).

But even for white American Christians, it does not have to be like this. Another theological perspective on Jesus (one also communicated by the Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament) does not characterize his humility in terms of feigned weakness that is overcome by divine privilege. Rather, it acknowledges his true power and portrays his humility as an emptying of self for the sake of others (see, e.g., Philippians 2). This alternative view does not eliminate the tension between humility and election. But I consider it a better space to occupy within the tension. White American Christians who imitate that humility do not perceive themselves as an endangered cultural minority. Instead, they acknowledge their privilege and seek to divest it for the flourishing of all. In the metaphor of Psalm 118, they may use their resources to seek out the “rejected stones” of the world’s builders—those oppressed or overlooked by the powerful—in order to recognize and support the God-given place they already inhabit as cornerstones of the common good. 

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