In my forthcoming book, I explore how, as people of faith, we are called to practice a politics of compassion in our broken world. What core commitments might inform how Christians respond to the most contentious issues of our day, such as health care, climate change, immigration, racism? How do we transcend the politics of division that dominates our divides our country? Is it possible that, despite our ideological differences, we can still find enough common ground to work together for the common good?
I know that mixing politics and church can be precarious. The popular sociologist and pastor, Tony Campolo, once said that mixing church and politics is like mixing ice cream and manure: it doesn’t do much for the manure, but it sure does ruin the ice cream.
I don’t want to ruin your ice cream, but I am convinced that, whenever we come to church to worship a God who created all things and called them good, our worship quickly becomes feckless, even idolatrous, if we are deaf to God’s timeless command to care for that good—to preserve and steward it like gardeners of the earth. This is the work of politics—to cultivate and safeguard and labor for the common good so that all life might flourish in the garden that is our world.
But it’s such hard work—and it’s made only harder when we value partisan opinions over people and principles over practice, turning politics into a zero-sum game.
Luke Bretherton teaches political theology at Duke Divinity School. In his latest book, Christ and the Common Life, he describes the work of politics as a “dance between conflict and conciliation” as we negotiate a common life together. It’s an evocative image—politics as a dance between conflict and conciliation, between disagreement and concession, debate and compromise—for the sake of the common good in which all of life can flourish.
But have you noticed that the kind of politics that dominates our national debate and our personal conversations often looks less like a dance between partners and more like an MMA cage fight between enemies? It’s so hard to watch, and yet it’s so hard to take our eyes off of it. It consumes us as we consume it, until finally it divides us and sends us back to our corners in the ring.
Isn’t it time to leave the cage and reclaim that dance between conflict and conciliation for the sake of the common good?
We can only do that by committing ourselves to practicing a politics of compassion embodied in the life of Jesus. It’s a politics that puts people over ideology and practice over theory. It’s a politics that is grounded in three core commitments, the first of which we explored last week, called radical kinship.
Jesus built a table long and wide enough for anyone and everyone to sit at—not only his friends, but even his enemies, his deniers and betrayers. At that table, he ate with democrats and republicans, the filthy rich and the dirt poor, the beautiful and the unlovely, the born-agains and the backsliders. At that table, he called every one of them family, because Jesus was less concerned with standing on the right issues than standing in the right places—with anyone, anywhere, especially those on the margins who could not stand up for themselves. He practiced a radical form of kinship that transcended cultural, religious and social distinctions, erasing the margins that divide us and drawing us unto himself to form a new community
Today, we’re exploring the second of these three core commitments. It’s called kenosis—a Greek word found in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. In this letter, Paul describes the primary activity of Jesus’ mission on earth as one of self-emptying, and the word Paul uses here in verse 7 is “ekenosen” (ἐκένωσεν), the root of which is “kenosis,” which means “to empty oneself.” Paul describes kenosis this way,
“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” (2:5-7).
According to Paul, Jesus was given a choice of how he would use his divine power and privilege. As God incarnate, how would he relate to other people—especially his enemies? As Messiah, how would he carry out his reign in the heart of a hostile and violent Empire?
As one who was in the form of God, and equal to God in every way, Jesus had at least two choices before him: would he “exploit” that divine power for his own self-gain, or would he give that power away for the sake of the common good.
Unfortunately, our modern translation of this passage misses the mark. The Greek word translated here as “exploit” is “harpagmon” (ἁρπαγμὸν), which doesn’t at all mean “something to be exploited;” it means, rather, “something to be grasped.”
The root of “harpagmon” is “harpy.” According to Greek mythology, harpy were half-human, half-bird creatures. They had faces pale from hunger, but most haunting were their giant claws which they used for grasping their prey. The ancient poet, Ovid, described harpy as “human vultures.”
Suddenly, Paul’s words take on new meaning for us.
“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 grasped.”
Grasping is the chronic illness of our human species.
Do you remember the 1970’s movie, Jaws, when Brody and Hooper catch the huge tiger shark and open him up in the laboratory? Do you remember what they found? Out of the shark’s stomach they found some fish fragments, a paint can, a clock, a Louisiana license plate. Brody says, “A tiger shark is like a garbage can. It’ll eat anything.”
Our culture is obsessed with grasping. Grasping after stuff. Grasping after wealth and influence and celebrity. Grasping after titles, status, “followers” and “likes” and the latest shiny objects.
And so much of our politics is about grasping after power and control. Our democracy has, for the most part, been reduced to election cycles and political statecraft, votes and approval ratings—grasping for power rather than gardening for the common good.
But Paul reminds us that there is an antidote to all of our grasping that can heal the division and restore the common good. He calls it “kenosis”—the act of “emptying oneself” for the sake of others.
Two men, complete strangers, living in Orlando—Kevin Rathel and James Crocker. Rathel had contracted the COVID-19 virus. He was on a ventilator, fighting for his life, when a family friend, John Stemberger, intervened. Stemberger had heard a news report that some victims of the disease had dramatically improved after receive a plasma transfusion using the blood of those who had contracted the virus and survived. Stemberger worked his broad network of connections to find someone who survived the virus and whose blood type matched that of Rathels. But his search turned up no one. Until, out of the blue, Stemberger received a call from someone on an unrelated matter. Stemberger responded that he didn’t have time to deal with the matter—his friend was sick, he was looking for a match. The man on the other end of the line, James Crocker, said, “I had the virus. I was hospitalized. I survived.” The blood type was a match. The next day, Crocker went to a blood donation center, and by that night, Rathel received the transfusion. Four days later, on Easter Sunday, Rathel came out of his coma, and the doctors told him, “You’re alive and you’re going to make it.” Within a week, the wheeled him out of the hospital as the medical staff applauded. But the real hero was a complete stranger, James Crocker, who gave of himself—emptied himself—for the sake of another.
Paul says, “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 grasped.” Kenosis—laying down one’s own self-interest for the sake of others. This was Christ’s purpose in the world—even on the cross.
Theologians have debated for centuries over the meaning of Christ’s death. Some have described it as a ransom payment that rescued a sinful humanity from the powers of death. Some have described it as a temple-like substitutionary offering—that Jesus was the lamb whose blood was shed to atone for the sins of the people. Some have described it as a matter of divine justice, which demanded that one person pay the price for the crimes of the many— and that someone was Jesus.
There is profound meaning in all of these descriptions. But I’ve always been drawn to the Apostle Paul’s description of Christ’s death in Philippians. Paul says that Jesus was nobody’s victim. He wasn’t some helpless lamb who had no choice in the matter; nor was he a blank check upon which God signed his name to pay humanity’s debt. Paul says that Jesus chose to empty himself for us on the cross. Nobody took his life from him. Jesus voluntarily gave his life away, out of compassion. He emptied himself, says Paul, to show us how deeply and profoundly we are loved by God.
If you’ve ever seen a child, or a spouse, or a friend suffer from illness, or addiction, or depression, or abuse, you’ve likely felt deep in your body this kind of self-emptying compassion. You may have found yourself saying, “If only I could bear that pain for you, if only I could crawl into that hospital bed and take your place, if only I could give you my full heart in exchange for your broken one, I would.”
It’s this same mind that was in Christ that, according to Paul, ought also to be in us. To cast your eyes upon the broken and abused world and to be moved by a deep willingness to pour out your very self for the sake of its healing and flourishing.
According to Paul, there are two qualities of the kenotic mind that serve the common good.
The first is a willingness to mid-wife a whole new world. Paul doesn’t use the word mid-wife. In the Greek, the word is “doulou” (δούλου), which is translated as “slave or servant.” Paul says that Jesus took “the form of a slave.” But the word “slave” is so fraught with deep and historic trauma for so many people in our country that it misses the mark. Slavery implies coercion, violence, dehumanization, the loss of human agency and self-determination. Our national sin of slavery has yet to be fully redressed and healed, and that history blinds to the real promise of what Paul is trying to say.
That Greek word “doulou” has the same root of our modern word, “doula,” which many of you know refers to someone who provides emotional and physical support to an expecting mother during pregnancy and childbirth. A doula is not a doctor. A doula has no medical training. But doulas can be indispensable in the birthing process and have been clinically proven to produce better birth outcomes for mothers and their newborns.
That’s the kind of servanthood we are called to practice. To take the form of a doula.
What if we, as people of faith, conceived of ourselves as mid-wives of a whole new world—to practice a new way of caring for one another, so that all of life would flourish? If we conceived of ourselves as a mid-wives, would it impact how we think about public policy, how we solve some of the biggest challenges of our day, like immigration, or health care, or climate change? To take the form of a doula, and to breathe with an imperiled world through the ache and contractions as a new world is birthed into existence.
Shortly after Lori and I were married and I took my first appointment as a pastor, we rented a little place in a sketchy, crime-ridden neighborhood. It was all we could afford at the time. We were 23 years old, so naïve but eager to make it on our own. Just after we moved in, an older couple knocked on the door. Cecilia and Manuel. We called them CC and Manny. We were always complaining that we were broke at the time, but CC and Manny were poor. They stood on our front porch that day bearing homemade tamales. They spoke halted English, but we became friends. They were doulas, so to speak.
They’d bring over homemade tamales every week or two. When the water line broke, there was Manny, with a wrench in one hand and a dozen tamales in the other. When grass grew too long, there was Manny with his mower. When our first child was born, there was CC, offering us a baby-sitting deal: “I give you tamales, you give me la nina.” They were always there for us, looking after us like mid-wives. CC and Manny.
To practice a politics of compassion is to breathe alongside this fragile world and mid-wife a new future into existence.
But Paul mentions one other quality of the kenotic life. Paul calls it humility. “Being found in human form, he humbled himself.”
To have the mind of Christ is to humble ourselves. Our English word for humility comes from the Latin word, “humus.” It means “ground, or earth.” It’s also used describe mulch or compost. So to humble yourself is to be close to the ground, to keep your feet on the earth, to remember that, with every breath you take, you’re closer and closer to becoming mulch someday—so don’t take yourself so seriously.
The late Henri Nouwen was a well-known and highly regarded Catholic priest and professor of theology at Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale. Then, almost all at once, in 1986, he left it all behind in search of deeper fulfillment and meaning in his life.
He went on a sojourn through Latin America, thinking he would give his life in service to the poor, but he could not force a sense of call in the slums of South America. When he returned to the US, he accepted an invitation to come to Toronto and live at the L’Arche—a community created by Catholic priests and lay people where able-bodied and disabled people share life together, spending time in meals and at prayer, living side by side.
At L’Arche, Nouwen developed a close connection to a young man named Adam who was so disabled that he could not speak, or bathe himself, or dress himself. Nouwen wrote about how terrified he was during his first weeks with Adam, how frightened he was that at any moment while he was trying to lift or dress the fully grown man, he might erupt in an epileptic seizure. He talked about the patience required to sit with Adam over the course of the hour it would take him to eat his meals. Nouwen wrote about how it got easier; eventually the anxiety faded, and the need to get everything right fell away.
Nouwen says that, over time, Adam taught him a lot about God’s love in very concrete ways. He taught Nouwen that being is more important than doing, that we get so caught up in doing a thousand things just to prove that we are worthy. But what Adam seemed to say to Nouwen was, “I don’t care what you do as long as you will be with me.”
After months with Adam, Nouwen wrote of a particular moment when he suddenly realized that Adam was not just a disabled person, less human than me or other people. He was a fully human being, so fully human that God even chose him to become the instrument of God’s love. He was so vulnerable, so weak, so empty, that he became just heart, the heart where God wanted to dwell, where God wanted to stay and where God wanted to speak to those who came close to God’s vulnerable heart. Adam was a full human being, not half human or less human, says Nouwen. “Suddenly I understood that God loves the poor and God loves Adam very specially. God wanted to dwell in his broken person so that God could speak from that vulnerability into the world of strength, and call people to become vulnerable.”
That is kenosis, that is self-emptying. “Being found in human form,” says Paul, “Christ humbled himself.”
It’s the antidote to all the grasping and shouting and partisan outrage that defines our culture and dominates so much of our politics, and it is our only hope: to humble ourselves like Christ, and dare to speak from that vulnerability into a world of strength.
Three takeaways for further reflection:
In a culture of grasping we are called to give our lives away.
The Kingdom belongs to the mid-wives of a just and compassionate world.
In our humility and vulnerability we find our strength and our peace.