Thirteen Shades of Humility (or why “downward mobility” is not enough)
I read this book during my undergrad. It was the first time I remember coming across the phrase “downward mobility” – one of Nouwen’s pet ways of couching the Incarnation. Christ demonstrated downward mobility when becoming human. Our hope in obtaining the freedom that the resurrected life has in story is in the imitation of Christ’s downward mobility. That’s not a bad way of framing the Incarnation and what discipleship looks like. But does “downward mobility” really capture the moment of the Incarnation? I’d like to come back to this in a New Orleanian minute (it’s going to be a little while).
I’m starting out my interaction of St. Benedict’s Rule with downward mobility because I’ve come across this phrase in a number of different articles and blogs every day for this past week. Also, every day for this past week I have read and re-read these rules and what has emerged has been an interesting juxtaposition. I have very little desire to be “that guy” who picks up on a trend and in a pseudo theological hipster fashion deconstruct, dismiss and make others feel like they’ve missed a much larger point in their own engagements with downward mobility. I would like to believe that is not a part of my character and I hope others would agree. However, it just doesn’t sit well with me when we couch Christ’s Incarnation and incarnational modes of ministry in terms of downward mobility. I’d like to breakdown why into three streams of thought that are still very much open ended:
- Sociologically when speaking about mobility we are talking about mobility between social classes. This whole paradigm is born out of the Enlightenment. The Divine Right of Kings (which bled into aristocratic circles) no longer gave the ruling class an inherent sense of privilege and power when each individual became endowed with a sense of sovereignty. Through the creation the nation state, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism what once was a caste system became more fluid and mobility was possible. The meaning of upward and downward mobility is self-evident but underlying these concepts are fundamentally modernist principles. The individual is sovereign and has the choice to go up or down. The poor are poor because of the lifestyle choices they made and the rich got to where they are at because they earned it. The vocabulary of social mobility (and therefore its praxis) is almost entirely composed by capitalism. Tell me if you’ve heard this line in the last couple of years – “In light of our recent recession many consumers are becoming more and more downwardly mobile”. Upward mobility is the Enlightenment process of shifting away from a communitarian system of support and toward becoming a “self-made” person. This is more nuanced but it looks like anything from a person finally moving out of their parent’s basement to a successful minority who “got out” of their old neighborhood and made something of themselves.I bring all of this up to draw out a simple conclusion: The modern project controls the rules of this game. When we use “downward mobility” as a locus of meaning for engaging our neighborhoods and cities incarnationally we are playing according our culture’s own terms. The trend toward downward mobility doesn’t levy a real critique on the inherent, systemically oppressive mechanisms within class mobility. Downward mobility seems to only shift which direction on this vertical scale is to be preferred. This shift in desire toward simplicity, community and solidarity with those who suffer from the Empire is a very good thing. However, from my christian point of view, I believe the telos of the Eucharistic community is the elimination of social class (cf. Galatians 3, 1 Corinthians 11-14, and Revelation 21) and downward mobility in of itself doesn’t do the job.
- Although our culture generally looks positively upon upward mobility and rather negative towards its counterpart the goodness of mobility is determined by context. Using the desire for upward mobility as an example – I work at a drug and alcohol rehab facility. When our clients leave this facility, retain a full time job and move out of the enabling culture he or she was previously a part of that is both being upwardly mobile and a good thing. The disappointment college students all across the country encounter from their parents when they decide to become a school teacher, a social worker or community organizer in one of the poorest 500 zip codes instead of becoming the lawyer or doctor the parents expect their children to become is not a good thing. My concern with changing our culture’s preference to downward mobility is the elitism that can and does come with it. It turns the table on the rich (not necessarily a bad thing) and makes them feel less than. Ultimately the question of which mobility is better is about who has the power and maybe, just maybe, we should surrender this political power, the ability to make ourselves into what our cultures deems as “something”, to the One who has made us into His own Image. Social mobility does not possess the capacity or authority to make such a surrender like the incarnated Body of Christ.
- Finally, downward mobility is a good starting point. There is so much wealth in this country that has been acquired unjustly and even cruelly – of which much of the Church is complicit. There needs to be a voice crying out from the wilderness “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is very, very near!”. The Rich need to take seriously the parable of the Lazarus and the Rich Man if they are going to survive Judgement Day. I believe, for a couple of reasons, that the Incarnation is a three dimensional model of what downward mobility sketches out on a scrap piece of paper. First, every Christian who is pursuing their calling will face many situations on their journey where they find themselves on their knees begging God to take this cup away from them. When we make that agonizing choice in those dark nights of the soul to obediently respond with “Not my will, but yours be done” our downward mobility is transformed into living incarnationally. The downwardly mobile are still empowered with an individualistic sense of sovereignty that must be surrendered if they want to experience the Incarnation. Second, the Incarnation story (Jesus’ life, death and resurrection) provides us a new language that transforms the capitalist/consumer dialect that describe social class. A couple of posts ago I wrote about my journey into the Catholicism about Christ’s adamic act of renaming what our world has already classified into specific categories. Christ created a new reality that was so foreign that Paul called it a colony of heaven, not of this world. In this process of renaming Christ called the rich poor and the poor rich. This is our reality that we are called to inhabit and perhaps this is where downward mobility contrasts with the Incarnation the most for social mobility agrees with what the world calls rich and poor. One of the fundamental questions of this series is concerned with is what it looks like to inhabit this new reality. Downward mobility is a great starting point but we must go further than this. We must continue the process of the transformation of our minds (cf. Romans 12) so that we may be able to see the new realities that are ever unfolding before us, to be able to recognize that the Kingdom is truly in our midst.
So, that’s what a New Orleanian minute looks like. I do not believe downward mobility wholly captures the Incarnation any more than my smartphone can capture the majesty of the sunset over the bayou in the spring time. How then, can we transform downward mobility into incarnational engagement? In these three chapters St. Benedict’s answer is “humility, humility, humility” or what I call “St. Benny’s Thirteen Shades of Humility”. I’ve taken a little bit of license with this list in an attempt to translate concepts like “Abbot” and “Superior” to more applicable situations in my community life.
- An unreserved, unhesitating obedience to Christ. (From chapter five)
- Constant awareness of our imperfection and that we, too, will have to stand Judgement.
- Total adoration of God’s will.
- Imitating Christ in our obedience to our superiors.
- Transparency and vulnerability on “where we’re at” with our community.
- Being perfectly content with this place and situation God has called us to.
- Consider others more important than ourselves.
- To live according to a rule of life.
- Embrace Silence. Do not be in love with the sound of your own voice. Actively listen for God’s voice in the other people around the table.
- Have a sense of humor that is seasoned with purity and grace.
- Speak to others with gentleness and humility.
- Maintain a constant posture of the knowledge that God is God and we are not.
Let us feel deeply our own poverty. Let us faithfully inhabit this new reality by continuing the Lord’s work in saving the dignity of what the Empire calls undignified, lazy, dirty and dumb. Let us pray that Christ does not delay his return any longer so that the captives will be set free, the blind will see and holistic freedom will come to all who are oppressed. St. Athanasius, the one who gave the Church the imagination to rightly understand the Incarnation, pray for us on your fest day. Amen.