Thursday, May 26, 2016

Thoughts on Unity, pt. 2 -- "Be of the same mind"

This is the second in a series on unity in the church. What do we mean when we use language of "unity," "being united," versus "being divided"? If you want to know where this is coming from, you can read the first part here
"I am praying that the Church -- as a whole, as a body, not those individuals who already feel they have been emptied, broken, beaten -- but the Church as a whole will remember an ancient, ancient hymn."   
That's how I ended my post two weeks ago, with a prayer for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. The ancient hymn I'm talking about is quoted by the apostle Paul in his letter to one of the very earliest churches in the city of Philippi. You can read it here.

Paul quotes the hymn, but first he introduces it. He's quoting it for a purpose, and you could sum up his purpose by saying that he wants to urge the church in Philippi towards unity:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 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. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Notice that he uses the phrase "same mind" or "one mind" three times in this short passage, as well as"same love." The phrase in the original Greek is phronein to auto -- be of one mind, have the same mind. But the phrase used here by Paul, like similar phrases elsewhere in his letters, doesn't mean "agree on everything." That becomes clear when we read on to hear Paul speak of having the same mind as Christ -- not the same intellectual beliefs, but the same willingness to divest ourselves of power and privilege in order to be united in love.*

Unity, here, is unity in Christ. Specifically, it's unity in the self-emptying Christ.

Now, for some people who have been abused, or deprived of power or a sense of self, an ethical imperative to empty one's self can be problematic. But Paul's "you" is always a plural, written to a community -- in this case, to a community in Philippi, a city deeply entrenched in the power and imperial might of the Roman Empire. And with Paul's interpretive gloss about having one mind and one love, this passage speaks to me of the need for our unity to be based, not in politics or power over one another, but rather in mutuality and solidarity, particularly with those experiencing suffering and marginalization. Those suffering death, even death on a cross.

One last note on the text. Many English translations say something like this:

"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..."

I added the emphasis there.

Because "though" isn't in the original Greek at all.

"Though" was added by English translators to make some sense out of a rather complex Greek sentence. But "though" sets up a contrast -- even though he was in the form of God, Jesus Christ emptied himself. Which apparently is a very un-God-like thing to do.

But the text says something more like, "Christ Jesus who in the form of God was emptying himself."

Which makes it sound like self-emptying is, in fact, a very God-like thing to do.

I owe this insight to a talk given by Brian McLaren, and I'm inclined to agree with him. The self-emptying of Jesus isn't in contrast to an otherwise mighty, distant, apathetic god; the self-emptying of Jesus is what God looks like in action. And it's the sort of action we're called to -- one in which we empty ourselves of power, not because it removes our divinity, but because it reveals it.

That's the important point that I want to make here. A truly self-emptying unity ought to reveal the divinity in all of us, not obscure it or harm it. "To be of one mind" is to be of this mind -- this self-emptying mind, this mind of divine love.

And I'm just not sure there's a way you can institutionalize this kind of thing. As I said in my last post, this doesn't mean institutions are necessarily bad. And there are certainly actions they can take and structures they can form that tend to inhibit or obstruct such kenotic unity. There also might very well be actions that institutions can take to facilitate -- the root of the word means 'easy,' as in, 'to make something easier' -- this sort of shared identity-in-love.

But "Be of the same mind" and "have the same love" is not the same as "be of one logo" or "have a single mission statement" or "share a global structure." That's not to say those things are bad. They're just not really the point.

This passage can't -- no ancient passage can -- reveal to us all the answers of how to make such a thing possible, how to shape it or structure it. But it can, I think, give us some good questions to ask. Questions like, "Are we creating a space in which people are safe to express a self-emptying love? Or are we too anxious, too conflictual, for people to do anything but keep their guards up? Are we divesting ourselves of power-over in order to unite with those who are being harmed by the powers of the world? Are we (and here I'm speaking to myself and everyone else in the ordination process, or already ordained) more concerned with questions of status than with questions of love?"

These are challenging questions, which defy easy answer. They aren't the only questions raised by this passage. But they're the kind of questions -- rather than questions about votes, or who's-in-charge-here, or institutional authority -- that we ought to be asking if we want to talk about Christ-like unity.

Stay tuned for the third part of this little series, where I'll share some thoughts about Jesus' prayer for the unity of the Church. 

* Edit: I realize I should provide some sources for this claim. Check out the chapter on Philippians by my professor, Carla Swafford Works, in the 3rd edition of the Women's Bible Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2012); as well as Sze-Kar Wan's entry on "Mind" in The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 4 (Abingdon, 2009).

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