How can humility be a truth? Is it not closer to being a falsehood, the pretense to being less than one is, so as to appear unimpressed by one’s own superiority? When I was a teenager, my parents and I were watching a Miss America pageant, and for the section in which finalists gave short extemporaneous speeches, the overall theme that year was personal qualities. The contestant selected to speak first looked over the list of qualities and wisely chose humility as her topic. As soon as she made her choice, I remarked to my parents that she would win at least that section of the competition. If I remember correctly, she won the title of Miss America, “the Queen of femininity,” “your ideal,” as Bert Parks sang while she took her victory walk. We admire in the great (or merely famous for a moment) the appealing virtue of understating their superiority and seeming unimpressed with themselves.
The word humble itself, however, is related in its origins to humus, earth or ground, telling of that which is “low, lowly, small, slight, mean, insignificant, base.” (Oxford English Dictionary). Like the word modest, humble can identify a lowly condition, rank, or estate rather than the virtue of non-arrogance. With tongue in cheek, we may say it is no virtue for the humble to be humble. From my childhood, I recall the cartoon character Yogi Bear blurting out, “I have a lot to be humble about!” then looking nonplussed as he tried to figure out the meaning of his words.
We admire humility when distinction shines through it, but we insist upon humility from the lowly, especially in the presence of their superiors. Shows of pride from the poor annoy people who regard themselves as the poor’s superiors, just as assertiveness from women arouses hostility, not only from men, but from other women.
So, what am I talking about when I say that humility is a truth Christians and Christian churches need to rediscover? These days, as Christendom continues to disappear from Europe and the cultural establishment of Christianity wanes in the United States, we find ourselves, like Yogi Bear, with a lot to be humble about. Along with our loss of prestige and the questioning of our assumptions of privilege for our religion, come revelations of greed, corruption, and sexual predation. So, at one level, Christian humility would be merely acceptance of our real standing in society as our churches close up and we realize we are becoming a minority in a society increasingly secularized and religiously diverse.
Acceptance of our reality would be a good thing but not good enough. Such acceptance would be good for us because we Christians would then stop acting as though our religion should be in charge of the society, stop supporting politicians who promise to force the nation to accept our authority and our rules, and stop demonizing and trying to suppress other religions and non-religious ways of life. Mere acceptance, however, would not go far enough because it would give us nothing positive to inspire and enable ministry and service, nothing to share with a world in need of redemptive hope.
“Blessed are you poor,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. God’s reducing the great and powerful while elevating the poor and lowly is a dominant biblical theme throughout both testaments. The Magnificat attributed to Jesus’ mother echoes Hannah’s prayer in I Samuel 2:1-10:
He [God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53 NRSV)
Humility may be society’s falsehood, a refinement for the noble but a demand upon the lowly, but it can be for us a relational truth of our shared humanity and our call from Jesus to follow him in his way. As long as we Christians and our churches confront people with our presumed authority (ecclesiastical, doctrinal, biblical, or moral) and our power (political or economic), we cannot unite with Jesus in his way of the servant. We Christians are not called to be in charge. Now that we are, increasingly, in fact not in charge, maybe we can find our way back to the humility that accepts our own humanity and respects the humanity of others.
This kind of humility shows in respect for other people. It is not timid about confronting injustices done to others. It is not submissive to tyranny. It does not retreat from the world’s needs for redemptive love. But this humility does put the needs of others before the desires of self, and it does not seek to conquer. Only when Christianity was made imperial did it become a conquering religion rather than a serving, ministering faith.
The churches are called into being because God loves the world, and their calling is to serve, not to prosper. The faithful concern of a church is not what is good for that church in terms of its own growth and prosperity as an organization but what is good, on Christ’s terms, for the community and the world. Humility as a relational truth for human beings is the antagonist of arrogance and a sense of entitlement to superiority, honor, and privilege. Humility leads us away from power and glory.
For the individual Christian, this truth of humility means giving prominence to Christ’s call to service rather than to religious self-gratification. It means respecting the image of God in the other person, even when that person does not respect it in herself or himself. It does not mean giving people whatever they want; respect may well require that we do not give in to people’s wishes or demands. Humility is not self-hate or self-denigration. It does not make us toadies.
Humility is for us a truth to take to ourselves, not for us to demand from others in submission to us. The churches ought not be telling the already suppressed to be submissive to those suppressing them. Wives and girlfriends should not be told to take their beatings and try to be better, more submissive Christian women. Black people should not be told to be patient with white supremacy and humble in accepting what they are “given” by white-dominated society. Workers should not be told to be grateful for whatever management and ownership choose to give them in return for their time and labor. It is not the already humbled who need to humble themselves.
The relational truth of humility separates service from charitable donating, ministry with people from authoritarian control over them, worship from showmanship, witness to the grace of God from bragging about how awful one once was and how wonderful that one is now (by the grace of God, of course). It distinguishes sharing hope from telling people what they had better believe or else, standing with people in distress from looming above them, being honest with self and others from imagining and so projecting self-superiority, devotion to God from sanctimony, and compassion from contempt. We will not find it easy, as churches or Christians, to accept for ourselves the form of a servant and take the way of our Servant Christ, but such is the way we must go, not only for Christianity to survive, but for it to be authentic.
He [Jesus] called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 18:2-4 NRSV)