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Humility and Exaltation

from the “Seasons of the Christian Life” collection

The Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost

Joel 2:23-32
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

October 24, 2004
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

Jesus said, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” No principle is more central to the Christian Way than this. Matthew, Mark, and Luke cite Jesus saying that the first will be last and the last first. The Beatitudes bless the meek and say they shall inherit the Earth. The most radical claim of Christianity, beyond any doctrines of cosmic sin and salvation, death and resurrection, or even of Jesus as judge and redeemer, is that the world’s values are turned upside down. Those who are winners by worldly standards are in fact the losers if they are exalted and not humble. Those who are the losers by worldly standards are in fact the winners if they are humble and do not seek worldly exaltation. Not only was this a powerful, radical teaching in the early church, it was the point of the narrative of Jesus Christ himself. St. Paul put it in the most dramatic way in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians:

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, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name. (Phil. 2:5-9)

Jesus humbled himself before poor, ignorant, corrupt, and oppressive human beings, and thus was exalted by God as Lord over all. Jesus was humble to the point of humiliation on the cross—what could be more humiliating than to be tortured to death as a common criminal, naked, in front of your mother and friends? Yet out of such humility comes new life and a proper exaltation before God. Without humility, our old sins keep us captive and we seek exaltation like the self-righteous Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. With humility, no matter how sinful we are, like the tax-collector, God forgives sins and exalts us like the risen Christ.

As a principle of ethics, humility is a virtue common to nearly all religions and humanistic traditions. The opposite of humility is something like arrogance, and arrogance is commonly thought to be a vice. In Jesus’ teaching, however, the opposite of humility is not exactly arrogance but specious exaltation, the chief example of which is thinking oneself righteous in comparison with others and expecting others to recognize that superiority. In other teachings, being humble is quite compatible with being exalted. After all, some people are more righteous than others, and the educated righteous people know this. They construe themselves to be better, and often are recognized by others as being better, aristocrats of virtue. Good people are often exalted to positions of high power and responsibility. Surely we would not want unrighteous people in those positions. Exaltation to such positions with proper recognition and a proper self-consciousness about one’s virtues is usually though to be quite compatible with humility. In fact, only the humble ought to be exalted to worldly power and recognition.

Yet Jesus took a slightly different approach. He was not against rich or powerful people; he was not against those who had gained the world’s respect. But he was against people thinking that they are better than other people and accepting that self-exaltation. We should “judge not, that we be not judged,” as he said in the Sermon on the Mount. Instead of thinking that we are better than others, even when that is palpably true, we should address the Almighty saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” If we repeat that mantra a hundred times a day—God, be merciful to me, a sinner!—everything in our ethical life will be different. We will be humble, and not touched by any circumstance of exaltation. And we will come to see people, not for their accomplishments, honors, riches, or exalted reputations, but for their humble practice, or lack thereof. Christians exalt the humble precisely because of their humility, not because of their righteousness, power, or wealth.

The principle of humility extends beyond the sphere of personal ethics to politics, I fear. Does a nation believe itself to be especially righteous in comparison with others, labeling them evil? Some nations surely are better than others, but all are sinful. Saddam Hussein was outrageous to invade Kuwait in order to control its oil. But was that motive lacking in the American invasion of Iraq? Saddam Hussein jailed people illegally and resorted to torture. But the American prisons in Iraq have held people secretly without account and the prisons in Guantanamo are filled with people taken while defending their country and religion, and held without due process. The exposure of torture and humiliation at Abu Graib shows, not that a few people misbehaved, but that such treatment is not uncommon in prisons in America whose jailers were hired for Iraq. How can America rail at some “axis of evil” when it should be saying, “God, be merciful to us, a sinful nation?”

The danger of political self-righteousness, especially when we know that America is not as bad as some other nations, is that it emboldens our nation to think it can simply do what it wants to impose its righteous will on the world. To be sure, democracy is the best form of government that we know, and the world would be a better place if it were thoroughly democratic. Yet to impose democracy on a people whose social forms are not fit for it is not itself democratic behavior: it is imperial tyranny. Democracy by definition comes from the self-assertion of the people. How can a nation invade others to impose democracy when its own voting machines don’t work, many of its people are illegitimately disenfranchised, and lawsuits are threatened about election fraud before the election takes place? The humility of democracy means we should say, “God, be merciful to us, a sinful nation.”

A nation moves from self-exaltation to plain arrogance when it asserts and exercises a right to make war on others simply because it has the power to do so and war serves its best interests for power and economic control. Where is the sense of moral limits to the exercise of violent power? When the Soviet Union was powerful, each super-power limited the other. With the demise of the Soviet Union some of our American neo-conservative thinkers have argued that in our current “unipolar” political situation, what is needed is a benevolent American empire. I commend to you a new book by the historian, Gary Dorrien, called Imperial Designs, which traces the development of this neo-conservative political philosophy. That no other nation wants a global American empire, though many want American protection and handouts, suggests more than a little self-exaltation and even arrogance in the neo-conservative proposal. Given the world’s problems of poverty, lack of education, the sleazy theft of wealth by national leaders, and violent clashes between cultures in multicultural societies, who would want imperial power in the hands of a nation whose economic policies widen the gap between its very poor and very rich, whose primary and secondary school systems lag behind those of many other developed nations, whose big businesses associated with governmental leaders are rocked by scandals, and whose government courts the favor of cultural groups that insist their values regarding life, death, sex, and domestic issues be imposed on the rest? America is not Zimbabwe or the Sudan by any means, cesspools of corruption. Neither is it the kingdom of God, as people must think who want to impose some version of the American way of life on other nations by force.

Only when America can present itself, saying, “God, be merciful to us, a sinful nation,” can it legitimately exercise leadership to stimulate other nations to struggle against poverty, ignorance, corruption in government, and the oppression of other cultures by the most powerful culture. The world does not need to hear from America a hypocritical self-exalting righteousness backed by overwhelming force. It needs to hear that, though we have the power to sin outrageously, instead we restrain ourselves, humbly seek mercy for sins we acknowledge, and turn our power to amending our ways. The world needs to see America as a model of humble continuing self-transformation. Then it can request American help for transformation in other places of poverty, ignorance, corruption, and oppression, with each nation taking responsibility for its own democratic self-affirmation.

None of this is to suggest that the United States should let itself become militarily weak so as to be unable to defend itself when attacked or fulfill its defense treaty obligations to other nations. The international rings of criminal terrorists are an astonishing threat to civilized societies, and America needs to take the lead in international cooperation in gathering intelligence and effective police works. The Christian point about humility is that we should never use military or police force in a spirit of arrogance or self-exaltation, only and always in a spirit of humility that says first, “God, be merciful to us, a sinful nation.”

We should remember that the American government is a secular enterprise in which Christian voices are mixed with many other constituencies. Moreover, not all Christian voices seem to heed Jesus’ remark that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Many Christians seem instead to support the self-exaltation of a policy of imperial manifest destiny for America. Nevertheless, the gospel in its many statements is clear that the worldly values of exaltation are turned upside down in the kingdom of heaven and that humility is the only value worth exalting. Christians should promote humility in public life.

Humility, of course, begins with us individually and in our interpersonal relations. It is no simple virtue to learn. Self-exaltation easily disguises itself in forms of false humility, and we need to discern the counterfeits. We need to learn humility when we are powerful and wealthy with many kinds of resources. We need to learn humility when we are in fact among the elites in scientific, intellectual, and professional attainments, an especially poignant point for a congregation at a university church. The beginning of humility is a consciousness of faults that we present constantly to God, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” To keep ever before our minds the honest need for God’s mercy is a good start to the work of exercising power and attainments with humility, a work that falls to each of us particularly and to Americans generally in this time.

So I invite you to see the world through Jesus’ eyes. Those who exalt themselves saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector,” are yet to be humbled. Those who come to God with downcast eyes and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”, are justified before the merciful God and will have true exaltation.


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