“I gotta go home. What do I owe ya?”
“The real question, Eleanor, is what do we owe to each other?”
(The Good Place, Season 2, Episode 12)
What do we owe to each other? This is the question that runs through all of what is now one of my favorite television shows, The Good Place. This question has stuck in my head the last few days. And as a Christian it’s got me thinking about what it means to be a disciple of Christ and live in imitation of Christ.
In his letter to the Philippians Paul said: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4) I think there is a radical shift in perspective, call it a new life, being born again, in coming to look out not for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. We could call it maturity, while noting that it’s a kind of maturity that we don’t just reach naturally. It’s not maturation of the old man into a more developed version of the old man. It’s a complete rebirth and transformation into a new creature.
For all of this Christ is the model and the means. Paul continues in his exhortation to the Philippians saying, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8) These are some of the most important verses in the New Testament and have been foundational to the development of the doctrine of Christ’s nature and Godhood. But what I’d like to focus on is the exhortation embedded in it; the ethic.
Jesus’s teachings repeatedly feature a theme of reversal, particularly in the ways that we esteem ourselves and others.
“And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)
“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)
There is a repeated message of shifting focus away from self and onto others. Paul said to the Philippians that this was exactly Christ did at a level fundamental to the very nature of his mortal existence. He “emptied Himself”; ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν (heauton ekenōsen). That verb, κενόω (kenóō), “to empty out”, is significant in Christian theology for the “kenosis” of Christ, the ‘self-emptying’ of Jesus’ own will to become entirely receptive to the will of the Father. But this isn’t only teaching about Christ’s nature. Paul is calling for the Church to do this as well, to imitate Christ in his kenosis of self. Rather than being self-centered we are to de-center ourselves from our own circle of concerns, maybe even put ourselves on the outside edge of that circle, looking in, to center the interests of others.
Another thing Jesus said was that, “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). This could be understood, perhaps in the first instance, as a warning. If you try to be greater than others you’ll end up being a servant instead. But I think the positive interpretation, that we ought to act as servants to others, that this is true greatness, is also consistent with Jesus’s teachings. And it’s consistent with Paul’s message to the Philippians. Christ took “the form of a bond-servant”, a δοῦλος (doulos). And I think here of the image of Jesus kneeling and washing his own disciples’s feet.
What does it look like to “not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others”? A few years ago in my church’s worldwide general conference one of the church’s leaders, Dallin H. Oaks, quoted Alexandr Solzhenitsyn who said: “It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.” I come back to that idea a lot. Was Solzhenitsyn saying that we shouldn’t defend human rights? Certainly not. Having been a victim of the Soviet gulags himself he would be the last person to say that. But I think he was onto something quite astute. Rights don’t carry much force without human obligations. We have to think about others. We have to think about one another.
A community has to have people who look out for the interests of others. This is what Paul wanted to see among the Philippians. He said these things would make his “joy complete” (Philippians 2:2).
The author of comparative religion Karen Armstrong has focused a lot on kenosis in her writing and it is clearly on view in the 2009 Charter for Compassion that she spearheaded. The second sentence in that Charter states that, “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there.”
These are ideas that impact me deeply:
“Regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
“Dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there.”
“What do we owe to each other?”