Your support is helping expand Progressive Christianity. We are one of the largest sources for progressive theological perspectives, as well as our thousands of resources. It is hard to overstate their value – every time you donate it expands our ability to do all those essential offerings even better. DONATE NOW!

The Radical Abandonment of Self-interest

Psalm 23; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; John 10:11-18

Civilization defines justice as retribution – payback; an eye for an eye. But the deeper meaning of justice is distributive: the rain falls on the good, the bad, and the ugly without partiality. Civilization does not use that definition except in cases where there is clearly injustice if partiality enters the picture. The positive understanding of distributive justice is contained in the term distributive justice-compassion. The normal development of civilizations has historically led to systems for assuring safety and security of citizens. But as any reader of Charles Dickens must be aware, those systems often exclude the poor, the uneducated, those who are presumed to have no economic or social power (women, minorities). Members of societies who are denied access to those powers often become ensnared in activities deemed anti-social or criminal in order to survive. Distributive justice-compassion would not demand payback or retribution for such activities, but would provide solutions: reeducation, rehabilitation, redress of grievances. Distributive justice-compassion holds sway in the Covenant relationship with the non-violent, inclusive, kenotic realm or kingdom of God. Justice as retribution/pay-back holds sway in the normal march of humanity into civilization. The short-hand term for the seemingly inevitable systems of injustice that are the result of that march is “Empire.”

The Apostle Paul was convinced that Jesus’s resurrection was of a spiritual, mystical body, which was automatically part of the kingdom of God – and that we who are living today can also participate in that kingdom if we choose God’s Covenant of nonviolent distributive justice-compassion instead of the violent retributive justice of Empire. Under the Covenant no one is judged by circumstance, but everyone is presumed to be transformed – or at least capable of transformation; the assumption is rehabilitation and hope; that everyone has access to power and the assurance of food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and peace regardless of who they are or where they come from. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians that “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Because the transformation is ongoing – for upwards of two thousand years now – we are called to participate in a new creation– a new paradigm – a world based on letting go and sharing rather than keeping and greed.

The traditional view of Philippians 2:9-11 is that this is the imperial Christ triumphant.

“Therefore God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (NRSV).

But Westar Institute scholarship indicates that Paul’s interpretation of the Christ is not one of domination, but of transformation; not of violence and political victory, but of nonviolent justice-compassion.

The portion of the hymn to the Christ that Paul quotes may be seen to fulfill the prophet Isaiah’s expectation of deliverance from injustice. It is an ecstatic, mystical declaration that the Emperors of Rome, living and dead, who declared themselves and their ancestors to be “god” and “son of god” and even “very god of very gods” would have to acknowledge that Jesus’s name was above even theirs. Jesus was the one chosen by God to be the one to restore God’s distributive justice-compassion, in place of the Emperor’s retributive justice. In place of law, the Christ establishes radical fairness. The servant of God gives up the power associated with the usual systems of imperial civilization. The servant of God is not interested in pay-back or retribution, nor in reward and glorification. The servant of God works with God to establish God’s distributive justice-compassion. The servant does the work for the glory of God, and is vindicated, delivered from injustice and death (See Isaiah 61).

The first part of the hymn to the Christ is about personal kenosis – the act of disregarding petty human desires, and defeating the temptation to revel in being the equal of God. “[A]lthough he was born in the image of God, [Jesus] did not regard ‘being like God’ as something to use for his own advantage, but rid himself of such vain pretension and accepted a servant’s lot” ([Tr. The Authentic Letters of Paul, Polebridge Press 2010, p. 186]). These words might be seen as a kind of midrash – a retelling or reframing of sacred story. As the hymn restates the nature of the ultimate servant of God, the suffering servant described by Isaiah becomes the suffering messiah, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” The servant is obedient to God’s law of justice-compassion to the point of death on a cross – the ultimate symbol of imperial law and order. “That is why God raised him higher than anyone and awarded him the title that is above all others. . . .”

When we let go of self-interest – ego survival – we “think in the same way that the Anointed, Jesus, did. . . .” We think and act kenotically in a constant, evolving struggle of spirit for justice-compassion against the normalcy of civilization. The “suffering servant” trusts God’s vindication, that God will prove the servant to be right in the end: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word . . . God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious .. . I did not hide my face from insult and spitting . . . . Who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment” (Isaiah 50:4-9a).

Because the Revised Common Lectionary often separates the verses from Philippians from the context in which Paul wrote them, the action that is called for in 2:1-5 is easily missed or ignored. Paul urges the community in Philippi to have this same kenotic mind that Jesus had: “regard others as better than yourselves . . . look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” With those words, Paul invites the first century Philippians (and anyone in the twenty-first century) to a radical abandonment of self-interest. Paul is talking about creating the realm of God on earth. In such a realm, greed has no place, and debt has no power. Creating such a realm requires the kind of obedience that comes from total commitment to distributive justice-compassion, which can (and often does) lead to death at the hands of imperial systems.

Later in the letter (3:8-9) Paul writes, “Indeed, I now regard everything as worthless in light of the incomparable value of realizing that the Anointed, Jesus, is my lord. Because of him I wrote off all of those assets and now regard them as worth no more than rubbish so that I can gain the incomparable asset of the Anointed and be found in solidarity with him, no longer having an integrity of my own making based on performing the requirements of religious law, but now having the integrity endorsed by God, the integrity of an absolute confidence in and reliance upon God like that of the Anointed, Jesus. This integrity is endorsed by God and is based on such unconditional trust in God.” Here is the meaning of kenosis at all levels. What might this look like given the conditions of our world?

kenotic foreign policy – in which crushing debt carried by nations such as Haiti

kenotic business practice – in which profits are secondary to safety, reliability, is summarily dismissed; and sustainability; where debt is not leveraged in order to amass fortunes that seduce others into debt they cannot afford;corruption are valued;

kenotic management – in which suggestions for improvement, or whistle-blowing

kenotic relationships – in which the well-being of the other is foremost.

In the twenty-first century C.E., some are calling for punishment of the speculators and managers responsible for the global financial melt-down of 2008-10. Others are holding individual people responsible for making poor choices, or for not having the good sense to avoid the deal that seemed too good to be true. But this is pious revenge. If justice is distributive, there is no need for punishment beyond the consequences already befalling all of us who are caught in the system. Jesus wept over the inability of the people to recognize the coming of the kingdom, and the consequences that result from that inability. As soon as we abandon justice-compassion, or ignore the consequences of our actions that lead to unjust systems, we are caught in the powerful currents that propel civilizations into empires.

Empire can happen when people begin to organize themselves into societies, but the good news is that Empire is not inevitable. Jesus’s followers included marginalized women, disempowered men, and impoverished families; recovered demoniacs, and people suffering from diseases and physical disabilities that left them beyond hope; desperate revolutionaries, and collaborators with the very systems that oppressed them all. Jesus pointed always away from himself and toward the discovery within and among his followers of a realm where distributive justice-compassion holds sway. His life and death were unmistakable illustrations of a radical abandonment of self-interest. So sign onto the Covenant. Pick up your smartphone and start making sustainable deals that ensure that no part of the interdependent web of life on this planet is compromised. That is the promise and the hope of Palm Sunday and the mandate of a resurrection faith.

John’s Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father: So I give my life for my sheep. . . . This is the reason my Father loves me: I am giving up my life so I can take it back again. No one can take it away from me; I give it up freely. It’s my right to give it up, my right to take it back again. I have been charged with this responsibility by my Father” (John 10:11-16 [The Complete Gospels, Polebridge Press 2010]). The NRSV uses the word “power” instead of “right”; and claiming that right is indeed empowering. We have the right and the power to join the great work of justice-compassion or not. No one can compel us one way or the other. This power is both a birthright and a responsibility. Paradoxically, as Jesus’s life and death taught, to freely give up one’s life means to claim it irrevocably as one’s own.

Psalm 23 assures everyone that when the radical abandonment of self-interest in the service of distributive justice leads anyone into the valley of death, there is nothing to fear. The table is set, the cup is poured out, we are chosen, anointed, and ordained.

Sea Raven, D.Min.
(Author of the series Theology from Exile: Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity)

Review & Commentary