Herb Montgomery | July 10, 2020
“The question I wrestle with most when considering communities like those I just described is how do we protect certain community members from others who may use their strength to overpower, take advantage of, and do harm to those vulnerable within the community? Perhaps you wonder this too. Humanity is not perfect. Humanity is messy. How do we handle that messiness in non-authoritarian ways that mitigate or prevent harm?”
In Matthew’s gospel we read this beautiful passage describing the egalitarian, human community Jesus was seeking to create:
“But you are not to be called Rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8-12)
Humility is a characteristic of Jesus’ vision of human community and God’s just future that still resonates with me deeply. It’s also a trait still mostly ignored in many sectors of organized Christianity.
What does it mean to live a life devoid of any attempt to exalt oneself above others? This passage is quite possibly the most anti-authoritarian passage in the gospel stories, second only to an earlier passage in Matthew 20:25-26:
“But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.’” (Matthew 20:25-26)
What does it look like for us as Jesus followers to create ways of organizing communities that display a way of human organizing where we don’t seek to dominate but do protect and care for one another. What Jesus was doing for his early Jewish followers was commissioning them to display what a community could look like if full of humble egalitarian relationships rather than hierarchical ones.
According to the Hebrew creation narrative, hierarchical relationships are a fruit of the relational schisms that took place in the primordial garden. They don’t reflect God’s original vision for the created order. In Genesis 1:26, although we are to steward the ecology of our world as our home, the authority mentioned there was not to be over others. The narrative that follows Genesis 1:26 hints at humans’ inability to exercise authority over one other without doing harm.
I think Jesus’ early followers tried to get their heads around this and experimented with the practice of humility, though they were still working within the limits of their own time, space, and cultural constructs.
One example: Paul describes how the church that met in Corinth functioned: “When you come together, each of you has a hymn or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” (1 Corinthians 14: 26, emphasis added)
The gatherings of Christians in Corinth do not seem to be gatherings where most members sat passively silent under the authority of the same person teaching every week. I wonder how patriarchal these early gatherings were. Regardless, these were communities that embraced the anti-authoritarian elements we encountered Matthew’s passage, each one possessing a gift to share that would contribute to and build up the health of the community.
This is very different from how a lot of church gatherings function today. Today’s gatherings are characterized much more by most attendees’ passive spectatorship at a service or program than by each person bringing something to share at small open, mutually participatory gatherings. To be sure, some are gifted teachers; yet each member of the community, sharing from their own varied experiences, nonetheless has something to offer.
The early followers of Jesus believed that together they collectively became a dwelling place for the Divine:
“You [plural], too, are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:22, emphasis added.)
“You [plural] also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” (1 Peter 2:5, emphasis added.)
Even those given the task of keeping the vulnerable safe within the community were not to use their role as a means of lording authority over the community: “Not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3).
Communities that can function like this resonate with me deeply.
In the gospels, we see a vision of God’s just future where human communities are organized so that a few do not practice hierarchical authority over others. It was a vision for the practice of a preferential option for the care and protection of the vulnerable, the inclusion of the marginalized; a vision that could be practiced within egalitarian communities, collectively, without lorded authority.
There is a beautiful mutuality and working together rather than hierarchical submission in this.
What does this mean for us today? Jesus’ teachings still invite us to experience community where, rather than exercising power over others, we—together—learn how to listen to one another. And instead of lording power or position over each other, we learn what it means and what it looks like to care for each other.
I am convinced that, personally and systemically, our hope as a species is in discovering more effective ways of taking care of one another, not more efficient ways of dominating one another. Today, a few people have solved the human dilemma of their own survival at the expense of others. In so doing they’ve lost a part of their humanity. They’ve lost touch with reality that, whether we live like it or not, we are part of one another. We are all connected. What impacts one, directly and indirectly, impacts us all.
The question I wrestle with most when considering communities like those I just described is how do we protect certain community members from others who may use their strength to overpower, take advantage of, and do harm to those vulnerable within the community? Perhaps you wonder this too. Humanity is not perfect. Humanity is messy. How do we handle that messiness in non-authoritarian ways that mitigate or prevent harm?
I’m reminded of the work of Peter Kropotkin, a Russian activist, writer, revolutionary, and philosopher who lived in the late 19th and early 20th Century. In his book Mutual Aid, he wrote:
“While [Darwin] was chiefly using the term [survival of the fittest] in its narrow sense for his own special purpose, he warned his followers against committing the error (which he seems once to have committed himself) of overrating its narrow meaning. In The Descent of Man he gave some powerful pages to illustrate its proper, wide sense. He pointed out how, in numberless animal societies, the struggle between separate individuals for the means of existence disappears, how struggle is replaced by co-operation, and how that substitution results in the development of intellectual and moral faculties which secure to the species the best conditions for survival. He intimated that in such cases the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community. ‘Those communities,’ he wrote, ‘which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring’ (2nd edit., p. 163). The term, which originated from the narrow Malthusian conception of competition between each and all, thus lost its narrowness in the mind of one who knew Nature.”
In Kropotkin’s model, the fittest communities are not those where the strong eat the weak, but those where those who have the ability to take care of those who need their care do so.
From the US government’s failed responses to COVID-19 to our country’s continued refusal to listen to those most deeply harmed by our systemic racial injustice and militarized policing, the past few months of life here in the U.S. have revealed how desperately we are in need of a raised consciousness. We need to recognize the truth that healthy communities are not competitive communities of winners and losers where the disparities between the haves and have-nots continue to expand. Instead, they are communities of care and cooperation where we have learned how to ensure those presently made “least” are centered, cared for, and prioritized.
As Mathew’s gospel reminds us, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me’” (Matthew 25:40, 45).
I long for the day when we don’t treat others with dignity, care and respect because we see Jesus in them, although that would be a good start, but we do it simply because we see them as fellow humans, fellow travelers, fellow inhabitants in the short period of life we have been given.
Peter Maurin wrote in The Catholic Worker in August 1936:
“I want a change, and a radical change. I want a change from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.”
I want to believe a world like that is possible.
At the very minimum, I believe it’s worth working toward.
And to all those who are already working toward a world that looks like this, may future generations look back at you and be grateful. May our work today, building off the work of those who have come before us not be in vain.
And may a just future come, in the words of Matthew’s gospel, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
2. What might be non-authoritarian methods of protecting vulnerable members of more egalitarian communities? How might we, together, protect certain participants in the community without resorting to hierarchical relationships of power? Is this possible? Discuss with your group.
3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.
Thanks for checking in with us, today.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week