Sunday, March 25, 2007

Imitatio Christi

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Amen. (Philippians 3:10-11)

St. Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is in many ways a love letter. Its tone is intimate and personal, expressing Paul’s deep gratitude for the many ways in which the Philippians have supported his ministry. Paul writes to them from prison, yet even in the midst of his own suffering he is concerned to relieve them of any anxiety about his circumstances and to exhort them to practice mutual love and forbearance as they work through conflicts in their community.

Earlier in the letter, Paul writes,

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition of conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus . . .” (Philippians 2:1-5)

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”: Paul invites the Christians at Philippi to imitate Jesus. He invites them to literally change their mind, to exchange one identity for another. He describes this change as a movement from preoccupation with selfish ambition and conceit to humility; just as Christ Jesus “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.” (Phil. 2:6b-7) Paul invites the Philippians, and us, to become human.

On the face of it, this may seem like a preposterous suggestion. Are we not human already? How could we be anything else? Well, this is precisely the problem: we do seek to be other than human. My experience teaches me that people, myself included, often behave as if we were more than human or less than human; and this generates all kinds of suffering.

You see, we learn to be human, or not, by internalizing and mimicking and striving for what others desire, starting with parents and caregivers and including our entire cultural inheritance. We see and hear what others do and desire, and we develop an identity through a process of imitation that leads to rivalry and competition for the objects of desire: security, status, health, leisure, food: all those things that form and defend an identity. In this process, we come to delude ourselves into thinking that our identity is something we choose, when in truth it is given to us. The question, therefore, is always, “Who is giving me my identity? Who am I imitating?”

Julia Scheeres, in her memoir, Jesus Land, provides many heart-breaking examples of this dynamic of imitation and rivalry. Julia writes of her experience growing up in rural Indiana with an adopted brother, David, who is her same age. Nothing so unusual about that, except that Julia is white and David is black and their parents are Dutch Reformed Calvinists. The process of identity formation starts early, and it is brutal.

“The rejection was limited to insults and cold shoulders,” writes Julia, “until the summer we were eight, when we were physically attacked. It happened on a July afternoon when our fifteen year-old sister Debra escorted us to Kingston Pool . . . the other kids our age were playing Marco Polo at the other end of the pool, and we longed to join in, but didn’t dare ask – they were the same one’s who yelled the ‘N’ word at us . . . we napped with the sun drying our backs, the shouts and splashes fading to a comforting hum, the summer scents of chlorine and wet concrete thickening the air. We woke to the lifeguard’s whistle burst – the pool was closing . . . As usual, we were the last kids to leave. The Johnsons were waiting for us on the other side of the fence. There were four of them, three boys and a girl, older than us, younger than Deb. They waited until we crossed the clover patch between the pool and playground before jumping us. ‘Stay out of our pool, Niggers!’ they yelled. ‘You’re polluting it!” As Debra got into a shouting match with the oldest boy, the three youngest kids bore down on David and me. My ponytail was yanked, ripping hair from my scalp. We scrambled up the monkey bars and perched on top with our backs together, screaming and bawling and kicking at the white hands that tried to grab our ankles and pull us down. Our flip-flops fell into the sand and we continued kicking, bruising our feet on the metal bars. It ended when a minivan pulled into the parking lot. ‘Mom’s here!’ one of them yelled, and suddenly they had retreated and it was quiet and the sun blazed red and purple on the horizon. We ran all the way home through the darkening woods, but still got in trouble for being late for supper. Mother had no patience for childish brawls. Turn the other cheek, she scolded.” (Jesus Land, pp. 252-253)

It’s a horrible story, but I submit to you that it is hardly uncommon. It is a snapshot of the process of being given an identity through a competition for status and security that we learn by imitating others, which seems to leave us with the very narrow options of becoming a victim or a perpetrator. If we internalize the victim identity we come to understand ourselves as less-than-human. If we try to defend ourselves by becoming invulnerable, we come to understand ourselves as more-than-human, entitled to exploit those less-than-human to shore up our sense of superiority. The identity being given to all of the children in Julia’s story is a variation on these themes.

We see this dynamic at work all around us, with ethnic, racial, gender, national and religious rivalries leaving a wake of hunger, poverty, genocide and ecocide. It is our captivity to this dynamic, our being given an identity in this way, that the theologians call original sin. God comes to us in the face of Jesus to recall us to our true identity as nothing more, and nothing less than human. This is the humility of Christ, free from rivalry and violence, that Paul invites us to imitate. We are invited to change our mind and receive our identity from God.

Breaking out of this dynamic of rivalry and violence isn’t always easy. Paul knew its temptations well, because he was so successful at playing the game on its terms. He had engaged in ethnic and religious rivalry with great zeal, persecuting the early Christians (who were initially a Jewish sect) and building up quite a reputation for himself in the process. He had internalized the identity of perpetrator to great effect.

“Yet whatever gains I had,” writes Paul, “these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” (Philippians 3:7-9a)

Paul regards his former identity as rubbish, and willingly sacrificed all the advantages that accrued to that identity. He has decided instead to receive his identity from God, to strive to imitate Jesus in his suffering and his resurrection: “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil. 3:12)

Paul’s heart was broken open. He fell in love with the One who had loved him all along. And so, he changed his mind. The one who used to persecute and imprison others, now finds himself in prison. He has renounced his privileged former identity, and freely occupies the place of shame in solidarity with those who suffer in imitation of Christ.

It is this falling in love, this breaking open of the heart, that Jesus models for us and invites us to imitate. It is this way of compassion that Paul models, too, though admittedly imperfectly. Receiving our identity from God, becoming compassionate as God is compassionate, is a life-long process.

But it begins with having our heart broken open, and willingly occupying the place of shame in solidarity with those who suffer. This is what makes the story of Julia and David Scheeres so powerful. Julia fell in love with her brother, and so made her self vulnerable to the racism that he suffered. The story of their growing up together reveals that Julia willingly, however inconsistently and imperfectly, occupied the place of shame with David. She became “black” too, even when she could have chosen to distance herself from her brother and accept the protection of white privilege.

In doing this, however, she not only refused to become a perpetrator, she also refused to become a victim. Instead, she allowed the power of love, the identity God is giving us, to make her vulnerable to David’s suffering in such a way as to renew in both of them a sense of their human dignity. She accepted the way of the cross, the suffering of Christ, so that she and David might share in Christ’s resurrection, finding their true identity beyond the false, racist identity they had been given. Together, they became nothing more, and nothing less, than human.

Who is giving you your identity? Who are you imitating?

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Amen. (Philippians 3:10-11)

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