Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Downward Mobility of God




Last month I wrote about the movement referred to as the “new monasticism.”  Central to this movement’s identity are twelve “marks of the new monasticism.”  I think of them as marks of mission: a set of instructions for following Jesus.  They focus on the “doing” of Christianity.  The conviction that the truth of our faith is demonstrated in action underlies these twelve marks.

The first mark is “Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.”[1]  What might this mean?  How is it consistent with following Jesus?

Think of it as an admonition to embrace downward mobility.  We live in a culture that places a premium on the values of Empire:  control, domination, accumulation, and excess; more is better.  The emphasis is on moving out and up: continually relocating ourselves until we are at corporate headquarters, usually in a cosmopolitan city at the center of the networks of Empire.  This is what it means to be successful – to rise above it all. “It all” meaning the deprivation experienced by the vast majority of the earth’s people.

There is a kind of spiritual upward mobility as well.  It sees spiritual progress as an ascent to God, an increasingly blissful disengagement from the material and bodily realities of life and the suffering that accompanies them.  This kind of upward mobility is certainly found with the Christian tradition.  It developed along with the movement of Christianity from being a marginal, oppressed movement within the Roman Empire, to becoming the exclusive religion of the Empire. 

Spiritual “upward mobility” that seeks to escape from the world offers little in the way of critique of the “upward mobility” promoted by Empires old and new.  Upwardly mobile spirituality abandons the world, much as Empires abandon the people and places they exploit for profit.  Jesus invites us to move in a different direction.

It is not we who ascend to God; it is God who descends to meet us in the Incarnation of God’s Son, Jesus.  The downward mobility of God redirects our attention to the abandoned places of Empire where Jesus appears:  not Rome or even Jerusalem, but the backwaters of Galilee.   Jesus teaches his disciples, “Whatever you do to the least of these (the hungry, the sick, the naked, the prisoner), you do to me.”[2]  The resurrected Jesus tells his disciples, “I am going ahead to Galilee – meet me there.”[3] Jesus is found among all the “wrong” people in all the “wrong” places. 

The downward mobility of God was understood well by St. Paul:  “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.”[4]  Obedience to God places us in opposition to the values of Empire, choosing solidarity with the poor rather than exploiting our privilege. 

The Letter of James is even more pointed, quoting Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount as it warns:  “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor.  Is it not the rich who oppress you?”[5]

Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire recaptures the practice of the primitive church in its embrace of the downward mobility of Jesus.  God is not the cosmic justification of earthly Empires that exploit inequality and reward the few at the expense of the many.  God is instead found in solidarity with suffering humanity and the struggle for justice. 

Solidarity begins with intercessory prayer for the poor and vulnerable.  It moves into relationships of mutual service with people on the margins.  It can mean physical relocation to abandoned neighborhoods and rural areas.  It always means placing our dollars, our energy, our votes, and our bodies on the line so that those abandoned by Empire will know that God never abandons them.

This past summer, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention passed a resolution calling upon its members “to begin every meeting in calendar year 2013, whether at the parish, diocesan, or church-wide level, and no matter what the purpose, with this agenda item: ‘How will what we are doing here affect or involve those living in poverty?’”[6]  This is one small step we can take to redirect our attention toward the abandoned places of Empire, and consider how we will respond to what, and Who, we discover there.



[1] “Empire” is understood here as referring to systems of domination that stand in opposition to God’s desire for the well-being of creation.
[2] Matthew 35:31-46.
[3] Matthew 28:10
[4] Philippians 2:5-8.
[5] James 2:5-6; cf. Matthew 5:3, Luke 6:20.
[6] Resolution B008 “Focusing on Those Living in Poverty” accessed at www.generalconvention.org/resolutions/download/185-1342045939

3 comments:

Christopher said...

Fr. John, all in all, I find this a compelling vision on the whole. I would want to qualify your words:

"There is a kind of spiritual upward mobility as well. It sees spiritual progress as an ascent to God, an increasingly blissful disengagement from the material and bodily realities of life and the suffering that accompanies them. This kind of upward mobility is certainly found with the Christian tradition. It developed along with the movement of Christianity from being a marginal, oppressed movement within the Roman Empire, to becoming the exclusive religion of the Empire.

Spiritual “upward mobility” that seeks to escape from the world offers little in the way of critique of the “upward mobility” promoted by Empires old and new. Upwardly mobile spirituality abandons the world, much as Empires abandon the people and places they exploit for profit. Jesus invites us to move in a different direction."


I would do so be beginning with a footnote of a recent paper I completed (I'll send you a copy):

Some modern readings of the Desert Elders conflate world and creation. This is unfortunate. Those who make the claim that they are world-denying miss that the world they are protesting is Christian accommodation to imperial ways of domination and exploitation of one another and creation. Their political-economic engagement with this accommodation is to live out an alternative way on the edges of empire and amidst the wilds of creation. To deny a world is to deny the worldview of that world. The world they vision is one in which we are in harmony with creation and one another. It is ironic to me that this same materiality found among Celtic Saints and St. Francis of Assisi is not negatively categorized. On the contrary, these examples are often sentimentalized and de-radicalized. All of this does not deny that flesh-hating materialities have arisen from some monastic and ascetical tendencies, but this should not lead us to a wholesale dismissal without careful examination of the worldviews that emerge in particular expressions of holiness in persons and groups of a given time and context."

Theo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Theo said...

Thanks Christopher. I completely agree that leaving the "world" means leaving the behind the ideology or world-view of the dominant culture, rather than abandoning creation. The Gospel of John is a good example in this regard.

It also seems to me that the desert abbas and ammas were exemplars of a spirituality of downward mobility. They descended into their inner depths to wrestle with the demons, as well as choosing to live on the margins of Empire. The way "up" is "down" for them.