Messages of Hope

Servanthood – where our humanity flourishes

Published / by Sandy

Rev Andrew Prior writes:

In the news the desperate situation of refugees seems to worsen. Pacific Islands face destruction while our politicians joke and refuse to address the issue of climate change in meaningful ways. How are we to work together with people of good will for some kind of justice? How do we sort through the competing ideologies we bring to the situation? What gifts might we Christians bring to the situation? And how is it that some who bear the name Christian have such vastly different responses to issues like these?

In the meeting of ideologies, I do not see that disagreement ultimately depends upon whether one is Atheist, Muslim, Christian, or holds to some other persuasion. There is a more basic attitude about the meaning of life that cuts across these traditions.

The first path… when we remove all the niceties, [says] life is about looking after number one.

The second path comes from the recognition that our future, as individuals, and as a species, lies in the common good.  Whatever we feel about ourselves, we are not the final centre.  The final centre for humanity, its future and its acme, lies in community. (One Man’s Web)

All of us are conflicted in this. Some who seek to live lives of compassion and generosity can nevertheless be amazingly selfish. Others, whom we may have judged to live purely for themselves, can show compassion and generosity that shames us. Even so, there is an emphasis in each of our lives. We have a basic value orientation about the purpose of our life. This value will influence our response to the needs of others, and will influence the way we work with others. At very base we believe either that the world is here for us, or we believe that we are here for the world.

This transcends ideologies. Within any belief system, there will be adherents who, basically, are travelling along the first path as they seek to make sense of their life and the world. Others in the same group will see that meaning and understanding— even fulfilment— lie in living for the common good.

When we seek to do good in the world, will we seek partners who merely use a name like ours— members of our tribe, as it were— or will we seek partners who follow the same path? If we can look past our traditions to our basic values, we may find we have more in common than we imagined.

In the article I reference above, I suggest that we Christians have two distinctive characteristics as a group.

One, of course, is [our] attachment to Jesus of Nazareth. He is seen as the model, the pioneer, the acme, the one upon whom to disciple oneself. He reveals God to us; living life his way opens us to the reality we call God.

The other characteristic is found in what we could call [our] extreme adherence to the notion of the common good.  The Good is firmly based in community with all people, not in the achievements of the individual self. The Good relates to community of all people with the biosphere itself, and even the Cosmos. We might … call it living in just harmony, or sustainably with all creation. Like most who follow the second path in life, Christianity has much to repent here.

Christianity is not about “enlightened self-interest.” The common good is not something to support because it helps me.  It is not a means to my ends. The common good is, for Christianity, the ultimate development of Humanity. There is no Humanity without the common good.

We can see the centrality of this in the greatest commandment— “loving God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength”— which has a flip side: it is to love our neighbour as ourself. The two statements are put together to assert that we do not really love God unless we love our neighbour. (Mark 12:28-34)

The problem is that this way of being which is not focussed on my-self is at odds with my history.

It is difficult not to centre the universe around ourselves. In a very real sense we are at the centre. We can, after all, only know the world through us. We are an evolved animal. Our basic background and deepest instinct, is to fight or flee, to survive at all costs. It is this biology that enabled us to develop and persist as a species! Probably, in our earlier days, it enabled us to thrive in a hostile environment, and gave us part of our evolutionary advantage. (op. cit.)

Beginning to transcend these evolutionary beginnings lies at the heart of our humanity. But it is such a radical project that Jesus calls it dying: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35) To grasp our humanity we must hold our life lightly enough that we who naturally wish to be first become “last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

He says that if we want to follow him into this project we must “carry our cross.” The Romans forced those who were about to be crucified to carry their own cross to the place of execution, usually through the jeering crowd. This is not a trivial metaphor. It calls us to suffer ridicule and abuse, and even to risk death, in our determination to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Perhaps our apprehension of the meaning of the cross— the pun is intended— can be our gift to the world. How can we rich Australians do anything meaningful about climate change, or for refugees, unless we put ourselves last, and make ourselves servants of all? We can only do this if we “die to ourselves,” let go of our false securities, and live for something greater.

We have seen what this loss of ourselves does. It gives life to the world. The servanthood of an Emmeline Pankhurst or a Nelson Mandela changes the world in which they live. Such servanthood is where our humanity flourishes. Anyone can do it, but servanthood is our particular calling as Christians.

Will we answer it?