Recently, I was hired by a major bank in Arkansas to provide cross-cultural competence training for forty of the company’s highest level employees including its owners, presidents, and regional market CEOs. During one session in which we discussed the concept of white privilege, I suggested that those in positions of power and privilege should seek not only to give away fish or teach others to fish but help others own the pond. Later, during a break, one of the attendees approached me with a question couched in a concern. “That’s tough for me to think about,” he said. “If I help others own the pond, then my pond will shrink.” In response, I said, “Maybe so, but consider this: you will then have two ponds in which to fish.”
This weekend Christians throughout the world celebrate the life, death through crucifixion, burial and, most importantly, the resurrection of Jesus, whom we call Christ (which means Messiah or Savior), from the grave. The annual commemoration comes at a time when people in this country, and even world leaders, are at painful odds with one another, each in his or her own way striving or fighting either to attain or maintain power, position, and privilege; for their way to become the way things are done or understood. What we need to realize, however, and to learn from Jesus is counter-intuitive: if you want such things you must let them go.
In the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, he explains both why and how we should,
“(In our) relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5-8)
Did you catch it?
Jesus, although God, himself, prior to human existence (the incarnation) and, as such, divinely powerful, positioned, and privileged, did not regard such things as self-serving. Rather, he emptied Himself of such things (the Greek word is kenosis) – willingly gave them up, laid them down – and came to us, as one of us, so that we, too, could own the spiritual pond; that we, too, could have power, position, and privilege in heavenly places; that we, too, could be called the children of God (I John 3:1) and “…if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,” (Romans 8:17). In this way, Jesus created many more ponds in which to fish. Thus, he was honored with even more recognition and glory…that is, to the degree it is possible for someone that already has it all to have even more in terms of power, position, and privilege. Indeed, this is what the Apostle Paul next explains:
“Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
Simply stated, to attain or maintain power, position, and privilege, we should learn from Jesus: to have such things, we must give them up; lay them down; leverage them – in whatever amount or measure you have been blessed – for the sake of others in need, especially those very different than us: our biblical neighbors (Luke 10:25-37).
But therein lies the challenge.
For many today identifying as Christians, and more specifically as evangelicals in the United States, Christianity is enmeshed with the American way, the American dream, American life itself. Contrary to the national myth, however, America is not a Christian nation. So, “when winning or losing on one issue or another becomes more important than representing Christ well via social media, demonstrating the fruits of the Spirit in civil discourse, or remembering that we have been called to go and make disciples . . . Christ is not honored.”
For example, both in private conversations and on social media, far too many of us are quick to speak, slow to listen, and slow to advance peace, in direct violation of James 1:19. Far too many of us want to impose theocratic rule and ways on an otherwise constitutionally limited, representative democratic republic in an effort, somehow, to attain or maintain power, position, and privilege. Beyond that, we are far too easily “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14), at times acting more like those without understanding, “in the futility of their mind,” with ignorance, callousness, or hardness of heart (4:17–19). Thus, we are often seen or portrayed as purveyors of fear, not faith.
None of this is helpful for winning hearts and minds in what has been described as a post-Christian society.
The fact is, the apostle Paul expected much more of mature believers. In Ephesians 4:29 he wrote, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” Notice Paul did not say we should not speak about or act on what we believe. Rather, we should do so in a way that is winsome; in a way that plays to more than our affective base; in a way that represent Christ well.
But this is not what most of us do, particularly on social media. More typically, we speak or write as if to those who already believe as they do. By doing so, our posts will receive many more likes, hearts, and shares, but only from those holding similar views…while people who do not agree are only further entrenched in their opinions or otherwise alienated by a particularly strong statement.
Christians should learn, then, to speak to those beyond our affective base in language, tone, and tenor as to be heard and received. We should learn to ask good questions, shape the narrative, and influence conversations that move people toward one another, toward the church, and ultimately toward Christ, not drive them further away. At any given moment, we should be more interested in winning people to the faith than we are in winning an argument. At any given moment, we should be more interested in helping others own ponds, than concerned that our own ponds will shrink.
Clearly, Americans today are divided along the lines of race, class, and culture as well as religion and politics. Christians, too, are often at odds with one another over these very same things. In all such division, there is a jockeying for preeminence in thought, word, or respect. This is the time, then, to empty ourselves of any lingering pride and pursue paths of peace. Indeed, we should remember that the mission of the church is best fulfilled not through political reform but spiritual reform, not through legislation but transformation, not through coercion but through conversion in seeing others come to know Him as we do.
As a common prayer suggests, and in the spirit of the Easter season, let us seek more to serve than to be served in the days ahead; more to understand than to be understood; and not so much to be praised by others but to humble ourselves for the sake of others...that is, to help others own the pond.
Indeed, this is the way of Jesus.
This is the gospel of Christ.