In Sunday’s post on Thanksgiving, I talked about a constellation of closely related ideas —gratitude, respect, reciprocity, and generosity — in terms of their close relationship in Indigenous belief systems and how they connect to Christian teachings. All of these ideas are grounded in understanding one’s place in the world. If the world is a gift, then there is a giver with whom we are in relationship. We respect the giver and gift alike, and give back as generously as we are able. And understanding one’s place in the world is itself connected to the idea of humility, which is the focus of today’s post. First, I’ll go into more detail about how these ideas connect in Indigenous thought, then I’ll explore humility framed through both the negative experiences of Indigenous peoples with Western Christians over the centuries, and the positive understanding of humility that the Christian story demands that stands in stark relief to that lived experience.
Humility in Indigenous Perspective
The Anishinaabe word for humility, mino-dabasenindizowin, literally translates to something like, ‘thinking lowly of yourself, but in a good way’ (Treuer)*^. This hits at an important idea about humility that we in the West struggle with. For a variety of reasons, it’s hard for us to hear the word humility without thinking of negative connotations: low self-esteem, humiliation, not standing up for oneself, allowing oneself to be oppressed, and so on. But that isn’t what genuine humility has ever been about, and it’s built right into the Anishinaabe word.
What it’s about is understanding one’s proper place in the world, as something wonderful and unique and special, but just one such wonderful, unique, and special thing among the incredible diversity of creation. As Richard Wagamese (2011) wrote:
Humility is the ability to see yourself as an essential part of something larger. It is the act of living without grandiosity. Humility, in the Ojibway world, means ‘like the earth.’ The planet is the epitome of a humble being, with everything allowed the same opportunity to grow, to become. Without the spirit of humility there can be no unity, only discord. Humility lets us work together to achieve equality. Humility teaches that there are no greater or lesser beings or things. There is only the whole. There is only the great, grand clamour of our voices, our spirits raised together in song.
Or, more simply: “To know yourself as a sacred part of Creation is to know Humility” (Wagamese 2019).
Here we come back to the idea of interconnectedness and reciprocity as fundamental principles of Indigenous worldviews. Humility within this framework means rejecting the narcissism that makes myself, my own people, or my own species the ‘measure of all things’: “Central to Indigenist knowledge philosophy … is the appreciation of the limitations of what is anthropomorphic, or,… human-centred model of the world” (Gehl). We might say that humility in this perspective is about understanding one’s small-but-vital place in the vast system that is the universe. It emerges from a sense of belonging to the world rather than being master over it (Tully).
This attitude has a lot of practical consequences. It entails, for example, a rejection of domination, whether over one’s fellow humans or fellow creatures. Basil Johnston went so far as to compare domination to murder, as it represents “the killing of the soul-spirit of others” (cited in Gehl). It also understands limitation as an essential fact of life (Borrows); boundaries on behaviour, actions, and growth are important and vital and necessary for the thriving of everyone and everything. Moreover, ‘inherent limits’ apply to our thinking too. We are finite and cannot expect that we can ever understand perfectly (Woodley 2012; Treuer). And so there tends to be a comfort with, and appreciation, for difference of belief, practice and opinion in many Indigenous cultures. According to Richard Atleo, “To the traditionally oriented Nuu-chah-nulth, different perspectives … are not a source of disagreement, confusion, or conflict; rather, they are a source of enrichment” (2012, 2).
It must be said that this worldview had very little in common with the attitudes of the West upon and after contact. The Christian theology that arrived on the shores of North America had little place for humility except as a way of enforcing obedience to authority. Where Indigenous worldviews saw the relationship of humanity tot he rest of creation in terms of belonging, the Christianity of Empire saw it in terms of domination. Where Indigenous values promoted the value of limitation and boundaries, the Christianity of Empire promoted ideals of unlimited growth, wealth, and glory. Where Indigenous cultures maintained a healthy skepticism about their grasp of truth, the Christianity of Empire left no room for doubt or questioning.
Empire is not humble. Colonizing is not humble. Remaking peoples in one’s own image is not humble. Thinking that one has everything to teach and nothing to learn is not humble. These are the antithesis of humility, going out into the world not to share power and privilege but to demand it, take it, and lord it over others. (See Charles and Rah for more on this.)
But, while this is unquestionably the face that Western Christianity revealed to the peoples of the world, it has nothing to do with Christianity itself. For, while Christianity’s understanding of humility emerges from a rather different story, humility is no less central to the ethics of Jesus and the New Testament as a whole than it is for Indigenous cultures.
Let the Same Mind Be in You that Was in Christ Jesus
There is a lot of historic precedence in Christianity for a humility grounded in a similar sensibility to that described for Indigenous cultures above. God is infinite, creation is vast, and we are just a small part of that. There has, therefore, always been an apophatic trend in Christianity that has preferred silence and humility in our words and actions, grounded in our finitude. In the Bible, this is perhaps best seen in God’s big confrontation with Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” (Job 38.4-5).
But, for us as Christians, our understanding of humility comes less from this ‘natural theology’ than from the specific story of Jesus. And so, I’d like to spend the bulk of this time focusing on one specific text, Philippians 2.1-11. I have written on this text many times before (see here, here, here, and here), but I am convinced it is one of the single most important windows we have into the thought-world of the first Christians and, by extension, Jesus himself. The text begins with a preamble:
If, then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection 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 or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.
Here, Paul is leveraging his readers’ relationships, with Christ, with him, and with each other, as a motivation for a change in attitude and behaviour. If these relationships mean anything, he’s saying, you’ll act in the following ways. Or, to put it in the language we’ve been developing in this series, if you care about being faithful in these relationships and want to exhibit God’s peace within them, this is how you will act. The specific attitudes all reinforce this peacemaking sensibility: they will ‘be of the same mind’ and ‘have the same love’; they will put aside ‘selfish ambition and empty conceit’; but instead show humility, by showing deference to others and by acting for the common good instead of ‘looking out for number one’. This is a great ethic that promotes common welfare and group cohesion; it’s also an ethic that needs to be closely guarded against abuse, both from groups that operate at the expense of some of their members and from individuals who insist on promoting self-interest.
The text goes on with the famed Philippians hymn, which frames this ethic in terms of Jesus’ own attitude and lifestyle:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus:
who, though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Therefore God exalted him even more highly and gave him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name given to Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Here we have the key to the Christian understanding of humility. The hymn envisions the pre-incarnate Word of God, living in eternal unity and equality within God, not clinging to that status and privilege, but voluntarily setting it aside and becoming human in the man Jesus. This same attitude continued throughout Jesus’ earthly life, humbly teaching and serving others, reaching out the oppressed and excluded, until he was killed for it by a conspiracy of religious and state authorities. But, this humility could not be destroyed, and because of it (”therefore…”) Jesus was raised and exalted and given authority over all the world’s so-called authorities and powers. And, as Ephesians made clear, all this was done in order to bring us back unity with God with him. And, if the disciples ever thought this authority and power meant that they were free to dominate others, Jesus would have none of it:
- “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20.16)
- “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,and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave (Matthew 20.24)
- “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9.35)
What we have here is not an idea of humility that is about thinking poorly about oneself, but rather about setting aside comfort and privilege for the sake of others. Jesus didn’t become anything less than what he was and is by this ‘setting aside’; rather, he demonstrated all that he was by it. Humility is ‘centrifugal’, going out from the centre into the margins, in order to be ‘centripetal’, bringing those on the margins into the centre.
What is humility? It is not holding onto privilege, power, or ‘rights’ — and far less about extending them over others — but being willing to set them aside in order to extend them to others.
Humility is, therefore, about the willingness to be wholehearted and vulnerable (cf. Woodley 2022).
It is impossible to get from this ethic to the ways of Empire and colonization. Christianity, devastatingly for the peoples of the world, and for its own soul, was simply very bad at being Christian. Institutional Christianity that tied itself to the colonial endeavor broke faith with its own story, with God, and with the world.
So once again, we’re left in a place of needing to reassess who and what we are. What story are we going to tell? What ways are we going to live? If we continue in the ways of domination, self-justification, lust for wealth and power, and so on, that is our choice, but that choice must never be made in the name of Christ. If we want to be faithful, we must be faithful to his ways, which are always the ways of humility — of loving service, not domination, of repentance, not self-justification, of sharing wealth and power, not seeking them for ourselves. Only if we take up this mission and mantle from Jesus, will we be able to start the difficult work of reconciliation and peace-making in our world.
* See the Bibliography for the series for full citations.
^ Note: The word for the Anishinaabe language is Anishinaabemowin; I have used the general term for the people group for consistency.
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