A few years ago, if you had told me that I (Peter Stevens) lived in a privileged position, I would have probably laughed at you. I am a Christian. Jesus told us that the world will hate us and therefore I don’t have any privilege in this world. All you have to do is look around and see how much people don’t like Christianity and their beliefs. Only recently have I realized that much of that hate in America is due to the behavior of Christians, and in actuality I live in a place that favors me, or at least doesn’t condemn me, for the color of my skin and is willing to assume that I am culturally Christian. Churches are allowed and common place and our holidays are recognized nationally, while houses of worship for other religions are not as commonplace in many places and non-Christian holidays are rarely placed on school calendars. My life has been privileged.
While I may have thought I was hated, I really lived in a society that has a history of hating everyone else. Only recently through books like The Cross and the Lynching Tree and movies like 12 Years A Slave have I begun to recognize my place of privilege and how opposed to the Christian faith that life is. The Christian life is to be one of submission. Submission is a dirty word in our American culture, but Richard Foster lifts up submission as a discipline of the Christian life that is displayed in the life of Jesus.
“Jesus shattered the customs of his day when he lived out the cross-life by taking women seriously and by being willing to meet with children. He lived the cross-life when he took a towel and washed the feet of his disciples. This Jesus who easily could have called down a legion of angles to his aid chose instead the cross-death of Calvary. Jesus’ life was the cross-life of submission and service. Jesus’ death was the cross-death of conquest by suffering. It is impossible to overstate the revolutionary character of Jesus’ life and teaching at this point. It did away with all the claims to privileged position and status. It called into being a whole new order of leadership. The cross-life of Jesus undermined all social orders based on power and self-interest.”1
Jesus sets a revolutionary example in world that lifted a few to a privileged status and left the rest out. Jesus, however, displays a self-denying submission to those around him. He goes so low as to wash his disciples feet. The one through whom all things are made and held together stoops down to wash the dirty and disgusting feet of his creation. On top of that Jesus shows this submission to people who are already outcasts. He touches the unclean, gives attention to women and children, and instead rebukes those in places of privilege.
One such person in a place of privilege was Philemon. Paul writes to Philemon, likely a wealthy Roman citizen and slaveowner, and urges him to take back his former slave Onesimus. He asks Philemon to take back his former slave and not do so as a slave but as a “beloved brother.” Paul is in a sense asking for a radical submission to the ways of Christ and not the ways of the world. He is asking for Philemon to give up the privilege of seeing Onesimus as his slave, but instead to honor him as a Christian brother. Philemon has to submit to Onesimus who should be less in order to elevate him to the status of brother.2
I am Philemon. I live in a world where it has been considered normal to see myself at a higher status than a brother in Christ who does not look like me. In this time of Lent, we approach the Cross where Jesus laid down all privilege in submission to the will of the father for the sake of the world. Our act of submission to God and each other does the same. When we heed the call to take up our Crosses, we forsake any privilege we may have been given to call the lowly our brothers and sisters. We elevate them above ourselves and seek to submit ourselves to them. I am Philemon and to be obedient, I need to submit to Onesimus. May Lent remind us of the call to lower ourselves in humility and consider others better than ourselves as Jesus Christ did in his life and on the Cross.
*Prayer for the Week*
Lord, teach me by your grace to submit to you and to my brothers and sisters in Christ no matter what their earthly position may be.
*Passages for the Week*
1. Richard J. Foster, Celebration of the Disciplines, 116.
2. Philemon 16
Art by Emmanuel Garibay, Pagbabalik Loob.