Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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The Interests of Others

The Interests of Others

Category: Community

Speaker: The Rev. Eric O. Springsted

Tags: community, humility, fellow man, putting others before ourselves

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            What constitutes a community? As the root of the word suggests, communities have a kind of unity that comes from something shared in common by the members of the community. But therein lies the rub. What kind of unity is it that we are even talking about? We often assume that this unity is somehow good for people, and necessary for human flourishing. So, because communities are important for human life, we are also pressed to ask, “What is it that binds the members of a community together? What shared thing is it that gives this health and flourishing to the human spirit?”

            Yet, if we think of how the word ‘community’ is used today, we will discover that while its use is far-ranging little of it goes very far in addressing this issue of health and flourishing. I have heard people talk about the community of people at their gym, a community that seems to consist largely of strangers sweating next to each other for a couple of hours a week, perhaps chatting and gossiping occasionally, but one where the members have nothing to do with each other at any other time. If you buy an iPhone or a Mac or an Apple watch, the folks at Apple want to count you part of the so-called Apple community. More seriously, we are witnessing the emergence of what is called identity politics. Here one may be counted, for example, a part of the LGBT community because one identifies oneself with what one of those initials stands for. Now, in identity politics, it is assumed that there is a certain kind of experience common to oneself and others like oneself that makes for a community. But, the emphasis is on common experience in the world, not necessarily with each other; the members of such communities may or may not actually have much interaction at all with anybody else in it.  Much of what is shared among the members may simply be a common reaction to those who are not part of the community. (In identity politics, it is assumed that people who don’t have that experience or similar beliefs can’t be part of the community.) There are all sorts of communities like this. There are communities of resentful white people, and of suspicious black people, of conservative Christians, and of progressive Christians, as well as atheists and just angry people in general.

            There is a certain amount of political sense to this. People in democracies have long known that individual voices are not heard and are not very effective. Where political effectiveness lies is in the ability to gather like-minded citizens together to act. Once a sizeable group is formed, it can then be a player in the political game, and it can do something for the interests of the members of the group.

            But something more seems to be going on with the current politics of identity. Getting together for effective action is one thing. By itself, such gatherings of people assume, or used to assume, that once the job is done, one goes home and lives within a community of other sorts of people with different issues. It is in this larger community of different people that one normally works and shops and has the relations that one has with neighbors. It is within that larger community that one wants to be treated fairly and that is why one sought to be a player in the political arena in the first place. But identity politics is not like that; it never locates us ultimately in a larger community. Our identifications now seem to be totalizing, opposed to those who are different, those who may be threatening, or those who are not fully sympathetic. Thin-skinned, and unable to tolerate criticism, we have become a people who think we can be self-sufficient within our communities of identification and can avoid any who might make us feel uncomfortable. We think that our communities of self-identification will give us all that we need for our development as people. And when one thinks that, one also starts to believe that one does not have to be anything other than white or black or L or G or progressive or conservative or angry and resentful. We don’t need anything from others except for them to get out of our way, which is now what “respect” comes down to. In this way, the politics of identity within the larger community has actually become the politics of division; we start to pull our own community together by increasing our criticism of other communities. Thus, the politics of identity becomes the politics of division, as we are so sadly witnessing in the actions and words of the man who should be uniting a country but whose chief skill in wielding power is as a master of division. 

            The way of thinking inherent in identity politics is thus troublesome, because it has division at its heart. But it has always seemed to me to be very thin, too. It just doesn’t get what it takes to make a real community. Common experience can bind together for a while, but for any community to thrive and to give health to those who live in it, something more is needed. Communities in which human beings actually grow as human beings are more than groups of individuals joined by narrow identification over issues or experience. Such communities also have to have something positive and active that binds people together. Whatever that something may be has to be judged by the degree to which it helps human beings grow.

            This is something that always seemed to me to be something that identity politics doesn’t get; by definition, the politics of division doesn’t either. What this sort of thinking, above all, fails to take into consideration is the moral commitment that the members of any community need to make to each other so that there can be a real, life-giving, unity. Without it, there would be no community at all. In the ancient world, philosophers would frequently mention that there is “honor even among thieves,” which is to say that even bands of brigands have a certain kind of morality and respect for each. They would not be able to operate together, even in their skills as highwaymen, unless they did have such a commitment to each other.

            Which brings us to St. Paul and the community that he addresses at Philippi. It is precisely this issue of the moral bond that holds us together and that makes us flourish that he puts in front of the Philippians. It isn’t the first time he has addressed the issue; he does so in many other places in his letters. When writing to the Corinthians, for example, he was gravely concerned about that church’s lack of community, and the bitter dissensions the Corinthians created by having let the church become an ensemble of little communities, each of which thought it was better than the others. But with the Philippians he is talking to people who are unified, and who care deeply for him, and for whom he cares a great deal. Thus, he feels no need to scold or to lecture. He simply tells them to make him happy. How? By “being of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord and of one mind.” Their unity is his joy.

            Now, there are a lot of ways that the members of a community can be of one mind or even have the same love. Thieves can love money and have the sort of binding honor that is necessary to engage in conspiracies to rob people but not much else. If you love just money, that will give you one sort of moral bond. There can be others, depending upon what the community loves. People can become unified in any number of pursuits, worthy and unworthy, and have whatever bond is necessary to accomplish their goals. So, Paul goes on to spell out what precisely he has in mind for the Philippians and what sort of love it is that should bind them together. He tells them that they are not to be selfishly ambitious or conceited. The point of the community is not to puff them up. They are not to use each other. Nor are they to be keenly competitive, trying to get the advantage of others, the way that ambitious people do. Rather, he says, they are to be humble, and think more highly of others than of themselves. He tells them plainly, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” So, by the time that he is finished spelling out what he is encouraging them to be like, the distinctive bond of the community that he has in mind is clear. The unity of this community, the love that binds this community together and that Paul has in mind consists in putting others first. It is not pretending to put others first, because it pays off. It is not trading favors with others, scratching their backs so that they will scratch yours. No, the point of this community is not first and foremost how it can be used to bolster our ambitions or our self-image. The health of this community is nothing more or less than the concern that each member genuinely has for the interests of others. How well they do it is the mark of their health.

            So, when Paul tells them to have the same mind, this is what he means. He is not telling them to admit only people who all have the same sort of experience. In fact, he is implicitly telling them that they need to get over themselves, something that he explicitly had to tell the Corinthian congregation. He is telling them to welcome each other and to be a community that transcends the desires of the individual, a transcendence that will, in the end, give the individual new desires, better desires, and, then, once you have quit thinking about yourself first, a way to be fulfilled. You grow as a person precisely by not thinking of yourself first.

            Now, that sounds rather utopian. In the ancient world any number of philosophers wrote books on how to have the best possible community – Plato, Aristotle, Cicero. They all worried about how to break down the barriers to community that ego and ambition and personal and family pride put in the way of creating community. None of them, however, ever suggested in such an unvarnished, un-nuanced, straightforward way as Paul did, that people should think first of the interests of others. That seemed impossible. But Paul has a reason to think that the church can be this sort of community. For, the one mind that he recommends that the Philippian church have together is the mind that God has towards them. It is because God has this mindset when dealing with them that this community exists at all. For, he tells them, this is the mind that was in Christ Jesus, “who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be exploited, but rather emptied himself, 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.” And it is not only because Christ has set such an example that he recommends it, it is because Christ himself is a part of the church community, and gives it the grace to grow into his life that the people in the community can act this way. It is because God himself has done it, that Paul can also say that this way of community is the one that is best for human beings.

            We live in a time of high division. We have sought it, we encourage it and we feed it every day. Our enemies encourage it as well, and try to help it along as best they can. At its root is a loss of the ability of people within their common lives to set aside their own interests and to think of the interests of others. I have no idea how that can be healed to the degree that it needs to be healed in our national society. I am pretty sure that we have very few leaders who even get the problem, although some may simply be so astounded at how fast a national culture of respect could be dissolved that they are still in a state of shock. I hope they will get over it. I also have no recommendation that the Church is the one institution that can fix it. The culture, including a lot of people in the churches, has become self-absorbed to a degree that it can’t hear what the gospel has to say. But I do think in the midst of all the division that the Church can still be the Church. This can still be the place where ambition and conceit do not reign, where we do strive for humility, and where we do put the interests of others first. If we can be that place, we can also be the one place where there is genuine spiritual health, and where the human spirit may be fulfilled. Let’s try it and give the world a hint of what God has in mind for human beings.