This week I went to a conference which had an absolute gem of a session tucked in the elective part of the programme. The speakers were Dr Stephen Backhouse and Dr Graham Tomlin of St Mellitus College and their exegesis of the language of power and leadership in the NT blew me away for two reasons. First of all it was very good, and I’ll give an example below of part of Stephen’s paper, but secondly I was blown away that I heard this theology at that conference – and that for me is a very hopeful sign!
So Backhouse looked at the familiar kenotic hymn of Philippians 2 which has a case for being the oldest piece of Christian writing, as Paul was clearly citing a work known to the audience before AD 62. Here is the whole piece in the NIV
5In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The traditional interpretation of this passage take it as a proof text for a metaphysical understanding of the incarnation of the pre-existing second person of the Trinity. Against this view James Dunn has famously argued that the hymn is another example of Adam / Christ contrast that we see in other places in Paul, with the Adamic reference implied throughout. For me the Dunn hypothesis has always been preferable to the rather anachronistic attempt to find Chaledonian categories in the first century text, but it has never quite satisfied. I think Paul telegraphs his OT allusions more clearly and the pre-Philippian existence of the text suggests it pre-dates Pauline “in Adam” theology.
Backhouse showed how two phrases in particular in v6 have been stripped of their loaded first century meanings, as guys like Richard Horsley and Neill Elliott have done across the Pauline corpus and others such as John Crossan and Ched Myers have done in the Gospels. (And of course in applied theology Wink has done throughout the NT). The two phrases Backhouse honed in on were ἴσα θεῷ (isa theo) and ἁρπαγμὸν (harpagmon). These are rendered as “equality with God” and “something to be used to [his own] advantage” in the NIV respectively or in the latter case; “something to be grasped” in some other modern verrsions. Isa theo is a word which the first century audience would have recognised from the Roman Imperial cult, which would have been particularly pertinent in a colonial outpost like Philippi whose elite citizens were proud of their Roman citizenship, something Paul picks up on in another much misunderstood verse, Phil 3:20.
The Roman system which concentrated wealth and power in the hands of between 0.5% and 5% of the population has to be held together by the twin factors of the overwhelming threat of cruel force by the legions, backed up by a propaganda that maintained that the elite were more honourable and worthy of honour than the masses they ruled over and that the gods themselves ordained it so. The designation “honourable” seems to have been used, at least in some cities, with the more extreme form “of divine honours”. Augustus, adopted the title Son of God, and thereafter the title isa theo, or “equal to the god(s)”, was reserved for the Imperial family.
So how did a Roman acquire these political honours? Well, all good politics really with murder, assassinations, armies and organised mobs to project the physical force, and displays of wealth and largesse with public games, bread distribution, “good works”, giving sacrifices to the gods, building temples, commissioning public art and other public displays of their own greatness. What was the name for this two pronged accumulation of power? Well it was harpagmon. The word speaks of the effort to grasp power and status through force and the propaganda of honour.
What does the kenotic hymn do? It deconstructs the propaganda of power and places value in the one who rejected the honours and titles of the 1%, and sought to build influence by serving, by foot-washing, by touching the leper and dining with the hated and the unclean. The culture of honour is propped up by the poor thinking it is divinely ordained that others rule them and by the upwardly mobile, who see it as a way to achieve their own ambitions. Jesus came along to undo both aspects. In his nonviolence Jesus rejected the seizing of power through hard force and in his choice of friends he rejected the softer route to power through connections and compliance.
Verse 5 says “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”. If the kenotic hymn were about the metaphysical ontology of the second person of the Trinity then this would be a nonsense, who could have that mindset? But if instead it is talking about a concrete reality, a way of being in the political economy of the Roman Empire, then it becomes a fresh and vibrant invitation. Imagine a collective of people who didn’t buy in to the system of honour. Who were not ultimately afraid of the power of the legions and who did not participate in the honours system of bread and circuses, sacrifices and statues. That’s dangerous theology leading to liberating praxis. That could catch on like wildfire and could create a problem for the regional governors of the Empire whose main function was to keep the grain and taxes moving Rome-wards and to make a nice living off the side.
Would a people who were inspired by such a gospel invite the former Chief of the General Staff (GCB, CBE, BC, DL, Baron) to their conference and give him a place of honour? Would a people who were inspired by such a gospel be much impressed with Chairmen of Investment Banks, CEOs of Fortune 500 Outsourcing Companies? Would a people inspired by such a gospel participate in such a system with garden parties at Buckingham Palace, stained glass windows celebrating that last Royal visitor, and grandly celebrated letters patent from Caesar?
Interestingly Paul’s take on the way of Jesus with respect to the pomp and circumstance of Empire was (i) at all costs NOT to join in, or seek to support it, but (ii) neither to try to bring it down by force, but rather (iii) to mostly ignore it, in an act of collective and subversive ignorance, a “benign indifference”, celebrating and honouring instead those whom the system does not honour and giving the nonsense of state little thought really as we get on with the great hospitality of he heavenly kingdom and worship of the one true King.
Indebted as I am to Dr Backhouse’s fine talk, my own faulty recollection of it and the flawed conclusions I have drawn from it are mine alone. Next post I shall look at Graham Tomlin’s paper on the language of Christian leadership.