The Personalist Project

In his homily Sunday, on the theme of service, Pope Francis once again highlights the problem of the master/slave dynamic in human relations and the radical antidote to it that is Christianity.

Since the fall in Eden, men and women, who were created to be companions in a communion of love, are constantly tempted to relate to each other in a power-driven, hierarchical, competitive, one-up/one-down way. We lust for power; we look up to the powerful. We look down on the poor, the weak, the unimpressive, the unsuccessful. We judge others and ourselves by the measures of power: money, position, acclaim. 

Then came Jesus, the Messiah, the King of Kings, one-in-being with the Most High God. And he came not to be served, but to serve. 

The Servant is not someone of illustrious lineage; he is despised, shunned by all, a man of sorrows. He does not do great things or make memorable speeches; instead, he fulfils God’s plan through his humble, quiet presence and his suffering.

The term "quiet presence" stands out to me—partly because I've become more aware in recent years how rare and valuable it is, and how unlike Power, which is remote and intimidating. Now it's one of the prime ways I recognize whether a person is operating with me according to terms of Power or Love. Is he present to me (as a personality) or is he aloof? Does he  listen or is he closed? Does interacting with him make me feel "raised up" or "diminished" in my selfhood? I look for it, too, in my examination of conscience: In that interaction with my child today, was I present and open to him in his concreteness and individuality? Did he feel me as "near" to him and his concerns, or was I distant and shaming? Am I serving him (building him up) or "mastering" him (taking him down)?

One of the Pope's constant refrains is about God's nearness to us. He distinguishes true religion from false religious ideologies by whether they worship a God who is close and merciful or far off and condemnatory. He distinguishes evangelization from proselytizing by showing that in the former, we draw near to others—we get in among them; we share in their struggles; we make ourselves familiar with their hopes and difficulties, aiming to relieve their suffering and "raise them up" as individuals. When we proselytize merely, we remain aloof and "in charge"— dispensing knowledge, announcing laws, calling for a kind of submission and conformity. Individuality doesn't interest us; we don't even notice it.

I should maybe add here, by way of crucial caveat, that in human relations, a certain distance is sometimes called for. When the relationship is objectively adversarial or merely professional, say, or when a former companion has proven abusive and untrustworthy; when a person exhibits the habits of power or claims a right of intimacy that he does not have in fact, and so on. It's especially important for someone who finds herself on the "slave side" of the master/slave dynamic in such a relationship to take her distance—to extricate herself from unwholesomeness and decline to be dominated, to learn to stand on her own two feet—to insist that those who deal with her deal with her justly. (The concluding act of A Doll's House is a perfect illustration of what I mean.) 

(When I begin to think through all the implications of this last point, I am struck anew with the thought of how right the Pope is to call for a deeper probing of the theology of femininity, together with a greater role for women in the Church. For the perfection of love and communion, the "slave" learning not to slave is as necessary as the "master" learning not to domineer.)

But anyway. Back to the homily.

When we're thinking in a worldly way (i.e. the way of Power), we can't help judging the servant to be weak and ineffective. Powerful people know how to impose their will. A servant abandons willfulness, achieving nothing of his own. And yet, in the gospel we find exactly the Lord of Hosts bringing about the salvation of the world through his freely-accepted powerlessness:

The abandonment and sufferings of the Servant of the Lord, even unto death, prove so fruitful that they bring redemption and salvation to many.

It's hard for human beings to really believe this—even harder for us to live it. It takes courageous acts of self-assertion and generous acts of self-denial, before, gradually, we grasp the truth of the mystery. We learn by experience and observation, as well as faith, that the difference between the master/slave dynamic of the fall and the mutual love and service of the gospel is the difference between life and death, between good and evil, between freedom and imprisonment, between fruitfulness and impotence, between happiness and misery.

I want to stress gradually. The habits of mastering and slavishness run deep and die hard. If you are like me, you will keep discovering new aspects and layers of them in yourself. You find yourself being obsequious here and bullying there: toward others, toward self, in your religious life, your professional life, your parenting, your way of dieting and exercise. Everywhere.

I might despair if I didn't also see real progress over time—see me learning (under grace) to truly give myself to those given to me, and to boldly stand up to those who refuse to give, who instead want to master and manipulate (whether they realize they're doing it or not).

Here's the Pope again, deepening the insight: [my emphasis]

Faced with people who seek power and success, the disciples are called to do the opposite. Jesus warns them: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (vv. 42-44). These words show us that service is the way for authority to be exercised in the Christian community. Those who serve others and lack real prestige exercise genuine authority in the Church. Jesus calls us to see things differently, to pass from the thirst for power to the joy of quiet service, to suppress our instinctive desire to exercise power over others, and instead to exercise the virtue of humility.

Beside the familiar message of service to Christian leaders, I hear the Pope going further. I hear him gently admonishing those in power in the Church to realize that the quiet humble servants among us—the ones who lack all position and prestige—actually have authority. In other words, those in position of power owe them real deference.

If we listen attentively to the Pope, we notice that when he points to the poor and marginalized, he doesn't simply say we should be charitable toward them, he says we need them. When he addresses the poor and marginalized, he doesn't just assure them that they'll be taken care of, he tells them they are needed. He reminds them that they have something to give the Church that the Church cannot do without. Their experience precisely as poor and marginalized is precious. It has authority. Therefore, they should, as it were, stand up. Be brave. Come forward. Not only shall the first be last, the last shall be first.

I am thinking now of St. Paul and Ephesians 5. "This is a great mystery." We are so accustomed to worldly thinking that it's hard for us to grasp how mysterious, how utterly radical and demanding it is: how it upends and undoes the whole earthly order.

The homily again:

Jesus exercises a true priesthood of mercy and compassion. He knows our difficulties at first hand, he knows from within our human condition; the fact that he is without sin does not prevent him from understanding sinners. His glory is not that born of ambition or the thirst for power; it is the glory of one who loves men and women [that is, concrete individuals], who accepts them and shares in their weakness, who offers them the grace which heals and restores, and accompanies them with infinite tenderness amid their tribulations.

I propose that secret to understanding what the Pope is about—in his words and deeds—is seeing in it the reversal of the master/slave dynamic in the Church.

  • share
  • tweet
  • print

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?