by Jason Micheli
Philippians 2.1-5 (click to see Scripture text)
“How much more division can we take?”
The conservative lawyer and political commentator, David French, wrote an article for the Dispatch last week previewing his new book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. His book is intended as a plea for Americans to discover the moral purpose in pluralism. Reflecting on the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, French writes in last week’s article:
“I can’t remember the exact moment when I first began to fear for the future of our nation. It certainly wasn’t because of a piece of empirical data. It wasn’t a chart or graph that gave me that vague, sick sense that something wasn’t right.
I’m reminded of the opening words of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy: ‘The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was, is lost.’
I can’t remember the exact moment when I first began to fear for the future of our nation, but perhaps it was the time in my life when my wife and I moved in a few short years between deep-red and deep-blue America, living in both the rural South and urban Northeast. We didn’t merely experience the deep antipathy for faraway political opponents. We also experienced a mutual incomprehension. There was a lack of experience or understanding that in some ways was more disturbing even than the enmity.
With a degree of understanding perhaps there can be reconciliation. With no understanding, even the possibility of reconciliation is excluded.”
The central contention of David French’s book is as simple as it is sobering. “At this moment in history,” he writes, “there is not a single important cultural, political, religious, or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart.” To corroborate his claim, French cites a recent Pew Research Center study showing the unprecedented levels of animosity and outright hatred Americans of both political parties harbor for members of the opposing party. For example, 55% of Republicans say Democrats are “more immoral” than other Americans— an increase of 20% from just three years ago. And 63% of Republicans believe Democrats are “unpatriotic.” Meanwhile, three-quarters of Democrats describe Republicans as “close-minded.”
For the first time in history, the survey notes, partisan differences now extend beyond politics with majorities in both parties saying those in the opposing party do not share their nonpolitical values and goals. In fact, millions of Americans are now in the grips of what some researchers call “lethal mass partisanship,” where they justify even actual violence against political opponents. According to Pew surveys, majorities of people on both sides of the aisle say the country would be better off if people on the other side simply died.
“A nation needs a healthy left and a healthy right,” David French writes, “but here we are now at a moment when enmity rules, and all of the political incentives are aligned toward greater partisan confrontation and cultural division.” Arguing that all this cultural kindling is dangerously close to bursting into a political flame, French asks, “How much more tension and division can we take?”
The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians is beloved for its many memory verses:
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
“May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Inarguably, the most enduring of these verses is the Christ Hymn that follows today’s passage:
“Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
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.”
The soaring language and comforting sentiment of much of Paul’s epistle obscures the occasion which prompted the writing of it. Paul writes from a prison cell to his most beloved church because they are coming apart over what divides them. The matter is urgent.
How much more division can we take?
The alarm David French sounds about our current political situation is exactly the emotional register with which you should read Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The believing community in Philippi is split between two leaders— notably, two female leaders— and the divisions between the two parties have hardened to the breaking point. When Paul, in the passage just before today’s text, urged the congregation at Philippi to “live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ” it was not a generic encouragement. It was Paul, as a leader, calling out the elephant in the room. With the discord and hostility between them, they were not living their life together in manner worthy of the Gospel.
Just as Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from his Birmingham jail cell to address the lack of unity in the Body of Christ, exhorting white Christians to obey their baptismal vows and stand alongside their black brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul writes from his Roman jail cell to plead with the Philippians to reconcile the divisions between them. On the one hand, we might take comfort from the Apostle Paul’s epistle today, realizing that, as unprecedented and alarming as our current cultural and political moment feels, bitter division and deep discord are nothing new under the sun, and if there is any help to be found, our help is in the name of the Lord. On the other hand, the Apostle’s letter maybe should chasten us, for a lack of unity among Christians signals an impoverishment of the Gospel.
To connect Paul’s thought from last week to this week, a life worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ demands unity in the ranks of believers. As the Christ Hymn, which follows today’s text but is logically prior to it, makes clear, rightly understanding Jesus Christ is the basis for unity among Christians. If the Gospel has not yet born the fruit of unity among believers, then perhaps the Gospel has not yet been received. If there is such division among believers in Christ, then maybe those “believers” believe a good many things about God (the goodness of God, the power of God), but if those believers still lack unity then they do not yet know the grace of God.
For the Apostle Paul, external opposition is unavoidable for a Church true to its calling in this time between the times; however, internal discord indicates a Church that is not centered on the Gospel. With chapter two, the Apostle Paul gets to the matter at hand and makes his appeal to unity, and he begins— it’s important to point out— with the little Greek conjunction, εἰ, which can mean if or forasmuch as.
Very often translators will render it here in our text today with if, making the entire passage conditional rather than confident. As the NRSV translates it: “If there is any encouragement in Christ…. if there is any consolation from love…. if there is any sharing in the Spirit.” But as many biblical interpreters point out, Paul’s use of the conjunction alongside the word “therefore” eliminates any contingent or conditional quality to the sentence. “Since” or “because” rather than “if” better captures the basis of Paul’s appeal.
As Karl Barth translates today’s text: “Therefore, since there is encouragement in Christ, since there is comfort afforded by his love, because there is sharing in the Spirit, because there is mercy and compassion, make my joy complete: by minding the one thing.”
I hope you sense what’s at stake in the difference.
The distinction is between possibility and actuality; that is, the difference between human potential, in the case of the former, and the Living God’s power, in the case of the latter.
Unity is possible not on the basis of what the believers in the church at Philippi might accomplish.
Unity is possible on the basis of what is already accomplished in and through and by Christ Jesus our Lord.
The logic of Paul’s exhortation here is the same as it is throughout his epistles. The imperative of what we must do is predicated upon the indicative of what God has already done in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is a gift before it’s a task. Indeed, Paul’s very point today is that the gift alone makes possible the task.
Because there is sharing in the Spirit, because there is mercy and compassion, you can mind the one thing with one love, one soul, one mind, without conceit or coercion.
You see, the train of Paul’s thought here does not move from possibility to actuality, but from actuality to possibility. It’s not, “If you find encouragement in Christ and if you build a fellowship in the Spirit, then you will be able to mind the one thing minded in Christ Jesus.” It’s, “Because these things are already yours in Jesus Christ, you can mind the one thing in unity.”
As in so many other places in his writings, Paul’s message today essentially boils down to “Become who you already are in Jesus Christ.” Appropriate in practice what is already yours by grace. “Since you have encouragement in Christ, since you have comfort afforded by his love, since you share a fellowship in the Holy Spirit, get on it already! Mind the one thing with one love, one soul, and one mind.” Or as Karl Barth puts it about today’s text, “In Christ alone can Christians be Christians. But! In Christ, Christians can be Christians.” That is, in Christ— on account of Christ— we can mind the one thing, in humility and with unity of mind and soul and love.
Mind the one thing.
Notice what Paul does not say here today about unity in the face of discord and division. Paul does not simply scold them and say, “Everyone’s welcome.” Paul does not tell either of the two parties, “Your views on the issues are unimportant.” Or, “Our differences don’t really matter.”
Paul does not choose sides, “You’re right and they’re wrong.” Paul, whose own words have landed him in prison, certainly does not suggest, “In church, it’s better to avoid talking about issues that might divide us.”
No, Paul says, “…mind the one thing, with one love, one soul, and one mind…”
You can bother about all the other things, but mind the one thing above all else.
Hear me out on this—
For the Apostle Paul, unity in the Church is not about uniformity of opinion.
For the Apostle Paul, unity in the Church is about unanimity of purpose.
“Whoever minds the one thing,” Karl Barth says of today’s text, “minds the common thing.” In other words, whoever minds the one thing— that which is minded in Christ Jesus— minds the thing which binds all of us together.
Okay, so what’s the “one thing?”
In his new book, Divided We Fall, David French makes use of Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. In fact, David French’s book reads like the account of what happens when people don’t read Jonathan Haidt’s book. Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist who taught at the University of Virginia for many years and now teaches at NYU. The grandson of Polish refugees, he grew up a Reformed Jew, but reports that he began questioning religion two years after his bar-mitzvah and by the time he enrolled as an undergraduate he’d grown openly hostile to religion. Nonetheless, as a student he got taken with the role of morality in religion and its benefits for social cohesion, particularly as it related the evolutionary development of human beings.
In, The Righteous Mind, Haidt explains how human beings evolved to be tribalists. Under certain conditions, in light of larger unifying beliefs or events that bind us together across groups (think 9/11 or the Cold War), we need not be tribal, but tribalism is the norm into which we have evolved. Because we’re essentially tribal creatures, Haidt says our rational faculties evolved not to discover the truth about the world. Rather, our reasoning developed to persuade others— either to persuade others into our tribe or persuade others in our tribe that we too belong in the tribe. Our reasoning then, Haidt argues, is not a neutral weighing of facts and values. Our reason is instead post-hoc justification. We believe what we want to believe. We believe what our team, our side, our party, wants us to believe, and we then search out and find data to corroborate those beliefs after the fact.
This is why we are seldom moved by arguments from someone on the other side of the political spectrum from us. It’s why we’re so quick to assume the worst about someone in another tribe, and why we react with defensiveness or anger when presented with facts that do not comport with our beliefs— because it’s not about belief, it’s about belonging.
To the tribe.
Believing the beliefs are how we prove we really belong in our tribe.
“Human beings are tribalists who reason in order to justify themselves,” Haidt summarizes, “not to find the truth.”
Of course, this insight is not new nor is it unique to social psychology. Thomas Cranmer, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury who wrote the Book of Common Prayer in the 16th century, expressed the same intuition about human creatures when he wrote, “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” This post-hoc justification is what Martin Luther meant by the bondage of the will. Unlike Americans, Karl Barth liked to joke, “Christians have never believed in the freedom of the will.”
When you understand that we’re essentially, evolutionarily tribalists, says Jonathan Haidt, you can begin to appreciate how societies are inherently and incredibly fragile. Societies, after all, are groupings of tribes, and they require centripetal forces pulling us together that are stronger than the centrifugal forces of our respective tribes that pull us apart. It’s when the centrifugal forces of tribalism are stronger than the centripetal forces that bind us together, Haidt writes, that societies decline and eventually collapse into chaos and violence.
Here’s the thing—
If the social psychologists are correct, if we have evolved to be tribalists whose beliefs serve the purpose of justifying our belonging, then our national divisions and discord, our cultural hostility, and tensions, our exhausting Us. vs. Them reality is NATURAL.
And, therefore, any transcending of them would need to be unnatural.
“Since you have encouragement in Christ, since you have comfort afforded by his love, since you share a fellowship in the Holy Spirit, get on it already! Mind the one thing with one love, one soul, and one mind…Mind among you that which is minded in Christ Jesus.”
The one thing— to auto.
Unlike what Curly says to the Richie the Kid in City Slickers, for the Apostle Paul the one thing is not whatever you choose. And notice, Paul does not say mind the example of Christ Jesus. Nor does Paul say mind the teaching of Christ. No, Paul says, literally in the Greek, “Mind among you that which is minded in Christ Jesus.”
But what is the one thing minded in Christ Jesus?
The Christ Hymn which follows controls the thought of this passage and offers a clue, but Paul makes the mind of Christ explicit in his second letter to the Corinthians where he tells them we no longer regard anyone from a human point of view. Why do we not regard anyone from a human point of view? “Because one has died for all,” Paul writes, “therefore all have died.”
Because Jesus Christ has died for every sinner, every sinner has already died to and for their sin; therefore, we do not regard anyone with a human mind. “The one thing beside which there is no other,” writes Karl Barth, “the one ultimate thing that no individual or tribe can play off against others…is the judging grace of God in Jesus Christ under which the Church stands.”
Grace— God’s redemption at Christ’s expense— is the one thing minded in Christ Jesus that we are to mind.
Grace— God’s loving mercy and unmerited pardon for sinners that is simultaneously God’s righteous judgment of sinners.
Grace— the justification not of the good but of the ungodly, which the Bible says is also, by Christ’s shed blood, the justice of God rendered upon sinful humanity.
For believers suffering discord and disunity, for Christians facing divisions that threaten to rupture, the Apostle Paul pleads for the Church to mind the grace of God in Jesus Christ above all else, with one mind and soul and love.
Now, mind you—
Minding the grace of God does not erase our differences on other matters.
Minding the grace of God relativizes our differences on other matters.
As Paul illustrates to the Galatian Church, because of the grace of God “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female…” all those categories are gone in Christ Jesus.
The “one thing” is the law of grace.
Commenting on this passage, Karl Barth writes:
“The divisions may end when we discover respect for each other, not on this ground or that, perhaps without any grounds, counter to every ground, simply because we are bidden when looking at our neighbor to think of the one thing— of grace— to see him, in his foolishness and wickedness, as a messenger [to us] of grace’s sovereignty. Grace does live and move abstractly, not transcendentally…The strange, different, unintelligible subjective aspect of my neighbor is the garment in which the “one thing” meets me. The claim my neighbor makes on me— on my patience, attention, consideration, on my love— is the claim of the “one thing.” The disturbance on my island, which every neighbor first of all means for me, is disturbance by the “one thing” that I keep forgetting. We do not think this way, but this is what we must mind.”
Your neighbor is the garment in which the “one thing” meets you.
The grace of God, Barth says, is God’s alien work. That is, it does not come to us naturally. It comes to us as Jesus Christ, “who…being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
For the ungodly.
In, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt calls the centrifugal forces of partisan politics “a national emergency.” He wrote that book over eight years ago.
Here’s the thing—
If the social psychologists are correct, if we have evolved to be tribalists, then the one thing, the unnatural and alien work of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, it isn’t simply what’s necessary for the Church and her unity. It’s also why Christ’s Church is necessary for the redemption of the world.
If all that nevertheless feels like more of a burden than you or the Church can bear, fear not, for it’s not on you. As the Apostle Paul declares, the Gospel of the “one thing” is not a message about God. It is rather the very present-tense power of God invading our broken and divided world.
“As surely then as admonition in Christ, as surely as encouragement of love, as surely as fellowship of the Spirit, as surely as heartfelt mercy truly exists among you, make my joy complete: by minding the one thing, with the one love, one soul, one mind never by any means assertive or conceited, but in humility one setting the other above himself; each not considering his own point of view but each that of the other.
Mind among you that which is minded in Christ Jesus.”
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
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