“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” So begins a familiar admonition by the Apostle Paul. Familiar, that is, to most church-going, Bible-reading, praise-song-singing believers. Paul goes on to describe this “mind of Christ,” this essential attitude of Jesus, using an ancient hymn of the earliest church:
“Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”
This hymn is a characterization that theologians call the kenosis. Kenosis is a single Greek word that requires half a dozen English words to translate (“He gave up his divine privileges”). Even then, that’s not enough. The literal rendering is “to empty” or “to pour out.” Kenosis is an intentional, self-directed act of surrender. It is a giving up of the rights, advantages, and liberties that one is due. Jesus of Nazareth, as the Christ, did not cling and clutch to all he was due or deserved. He ceded everything for the sake of love.
Now, most times the above paragraph is celebrated as a supremely doctrinal text. Theologians, divinity students, and preachers work themselves into a lather trying to answer the questions raised by this radical confession. Such discussions can devolve into arguments of the absurd rather quickly, especially when this text is not a classic doctrinal passage. Not really. It’s a painfully practical passage. Paul invokes these words, not for academics to have subject matter for their dissertations, but for followers of Jesus to think and act as Jesus did; and the essential Jesus, is the descending, sacrificial, letting-go of privilege, Jesus.
How does this attitude square with the personal-liberty-glorifying, stand-your-ground-defending, my-rights-protecting, individualism of the typical American Christian? You know the answer: It’s simply impossible to reconcile the humble, bloody, and self-limiting Christ with Gadsden’s defiant and renewed mantra of, “Don’t Tread On Me!” And this is why we would much rather talk about doctrine than the practical.
Indulge me, however, if only for a few more words, in the practical. Over the last two years, what tribe has been the most vitriolic in fighting against the wearing of masks, social distancing, and good faith attempts at limiting the spread of Covid-19? Which group has largely demonized science, epidemiologists, healthcare workers, and infectious disease experts? Who have been the leading voices in protesting, sometimes violently, at local school boards, private businesses, and municipality meetings? You know the answer to these questions as well: Christians. This is both a tragedy and a travesty.
It is tragic because hundreds of thousands of people – that’s no exaggeration – have died unnecessarily from the coronavirus. Masks, distancing, limits for indoor gatherings, and vaccines would have saved their lives! And all the while, a large subsection of my fellow believers, most crowing about being “pro-life,” have been accomplices in these deaths. They have made light of the suffering of others or outright denied Covid exists. They have defied practical, common sense precautions, gloating in their foolishness. And they have claimed the “blood of Jesus will keep them safe,” or “faith over fear,” celebrating magical thinking while ignoring the gifts of science and expertise.
And yes, it is a travesty, because the prevailing thinking and actions of these months have been a misrepresentation of the mind of Christ. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed a wholesale betrayal of the attitude of Jesus. I’ve tried to soften that previous line, that by saying it differently, it would allow it to be heard, but I can’t.
Refusing to inconvenience yourself for the care and safety of others, does not make you more like Jesus. Shouting about your personal liberties, liberties that can jeopardize the health and well-being of your neighbors, is not remotely Christian in ethic or practice. Protesting masks – a piece of the thinnest cloth used by healthcare providers for centuries – as the hill great swaths of American Christianity is willing to die on, makes a mockery of the hill where Christ surrendered everything for the sake of others. And that is the practical point: As Christians we are called to live our lives with a focus on Jesus, care for our neighbors, and ceding our self-obsession; for that is the mind Christ.