Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. … And being found in human form, [Christ] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. — Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.
Participating in American government is often referred to as “public service,” suggesting that those who would enter into American politics should do so out of concern for the interests of their fellow citizens more than for the express purpose of self-aggrandizement.
For American Christians, the story of Jesus we read in the Bible offers powerful instruction for how we might conduct ourselves, and expect our politicians to conduct themselves, in civic affairs. Too often the Bible has been used to score debating points on issues like abortion or gay rights, topics that go unmentioned, at least explicitly, in every book of the Bible. Too rarely has the Bible been used instead to talk about a code of conduct for American citizens and civic leaders.
This election season, I urge American voters to pay particular attention to the Apostle Paul’s counsel to the Christians in Philippi, and to the idea of humility as a central requirement of any applicant to American political office. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Jesus’ humility is lifted up as the very reason for his resurrection and the salvation of the world. Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Because Jesus did not exploit his equality with God for his own power and influence, Jesus was exalted by God, leading to his resurrection and singular place as Savior of the world.
While many American Christians and politicians attempt to claim Jesus’ mantle for themselves and their favorite social issues, this passage from Philippians reminds us instead that Jesus’ greatness lies in his humility. Jesus emptied himself, even as the people once lay their cloaks before him and shouted Hosanna to the King of Israel on Palm Sunday, just five days before they shouted, “Crucify Him!” in a Roman court.
Jesus understood that God’s power is made manifest in human weakness, and thus to unleash God’s loving and salvific transformation, Jesus emptied himself of all conceit and allowed himself to be crucified on the Cross.
The people of Israel longed for Jesus to be their political Messiah, who would lead the nation of Israel back to its former greatness. But Jesus did not succumb to the human temptation which would raise himself up by harming or killing or lessening others. Instead Jesus exercised his power in humility, emptying himself so that God could fill him with grace and power.
What might it look like for American politicians to embrace humility? To apologize? To invite others to lend their expertise when the problem exceeds an individual’s ability to fix it? What might it look like for politicians and voters to see political candidates as public servants and not superheroes whose currency is charisma, bluster, or megalomaniacal narcissism?
Perhaps American voters might not want a Christ-like politician. Perhaps American voters say they’re more concerned with economic gains, military power, and the rights of select groups. These are legitimate reasons to vote for a political candidate. But then those voters cannot claim to be guided by Jesus in their lives as Americans citizens.