A new recipe for humble pie


I once read a manifesto by the anti-feminist True Women Movement that stated as one of its points:

Selfish insistence on personal rights is contrary to the spirit of Christ who humbled Himself, took on the form of a servant, and laid down His life for us.

Though I cringe when I read this now, I once thought the same thing about humility. To be humble, I mustn’t assert my right to anything. Humility meant viewing myself as I was taught to believe God viewed me (without Jesus’ intervention of course)–as a filthy, disgusting, vomit-inducing sinner that deserves no more than eternity in hell. Humility meant, in the face of oppression, I was to be submissive. I was to let people hurt me, take advantage of me, and I was never to retaliate in any form.

Humility meant there was nothing good about me. Humility meant I didn’t deserve anything. Since I was no good and didn’t deserve good things, the greatest expression of humility meant to be “like Jesus (who was good and worthy, of course, but was acting in my place),” and submit myself to anyone that I felt might be oppressing me.

There was a huge double standard in all of this, of course. The feminist movement was prideful and selfish for wanting to help women, while white, male, Christian leaders were allowed to rant about how oppressed they were because the cashier at Walmart said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Basically, the standards of humility were most heavily enforced on those who were already oppressed in order to prevent them from rising up against their oppressors who, (surprise, surprise!) were often white, male Christian leaders

Humility, as I learned it, was not a Christian virtue but a twisted tool of oppression.

Jesus spent his whole life standing up to religious leaders, asserting his rights and the rights of the oppressed. He spent his whole life boldly asserting himself. Jesus’ death did not occur because he humbly submitted himself to authorities but because he did the opposite. He terrified the authorities and they killed him in a desperate attempt to put his followers in “their place.”

Knowing what I know about Jesus, I can’t buy into that idea of humility anymore. However, I don’t believe I should throw the concept of humility out the window either. I have to find a new way to express the virtue of humility–one that allows me to stand up for myself and others, to boldly assert my personhood and to define my own identity in Christ, to speak my mind and to claim my rights.

Rosemary Radford Reuther–whose book, Sexism and God-Talk has recently become one of my favorites–offers a different perspective on humility.

One gains humility in one’s criticism of arrogant egoism in [oppressive groups]. Humility here is no longer a tool of timidity and servitude but assumes it’s rightful meaning as truthful self-knowledge of one’s own capacity for oppressive pride.

Oppression is complicated. There isn’t always a black and white divide between the oppressed and the oppressors. Most of us occupy a context that situates us as both. I am a woman, therefore, in the context of patriarchy, I am oppressed. I am engaged to a man, therefore, in the context of heteronormativity, I am potentially an oppressor.  I have a mental disability, therefore in the context of our ableist culture I am oppressed. I am white, therefore in the context of racism I am potentially an oppressor.

So, what if we made humility about recognizing where we stand in the matrix of oppression? What if humility could mean that, as I criticize the way powerful men treat women, I stopped for a moment to listen to my own words and to rethink how I treat people of color? What if humility could mean that, as I demand that mentally able-bodied people listen to me before they judge people on medication for mental illnesses, I also remember to listen to the stories of LGBT people or poor people or people from different countries?

If we rethink humility, it can become a powerful virtue that breaks the cycle of oppression and sets captives free. A bit of humility can keep us in check, making sure that we’re always fighting for justice, not just fighting for a seat at the table of power.

Distorted, power-hungry Christianity may try to use this virtue to tear down movements of justice, but we can reclaim humility. We need to reclaim humility, because without it, power structures stay in tact. Without it, nothing changes.


26 thoughts on “A new recipe for humble pie

  1. Pingback: On equality, humility, and privilege: A response to Matt Appling |

  2. Gotta say, when I think of the “humility” passage in Thessalonians, it conjures (It’s Magic) the incarnation. That works for me on multiple levels. It makes sacred the profane and the mundane. It calls us to appreciate and understand sufferings that we may not share. And it is a space and an act where the privileged come down from their/our mighty towers to share in the sufferings and experiences of others – to continuously live the flesh.

  3. Love this. :) And, I completely agree. A lot of folks have taken God’s idea of being humble, and made it mean humiliation.

    Very good thoughts!

  4. Sarah great thoughts. Thanks. Once read a wise man who said humility is not that we think less of ourselves qhich is as you suggest how many see humility rarher that we think of ourselves less.

  5. You’re SO right about not throwing humility out the window! I struggle with it myself and it was a topic of discussion in class this past week. I like Ruether’s meaning that humility is, “truthful self-knowledge”. That is right on! It includes this essential component of knowing one’s self, our gifts and strengths as well as our fault and trouble spots! Only from this truthful self-knowledge, humility, can we grow and learn in Christ, in God, in the Holy Spirit!

    Whew, didn’t know I was gonna start preaching there! Sorry if it bugs you!

    • Nope! love your thoughts and I’ll have to check out Julian’s sermon too!

      • Oh good! :) I would hate to get “preachy” when it’s not called for! Ha!

        That particular sermon is SO GOOD!!! It’s so freeing for me! It challenges the doormat mentality that is sometimes fed to Christians! He preached a very similar sermon a few years ago when we were first getting going and it BLEW MY MIND! :)

  6. “Humility meant viewing myself as I was taught to believe God viewed me (without Jesus’ intervention of course)–as a filthy, disgusting, vomit-inducing sinner that deserves no more than eternity in hell. Humility meant, in the face of oppression, I was to be submissive.”

    That’s so anti-Gospel it makes me cringe!!! Have you listened to Julian’s sermon, “Inheritance,” yet? It speaks to this directly!!! http://theuniversitychurchtoledo.org/worship/

  7. This is a really good post! (I’m going to link to it from my blog.) I remember thinking a lot about pride and humility many years ago- I thought it meant I wasn’t allowed to think I was good at anything, I wasn’t allowed to tell people I was good at anything, I wasn’t allowed to want to excel. If I ever won an award, I had to pretend I didn’t want it, that it just happened to me and I wasn’t trying to be awesome or anything.

    But that doesn’t make any sense. I agree with you- humility should be about having a realistic idea of one’s place in the world. It should be about listening to other people and respecting them, and not assuming I’m always right. It is NOT about letting people walk all over you.

  8. Thanks, Sarah, for a thoughtful post. You’re right – we need to figure out forms of humility that don’t help oppressors. While I’m not a pacifist, I think nonviolent resistance does this very well. It says, ‘You’ve got batons and bullets and courts and lawmakers. All we’ve got is our frail, flawed bodies. Here we are.’ It undercuts the vainglory of power.

  9. I do not see the connection between the statement you quote from the True Women Movement (who I have never before heard of) and the take you say that you once thought about humility. You say that you once thought the same thing as that statement and then proceed to say that what you once believed was something completely different.

    • I said that I once thought humility required giving up the fight for all your rights and then submitting yourself to anyone who wanted to oppress you…which is exactly what the quote from TWM asks women to do. Stop “selfishly” fighting for rights and be like Jesus who gave up his life.

      • No, it does not say that you should submit yourself to anyone who wants to oppress you. There is quite a gap from selfishly fighting for your rights to submitting yourself to anyone who wants to oppress you.

        • No, actually, there really isn’t.

        • Calling one’s rights selfish suggests that people who simply ask to be treated like humans are being selfish. Instead of asking to be treated as humans, this group believes we should instead lay down our lives like Jesus did. It’s not an “affirm our humanity while we humbly treat others as humans too” rhetoric at all. It’s very clearly this idea that we shouldn’t resist oppression but “humbly” submit to it.

        • I suppose the quote can be seen as Orwellian double-speak, that has a very clear meaning to the audience, but carries a lot of things outsiders won’t see in it?

          • possibly…

          • There are two other possibilities as well. One is that some leaders within a subsection of the group have taken an otherwise valid teaching (I am not familiar with the group so I do not know if it was) and distorted it for reasons of their own. The second is that some members through their own weaknesses and imperfections misunderstood the teachings and led others to interpret them the same way. These three ways are all possible ways that Sarah could have come to understand this particular phrase to mean what she understands it to mean.
            1. The group uses a phrase that is unexceptional to those with a traditional understanding of a Christian’s appropriate response to persecution and loaded it up with other meaning in various ways.
            2. Leaders of a subsection of the group have done the above for reasons of their own (this can be harder to confront and root out because they may fall back on the teachings of the core group and claim to be misunderstood when confronted about their error).
            3. Some members of the group misinterpret the group’s teaching through their own weaknesses and neurosis (and possibly influence other members to see it with the same misunderstanding. This can often be the hardest to combat if it becomes widespread within the movement because it is not something that any of the leaders are teaching, even though many of the followers are interpreting their teachings in light of that misunderstanding.)

            • I think you’re giving WAY too much credit to the True Women movement, somepcguy.

              • I am not giving ANY credit to the True Women movement. I have never heard of them before reading this blog entry. Someone had suggested a possible explanation as to why Sarah saw a phrase I perceived as innocuous as toxic. That person’s suggested reason implied that the movement was hiding its intent from people like me. I acknowledged that as a possible explanation, but suggested two other possible explanations that do not require that the True Women movement be evil for this varied perception to have occurred. I do not know anything about the True Women movement and do not know whether it its a cancer on the Church or not.

                • Someone hasn’t had their V8 today.

                  Bram, I believe, was trying to be diplomatic and offer you a way out. True Woman Movement is an extension of and alliance with the Biblical Manhood/Womanhood movement. It is allied to “traditional” views of what constitutes a “True” woman. It is anti-feminist. That took me all of twenty-five seconds on google to find out.

                  • Why would I want a “way out?
                    You use several terms that are apparently supposed to make me go, “Oh, I see, they must truly be evil.” Yet, you do not actually define those terms. What is a “traditional” view of what constitutes a “True” woman? And why is that bad? Once again, the original quote that is supposed to sum up what is wrong with the “True Woman” movement contains nothing particularly objectionable. Neither do any of the terms which you seem to think should tell me that the “True Woman” movement is evil. You don’t seem to understand that their can be a difference between asserting your rights and selfishly asserting your rights.

                    • Uh…no. Just no. I’m not even going to argue with you anymore.

                    • I will say this. It’s never selfish to ask for rights. That’s why they’re rights–they’re something you get for being human, not something you should have to beg for. The only selfish thing is denying those rights to others.

                • I’m not really interested in getting caught up about the True Women Movement. If you can’t see how that statement is harmful, I’m going to assume you’re lucky enough to come from a position of privilege that allows you to disconnect the words from reality–that you already have so many rights that you can’t see how harmful it is to be told that you’re selfish for wanting to fight for rights.

                  Good for you. But since I do not come from such a position of privilege, you’re going to have to trust me that these words are hurtful.

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