I Am Last
A friend of mine sent me a link to a website entiteld "I Am Second." I liked the idea and the stories on it were pretty awesome...really awesome, to be honest. The concept for I Am Second is pretty simple. God first, me second. It's about acknowledging that there is a Higher Power, and I am not it.
But Jesus advocated something far more radical. In fact, if Jesus had created a website to help us connect with his radical notion for doing and being it would have been called "I Am Last." I Googled "I Am Last" to see if someone else had thought of it already.
Sometimes the most difficult thing for people who claim to follow Christ is to actually follow him--to actually live like he lived: Sacrificially, Selflessly... Last in line. We resist this because we desire hierarchy. We need to know that there are people in charge, and if the people in charge happen to be us... than so much the better.
Back when I was a kid, my family attended a number of fundamentalist Christian churches. There are lots of things that you learn when you are raised in a fundamentalist Christian environment.
First, you learn a lot of Bible verses. And I mean a lot of Bible verses. By the time I was in junior high I was memorizing--committing to memory--entire CHAPTERS of the Bible. So there was that.
Second, you learn not to ask too many questions, especially if the questions related to some part of the Bible that didn't make a whole lot of sense. Asking too many questions in the fundamentalist Christian world is a sign that you may not really be a Christian. Because real Christians believe everything their pastor tells them.
Third, you learn that women are just not as good as men. And children aren't as good as men. And men are supposed to be the Spiritual leaders of their home, their office, their church and the world. Oh, and white men are pretty much better than everybody.
Probably the most often quoted verses of the Bible regarding these issues came from letters written by the Apostle Paul to first-century Christians. Paul said once that women "should be silent in church," that it wasn't right for a woman to "teach a man," and that women should "cover their hair" when they come to church, and eschew jewelry and finery and such.
The fundamentalist Baptist churches that I attended loved the first two parts of Paul's exhortation, but sort of never read or talked about the last bit. I guess there were some lines that even the fundamentalist Baptist, white men in my churches were not willing to cross.
Over the years I have encountered some Christian groups who took even those last admonitions by Paul to heart. David Norris, my best friend in sixth grade attended such a church. The women in David's church were fairly grim looking with no makeup and with their hair pulled back in severe buns, topped by what looked like a crocheted doiley.
I have to say this. White fundamentalist Christian dudes LOVE Scriptural texts that reinforce their notions about their supremacy of the universe. They believe they fall under the authority of God and Jesus, of course. Perhaps not always under the Holy Spirit, but definitely God and Jesus.
White fundamentalist Christian dudes particularly love the last part of Ephesians chapter 5 where Paul busts out with an awesome verse that is pretty much read in a vacuum in far too many Christian communities: "Wives submit to your husbands."
Heck, let's just be honest. Lots of dudes who aren't white, fundamentalist nor Christian dig that little Pauline nugget. The idea that their wife should submit to their will and whim, fits neatly within the overall worldview of entitlement and privilege that far too many men continue to hold.
Too bad they don't care to read the rest of the passage.
It says, "husbands love your wives even as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it."
Listen, there is no mistaking that Paul uses the word submit. There's not getting around the fact that he states that wives should submit to their husbands. Before he even begins that discussion, however, he declares to the people who are reading the letter, "submit to one another." The word he uses is hypotasso which does mean "to submit," but it carries with it an air of humility rather than just straight up submission out of duty or fear.
And when you take a hard look at what Paul is suggesting that men do in response to the humility of their wives---it's fairly stringent and a lot harder, to be honest. "Love as Christ loved..." Paul exhorts. Christ loved...to death. He gave of himself sacrificially with no regard for himself.
Then he goes on to take shots at a couple of other bastions of male domination: Fatherhood and Class.
He exhorts fathers to not cause their children to become frustrated and to feel downtrodden and he tells those who are "masters" to treat their "slaves" with love and respect. Because the casual ready is not privy to all of the intricacies of Greco-Roman "family values" we typically gloss over these statements, especially the parts that seem to assume a tacit approval of slavery.
But when you think about the context within which Paul was writing this letter, you begin to realize how radical this message of mutuality was to his readers.
Jewish men in the ancient world used to awaken and pray, "God I thank thee that I am not a Gentile a, a slave or a woman."
Here are some other charming aspects of ancient culture that really give you a clear picture as to how inequitable life was for most people.
An ancient author once wrote that a man should have a courtesan (a prostitute) for his sexual needs, a concubine (live in girlfriend) for his companionship and a wife (a wife) to bear him legitimate children and to take care of him.
As if it wasn't bad enough, there was the whole issue of "child acceptance"
It was the custom in the Greco-Roman world of Paul that a newborn child be laid at the feet of the father. If the father picked up the child, it would be accepted and allowed to live. If the father did not, the fate of the child was in question. Infants were routinely abandoned at the Forum in Rome where they were often collected by unscrupulous people who would rear them into prostitution or slavery or both.
Both women and children were really no better than slaves. They were considered property. Children could be sold into slavery or bartered for other things. Women had no real rights at all apart from their husbands. Aristotle once wrote, "a slave is a tool," meaning that a slave was an instrument and not a human being.
Paul's vision for relationships between men and women, fathers and children, masters and servants was completely radical in that it didn't assume any real hierarchy--at least in the sense that the ancient culture assumed it. It also attacked the status quo where certain men held an incredible pride of place above all others.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes, "There is no Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free... for you all are one in Christ." For Paul there was mutuality for all people through Christ, first and foremost. All other relationships are secondary.
It's this kind of mutuality that we need to embrace in all of our relationships. If I am going to claim to follow Christ, then I need to ask myself if I am embodying Christ in my love relationships, with my family, at work... wherever I happen to be.
In all things I need to remind myself that if I want to truly follow Christ, I am last... not second...not third...