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Humility: The Starting Point by John Koon

Sitting in a meeting in our hotel’s conference room outside of Kathmandu, Nepal, I found myself distracted and disengaged. A wave of anxiety, the afterbirth of the release of that odious phrase “dominant culture,” had crept up and smothered me. These two words, uttered just moments before, were reverberating like an obstinate pinball through the alleyways of my mind. And though the air continued to buzz with discussion and thought on the role of North Americans in the mission of Word Made Flesh (WMF), I remained silent, held prisoner by my worry. This is me. I am a white, North American male. I come from a dominant culture.

I was at WMF’s 2009 International Field Forum, where our focus was on the theology and praxis of partnership. We were discussing, in essence, how we as an international community can begin to share resources, experiences, methodology and policy by coming together to a roundtable in mutual submission and trust. I imagined how such a table has historically looked: tilted grossly to the West, like a seesaw occupied by a lone child. Those on the weightless side, teetering involuntarily in the air, were dutifully nodding their heads in approval of any idea thrown at them. Acutely aware in that moment of my identity as a white North American and my role in a society that is guilty of injustices ranging from institutionalized racism to genocide, I became overwhelmed by the thought of what it might take to right so many of the wrongs that have been committed over time.

Since returning from the Field Forum, I have reflected even more on the power that I possess to manipulate, control and hurt others. When I refuse to listen to and to learn from my friends from non-dominant cultures, I create relationships that are essentially dehumanizing. Through my failure to acknowledge the inherent worth of each person’s experiences, thoughts, and opinions, and instead, by imposing my position just because I can and just because it is easier, I find myself in a place in which my power as a white North American has become a tool of injustice. How, I often wonder, will WMF not walk down this same path? Through pondering this question, I have come to the conclusion that the dream of redirecting and equalizing power among all of our international partners can only be realized if we make humility our starting point.

Humility exists on at least two levels. On one, it can be simply defined as the absence of pride. On another, it can be attributed to someone who is low in rank or status. As a white male from North America, in order to be truly humble, I must not only reject my pride, but must also throw my status away in submission to others who do not come from dominant cultures. In their book Being White: Finding our Place in a Multiethnic World, Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp call white people (and I might add anyone from a dominant culture) to “ongoing repentance, humility, self-awareness and a learner’s posture”1 and “to become comfortable with giving up power in relationships, with having people call [them] on [their] sin.”2 I hope that we as the WMF community can actually practice and celebrate this type of humility in relationship with each other, as well as with our friends who are among the most vulnerable.

One of my favorite biblical images of humility is found in Psalm 113, where we see a picture of a God who is exalted over all the nations, yet who stoops down, “rais[ing] the poor from the dust and lift[ing] the needy from the ash heap” (Ps. 113:7). What an incomprehensible truth — that the omnipotent God humbles God’s self to lift the most vulnerable out of the misery in which they find themselves. The most explicit biblical example of our humble God is, of course, made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. He “made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14), “humbled himself” and “bec[ame] obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:8). Through the death of Christ, we have been healed, our differences have been reconciled and our humiliation and shame have been washed away. We have been restored to right relationship with God and with others.

As a follower of Christ, I am called to humble myself in the same way. What might it mean for me to submit myself to death, to count my status and wealth as nothing and, instead, enter into relationship with the most vulnerable in humility? Is it possible that the oppressed could be freed as the privileged renounce their iron grip on power? Is it possible that the dignity of the humiliated might be restored through the humility of the elite? I think so, especially recognizing that in Jesus’ stooping down to become human and in his obedience to death on a cross, our restoration and healing have already been made attainable.

Recently I read that “Jesus’ whole life and mission involve accepting powerlessness and revealing in this powerlessness the limitlessness of God’s love.”3 Therefore, as a Western Christian involved in missions, I can no longer continue to hide my culture’s history of oppression, colonialism and racism. While acknowledging these things, I must choose to renounce the power and dominance I intrinsically possess. Through open and honest discussions, real listening and the empowering of others, we will find ourselves on the way to partnership and the new humanity described in Ephesians 2, reconciled both to God and each other.

The phrase “dominant culture” no longer has its life-threatening grip on me. While acknowledging the privilege from which I have come, I choose to claim and confess the sin in which my culture has been entrenched for too long. I am able to do this freely because I find hope in the humility of Jesus. In denying my power and listening to others, the dream of racial justice and equality is attainable. These days I am finding that I am more and more grateful to be a part of this WMF community, a group of people who are not settling for easy answers, but who are willing to do whatever it takes to proclaim in its fullness a Kingdom of peace, love and equality. As we continue to enter into more discussions like the one we had in Kathmandu, I gladly anticipate our tilted roundtable becoming a little more level.