The way up is down (part 1)

Upward mobility, toward the upper class. Reaching the mountaintop. Climbing the corporate ladder. Social climbing. Constantly working for more likes and follows on social media. In so many ways, we strive for more, up, higher. If you think about it, I’m sure you can list even more metaphors that describe our desire to move up. It’s part of the American Dream.

But in recent decades that dream has become something of a nightmare as younger generations seek, at a minimum, the same level of economic security their parents may have enjoyed. When you have been promised the world but find yourself striving for stable employment and bouncing from gig to gig, the metaphor of “climbing the corporate ladder” may sound like the quaint relic of a bygone era.

In truth, the idea that anyone could get anywhere they wanted through sheer determination and hard work was always something of a myth, a comforting fiction. True, one can always point to an inspiring rags-to-riches story: the immigrant who escaped to America, the land of opportunity, took the jobs nobody else wanted, and with perseverance, grit, and grind, heroically maneuvered his way to the top. It is possible.

But there are many, many more stories with a distinctly un-heroic trajectory. The playing field is not level, and never has been. Many people are able to climb higher because they start higher, with more resources and options. And a digitalized, gig economy has made it increasingly easier in recent years for companies to give far more attention to their stockholders than their employees, and harder for people entering the workforce to find the kind of jobs their parents taught them to expect. That is our economic reality.

In some ways, however, the American Dream isn’t distinctly and uniquely American. People of all times and cultures have wanted to improve their lot in life: their wealth, their social standing. As we’ve seen in the letter of James, this was true of citizens of the Roman Empire. But James was aghast at the ways that culture of upward striving had infected the church. Thus, having lovingly chastised believers for the ways their social climbing was creating conflict and division, James says this:

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:10, NRSVUE)

Again, this is not a generic recommendation to be more modest about our accomplishments, or to be more self-effacing in the way we deflect praise: Oh, please, no applause! Drawing upon Old Testament tradition, James is probably talking less about humility in its modern sense, and more about the humiliation of being oppressed and marginalized (in Hebrew, the anawim of the Psalms). After all, these words immediately follow the commands to lament, mourn, and weep (vs. 9), to recognize and repent of the ways in which we have raised ourselves up by pushing others down.

In this, we are called to follow the example of Jesus. The words of Paul to the church in Philippi come to mind: we are to think the way Jesus thought. He was God, but lovingly and humbly emptied himself of divine privilege to walk among us, to suffer rejection and abuse. For Jesus, God in the flesh, it was humiliation first and exaltation after:

…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God exalted him even more highly and gave him the name that is above every other name… (Phil 2:8-9)

This is pure paradox to any culture, past or present, that prizes status, accomplishment, and upward mobility. The road to exaltation runs through humility? The way up is down? Is God crazy?

But the paradox is more apparent than real. The confusion comes from our inability to see things the way God sees them, to see things as they really are. We prefer to ignore or downplay the brokenness that is intrinsic to our “ups” and the striving it takes to get there. We want to maintain the illusion that we can climb our way to the top. The way up is down, because it is only when we truly acknowledge our need for healing and grace that we can embrace that grace with true joy and gratitude.

James teaches that we are to humble ourselves before the Lord, because we follow a Lord who humbled himself before his Father. We are to follow the example of Jesus, who embodied the humble character of God.

And more: as we will see in the next post, we are to follow not only the example of Jesus, but the teaching of Jesus.