In the class I’m TAing, we have talked much about Jesus’ injunction to the disciples to be like a child (Matthew 18). Many of the students have brought up the difficulties of this image. Usually it’s talked about in regard to our current understanding of children and vaguely psychologized — children are (and so we are to be) constantly learning, dependent for provision, trusting, vulnerable, enthusiastic, innocent, naive, etc. This is a possible (if very challenging) interpretation, one that, when fleshed out carefully, can be fruitful.
But here are some of the questions that have come up for the class: This assumes a lot about children that, especially in situations of violence in their society or home, is not always true or even ideal. A child in an abusive home may be vulnerable and may have no choice but to “trust,” but would we want that vulnerability or coerced “trust” for them? Is that what Jesus is asking us to imitate? In Jesus’ time, children were akin to slaves. Are we to literally become people who have no power and live on the handouts of others? Paul tells us to put off childish things in regard to faith. Can we be like a child and at the same time not childish?
I think these are not unanswerable questions, and they may not, in the end, negate the call to vulnerability and trust that many people read in this passage. However, I don’t want to stop there in considering this passage and its meaning… Here’s another possibility:
Margaret Urban Walker, feminist philosopher and ethicist, explains that human interactions work on a pyramid of privilege along lines of race, class, gender, ability, age, sexuality, and many other factors. The more of these factors you have in your favor, the higher you are on the pyramid. She goes on to say that we tend to know a lot about the people who are above us on the pyramid and almost nothing about the people below us. This very fact tends to perpetuate the pyramid — we can step all over those below us because we don’t know them or see them as quite human (in fact, we barely know they’re there), and we do step all over them because we are working to somehow get higher on that scale. If you need an example of that, think of how much you know about movie stars and CEOs of major companies… and how much you know about the janitor who works in your building or the migrant worker who detassels corn nearby or the worker who made your clothes. For Margaret Urban Walker, this not knowing of people below us on this pyramid is directly related to the dehumanization that makes space for violence.
In the mean time, Renee Girard (along with many others) says that we humans are mimetic beings. One of the most basic facts of our identity is that it is formed by imitating others. We imitate all the time… in everything (or nearly everything). In Girard’s view, this system results in “successful” imitation and jealousy becoming a threat to identity and then an incitement to violence and scapegoating.
(Side note — the system of mimetic violence that Girard puts forth is one of the foundations of the theology of the cross called Nonviolent Atonement… if you haven’t heard of it, look it up. It’s pretty awesome. Now back to the main point…)
So the disciples are looking to each other and the people around them and saying “hey, Jesus — who’s going to be greatest in heaven?” And Jesus shows them a little child and says — be like this one. Do you hear it? Jesus is saying “imitate this one” — this one who is below you on the pyramid. When you want to know who to imitate, stop looking up. Look down. Get to know the janitor and the migrant worker, or whoever is below you on the prescribed social hierarchy, so they can teach you to be more human. If you have to imitate (and Girard would say, if he were Jesus, you have to imitate because you’re human…) — if you have to imitate, look for someone who doesn’t seem to matter or who you hadn’t even noticed before, and let them teach you.
Of course, Christian faith also tells us to imitate Jesus. But Jesus himself tells us that he is to be found in the midst of those who are below us on the social ladder.
Also notice that it is imitation Jesus is calling for, which requires learning and knowing. This is not the charity that pulls another up the social ladder, though maybe there is also a place for that. This is the knowing and seeing that requires stepping down a rung or two and looking at the world from that view. Because we might find (we probably will find, in fact) that the ladder itself is overrated — or downright destructive and dangerous. Because we might be called to a different way of being together, stepping off the ladder entirely, where with feet on the ground we find ways of caring for one another that are so much richer than pulling and pushing and squashing others on our way up to a Babel-like “kingdom” that can never come.
Jesus is preaching a solidarity that reshapes our very identity and shakes up our current way of being. If it doesn’t do that, you can bet that you are still just offering a hand up rather than engaging in true solidarity.
I wonder if we did that kind of looking and knowing and imitating and identity-shifting, if Margaret Urban Walker’s pyramid might come crashing down.
Your turn… what are you connecting this passage with these days? How are you interpreting it in this world of ours?