In looking to the Bible’s example of humility, we can all learn something about empathising with others, rather than fighting our own causes, suggests George Pitcher


Source: Alamy

I have a confession to make. Back in the 90s, when I ran a business, I indulged in some Christianity versus Judaism banter with my friend and colleague Ben, a Jew. We did it in plain sight, some of it on all-staff emails. When he said he’d be taking off a Jewish holiday I’d reply that I presumed he’d be working at Easter then. That sort of thing.

It was intended to be and – I dearly hope, anyway – taken to be self-mocking and satirical. At its heart, it was meant to suggest how ridiculous it would be if one really held these views. I suppose I thought that was hilarious.

Making an absurd caricature of racism can reinforce its dark reality

I wouldn’t do that or think that now. Partly, to be brutally honest, because it would get me into a lot of trouble. But I wouldn’t think it was funny now, in the way that I no longer think it best to mock and laugh at racists – because I now understand that making an absurd caricature of racism can reinforce its dark reality without necessarily undermining it.

Making a mockery

And, anyway, mockery is a weapon of the bully, not just the satirist. The bully will add violence and humiliation to it. Psychotherapists tell us that the bullied very often become bullies themselves because they attempt to regain some status from their shamed position. It’s like being on a see-saw – the only way to regain pride is to put someone else down.

“Bullying” is far too trite a word to use in the context of anti-Semitic violence and persecution. But understanding the mind of the bully does help. Because there may have been something of that see-saw status consciousness in the letter that MP, Diane Abbott, wrote to The Observer last Sunday. It claimed – weirdly – that only people of colour can be victims of racism, while antisemitism is a consequence of prejudice, in the same category of victimhood as people with red hair.

That it’s such a bizarre claim shouldn’t blind us to why Abbott, who has suffered grotesque race hatred herself, makes the category mistake of claiming a hierarchy for racism. It’s the consciousness of status speaking: I am a Black woman and, as such, have a unique experience of racism.

An insecurity that feeds a desire to hang on to an exclusive status may well have also motivated ex-Justice Secretary Dominic Raab’s alleged bullying of civil servants. Here are highly educated, privileged professionals (as he sees it) frustrating him in doing his job. The solution? Shout at them and humiliate them. Bullying is to kick down on the see-saw.

True humility

The Christian narrative tells me that there was also some of that in my oh-so-clever and satirical email exchanges with Ben nearly 30 years ago. While I was definitely not consciously trying to humiliate him, in truth, there may have been some status anxiety in there. To remedy that, it may be helpful to examine what Christian humiliation looks like.

We think of humiliating people as an active verb. On the shame/pride see-saw, it’s about putting someone else down, so that we can be up. Or, passively, we feel humiliated by being put down by another. But that isn’t what the noun, humility, is really about.

It’s in his silence that the temporal authorities fail to humiliate the Nazarene

Nor is humility about self-effacement, or putting oneself down. Nor is it the vanity of the ever-so-humble Uriah Heep, virtue-signalling humility. No, the real thing is to get off the see-saw, to break the exchange of shame and pride (in which my pride depends on another’s shame) and claim a different kind of power.

It is to join the other person at their end of the see-saw. It’s to say that I’m no longer playing this game.

Get off the see-saw

In Philippians 2:7, Paul draws attention to a God who empties himself of his divinity into humankind in incarnation, “taking the form of a servant”. We might note, too, that it’s in his silence that the temporal authorities fail to humiliate the Nazarene (a Jew before Roman imperial power, of course) in his Passion.

The high priest of the Temple demands that Jesus joins his see-saw by offering a defence. So does Pontius Pilate. But, as Rowan Williams writes: “His silence, his complete presence and openness, his refusal to impose his will in a struggle, becomes a threat to those who have power – or think they have power.”

How potent this point of view could be in our own power-plays: a politician telling other victims of racism that she felt their pain; a cabinet member keeping his own counsel in the face of pompous senior civil servants; or, for that matter, if I’d simply wished Ben a happy Day of Atonement, rather than making jibes about Easter holiday entitlements.

For an alternative point of view, read Rt Rev Dr Rosemary Mallet’s opinion on why we must make sure opinions on Diane Abbott’s comments doen’t shut down the conversation about racial justice