Downward Mobility
Posted on 3.19.2013

I recently finished a great little book by Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ.

The book contrasts the cultural push for "upward mobility" with Christ's example of "downward mobility." Nouwen's description of the lure of upward mobility and how we work to support its mythology in our culture:

We are taught to conceive of development in terms of an ongoing increase in human potential. Growing up means becoming healthier, stronger, more intelligent, more mature, and more productive. Consequently we hide those who do not affirm this myth of progress, such as the elderly, prisoners, and those with mental disabilities. In our society, we consider the upward move the obvious one while treating the poor cases who cannot keep up as sad misfits, people who have deviated from the normal line of progress.

In contrast to this upward progress, Nouwen points to the downward mobility of Christ:
The story of our salvation stands radically over and against the philosophy of upward mobility. The great paradox which Scripture reveals to us is that real and total freedom is only found through downward mobility. The Word of God came down to us and lived among us as a slave. The divine way is indeed the downward way.

This downward way, thus, marks the path of discipleship and interrupts the mythology of our culture:

The disciple is the one who follows Jesus on his downward path and thus enters with him into new life. The gospel radically subverts the presuppositions of our upwardly mobile society. It is a jarring and unsettling challenge.

Nouwen goes on to discuss the three great temptations of upward mobility:

Three temptations by which we are confronted again and again are the temptation to be relevant, the temptation to be spectacular, and the temptation to be powerful.

Nouwen then reflects on each temptation. Mainly this becomes a discussion about how we form our identities. The desire to be relevant, spectacular or powerful are all attempts to justify our worth and existence before others. In the face of that desire Nouwen asks an unsettling question:

Who am I when nobody pays attention, says thanks, or recognizes my work?
I think that question sits at the root of our spiritual malaise and weakness. We want people to pay attention to us, to recognize us, to give us our due. This is how our identities, worth and significance are grounded. We want to be relevant, spectacular or powerful. So we go through life fishing for such things, a grasping that keeps knocking us off center, spiritually speaking.

I'm mindful here of something St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 4.11):

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.

The juxtaposition here is interesting. Make it your ambition to lead an unambitious life.

One of the most impactful parts of the book is Nouwan's reflection on the temptations of power. As Nouwan observes, "There is almost nothing more difficult to overcome than our desire for power."

Why is that? Because our culture of upward mobility constantly tells us that power is a good thing and that powerlessness is a bad thing:

It seems nearly impossible for us to believe that any good can come from powerlessness. In this country of pioneers and self-made people, in which ambition is praised from the first moment we enter school until we enter the competitive world of free enterprise, we cannot imagine that any good can come from giving up power or not even desiring it. The all-pervasive conviction in our society is that power is a good and that those possessing it can only desire more of it.

And yet, the downward path of Jesus is the way of powerlessness:

Surrounded by so much power, it is very difficult to avoid surrendering to the temptation to seek power like everyone else. But the mystery of our ministry is that we are called to serve not with our power but with our powerlessness. It is through powerlessness that we can enter into solidarity with our fellow human beings, form a community with the weak, and thus reveal the healing, guiding, and sustaining mercy of God. We are called to speak to people not where they have it together but where they are aware of their pain, not where they are in control but where they are trembling and insecure, not where they are self-assured and assertive but where they dare to doubt and raise hard questions; in short, not where they live in the illusion of immortality but where they are ready to face their broken, mortal, and fragile humanity. As followers of Christ, we are sent into the world naked, vulnerable, and weak, and thus we can reach our fellow human beings in their pain and agony and reveal to them the power of God's love and empower them with the power of God's Spirit.


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