Downward Mobility

During the last week, I was on 9 flights around the country, for various reasons (weddings and visiting my brother). I find that plane rides are a great time and place for personal meditation, and given that I have recently decided to go back to Kenya and spend some more time at Tumaini, I had ample reason for such meditation. I was also listening to a lecture series by Charles Ringma of Regent seminary in Vancouver (which I should blog about soon, as it’s been the most impactful lecture series for me in the last few years). A concept from those lectures stuck in my head, which I’d thought about before but which had become somewhat more real for me recently. That was the concept of downward mobility.

Most people I talk to in my generation seem to recognize responsibility we have to change the world for good in some way. There are a few, of course, who in full awareness decide to seek only self-aggrandizement, money, power, and a life of self-gratification. But for the most part, it has become somewhat popular to think about the world’s problems and how they might be solved or ameliorated. It seems to me that there are two broad ways we can go about this problem: the way most of us tend to do it, and the way Jesus did it.

Most of us, including myself, tend to go about the problem with this train of thought: (1) The world’s problems are bigger than me as an individual. (2) Therefore, if I want to do something about it, I need to get in a place where my individuality counts for more than it does now, as a young post-college person. In other words, I need to get into some position where my desire to help the world can actually command more resources than those already at my command. (3) Getting into those positions, whether in politics or business or large non-profits, will take a long time of working within these various systems, but there aren’t really any other options.

And so, we try to move “upwards”, into the upper echelons of society or a global business community, or the US government, thinking, “when I arrive at a position of power, then I will be able to use my authority to effect dramatic change”. This kind of thinking makes sense, especially from the modernist, Western perspective where change is implemented “top-down”, from those with more power to those with less. In fact, it seems so obviously the way to go about solving problems that it has been a weight of responsibility to me personally, as someone who has (for reasons unrelated to my personal decisions) at least some opportunities to move “upward”. My web development business is doing well, and it’s at least possible that I could follow it up, into more money and strategic places in Silicon Valley. Or, (I flatter myself that) I could go get a PhD and become a respected authority on questions philosophical or theological, maybe even becoming the CS Lewis of our generation, affecting thinkers by the score! Whether or not those possibilities are probable doesn’t matter–the fact that they are there at all has made me ask whether I don’t have a responsibility to grab hold of those opportunities to effect “top-down” change on a large scale. All my friends with talents in the political arena are faced even more acutely with this question.

But at the same time, if we call ourselves Christians, and believe (as I do) that somehow Jesus effected the best kind of change possible for the world, and indeed is calling us to do the same, we are confronted with this:

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross!”

So, the man who, if we believe the Scriptures, had the most potential authority of anyone that has ever walked the earth, intentionally chose not to exercise that authority. His strategy for change seems to have been, somewhat stupidly from our perspective, to become the least of women and men, serving them rather than ruling them. God, in other words, chose not to be God, but to be a creature, to be like humans. His answer to the problems of the world was not to “fix” them from on high, as he supposedly had the ability to do, but to live in the problems along with those affected by them.

Jesus’ choice frustrates me, because it seems inefficient. I can even imagine his friends and family, when he chose to leave his profession of carpentry, accusing him of stupidity for leaving behind a growing business. We might imagine that he was even the best carpenter in the region, with a clear “upward” path to greater power and influence in that arena. But without a second glance, he left behind that path, and chose a “downward” path instead–wandering the wilds with a group of men and women, staying at sympathizers’ homes, hanging out with the unintelligent and socially ostracized, and literally as well as symbolically emptying himself for these unworthy recipients. I can very clearly imagine those who knew him since the days of his sitting at the temple and conversing with the rabbis as an equal, looking at his last few years, shaking their heads, and sighing, “He had so much promise.”

And I wonder, in a fearful sort of way, is that how I’m supposed to be? Never mind the theological reasons for it, but… could I handle my friends and family thinking that I’d left behind a promising “upward” path for a less efficient “downward” one? So much of my identity has been wrapped up in that “promise”, in my potential for “great” things from the perspective of our culture. Could I give that up?

I’m not exactly sure, but I have felt that tension coming into play as I’ve wrestled with going back to Kenya. With quite a few “promising” options on the table here in Silicon Valley, it’s been difficult to think of selling my car, going back to the orphanage for a few months, and letting those opportunities die. Less because I want them for themselves (I could never see a computer again and be very happy), but rather because I still feel this sense of obligation to pursue “upward” paths in the hope that they will provide the power and resources necessary for the kind of change I want to see in the world. The idea of hanging out with some AIDS orphans for 6 months seems “good”, but it doesn’t necessarily seem like the most effective or efficient service I could perform with my various skills. Maybe I should instead join with a large non-profit organization that has many more resources!

But every time I read that passage from Philippians, I’m struck with the alien nature of Jesus’ intentional involvement with pain and suffering. It is so, so different from the way that I naturally think about how to deal with those problems that it draws me in, magnetized. It seems like there’s no way it can work! And yet through his laying down of all power and authority came the most miraculous sequence of events in human history. And so I think, what would happen if we turned our idea of social change upside down? What if all the brightest and most possibly-influential people of our age decided, instead of pursuing an “upwardly mobile” philosophy of change, to forget such dreams and hang out with the dejected and downtrodden of our world, becoming in truth one of them?

We’d certainly lose a lot of “progress” momentum. We might not have new, cool Apple computers. We might even revert to a previous technological age. It might be absolutely horrible according to our standards, which value efficiency and capitalism above all else! But… in return, we might get peace, justice, unity, love. At least, that is what came of Jesus’ unique response to the problems we face in our world. And it’s certainly true that as much as we’ve tried other ways to solve them, we haven’t even come close. Maybe, just maybe, we should think more about this strange idea of “downward mobility”, since, against all intuition, it seems to have been the path that God himself chose.

By Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan worked as a programmer in tech startups for several decades, but is also passionate about all kinds of creative pursuits and academic discussion. Jonathan has master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively, and is working on another in theology. An American-Canadian, he lives in Vancouver, BC and has way too many hobbies.

8 replies on “Downward Mobility”

Lipps, awesome post. I struggle with these questions too — especially now, while we’re in Guatemala and preparing to return to the US to continue our “upward” pursuits.

Great post. I’m also confused by this issue, as I struggle to discern which of Jesus’s practices we’re to follow directly and which were specific to his ministry. It seems impossible for every Christian to radically follow the path of downward mobility while also realizing the dream of God’s people stewarding the world’s resources for good that, say, Dallas Willard talks about. I can reflect on how heavily our culture influences me as I write this, but I wonder whether Jesus’s calling his twelve disciples to leave everything, including their upward paths, to follow him, was meant for those twelve, while the centurion was to remain a centurion. Maybe even get promoted; who knows. If I use Jesus’s example to withdraw myself from a culture I don’t really care to be a part of anyway, maybe I’m being cowardly and irresponsible. I don’t know, it’s a hard question; definitely worth thinking about!

Great questions, Dan. I’m not quite sure how to answer them. If literally all Christians followed this philosophy, what would happen? What would happen if the reins of power were left in ‘non-Christian’ hands, and Christians spent all their time at the bottom of the social strata. Would the world go to shit? Maybe so. Or maybe not–maybe the rumblings of a different order being heard as whispers from the ‘lower’ ranks would begin to annoy and/or frighten the ‘higher’ authorities, and eventually the two worldviews would come crashing face-to-face, Jesus vis a vis Pilate, Paul vis a vis Rome. What happens then is anyone’s guess. Defeat? Probably. Resurrection? Maybe.

On the other hand, it very well could be, as you suggested, that Jesus’ way was really only for him and those he called specifically to it. In that case, the question for us is really to discern whether we might be called specifically to it. And I think we’re both in the same boat trying to answer that one!

But at the same time, maybe we’re on the road to answering it…

Which is more courageous/cowardly: choosing not to steward power and money in a responsible way for the sake of the downward way, or choosing not to take the downward way to responsibly steward power and money? This is a hard question I have wrestled with much and do not know that I have made much progress on.

great post lipps…thanks for passing it along. I have wrestled through these questions as well. I believe that we are all called to live in the humble attitude of Christ which leads to downward mobility. What that looks like specifically for each person may be different. I admit I have a tendency to want to make large generalizations for the way all Christians should live (ie everyone selling their possessions and living amongst the downtrodden). I’m not convinced that there isn’t a specific narrow road that we all are called to live in this respect but I have found more peace in resting in the way I feel led in my own life. I realized that I can only really listen to the voice that is leading my path and trust in the ability of my brothers and sisters to attentively listen for God’s urgings for their path with an open hand.

No answers here, but I resonate with the uncertainties and pull on both ends of the spectrum. Making decisions in uncertainty isn’t easy either. Maybe there’s something to Gordon saying that life is a gamble in some ways?

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