One Good Thing I Learned in Church: Humility

What’s one good thing you learned in church? During the month of April, a handful of contributors from Talking Taboo have been running with this question – and inviting you to do the same with the hashtag #onegoodchurch. For our last week of the series, elizabeth mcmanus writes on the progressive Christian purity culture of “being right” and how humility is her harder lesson.

Flickr: Francisco Osorio

Humility isn’t something good i have learned from church – it is something good i am learning.

I became a feminist first because i am a Christian.

I’ve always loved the fiery Jesus. The Jesus who turned tables, the Jesus who spent time with sex workers and valued them as human beings, the Jesus born of an unwed teen mom.

My feminist heart can get down with this rebel Jesus.

But the pill i’m learning to swallow with my unapologetic feminism is that Jesus wasn’t all table-turning. And Jesus, for all his brood-of-viper shade-throwing, spent a lot of time in conversation with people who neither understood him nor cherished him.

And still, Jesus loved them. He loved the Pharisees, men asserting power in a marginalized community desperately trying to forge an identity and gather numbers they saw being erased by empire. Jesus loved people who probably depleted his emotional energy and time. Jesus loved his friends who hurt him, who abandoned him, who betrayed him.

And this kind of love is a love grounded in a deep, deep humility.

Jesus humbled me this week in an awful seminar on colonialism and missions.

A white man asked – i think innocently, but blunderingly – if the “Africans” were grateful for the Christianity brought by colonial missionaries. In my head, (and on my face) i was screaming “like being grateful for 40 acres and a mule after years of being told they were un-human, un-beautiful property?!” (It was not my finest moment of Christian charity.)

But before i could blurt my furious response, one of my peers – a black woman – stepped in. Gently, but firmly, she said that this was a question that kept her up at night. She knew her ancestors knew God, but it was the White Man who had brought Jesus, likely not at all by his own doing, but still. She knew the cost of this Jesus.

I was, truly, humbled. I would have responded in anger, genuine anger with a good-if-not-charitable intention that, if i’m honest, was also grounded in my desire to be correct. And yet, a woman who had far more right than i to be furious saw this man’s heart in his question. She unveiled a deeper complexity to missions that dealt with the reality of the black church as forged under the monster of colonialism.

And i’m fairly certain he listened to her more than he would have listened to me.

As a feminist, i get (rightfully) tetchy about any doctrine that rings of submission.

But my determination to be right – to be clean from injustices – is part of a larger trend in our current Christian conversations. Richard Beck describes this progressive Christian trend as the “new purity culture.” More than anything, we progressive Christians deeply desire to use the right words, think the right things, and love in the right ways – not unlike the tenants of (fundamentalism’s sexual) purity culture. This desire to be “pure” from injustice is, well, for naught, because there is literally no way a human being can eat and speak and live without in some way being complicit in injustice.

Most importantly, a desire to be pure from injustice is still a desire that puts us at the center of an always imperfect conversation. It is not a desire for true Christ-like humility.

C.S. Lewis wrote that “true humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

True humility looks at the reality of our tendencies towards the social evils of racism and patriarchy and does not dwell in our guilt. Instead, humility asks if we can witness and listen. In John 19:26, Jesus showed true humility on the cross when he looked at his mother. Jesus’s mother endured the unbelievable agony of watching the murder of her own child. And Jesus, while dying, spoke to his mother about the pain she felt losing a child.

We are not Jesus, and we are not meant to read this encounter as a blueprint for a humility that erases our own pain, or erases the injustices we face for some twisted self-deprecation. But we are meant to be like Jesus in this deep, deep love.

Walking humbly, as Micah 6:8 tells us, must go hand-in-hand with loving mercy and doing justice.

The good that Jesus and the church teaches me is that sometimes, the best justice is shutting my mouth and listening. Because listening is a radical act of justice.

The church has taught me in these moments that humility is about seeing past our own hurts – however legitimate – to see the hurt and the heart in someone else.

And when i do that, i can still see Jesus in the heart of the person who hurt me.

McManus - Headshotelizabeth mcmanus enjoys challenging cis-patriarchal linguistic norms by lowercasing her name. She’s a proud graduate of Mount Holyoke College (Summa cum laude) where she earned a bachelor’s in religion, with a concentration on gender and sexuality. She’s lived all over the world, but currently is based in North Carolina, where she lives with her partner. Currently raising a lot of ruckus as a sailor-mouthed seminarian. Find her at or on Twitter @lizziemcmizzie

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