Political Theology Today A forum for interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue

The Politics of Difference and Unity—Philippians 2:1-13 (Brad Littlejohn)


1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”


When pausing to reflect upon the political implications of this text, one is immediately confronted with an embarrassment of riches: nearly every verse highlights some value or norm which is essential for Christian praxis and politics, provoking applications in many different directions.  We encounter here the importance of unity, of humility and other-regard, of service and of sacrifice.  We encounter the central role of Jesus Christ as not only the exemplar but the anchor of the Christian life, and the extraordinary political claim that Christ is King of all kings and Lord of all Lords, that every earthly ruler must bow before him and acknowledge his kingship.

Despite the powerful political resonances of the text, however, we are likely to want to privatize it, to turn it into a vision for the life of the Christian community and nothing more.  After all, what we have here no less starkly in the Sermon on the Mount, is the way of renunciation that Jesus calls us to: the inversion that the strong must become weak and the weak will become strong, that the path to glory comes only by letting go of power, privilege, authority, and self-interest, by following Christ on the downward path governed by the illogical logic of the Cross.  And just as many have argued that whatever the Sermon on the Mount is (an impractical ethical ideal, a rule of life for the new community, an interior ethic of transformed attitude), it cannot be a guide for political life, so many would say here.  No leader of a people can afford to be governed by the mind of Christ Jesus, renouncing power and national interest.

And yet however exactly we are to translate this ethic into power politics, it is clearly no individual ethic, but a social ethic, intended to guide the life of a community.  In fact, above all, this passage invites us to ponder what it means to be a community, a life in unity together with people very different from us.

Paul’s call for unity in one mind is remarkably emphatic when you slow down and read it phrase by phrase—being of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, and of one mind.  The Greek literally reads, “that you think the same thing, having the same love, together in soul (sympsychoi), thinking one thing.”  The stark repetition of the admonition to being of one mind in the first and last phrases is particularly arresting, and particularly challenging for us today.

After all, for contemporary liberalism, being of one mind is no virtue, and the same could be said for most contemporary Christians.  We no longer think of pluralism as simply a pragmatic political strategy for negotiating irresolvable difference, but as a good in itself.  It is difference, we say, that makes us strong, tolerance and indeed embrace of otherness.  “Celebrate diversity” is the watchword of our age.  And certainly one could readily turn to other texts in Paul in support of such a message.  Paul is, after all, the apostle to the Gentiles, insisting that people of every tribe and nation must be brought to share in the new life of Christ in the church.  He will write in 1 Corinthians and elsewhere of the glorious diversity of spiritual gifts, insisting that because “the body does not consist of one member but of many,” “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’” (1 Cor. 12:14, 21).  To be sure, Jews and Gentiles are to be brought together into one body, as are the diversity of spiritual gifts, but we tend to assume that all this means is that whatever our differences, we need to love each other, fellowship together, work alongside each other.  The call to unity, as we see it, is a call to overcome our intolerance, our fear of difference, but is not a call to overcome the difference itself.  What then is Paul after here?  Our ordinary English translation, “being of one mind” is vague enough, and colloquially common enough, that we can evade its force a bit.  But “thinking the same thing”?  “Come on, now, Paul,” we might want to answer, “don’t be so narrow-minded.  Why do you want to abolish difference?  Don’t you know that difference is what makes us strong?  We don’t want to live in a world where everyone thinks the same thing.”


And yet we live at a time when the limits of pluralism are being increasingly exposed.  The events of September 11, in particular, exposed the contradictions of our discourse about pluralism: clearly, a pluralist society cannot tolerate, as one of its enclaves of difference, suicide-bombing fundamentalists.  And yet our answer to this challenge was to insist that the problem was not enough pluralism, was the continued existence of religious extremists who failed to embrace the gospel of pluralism.  This points to something of a paradox: pluralism—defined as an open inclusion of many different viewpoints—requires that all those viewpoints at least share the conviction that pluralism is a good thing.

The gay rights movement has posed a similar challenge, both for church and state.  The call for tolerance and inclusion of difference has threatened, as the recent hounding of Mozilla’s Brendan Eich illustrated, to morph into a new exclusive orthodoxy.  If everyone must be included, then clearly those who don’t think everyone can be included (at least on the terms they want) cannot themselves be included.  In other, pluralism itself requires (at least for any kind of enduring stability) a shared vision of just what kind of pluralism we are all to hold in common: what sort of differences we are to embrace, which ones we are to merely tolerate, which ones we must exclude, and why.  Nor can we hastily say then, as some might be tempted to, that it is difference of beliefs that we can readily tolerate, but not difference of actions.  On one level this seems true: modern liberalism grew out of the fundamental liberty of conscience to believe what it wanted, so long as it did not translate this belief into actions harmful to others.  Yet on another level, clearly we can tolerate all kinds of differences of actions and practices, so long as we share a similar core belief about the purpose of society, the meaning of life together, and the kind of love for others that is called for.

Indeed, it is worth noting that Paul nowhere said, “Doing the same thing”—clearly his theology of spiritual gifts expects us all to do rather different things, without this necessarily harming the unity of the body.  But we must “think the same thing,” by which Paul certainly does not mean “sharing identical opinions on every question,” but sharing the same fundamental convictions about the world and what God is doing in it, confessing together the glorious truths described in the Christ-hymn of vv. 6-11.  The second and third phrases of verse two thus illuminate what Paul means by the first and fourth: we must “be of one accord” or be “together in soul,” “sharing the same love.”  And yet taken on their own, these phrases would very readily mislead, denoting a mere fellow-feeling, a warm and fuzzy sense of togetherness, a vacuous commitment to love one another, without agreeing what that love entailed, what it included and what it excluded.

The four phrases thus all mutually interpret one another, leading us simultaneously away from a wooden intellectualistic uniformity of belief and a woolly sentimental unity of feeling.  What they point us to, instead, is a common object of love, which is one-another-in-Christ, a common strategy for life together, which is self-sacrificial other-regard, and a common vision of history, which is that Christ the Son of God has died for his people, and is coming to reign over the earth.  Without this shared compass, no project for pluralistic unity in the Church can get far.  Moreover, each of these three touchstones cannot be left merely as a nice-sounding phrase, but will need to be gradually fleshed out, through disputation in love, if they are to serve as stable grounds of unity.

All this is certainly true for the church; we will no doubt want to ask at this point how much this should also be said for the state and civil society.  Something analogous, we have already seen, must be said: any civic pluralism will require some shared civic ideals and commitments.  But to what extent will the shape of this common object of love be determined by Christian virtues and convictions?  That, unfortunately, is a conversation for another day.  However, we may close by noting that Paul does invite us to extend our vision beyond the church, and reminds us that ultimately, political power is not exempt from acknowledging the lordship of Christ and the counterintuitive logic of his dominion: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

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