Religious Humility and Religious Extremism

October 22, 2015

I’m reading an interesting book called ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ by Jon Krakauer. The book focuses on Mormon fundamentalism, and takes a deep look at the consequences of religious extremism. At the heart of the story, Krakauer explores the lives of two brothers—Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they received a commandment from God to kill their sister-in-law and her baby girl.

Part of the problem with religious extremism is there aren’t any checks and balances. Individuals are convinced they have received the ‘corner on the truth,’ and other perspectives are misguided or evil. It is their righteous duty to do whatever it is that God has purportedly called them to do. This perspective can have disastrous consequences. And it’s not just Mormons—there are extreme versions of every religion.

In my view, religious humility could be the antidote to religious extremism. Religious humility involves acknowledging limitations in my ability to understand God and know the ‘truth.’ My religious perspective is influenced by my cultural background and family upbringing, and I see things from a particular perspective and vantage point. Because of this, there are always going to be limitations in how I view the world. Religious humility also involves an openness to other perspectives. Because I acknowledge the limitations of my own religious perspective, I am willing to engage with others who are different and learn from their perspective.

One thing I love about Jesus is that the Bible describes him as embodying humility. Paul said it this way in his letter to the church in Philippi:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Phil 2: 5-8).

To describe what the humility of Jesus looked like in practice, I want to share a story from the life of Jesus that has always bothered me. It’s not a story you hear very often in church, because it paints Jesus in kind of a bad light. But I would like us to think about the story with a focus on Jesus’ humility.

The story is found in Mark 7:

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”

She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone (Mk 7:24-30).

I always struggled with Jesus’ response in this passage. He comes across as dismissive toward the Greek woman. He also seems exclusive, as if he had a strong preference for helping his own people (i.e., the Jews), and didn’t care about the needs of others who weren’t part of his group (i.e., the Gentiles).

But if we view this passage through the lens of Jesus’ humility, I think it makes more sense. This story occurs near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It seems plausible that at this point in his ministry, Jesus viewed his work as primarily for the Jews (not the Gentiles). However, this story can be seen as a turning point. Jesus is confronted with the woman’s response, and he is open to shifting his perspective. Perhaps because of his interaction with the Greek woman, Jesus expands the scope of his ministry to include all people. This expansion culminates in Jesus’ last words to his followers, in which he directs them to go and make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:18). Jesus was humble, and this humility had a huge impact on his life and ministry.

Discussion: What do you think about the relationship between religious humility and religious extremism? What do you think about the idea that Jesus was humble regarding his religious perspective?


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