“Under What Terms is Survival Possible?”
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord,
my rock and my redeemer.”
“Under what terms is survival possible?”
Howard Thurman asks this question in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. It is a question the
Israelites must grapple with as they wander in the wilderness, facing a freedom that is
In the wilderness, survival is on God’s terms. In Egypt, the Israelites depended on a system to
keep their bodies going, bodies that were enslaved and exploited. They lived on the empire’s
terms. Even after the escape from Egyptian slavery, this system still has a hold on the Israelites’
inner life. Without food and water on their long journey to freedom, they longed even for the
meager satiation they got in slavery. They cry out, “give us water to drink!” Satiation though,
doesn’t always mean safety. Their souls were not safe. These were souls that underwent the
humiliating conditions of slavery, and humiliation is corrosive to the spirit.
Moses asks the Israelites why they test the Lord, but God on the other hand, listens to their
concerns about food and water and sees them as legitimate. A dialogue is taking place, and these
things are not too much to ask of God–God miraculously provides food and water for them. Still,
the Israelites are never satisfied with what God does for them in the wilderness. There is a fear
they cannot shake. This fear was learned in slavery. Fear that perhaps God will be like their
masters in Egypt–manipulative, cruel, and uninterested in their well-being.
It’s unsettling how fear creeps into our minds sometimes. For me lately, it has been manifesting
itself in a desire to be self-sufficient, so I have been acquiring survival skills. I have learned how
to tie knots such as the alpine butterfly loop. A life-saving knot, it can bear critical loads and be
used to isolate damaged parts of a rope so you can still use it. Having lived through multiple
natural disasters this year, these skills give me a little confidence. I feel more prepared for what
might be coming next. But I have to constantly keep watch over this fear.
Knowing how to tie knots and use a compass are important skills and can get you off a mountain
or through a natural disaster alive, but there are more important things than knots and mere
survival just as there are things worse than death.
If I don’t keep watch over my own mind, fear goes for my weak spots like a rot. Hope and
resourcefulness can give way to bitterness, despair, and hatred. Isolation starts to make living
feel like the dead.
Paul urges us today to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The life of a
Christian is an unquiet one. It is a constant struggle to choose to fear the Lord instead of fearing
We see this struggle in Paul, who, as a free Jew living under Roman rule, is a colonized body. In
his letters, we see him wrestle with his Jewish identity. Being in this social position at the point
in time he is in shapes his imagination and the metaphors he uses, like the one we see in today’s
passage. In the Christ Hymn, Christ is described as taking the form of a slave, humbling himself
and being obedient to the point of death. Then, God exalts him and Christ is owed the respect
and status of a slave master. Some scholars think it goes a step further to the master par
excellence, or the Roman emperor.
What do we do with this metaphor? Slavery is a system of domination, fear, and violence. There
doesn’t seem to be much here that speaks to liberation.
I find liberation not in the metaphor, but in Christ’s humility and the actions he takes: Christ
humbles himself, empties himself, and is obedient to God. Jesus does not exploit equality with
This humility is a survival skill. Paul urges the Phillipians to “look not to your own interests, but
to the interests of others.” This is an invitation to deep listening and laying aside of ego for
empathetic connection. The reality of interdependence demands we care about the concerns of
our neighbors and the land we live on in order to survive and flourish.
Individual knots are not enough. We need safety nets in a world that lets too many people fall
through the cracks. The next stop on the Israelites’ journey is Sinai, where a judicial system is
established and God speaks the words of the Ten Commandments. Law begins to be formed.
Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus states that all of the law and the prophets hang on love of
God and loving your neighbor as yourself. Humility.
The poet Cheslaw Miloz writes, “Love means to learn to look at yourself/ the way one looks at
distant things/ for you are only one thing among many./ And whoever sees that way heals his
Community heals the heart. I remember a moment from my time in Berkeley, California, where I
was studying interfaith dialogue at Pacific School of Religion. I was so tired. It was a long week
of organizing, I just finished hosting an open mic night, and I was heavy with sleep. My friends
and I were just hanging out in the common room of the dormitory after the open mic. I’m not
sure how it started, but we decided to just pile up on top of each other on the couch, becoming a
human hammock. I wrote in my journal about it, “There was such perfection and communion in
that moment. I wanted to fall asleep like that on the living, breathing bed of my community.” I
don’t know how long we stayed like that, but it was long enough to heal something in
me–feelings of fear and isolation.
One of the most insidious side effects of the global pandemic is the many ways it appears to
isolate us. I have friends who can’t remember the last time they hugged someone. We continue to
grapple with the loss of communion and church spaces. Many coronavirus patients are dying
alone. Misinformation and racism further divides and isolates us.
Paul and Jesus teach us a survival skill today: humility. At the moment, humility is our strongest
defense against the virus. I am humbled when people wear masks and when they avoid me on the
sidewalk because they’re doing it to protect me and others. Love is what bridges the six feet of
space between us.
Imagine this humility applied to all aspects of our lives and the forms of degradation it could
heal. Poverty would be unthinkable. We would think twice before separating migrant children
from their parents. Wage slavery would be inhumane. Sex trafficking would be abolished. So
many people are living in deplorable conditions. Humility weaves safety nets. Humility, in
individuals and systems, lifts us all to a higher place.
I invite you to ask yourself how you can make humility habitual this fall. It could be as simple as
starting a meditation practice or a garden. If you don’t already do this, perhaps you could start
going to your local neighborhood meetings. Listen to the concerns of your neighbors. Can you
give time or money to a grassroots organization that is working for justice? If you are in a
position of power, audit yourself and ask whether you are using that power to serve the interests
Keep watch over your own mind. In what ways does fear isolate you, and how can you turn to
God? Humility helps us recognize interdependence and cope with the fear caused by unjust
situations and systems.
God provides for the Israelites in the wilderness. God is always providing for us, even in the
midst of a pandemic. The question is whether we have the humility to see the resources God is
“Under what terms is survival possible?” Love of God and love of neighbor. Amen.