Matthew S. Vos
I’m an accomplished loser. I really am. I don’t offer this bit of self-deprecation to vaunt my humility right before revealing a long list of breathtaking accomplishments. In truth, I’ve won only three things during my forty-four years on God’s good earth. When I was thirteen, I won Cadet of the Year for my work accumulating merit badges in a scout-like group in our Christian Reformed Church. However, that year they split the award between two of us — I was not victorious alone on that podium. My next triumph came the summer after eleventh grade. I worked on a quarter-horse farm and was given the summerlong task of teaching a year-old colt to stand properly and to run in a circle. At a horse show he won fourth place — for looking pretty while standing — and his owner let me keep the ribbon, something I cherish to this day. The next thing I won — seriously — came twenty-eight years later. I entered a Georgia slalom water-ski tournament and won a third-place medal. But, in the interest of full disclosure I won third in a field of three — and I was way last. But a medal is a medal, and on special occasions I still sleep with it around my neck.
Avocations aside, when I teach in the college classroom (I’m a sociologist), a place I greatly enjoy and where I generally feel at home, I sometimes wonder if my young charges see me as a winner or a loser. More often than not, I fear it’s the latter. I’ve not yet mustered the courage to look myself up on RateMy Professors.com — and don’t you go do it either. “Ignorance is bliss” most certainly applies to the teaching professions, where identity and job performance are so tightly interlaced. My feelings of self-doubt usually emerge right after I hear an admissions representative leading a campus tour and telling prospective students and their families that our professors hail from such places as Harvard and Princeton. I hail from much lesser places.
We think a lot about whether we are winners or losers. Coming out on top is very important to most of us, and it’s hard to avoid the society-wide ambition toward greatness. On every possible social canvas advertisements implore, “Be winners with us! Come out on top! Dominate! Enjoy the view from the top! Change the world!” and so on. It’s not just the winning for which we thirst, either: it’s the bragging rights, the boasting. And it starts early in life. About two Olympic cycles ago, our older daughter (adopted from Bulgaria) became frustrated with our younger daughter (adopted from China) when the Chinese kept winning everything. She said things such as “I’m so sick of the Chinese. They win everything.” This was undeniable! But how interesting that even at the tender age of seven or so, she was conscious of what it meant to be linked with the winners, and conversely, of what it meant to be denied the boast.
A persistent hunger to be enmeshed with the peer groups, colleges, governments, nations, churches, sports teams, high schools, presidential candidates, and rock ‘n’ roll bands, just to name a few, that will anchor our identities to something transcendent — to those people, positions, and possessions that might elevate us — drives most of what we think and do. We’re addicted to boasting, and at so many levels. As a college professor, I’ve wondered what the big deal is with U.S. News and World Report college rankings. Do they represent anything real? Would we ever receive a good ranking and just keep it to ourselves? Not likely. We yearn for high rankings whether or not they reflect anything real or important. Such rankings are part of an institutional boast, a boast that proclaims, “We’re winners in all the relevant ways, and all the right kind of people think so!” I’m not sure they have any real utility for our institutional mission outside of the boast. And how are we “winners”? We’re winners when we supposedly perform better than those others. “Join us; we’re winners! God likes winners.”
Like academics, sports provide lofty platforms from which to boast. My twelveyear- old daughter is becoming quite a good basketball player. She’s great fun to watch. Last year, her Christian school team ended up on a winning streak. All season they went undefeated — UNDEFEATED — and in the nine or ten games they played, almost no one came within twenty-five or thirty points of them. And to my great shame, I could feel the boast rising up in me like carbonation in a shaken soda bottle. How easily I, a forty-four-year-old man, felt indignation and anger at a fifty-pound tenyear- old on the other team, when my child or someone on my team was “wronged.” One game we were winning, 32 to 1. When the referee failed to call a foul against a little girl who had just bumped into one of our players, the mother of the fouled girl, sitting next to me, let loose with a verbal barrage intended to help the referee consider a few things about himself, his abilities, and what we at my Christian college call his “little c” calling. When I quietly said to her, “Well, we are winning by thirty points,” she pursed her lips and explained, “Fair is fair.” And as much as I like to believe I transcend such behavior, I fall easily into the same tone and patterns, losing all perspective when my boast or the boast of my group is the least bit threatened. Boasting, by its very nature, divides, and the scramble to the top tramples the weaker ones — a trampling we seem to enjoy a bit too much.
Countless social venues give rise to boasting. In church settings, our theology is sometimes used to support existential boasts, positioning us slightly above our more confused brothers and sisters in the faith. Our national allegiances can nurture a we’re-the-best-nation-on-earth sort of boast that some scholars, like George Ritzer in his book The Globalization of Nothing, say fuels the very terror attacks we so fear. Affiliating with winning sports teams, computer brands (Mac or PC), selective private schools, even brands of automobiles, provides a sort of bling for the self that visually affirms what winners we are, because winners make good choices. In fact, you can argue that the very idea of product branding is rooted in capturing consumer loyalty at the level of the boast. Do you really need a new smartphone, or is it just another accoutrement to identity?
At their worst, group-based boasts can turn malignant, producing racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and a host of other “isms” rooted in perceived out-group inferiority. Racism is a boast in one’s perceived genotype. Sexism constitutes a boast in one’s sex or gender. Classism involves a boast in one’s privileged and shared economic situation, and ageism boasts superiority in one’s youthfulness —perhaps from fear of the aging and death we all eventually face. Each of these hint at transcendence linked to a group identity that is established, not on its own, but in reference to relevant out-groups (“We may not be good, but we’re better than them.”) In a 2001 article in Personality and Social Psychology Review, Michael Hogg, a social psychologist specializing in identity, explains that successful leaders are typically exemplars of groups — people about whom subordinate members can say, “She’s one of us” or, “He gets us.” And leaders, he explains, maintain the support of followers by consistently showing ingroup favoritism, and promoting favorable contrasts with relevant out-groups. Leaders inspire the boast by helping us see ourselves as somehow “better” than others with whom we compete. This has obvious benefits for in-group solidarity but can create tension between groups with whom we may have much in common.
Distinguishing ourselves from others has paradoxical implications. We know ourselves only in community with others — our identities are inextricably fused with those others who flesh out the groups in which we hold membership. But, in pursuing social distinction, we increase our social distance from the people around us — often the very people who nurture us, sustain us, and comprise the core of our socially constructed selves. And although the separateness of social distinction yields a more tenuous grasp on the self, it remains our modus operandi. Most of us work quite relentlessly to separate ourselves from others and, ironically, to separate from others we cannot know ourselves. Perhaps Paul had this in mind when he wrote in Romans 12, “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” Communing with the lowly — breaking bread with the boastless — has great potential to rein in our own boast and help us remember that we are dust. We are made for community, for fellowship. Apart from others, we are not.
In his compelling book Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community (Oxford, 2009), sociologist Ken Gergen brings attention to the various and pathological ways in which our society drives us to “separate” from the herd. We spend vast stores of our social energies demarcating boundaries between ourselves and others. And promoting the self can be lonely work. Alarmed by the sheer magnitude of the ways that we try to stand apart from others, Gergen invites us to renewed appreciation of self “with” others — something he calls “relational confluence.”
For Gergen, a negative consequence of the inexorable drive to separate from others and distinguish ourselves is that we come to live in a world of “unrelenting” evaluation. Alone and separate we are vulnerable to crushing failure and hurtful critique. Supplanting “we” with “I” requires that we guard ourselves, resisting and dominating others, rather than finding our identities enmeshed with theirs as inseparable parts of an organic whole. Explains Gergen, “When we are chronically concerned with self-worth, we search for measures of ‘How good am I?’ The question demands comparison with others. Am I more or less intelligent, talented, humorous, motivated, and so on.” Accordingly, “We avoid seeing the good in others, and take comfort in locating their failings. We scan the social world to ensure we are better than all.” And through this often-lonely process, our lives become boasts, and we find our sense of self and worth in our separation and distinction from others rather than in covenantal dependence on them. In such a world—lamentably, much of the world we live in — colleagues become competitors, neighbors become threats, teammates become rivals. our lives take on an oppositional cast, and the common good unravels.
Most of the world’s problems derive from boasting. When people boast in their race, genocide can result. When people boast in their nations, terrorism can result. When people boast in their gender, sexual exploitation and denial of benefits can result. When people in a given workplace boast in their superior position, disillusionment and inadequacy can plague their subordinates. And so, when Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:30, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness,” he demonstrates profound understanding of the fragmenting nature of the boast. To boast of weakness is, of course, no boast at all. Boasting of weakness cements us to others and promotes a new, more communal, social imaginary. Isn’t it a relief when accomplished and admirable people reveal their failings and you don’t feel so alone in yours?
Scripture addresses boasting in myriad ways. From Eve’s Garden of Eden hope that she could elevate her social position and become like God to the golden calf in Exodus 32 (a totem which represents self-worship and therefore a boast) to the Jews’ hope that the Messiah would bolster national pride to the disciples’ arguing about which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, we witness the desperate and ambitious ways in which human beings work to anchor their identities in themselves and their achievements.
The John 8 account of the Pharisees bringing before Jesus a woman caught in adultery highlights the futility of moral boasting before God. The very idea of being “caught” in adultery — few other social scenarios are so mortifying or scandalous. How awful. And what do the Pharisees do? They bring the woman to Jesus as a form of boast. I don’t think they were so mortified by what she had done (if they were, even in the patriarchal society in which they lived, they would have brought before Jesus the man caught in the same act of adultery), rather they use her mortification as a platform for boasting. “Hey, Jesus, look at this woman. Now, look at us. Choose a side.” But Jesus refuses their boast and reframes the situation in a way that elevates the disgraced woman who had no boast to get in the way of receiving the free grace he offered. In the story, the woman doesn’t even repent. She just quietly answers Jesus, “No one condemned me.” She’s a loser. And for all of her nothingness, she receives everything. Her miserable dejection — her inability to offer any redeeming moral accomplishment in that humiliating moment — nets the prize. In contrast, consider the Pharisees — the anti-heroes of the New Testament. Almost everything written of them is a record of their boast — even their prayers are for others to see. For the Pharisees, each new contact with Jesus fortifies their pretension, moving them further away from the grace that all losers who encounter Jesus receive. Boasting smothers grace; full hands cannot hold it. Better to be caught in adultery.
In his book The Parables of Judgment (Eerdmans, 1989), theologian Robert Farrar Capon writes about Zacchaeus in a way I hadn’t before considered. Capon draws attention to what a big loser Zacchaeus is—he’s a publican, or “tax farmer,” and he is very short, which makes it impossible for him to see what is going on in front of the crowd. Jesus finds Zacchaeus in the tree and invites himself to dinner that evening. The crowd is appalled. Jesus is making a dinner date with a sinner (a person without a boast). But, Capon writes, “just as [Jesus] settles down for a nice, relaxed meal, Zacchaeus stands up and launches into a during-dinner speech. ‘Look, Lord,’ he says, trying to dispel his universally bad press; ‘I give half of what I have to the poor, and if I have given anyone a raw deal, I make it up to him four times over.'”
Now I have always understood Zacchaeus’s repentance speech as evidence of sanctification — before he did bad; now he’ll do good. Capon offers an alternative interpretation:
Do you see now what the acted parable of Zacchaeus is all about? It is precisely a publican making the Pharisee’s speech — a loser who thinks that, thank God and his better instincts, he has gotten over his losing behavior and become a twenty-four karat winner. And what does Jesus say to him? He says something straight off the wall: with no intervening explanation, Jesus announces, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” In other words, Jesus brings Zacchaeus back down to the only ground on which he can possibly stand and receive a favorable judgment: the ground of the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead. [I]t is not Zacchaeus’s list of good deeds that saves him but simply his status as one more loser in the long history of God’s preference for losers.
Zacchaeus’s boast matters little to Jesus, who welcomes him into himself— into the only identity that really matters.
The great paradox of the Christian life is that we are called to be losers. Oddly, our winning comes through losing; our strength, through weakness; our life, through death. Consider how the Christian calling is to give things up, to pour out, and to empty oneself. The call is to loser status as far as the things of this world are concerned. And losing is so much more important than winning. When I hear you testify about your lack, your loss, your dependence, your need, it gives me hope for my own rather desperate “loser” condition. When you boast to me of your accomplishments, I mostly just search for ways to increase my own boast, matching yours. And that helps neither of us.
But I wonder if we collectively in our colleges and churches, in our homes and places of work, and individually as teachers, carpenters, cooks, and attorneys, could start thinking about how we might learn to lose together — although I’m not very sure what losing together means. All I know is that it would make us different than most other colleges, churches, scholars, or businesses. What might it look like to truly and honestly rejoice in our rivals? As colleges, what might it look like for us to quit publishing and amplifying our U.S. News and World Report rankings, average SAT scores, and other such boasts? I’m not sure, but thinking about these things might be a step in the right direction. Because in Christ, oddly and against all earthly impulse, to lose is to win. If we take such losing seriously, surely it must apply to colleges, sports programs, and churches, as well as to individuals. And if we’re just winners in all the right worldly things, then we really aren’t all that distinctive. Being “winners” is so common. The testimony and beauty of Christian witness emerges in our losing, not our winning.
So, whatever it means, I invite you to lose. I invite you to embrace the failure that you probably feel deep inside. I invite you take up your cross and continue trudging toward the great banquet to which only losers are admitted. And I invite you to enjoy being a loser, to lean into it. For it is losers like us to whom the kingdom of God has come and is coming. And boasting . . . well, you know.