“You know that those who are supposed to rule over the peoples lord it over them. . . but it should not be so among you. For whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
—Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 10)
“Great!” No buzz-word has a been more bandied about recently. Yet, as I survey all the chatter that surrounded the recent election, I see very little that actually reflects upon or clarifies what makes a person or a nation great. In fact, no other word of such political prominence has become so distorted.
With the chant great again still ringing in our ears, it just might be worthwhile to take a moment to reexamine what on earth is meant by that. At first glance we might suppose a common, shared intent. Upon reflection, however, we’ll find severe contradictions are being papered over.
So, what does it mean to seek greatness? It seems to me that it cannot simply be about nostalgia.
President Lyndon Johnson focused his notion of the Great Society on eliminating poverty & racial injustice. Donald Trump, early in his candidacy, turned “Make America great again,” into his trademark advertising slogan. When Hillary Clinton proclaimed this to be insulting—“Aren’t we great already?”—she must have had yet another image in mind. But could she or most of us see national greatness in the same light as would a jobless coal miner or steel worker?
Disgruntled and disenfranchised American workers were certainly in no mood to be cautioned that it was the same wildly popular call (to make their tribal nation great again) that had focused massive majorities behind the atavistic fascism of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco; and that led to the holocaust and World War II, with the annihilation, finally, of some eleven-million people and the displacement of vastly more. Are Western societies forgetting those lessons? Those of us who still remember the worst can’t help but ponder. . .
If making ourselves, our tribe, or our nation “great” is again to spearhead our political and military agendas, our very survival may depend on the answer to this question: How are we defining the greatness we seek? In a nuclear age, must it still mean bloody-minded competition—compounded, self-defensive egoism checked only by mutually assured destruction? Do we presuppose an all-too-familiar war of all-against-all that still evokes defensive consolidation of family against family, tribe against tribe, and finally nation against nation, with each walled-in and defending, as sacred, its own values and way of life?
Any thought of human greatness was now to
be re-envisioned as an open promise for all people.
Through all history and back into pre-history, a notion of greatness as superior tribal power recurs as a primary human defense mechanism. Ethnologists point to something like it in the evolution of a number of other species as well. So we could regard it as a “natural” notion of greatness that entails closely related conceptions defining human powers of goodness and justice—what the Greeks came to call arête, human excellence, and the Romans, dutiful virtus or manliness.
However, the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth challenge this sense that greatness is measured by qualities which put one group above another. Instead, Jesus emphasizes service to others. Biblical Scholar Allen Verhey used to call this “the great reversal”—a new perspective startling enough to turn human expectations inside-out. This new world view was so astounding for a rabbi like Paul of Tarsus that it re-defined humanity itself for him, along with human goodness or justice. Any thought of human greatness was now to be re-envisioned as an open promise for all people.
The first disciples of Jesus are described as having come to him seeking a kind of “greatness” that was ultimately shown to be the very opposite of the greatness he embodied. The earliest sources contain clues that not only “Simon the Zealot” (see Matthew 10:4), but most of his disciples were sympathetic to the Zealot faction and, at first, shared in their revolutionary spirit.
The Gospel of Mark has as its conceptual turning point the account of how Jesus upended his disciples’ drive for restored national greatness and power. There are other sub-themes, to be sure, but for the first Christians this reversal, which was as political for them as spiritual, was crucial.
Mark builds up to the idea dramatically, describing Jesus as channeling the Creator’s power to heal every sort of human brokenness: physical and mental illnesses, social alienations, terror in the face of a life-threatening natural storm, and finally death itself (restoring life to his friend, Lazarus). This thematic build-up is first realized in Chapter 8, where Jesus finally asks the disciples who they’ve come to think he is, and Peter finally blurts out his own rather wild and seditious hope: “The Messiah!?”
People were yearning for the coming of the Messiah, the divine ruler, who according to the ancient prophets, would come, wielding power to re-create and put all things right. In Mark Jesus never uses that term for himself until the end, at his trial, where it’s absolutely clear that if he indeed represents the Creator, God would rather die than dominate his creatures with coercive power. But here, in response to Peter’s “great confession,” Jesus does not demur. Instead he gives the first of several clear-text sayings asserting his role to be a passionately suffering servant of All.
Then Peter explodes: “That’s not what I meant at all!”
Jesus’ implicit claim, that loving service must constitute God’s very greatness as expressed by his Messiah, is too much for Peter, who has shared the common notion that righteous authority must brandish overweening force if it is going to put things right. Must not the Messiah, God’s agent, enforce compliance & submission by God’s enemies?
We are to understand that Peter’s popular notion of Messianic greatness would constitute the worst temptation imaginable for the gracious Creator
But Peter, it seems, has unwittingly taken the voice of God’s opponent. Jesus counters with the toughest thing he ever says to a disciple: “Get behind me. Get lost, Satan!”:
We are to understand that Peter’s popular notion of Messianic greatness would constitute the worst temptation imaginable for the gracious Creator—It would be the very opposite of how the all-wise and loving authority acts to nurture righteousness and perfect the creation.
In contrast, Jesus began sketching his own Son-of-Man future as that of a suffering servant. Here Mark inserts a highly symbolic scene that we have come to know as the transfiguration (Chapter 9). Peter and another key disciple, future leaders of the early church, envision Jesus conversing with Moses (representing the Torah, or Law) and Elijah (epitomizing the message of the Prophets). Thus the disciples gain assurance that Jesus’ astounding reversal is the culmination of earlier traditions, and is God’s own way with power, whereby God channels his greatness into impassioned service.
In re-telling this vignette, the first Christians were suggesting that their Messiah’s great reversal has not been an unprecedented novelty: Their Hebrew forebears had long since already enshrined this life-shaping change of perspective in the Prophet Elijah’s celebrated insight that “God was not in the earthquake, wind, and fire” of Nature’s awesome high places, as people had presumed, but was to be intuited by faith, through an inner “voice of gentle stillness” (I Kings 19:11f.). The very Power of the entire universe has kindly veiled its greatness by remaining a personal presence, hidden in the wings of the world or, one might even say, hovering in the service-quarters of the beloved creation.
So, the prophets had begun to intuit already that both divine and human greatness must entail gracious service of all, rather than competitive, hostile, or coercive power:
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
And the poor among men shall exult in the Wholly-Other One of Israel.
For the ruthless shall come to nothing and the scoffer cease. . .
Who by a loose word make someone out to be an offender . . . (Isaiah 30:10 f.)
Thus said the Lord God, the wholly-other One of Israel:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
In quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
But you would not!
You said, No; We will speed upon attack chargers.
But your pursuers shall be [swifter and smash your arrogance].
Nevertheless, the Lord waits to be gracious to you.
He exalts himself—shows his very greatness
In his mercy to you.”
To this day, at least for those even marginally influenced by it, Biblical tradition finds greatness only in service that upbuilds and upholds All—not just one’s own family, tribe or nation, but all creation. Inevitably this means insuring a special place and honor even for those who may be weak, helpless, dispossessed or defenseless. Paradoxically, the last are to be first and the little ones most honored. The widowed, the alien, the immigrant within your gates are to have an equal place and respect in your lives. Biblical laws sketch these outlines. Self-centered, hostile competition, then, had come to be recognized as a prime evil—the nemesis of human greatness. Within this framework, it is no sign of greatness, but rather a great shame to wall ourselves off and put our own family, tribal or national interests before the well-being of all other peoples.
It is now an iconic image of Messiah-ship, when Jesus dons a slave’s towel and washes his followers’ smelly feet. Most of us respond to the same reversal-message today, when we see the Pope making a ceremony of kneeling down to wash the feet of disabled individuals (or of, in more practical ways, serving homeless or often-despised people).
This is as true in Islam as it is in the other branches of monotheism. Its fundamental “pillars of faith,” the rak‘a, the workday-framing prayers, the month-long Ramadan fasting, and the once-in-a-lifetime Hajj or pilgrimage all dramatize how one must wipe from consciousness all distinctions of nationality, ethnicity, wealth, and social status. And the essential Zakat, or almsgiving, is to serve the weak, poor or homeless who may be within your daily reach. Muhammad certainly recognized this key theme in whatever he knew of Jesus and Mary, whom he styled as great prophets.
Greatness lies in service to all.
In the earliest Christian Gospel, Mark, the build-up of this central theme is brought to its climax and turning point in Chapter 10, where Jesus declares that only as they are playfully themselves for each other “as little children” with no pretentions to superior status will they find their greatest human promise. A similar thrust is given to Jesus’ interchange with a rich man who (as we might paraphrase it) asks, how he could use his status and wealth to make his life great and give it permanent significance. Jesus challenges him to divest himself of his wealth and any pretensions to special status, and simply being himself, follow along). And when the disciples react, “If not this great donor, then who the heck can achieve it!” Jesus in effect says, the key to human greatness is not natural to people—impossible, really (Mark 10:27). They can only discover it’s theirs, as a gift of love.
Then Mark’s clincher comes in verses 35 ff., where he caps this theme by describing how the power-oriented “Sons of Thunder” James and John ask Jesus to promise them high-status posts after the successful revolution they’ve had in mind. (What could be more natural, if they share a Zealot’s nationalistic hopes?) But if Jesus is, as they’ve come to hope, the great Messiah, his response sparks history’s great reversal:
You know that those who presume to rule over the different peoples lord it over them, and their “great” men impose authority over them. But it shall not be like that. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant; and whoever would be first among you must belong to everybody else, be ready to slave in their service. For the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve and to lay down his life as a ransom for many.
Immediately after this, Mark recalls how a blind man in evoking Jesus’ all-powerful service as healer, dares address him with the potentially Messianic title, “Son of David.”
There is no lasting greatness in putting one’s own in-group first, prevailing over all others, attacking all opponents—to me, that is the very essence of Fascism.
Thus this unprovable suggestion became an unavoidable red line in our history: the very power and value-giving lord of the universe just might be manifesting himself in this Son of Man, who went against the grain, by living out and defining ultimate greatness as service—lowly, practical service to all. Ever after, an appropriate response would come to mean a quite playful openness to his presence and his service to us, such that any real greatness will be attuned to this, his Spirit’s own self-bestowal. Christian worship celebrates and challenges with “divine service”: God’s greatness as his tenacious service to all.
So long as Jesus Christ is the Messiah, then, unmitigated political competition is no magical path toward national greatness, as leaders have been trumpeting, but instead a shameful idolatry. There is no lasting greatness in putting one’s own in-group first, prevailing over all others, attacking all opponents—to me, that is the very essence of Fascism.
To have a conscience (con-scientia) means “to think with,” to be attuned to a frame of reference beyond our natural inclinations or self-centered instincts. Today, if we lift up self-service as great instead of service, then we are in a crisis of conscience.
When using the law to dodge ethical considerations, any claim to greatness dissolves in hypocrisy and self-delusion.
Basic ethical imperatives of personal service, like loyalty between partners and personal respect, extend far beyond what should or could be reduced to blunt legalities. Conversely, when shady business maneuvers, exploitation of workers, abusive language, sexual profligacy, bullying, boastful behavior, and conflicts of interest are defended as acceptable or “smart,” merely because they are permissible on the slippery underside of existing law—doesn’t that make a mockery of the very purpose of law and civil society? Who would be great, must be a servant of all; and, as we’re told, it’s a miserable servant who does only his legal duty (Luke 17:10). When using the law to dodge ethical considerations, any claim to greatness dissolves in hypocrisy and self-delusion.
The ground is always changing in politics, always challenging with fresh, burning questions as we consider short-term needs alongside long-term effects; local concerns, as well as trans-national community; corporate stake-holders, as well as company profits; urban development in harmony with ecological conservation. The compromises that work are never set in stone and can never be the exclusive property of a sole politician, party or nation; to lift up any single individual as the source of “greatness” does not fit within the Christian narrative.
If we would be great, we must question anew: In this moment, what does it mean to be a servant to all?
NOTE: Rev. Anderson cites President Lyndon Johnson’s domestic ideal of “the Great Society” as one understanding of what it means for a nation to be great. However, LBJ’s foreign policy—specifically, his approach to the Vietnam War—was perhaps more in line with the “common understanding” of greatness, rooted in might, to which the article objects.
 Verhey, who shortly before his death was elected president of the International Society of Christian Ethics, appropriately entitled his early study on ethics and the New Testament, The Great Reversal.
 The German 19th Century biblical scholar, Adolf von Harnack, argued that it almost took the heretical mentality of a Marcion, who dispensed with the Old Testament, to understand the radical point that grace was to be the final arbiter of human greatness.
 Alongside the tenor of their talk, are cited such evidence as Peter’s carrying a weapon, and disciples’ nicknames: “sons of thunder” and “Stiletto Judas” (a possible translation of the name “Iscariot”). Most biblical scholarship of the last 40 years has discredited the proposition—still advanced in Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth—that the Jesus movement was in any way violent. How Jesus re-directed revolutionary impulses does seem to be part of the Gospel narrative.
 Jewish messianic hopes—charged by the writing of Daniel and more ancient prophetic sources—were focused on the expectation that their good God would, on some cataclysmic “Day of the Lord,” unilaterally put right everything in his creation. This popular expectation gave rise to speculations regarding how God in his ultimate greatness, might take control over earthly powers such as Rome.
 The gospels of Matthew and Luke, in expanding or borrowing from Mark’s Gospel, preface Jesus’ life story with a symbolic vision of how Jesus must have faced down such demonic temptation himself. Here the figure of Satan, the Opponent, dangles the temptations of God-scale power and glory before Jesus, who recognizes their implicit capitulation to evil, and rejects the offers.
 This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923. Presented by subscribers, 1893. From Tate Gallery, online database: entry N01394.
AUTHOR BIO: Rev. Raymond Kemp Anderson served for many years as professor and Chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department at Wilson College, PA, and was one of the last American doctoral candidates of the eminent Reformed theologian Karl Barth, at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Born on a citrus ranch in Southern California, Ray grew up near U.C.L.A., where he received his degree in 1954. As a graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, his far-ranging doctoral and post-doctoral studies, along with diverse international student work, teaching, writing and church experience have given him a wide inter-faith perspective, which he brings to a focus in his books on John Calvin, Karl Barth, and on liberating speech and ethics.