I first encountered the term “downward mobility” in the book Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross by Michael Gorman. It was a term Gorman used to describe the life that Jesus chose to live, using Philippians 2:5-11 as his reference:
Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:
Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
(from the Common English Bible)
Downward mobility is not something to which we aspire. Our society is built on upward mobility. Our heroes are those who have excelled in sports, in Hollywood, in war, in politics or in business. Someone who gives himself for others might make the second 10 minute block of the local news, as long as it’s a slow news day and then, only if anyone actually finds out about the person (which is unlikely because such people don’t give themselves for recognition but out of love).
Our society functions through consumerism, or so it seems. We gauge the strength of the economy by spending habits. As individuals, we define ourselves by what we own and by our work (but only if our work gives us status). We attach worth to others by these same measures.
Jesus owned nothing except maybe the clothes on his back—no house, no land, no donkey. His disciples gave up their life’s work to follow him, and on occasion, speculated as to what reward they would get for doing so, showing that they were still focused on upward mobility.
In the Philippians passage above, Paul tells us that we are to adopt the attitude that Jesus had—emptying ourselves, humbling ourselves, not exploiting our status. The path of downward mobility is not an easy one. It is the narrow path that Jesus describes in Matthew 7:14: “But the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult, so few people find it.”
Sharing these thoughts seems hypocritical, because I write them in my upwardly mobile home surrounded by the trappings of my upwardly mobile life. But while I am not comfortable with the challenge given by Jesus and by Paul, I am less comfortable with my current surroundings. So staying where I am is not a good option. The question for me then is will I, out of love for Jesus and those for whom he died, take the path of downward mobility, the narrow road.