A Humble Meal


How does Hairy Crab sound to you as an appetizer? Or Sea Slug? A bite of Toad on a Stick maybe? Anyone for Upturned Turtle Soup?

These are all dishes that I was honoured to eat when I would travel to mainland China in a former job. I say ‘honoured’ because these were all dishes that I was invited to partake in as an honoured guest.

Chinese culture places a great deal of weight in hierarchy and respect, and the guest with the most hierarchical seniority is placed literally in the place of honour, particularly when it comes to dining. I have to say that, as lovely as the intent was, I could sometimes have done without the honour when it came to being the first person to tuck into whichever delicacy was the order of the day!

This idea may seem alien to us, but as codified and defined as this Chinese culture of honour is, we have our own, more informal equivalent in British culture. Often, we give the place of honour to the person who appears like they have their life together most; the businessman in a sharp suit, or the young woman wearing haute couture, the local celebrity or dignitary. This ‘honouring’ might play itself out in who we choose to speak to on public transport, who we sit next to on a park bench, or how we receive someone who comes through the door of one of our projects. This is something we all do at times; it’s our in-built, human default.

In our work at Oasis Community Housing we strive for a higher standard. Out of our value of Worth comes a viewpoint that all people are equally valuable, regardless of what appearances or social standing suggests. From this belief comes the practice of humility both in how we view ourselves and others.

In the Bible, James the brother of Jesus implores the early Church to outwork this view of humility, saying;

“If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2, v 3-4).

And the practice of humility is not only a standard for how we should treat others. It’s also a healthy lens through which we can understand ourselves. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who served the poorest of the poor ‘untouchables’ for decades in India, and yet rubbed shoulders with Kings and Presidents said:

“If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” 

It’s pride which gets in the way of this humility. It’s pride which, in the words of C.S. Lewis,

“…has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”

When we recognise pride in anyone, it is often the least attractive form of the human condition. It’s why so many were drawn to Nelson Mandela, and why so many are put off by President Trump today. Pride says ‘it’s my contribution and mine only which matters’. Humility says,

‘I am not the answer in myself’.

As an organisation with a Christian ethos, we try to remember that Jesus washed his follower’s feet – a grimy, lowly task normally reserved for the person of least status in any gathering. This humility, this service, is the kind of leadership that each of us should aspire to.

It’s a service that I was humbled to  see illustrated literally and powerfully recently by one of our volunteers, Liz, in Basis Sunderland:

Washing the disciple's feet

This standard of behaviour is something that, as the Chief Executive of OCH, I have often fallen well short of. Pride (in my case often manifesting as stubbornness) can get the better of all of us from time to time. Thankfully, humility is the antidote to pride, a medicine which banishes the symptoms. And humility becomes comes alive in the service of others. As Rev Martin Luther King Jr said:

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”


Nelson’s Amazing Technicolor South Africa

1 Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him. He cried, “Make everyone go out from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. 4 So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.

Genesis 45

I think this scene is one of the most moving to be found in Scripture. In it we see Joseph, supreme Prime Minister of the greatest nation on earth, revealing himself to the brothers who had sold him into slavery many years before. Given the power that Joseph now had as Prime Minister of Egypt, he could easily have wrought a terrible revenge. What was it in his character that made him choose forgiveness and what does that say about his qualities as a leader?

Legend has it that President Mobutu of Zaire (modern day Democratic Republic of the Congo) hired Concorde with public funds so that it could fly champagne fresh from Paris to his jungle stronghold, Gbadolite. Whether the tale is true or not, there’s no doubt that Mobutu did embezzle billions of dollars’ worth of assets from Zaire. Some of these national resources were used to build a palatial complex near Mobutu’s ancestral homeland, including a runway large enough to accommodate the world’s only supersonic passenger plane.

In the years after his surprise ascension to power, Mobutu had already changed his name from Joseph Desiré Mobutu to Mobutu Sese Soko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga (the understated translation being: ‘The all-conquering warrior who goes from triumph to triumph”). He had also changed the name of the very country of which he was President (from The Belgian Congo to the Republic of Zaire) and had generally followed the example of the 19th Century Belgian King Leopold, becoming de facto Emperor of the nation. He was a ruthless leader, using his absolute power to imprison, torture and murder rivals as he extravagantly lined his pockets. And in this, Mobutu is far from alone amongst the roll call of African Statesmen of the mid-20th Century.

One year before Mobutu became President, prisoner 46664 was admitted to Robben Island Prison, off the shores of Cape Town. Nelson Mandela was to spend eighteen years in a small cell on Robben Island, followed by six in Pollsmoor Prison, only to emerge in the glare of the world’s media in 1992 as the political saviour of South Africa. His ascension to become President two years later is one of the greatest stories of the modern era.

So do these three African statesmen – Joseph, Mobutu and Mandela – share common characteristics? Or at least, what are the characteristics which distinguish Mandela and Joseph on one hand from Mobutu on the other? There are many, but a few in particular are worth mentioning.

In his closing speech at his famous Rivonia Trial, Nelson Mandela articulated his dream of a non-racial, non-sexist South Africa, saying that “It was an ideal for which I hope to live. But if necessary it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. Mandela had a dream for what South Africa could become, one which ultimately captured the imagination of the people.

Joseph is also famed for his dreams – or at least, his ability to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh. In his interpretation of these dreams, Joseph articulated a vision for his adopted nation in which the disaster of famine might be averted.

So the ability to articulate a vision for their respective nations was a characteristic shared by both Mandela and Joseph. But Mobutu also had a vision for Zaire: to secure absolute power for himself and his cronies through ruthless Real Politik. So it can’t be just the ability to develop a vision which makes a leader good.

Instead it was the kind of dream which they had for their nations and the way that they spent their lives selflessly working towards the realisation of these dreams which distinguishes these African leaders of North and South from Mobutu.

In his Presidential inauguration speech, Mandela summarised his South African dream, saying;

“We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity — a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Joseph also outworked his dream for Egypt; taking steps to wisely govern the country on behalf of Pharaoh so that the seven years of plenty yielded crops and produce that could see the country through the seven years of famine which were to follow. However, Joseph is also part of a grand dream revealed in the big story of the Bible: God’s dream for the restoration of everything to himself. Joseph’s role was vital in setting in train a future Long Walk to Freedom for the people who would become the Israelites – a Long Walk that, through Jesus, offers Freedom to all.

Interestingly, both Joseph and Nelson came to a place of great authority out of a place of great suffering and hardship. Both men were persecuted and mistreated by their community, being viewed as second-class citizens. Both men had their liberty removed from them unjustly and both served time in prison.

But crucially both men retained their faith through these depths in order, in the end, to rise from them. Indeed they did more than rise above the hardship and injustice. Both forgave their oppressors – Mandela’s former jailer was a guest at his Presidential inauguration – and both enabled the reconciliation of parties in conflict through their example of magnanimity.

Ultimately their dream of a Good Life for all, their faithfulness to that which was beyond themselves, their willingness to forgive, the example of their public service and their wise application of the power of government meant that catastrophe – famine in Egypt and civil war in South Africa – was averted.

Perhaps the words of Isaiah, another Prophetic leader, and his God-given dream serves as a fitting eulogy to both Joseph and Nelson, and a tutorial for the world leaders of today;

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

Isaiah 58