Kelly Clarkson’s latest single is a pop culture anthem with a catchy tune. It’s called “People Like Us” and it has a spiritual depth that struck me when I first heard the song.
Clarkson identifies with certain people in the song – “people like us.” Who are people like us? Cultural scapegoats, outcasts, marginalized, misfits, and the damned.
People like us we’ve got to stick together
Keep your head up, nothing lasts forever
Here’s to the damned, to the lost and forgotten
… We are all misfits living in a world on fire
Some may criticize Clarkson’s motivation for identifying with cultural scapegoats. After all, she’s been a pop culture diva since her appearance on American Idol more than a decade ago. Is she identifying with the marginalized because ever since Lady Gaga did it in 2011 with Born this Way it’s now the cool thing to do?
Whatever her motivations, I think it’s amazing that it has become “cool” to identify with cultural outcasts. And as opposed to criticizing her motivations, I want to affirm them. Whether Clarkson realizes this, as a powerful and influential person who identifies with cultural “misfits” and the “damned,” what she is doing in “People Like Us” is modeling an example of Christ-like love.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians helps me explain why:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness and being found in human form, he humbled himself (2:5-8)
Theologians call this the doctrine of kenosis, which means self-emptying. Christ emptied himself of all desires that would exploit his position of power and privilege with God so that he could identify with the damned, the lost, forgotten, and the misfits of human culture.
This matters because, as mimetic theory teaches us, we naturally experience a sense of emptiness, that we are not enough, a “lack of being,” as René Girard puts it. We fill that emptiness by desiring what others have, or what we assume they have. We tend to think that others have the fullness that we lack, and if we just had what they have, we could experience the same fullness of life. So we grasp and compete for the popularity, privilege, and prestige that we think others have. We seek to keep some people down and knock others off the next rung in the ladder of success. We become over and against one another.
But kenosis shows us another way. Instead of climbing the ladder, Christ emptied himself of all power that isover and against others, and was animated by the power of the Holy Spirit, which is a power that is withothers, but especially with cultural misfits.
Jesus caused a great scandal by identifying with those that the religious elite labeled as sinners, including traitorous Roman tax collectors and prostitutes. He became a cultural scapegoat and, even more, on the cross he was damned, not by God, but by his fellow human beings.
Clarkson states that “we are all misfits living in world on fire.” That’s an apocalyptic statement, for the world is on fire with human violence, but it doesn’t have to be. The answer to our violence is found in Christ’s nonviolent love that empties itself of all ambitions that lead to rivalry and violence over and against one another.
Still, emptiness, kenosis, is only the first step in the process. Because of our mimetic nature, we will always seek to be filled by something. Once Jesus emptied himself of a desire for power that exploit others, he was filled by the power of God’s nonviolent love, a love that made him someone like us.
So, in the words of Clarkson, Here’s to the damned, to the lost and forgotten …