Do you ever find yourself discussing something controversial with someone you disagree with, only to find that there are certain “irreconcilable differences” beneath the surface?
Since I moved to North Carolina from suburban Virginia last year, I’ve had more than a few of those conversations. I’ve struggled to articulate why I so strongly object to a kind of wealthy, white, North Carolinian conservatism that is suspicious of the poor, unmoved by poverty, and preoccupied with an economic calculus of “the way things are.” At risk of sounding cliched and holier-than-thou, maybe my understanding of Jesus is what makes the popular politics of possibility (say that three times fast!) so impossible for me.
Let’s imagine for a minute that God became a homeless wanderer who relied on donations from the wealthy to fund his ministry. Even if that was all we had to go one, what might be our “default” take on homelessness and poverty?
Since I moved to North Carolina last year, I’ve met people who are “by default” suspicious of poor people: “They have not excuse for being poor.” “There are so endless opportunities for everyone in this country, especially minorities.” I have heard people actually say those things.
But if my “unconditional concern” is a God who became a homeless dude, I might tend to think differently. The Incarnation of God in an obscure Jewish peasant threatens any tendency to find ultimate value and meaning (AKA “God,” in some sense) in money and power. In light of the Incarnation, poverty is associated with God, not with laziness.
But let’s say there’s more than just incarnation. Let’s say that the Incarnate God was not only a homeless wanderer, but a party-thrower who challenged society’s hierarchies by inviting everybody (men, women, adult, child, rich, poor, Jew, Gentile) to celebrate the in-breaking “Kingdom of God” with him. Let’s say that said homeless dude is executed by a powerful, wealthy Empire with the cruel and humiliating punishment reserved for political revolutionaries.
This grants a whole new sense of urgency to the Incarnation-instincts described above. The story of a “crucified God” confronts me with a troubling question: whose side am I on? Am I more like the greedy judges or the sentenced revolutionary?
Being suspicious of the poor becomes risky business in light of the Jesus story (especially as it’s found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Matthew’s Gospel relates a scene where Jesus is judging humanity at the end of history. Jesus condemns the people who did not care for the “least of these” – the vulnerable, the poor, the incarcerated. To the shock of the oppressors, Jesus declares that what is done to the “least of these” is, in fact, done to Jesus himself. How could it be otherwise?
But what if there’s even more to the story than that? Maybe God became a homeless guy, and maybe that homeless guy challenged the status quo and wound up murdered by the authorities. But what if he was raised from the dead? What might that mean for our political instincts?
The cross isn’t hard to imagine. If a poor man starts poking holes in the very fabric of society, and if a small group of leaders are making a ton of money off of “the way things are,” then why wouldn’t they kill him?! Maybe the opposition to change posed by the rich and powerful is “life as usual,” “the way things are.” Maybe the cross of Jesus is “the right kind of nightmare” as Douglas Ottati says – maybe the cross shows us the ugly, unacceptable side of what we all take for granted.
The resurrection is more difficult to believe, precisely because it is God’s “No” to “the ways things are.” Poor subversive types might be regularly suppressed by the powerful and the wealthy, but how regularly do the oppressed become resurrected? As far as I know, that doesn’t happen very often. Resurrection interferes with our calculus. It up-ends “the way things are.”
Resurrection means that the “way things are,” the logic of the dollar, the authority of the powerful – none of these things are final. But the resurrection of Jesus has already happened; God is already transforming things from the way they are to the way they should be. The impossible future is already breaking into the present!
Having learned from Resurrection that God’s already in the business of up-ending expectations, we are free to dream of and work towards a society where every kid gets a good education, police brutality isn’t a constant threat to anyone, “my money” isn’t free from the demands of those in need. If all of that seems impossible, then we might be doing something right! After all, is there anything more impossible than resurrection?