August 21, 2004
Humbling the exalted

After I went off to traipse among the cedars, Joe Guada wrote a thoughtful response to my most recent post on The Politics of Jesus. It leads him to a memory of a Quaker workshop:

The workshop leader then asked an intriguing question. Where did we, who had grown up middle-class and white (all of the attendees were people of European descent and from middle-class backgrounds) in one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations of the world, “position” ourselves in these verses? Did we consider ourselves as one of those who was humble and hungry or as one of those who was proud and rich? She explained that Liberation Theology tended to interpret the Bible from a communal perspective rather than reading it as a text that was designed solely for an individual’s personal illumination. Thus, if we viewed these verses at a purely individualistic level, most of us might think of ourselves as one of those whom God protects and loves; or at least as one of those who was on the side of the “little guy” (along with God) against the powers (of the world). Yet, when taken from a larger, systemic perspective, as a group we easily could be lumped in with those labeled “proud”, “strong”, and “rich” for, after all, each of us had lived and continued to live a relatively privileged existence compared to the world’s “humble”, “poor”, and “vulnerable”.

Several people were unhappy with this interpretation. They asserted that God viewed everyone equally; that is was unfair to “lump” all Americans into the same group; that the notion that the Divine shows a “preference” of one group over another was antithetical to Friends’ belief that everyone had the Inward Light within them.

Believe me, you don't have to go to a Quaker workshop to have conversations like that. They happen in college sensitivity training courses all the time. And I remember, when I went through that, feeling the same resistance. It wasn't my fault that I was born a white American doctor's daughter any more than it was an African peasant's fault that he was born in that situation. Why should I carry the guilt?

Looking at it in terms of guilt, however, is probably not the right way. The secular liberal approach that I encountered in college tended to isolate guilt in the privileged classes, and imagine oppressed groups as living in a kind of Rousseauian innocence until those straight white males came along and ruined them. But the doctrine of original sin doesn't accept that, and it seems to me a check into the reality of marginalized peoples affirms that sin is universal.

So what's up with the Biblical language about scattering the proud and dragging rulers from their thrones? Does that mean we're going to be thrown into hell for belonging to a privileged group? Not necessarily. The humbling that God inflicts upon Bible characters, as well as Israel itself, more often serves their own sanctification than it destroys them. It was painful for David to lose his child, for Paul to be blinded for three days, for Israel to suffer its defeats, but it all paved the way for salvation.

The point I think Yoder was trying to make is that in the fallen world, the rule of one person over another is generally a reflection of sin rather than the original divine plan. The mistake rulers make is when they don't recognize this, and think their power is a foolproof sign of God's favor. (I'll leave it to others to dissect the implications for Bush's belief that God meant for him to be president.) For people like me and Joe who just happened to end up in the ruling class, the mistake is probably in clinging to our own innocence, which becomes its own sort of pride. Joe points this out at the end of his post:

I wonder how often I have made my political and social views into idols so that I can feel that I am on the “correct” side of an issue. At a broader level how many times do we (liberal) Friends in the U.S. think of ourselves as being on the side of the “little guy” fighting “against the powers” when, in fact, we might actually be on the other side of the equation, which includes self-righteousness, sanctimoniousness, pride, and privilege? Do we truly believe that there is a greater Truth than our own political and social views?

Posted by Camassia at August 21, 2004 09:34 AM | TrackBack

Right. When Jesus told the rich young man to first give it all away to the poor if he wanted to become a disciple, or if He said that if one wanted to become a disciple, one shouldn't put off making that decision, even long enough to attend a father's funeral; even if Jesus said those things, he certainly didn't mean them to apply to us, right? I mean, Christianity isn't an ascetic creed, is it? Jesus came eating and drinking, didn't he? He allowed himself to anointed with expensive stuff from alabaster jars, right? It would be a sin to "throw away" the bounty God has made available, wouldn't it? It was *God* who provided the bounty. Right?

Posted by: Rob on August 22, 2004 04:56 AM

Thanks for your thoughtful post to my post, which was originally based on a post by you. :) I think your thoughts extend the ideas I was trying to get at, in a much clearer way than what I had wrote. It's not our position in the world that makes us sinful, but its our assumption of innocence, due to that position (or the views that we take), that is the real problem. Is that what you meant to state?

I'm not sure I understand what you're point is in your comments. What was your main point with the questions that you listed? I'm a bit confused. Thank you.

Posted by: Joe G. on August 22, 2004 09:05 AM

Joe G.
What I was trying to do by asking that series of questions--questions raised in my mind by what Camassia had posted--was to see if any other readers had answers to them. I happen personally to see discipleship as an ascetic calling; one that is antithetical to "pyramid climbing" and spending one's life in dedication to the accumulation of material wealth and the power that wealth brings with it. What do you think, Joe?

Posted by: Rob on August 22, 2004 09:24 AM

Rob, I agree that trying to accumulate money and power is antithetical to discipleship, but I'm a little puzzled as to what that has to do with my post. I'm not writing about "pyramid climbing," but simply being born into a position of wealth and privilege, and to inherit the benefits of other people's pyramid climbing, so to speak. I think Joe gets the point that we don't inherit the guilt for such things, but neither should we imagine that every person starts from scratch the way many Americans like to think. We inherit the consequences of structural evil, which materially benefits some more than others but ultimately corrupts all.

As to asceticism, it depends on what kind. Some types of self-mortification can become their own sort of elitism. It doesn't do anything for your neighbor, or to help mend social evils, to go off in a cave and starve yourself or flagellate yourself or whatever. However, clearly Jesus demanded that his disciples drop everything in order to follow him.

But I think you're presenting a choice between two unnecessary extremes here. I don't think Jesus meant for people to "throw away" God's bounty, and I don't see enjoying the same as equivalent to social climbing. I am rather convinced by Yoder's point that his lines about the birds in the air and the lilies in the fields were meant to indicate that God will provide for your wants if you trust him, not that your wants are evil. Although I didn't mention it in my posts, Yoder also points out that imitating Christ by following the "barefoot wandering monastic" route didn't really come into fashion until St. Francis' era; the earliest disciples saw imitating Christ as creating an alternative community of mutual giving and of patient martyrdom, if necessary. That calls for a great deal of self-discipline, but it's not exactly what the word "asceticism" evokes in my mind (though maybe it evokes something different in yours).

Posted by: Camassia on August 22, 2004 10:33 AM

Do you understand the "rich young man" to have been a self-made man? Or is it more likely that he had inherited his status? It didn't seem to matter to Jesus, one way or the other. The question is not how the wealth came to you, but how it affects your ability to devote your whole heart and mind to Christ.
Although the first Christian communities may not have have become barefoot wandering mendicants, that is exactly how Jesus sent his immediate disciples out to spread the gospel. In this sense, St. Francis was, in his own mind at least, a revisionist reformer of the faith.
The earliest Christian communities apparently owned their property in common. Neither of these modes of dealing with wealth--neither shunning it, or sharing it equally--are recognized as necessary conditions for contemporary Christian discipleship/fellowship.
My point is that when the messages of Jesus get tough, they always seem to be interpreted either as applying to somebody else, or as being so figurative that they don't affect any person's real life, or as being anachronistic and applicable only to First Century situations.
What are we to suppose is meant by "many are called, few are chosen"--that the great middle class is doing it right?
Finally, if Jesus wasn't an "extremist," what was he?

Posted by: Rob on August 22, 2004 01:15 PM

I forgot to mention the "birds" and the "lilies." The point of the birds is that they trust God to provide for them day-by-day; they aren't looking for luxuries, but only sufficiencies. And they are not hoarding surpluses that deprive other birds of their ability to obtain sufficiencies. The point of the lilies is that they are beautiful as God made them; they don't require honors and acquired status or wealth to radiate their perfection.

Posted by: Rob on August 22, 2004 01:34 PM

Notice something interesting about the story of the rich young man: Jesus didn't say, "Get rid of your possessions." He said, "Sell everything you own and give the money to the poor." The point of the story was giving, not self-denial for its own sake. That's the distinction I'm trying to make here. There are some forms of asceticism that people do for their own personal growth or to keep themselves pure from the world, but I don't see that anywhere in the Jesus' sayings about giving away possessions. If that were the case, wouldn't it be just spiritually burdening the poor to give them money?

The same question about the ultimate goals applies to the "barefoot monastic" thing. In the society they were in, Jesus and his disciples were bound to be nomadic misfits, but after Jesus' ascension those same disciples settled into a more stable social existence. To them, the goals of following Jesus did not begin and end with their former lifestyle. I rather doubt that you or I, or St. Francis, knew what Jesus intended better than those people.

I never denied that people who inherited wealth have an obligation to give it away. That was, really, the point that I was trying to make. I was just trying to distinguish the responsibility from the guilt, which often seems to get confused in these discussions. I also am not holding up modern middle-class churches as exemplary Christian communities here. I get frustrated for the same reasons you do. (I may post about that some time.) But I think it's important to keep the ultimate purpose in mind here, and I don't think self-mortification is it. The benefit to the neighbor of all this self-denial is more than a footnote.

Posted by: Camassia on August 22, 2004 02:11 PM

I agree with your point that the guilt of Original Sin and the stumbling block that undue love of money, power and status can become, have little or nothing in common. I don't equate wealth and guilt per se. Any guilt a Christian must own up to is always a failure to love. How money and status affect one's ability to love is a very subjective thing.
Since we live in a secular society that is not governed by God's law, society is governed by principles which are more "practical" than is love. Unfortunately, this leads to selfishness and the accumulation of personal wealth, since you know that you can't count of society to care for you in a loving way, if you become useless to society.
There are people in power in our society who are willing to plunder and kill in order to contribute to the maintenance of what have become our normal expectations with regard to security and comfort: those powers should be resisted by Christian people, rather than supported by them.

Posted by: Rob on August 22, 2004 02:44 PM
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