The Insufficiency of Incarnation

My beautiful picture

Looking for A Bigger Truth  Do Justice Blog has been doing a #listenatthemargins series. I haven’t been a faithful daily reader, listener, watcher but I’ve caught a number of them.

Here is one that really stuck with me. A very creative telling of one person’s experience of depression. 

Here’s another with a Native American talking about Thanksgiving. 

I like a series like this because it forces me to see things from a perspective different from my own. This is the whole notion of “privilege” acknowledging that the shape of our lives and experience impacts how we see the world. We all approach the world with a full set of biases. Listening to the stories and perspectives of others helps reduce these biases so that we can better know a bigger truth in the world.

Looking for the Salvation Narrative One of my biases honed now by years of preaching is that whenever I read or listen I’m always paying close attention to some questions and answers.

  • What is the problem they see?
  • What is the answer, remedy or helpful action they are proposing?

In the depression piece this is where she goes

Anyway, I wanted to end this on a hopeful, positive note, but, seeing as how my sense of hope and positivity is still shrouded in a thick layer of feeling like hope and positivity are bullshit, I’ll just say this: Nobody can guarantee that it’s going to be okay, but — and I don’t know if this will be comforting to anyone else — the possibility exists that there’s a piece of corn on a floor somewhere that will make you just as confused about why you are laughing as you have ever been about why you are depressed. And even if everything still seems like hopeless bullshit, maybe it’s just pointless bullshit or weird bullshit or possibly not even bullshit.

In the Thanksgiving piece here was where she placed her hope

I see, in the “First Thanksgiving” story, a hidden Pilgrim heart. The story of that heart is the real tale than needs to be told. What did it hold? Bigotry, hatred, greed, self-righteousness? We have seen the evil that it caused in the 350 years since. Genocide, environmental devastation, poverty, world wars, racism. Where is the hero who will destroy that heart of evil? I believe it must be each of us. Indeed, when I give thanks this Thursday and I cook my native food, I will be thinking of this hidden heart and how my ancestors survived the evil it caused. Because if we can survive, with our ability to share and to give intact, then the evil and the good will that met that Thanksgiving day in the land of the Wampanoag will have come full circle. And the healing can begin.

Isn’t The Right Answer Always “Jesus”?

It would be easy in either case to simply jump on the nihilism and humanism of the two pieces. You don’t need me to point them out. It isn’t hard.

Creation is the canvas of God’s glory and it can be mediated in through many things and in many ways to us. The glory of Jesus power in feedling the multitude came through bread and fish. When we pray for the sick to be healed we don’t curse the science or the medicine it produces. God’s common grace is mediated in 10,000 ways.

We should rightly give thanks for these things. It is sometimes an off-putting Christian habit to denigrate mediated common grace where some have found solace and comfort in this brutal world. “I’m glad this helps you” can be a charitable thing to say. My judgments are always my own.

Watching Ferguson

I like, many of us, are reading, mulling and talking about Ferguson Missouri.

I grew within an African American community. My uncle was a white cop.

I have too many times seen the bigotry of my own heart towards many different people and the groups I create for them. Bias and bigotry are utterly natural for us. They are survival skills we learn as infants and toddlers to quickly judge in whom to instantly invest trust and from whom to turn away, with whom to side and against whom to stand.

One side cries out “Do you have any idea what it is like to have dark skin in this country and what that means every day in almost every space and in nearly every social interaction?”

Most white folks have to say “no”.

The other side says “Can you appreciate how hard it is to be called into situations of violent conflict in order to keep the peace, to insure justice and protect the weak?”

Most of us would have to say “no”.

So here we are. We should listen to each other and try to understand. Trying to understand is a good thing, but it is probably an insufficient thing to keep police fingers off of triggers or more biases from forming in all of our minds as we constantly seek to be right and safe.

What if Jesus Came Just to Listen? 

One of the salvation narratives I hear in many of these stories is that listening and understanding will make a difference. I think these are good things, but I’m skeptical of its sufficiency.

Pastors and therapists and friends sit in rooms and listen to pain. It helps people. Pain shared is pain divided.

At the same time this level of understanding is never enough. Pastors and well-meaning Christian people based on the incarnation have for years been saying “Jesus knows and understands” but many in pain will respond “then why doesn’t he DO something about it!” This isn’t a new question, Israel’s prophets asked this for centuries.

We should pause right her to note that hardly any sufferer is satisfied simply with acknowledgement or understanding of their pain. It’s nice. It does bring comfort. It does help, but it’s never enough.

The main point of problem-of-evil-skepticism about God, his existence, benevolence or gracious disposition for us is based on the assertion that He has not, cannot or will not address our complaints. Incarnation is a necessary but not sufficient response to our calamity. We should remember this every time we hear someone talk wistfully about “just being with” the group of your immediate empathy. Empathy is never enough.

The Alarming Irresponsibility Of Jesus’ Method

When I think about what Jesus would do if he were Officer Darren Wilson the best I can imagine is that he would have been ready to take the bullet from the imagined gun of Michael Brown of whatever threat the sum of Darren Wilson’s natural biases presented to him.

We immediately know that this is no practical solution to the problem. This is just as unworkable as “well maybe the world has no meaning or purpose so don’t be so down” or “each of us can be our own hero to destroy our heart of evil”.

What is so alarming about Jesus is never his practicality, but his seeming irresponsibility with his power.

The narrative is different from the pastor who set himself on fire. This man sounded frustrated and depressed. He wanted to make a statement but his statement was one of impotent despair.

The one thing about Jesus that everyone seemed to have heard about was his miracle working power. The Romans and Herodians wanted to see him do a trick. The religious leaders were terrified he would. Satan quoted Scripture to beg him to. All of us know that it is far easier to take a life than to restore one, yet Jesus was known for his power to heal.

  • It is harder to make a blind man see than to blind a man
  • It is harder to make a lame man walk than to cripple a man
  • It is harder to make a deaf man hear than to destroy his ears
  • It is harder to make a dead man live than to kill one

What looks irresponsible about Jesus is that he refuses to use all that power to try to do some good. Instead, he lets them crucify him.

Even after the resurrection, surely the most amazing display of his exceptionalism he seems utterly unwilling to push his point. Why not pop by to see Pilate, Herod or Caesar? He shows himself to his friends and family, and some doubted, but surely an appearance to the important people would make more of a difference, right?

Putting Down the Weapon of Fear

The Civil Rights movement in American culture has become the golden template of public moral change. I think, however, as is common in most attempts to duplicate a past success, some of the essential more costly qualities have quietly been laid aside.

What made the American Civil Rights movement so powerful? Was it that they had signs, demonstrations, marches, protests? Was it that the powers of Jim Crow knew they had better watch their step or some smart pastor or lawyer would make a ruckus and get them in trouble with the Federal government? Sure, all those things had their place but none of that gave it its moral power. The mass movement thing we got, the love of enemies we’ve conveniently left behind.

Read or listen to MLK’s Sermon (yes a sermon) given November 17 1957, If you want to skim the main points you can find them on Wikipedia. His basic point is that redemptive change is impossible without loving your enemy. You can’t love your enemy until and unless you confront your self. My bigotry is an expression of my love for myself and my group and the values that my group possesses.

Most of what we see displayed today in justice advocacy is an attempt to gather power and use it against your adversary. “see we have more people, more money, more votes in congress, better lawyers…” This will never convert an adversary, but rather lead them to resist loudly at first, quietly later or despair. It is using fear to subdue. Fear can control behavior, but will never undo bigotry or bias. If you would undo those things, you need a very different way.

Maybe now we can see why Jesus used his power as he did, and more importantly why he didn’t use his power in the ways he didn’t, yet we probably would have. We can also begin to see how the resurrection figures into this narrative. The resurrection makes Jesus and our use costly love of our enemies and adversaries responsible and beautiful.

I never once heard Jesus telling his disciples to go out and stir up the people’s anger and outrage so that they can mobilize power to intimidate or defeat their adversary. Jesus experienced outrage, but he didn’t use it as a weapon of power against his enemy.

Always Looking for a Less Costly Way

As I said at the beginning, it’s vitally important to listen to voices from the margins. Listening to the pain and experience of others can help us know a larger truth. What frustrates me is when we as a church embrace cheaper redemptive substitutes because Jesus’ way of loving enemies is too costly.

We always know we’re in trouble when the advocated solution to the problem we see out there begins in the second person.

  • If you would only appreciate
  • If you would only see
  • If you would only do this
  • If you would stop doing that

Part of the irony of many social justice pieces that I read is that they follow the script of older evangelical preaching

  • first let me show you the sin that you have but can’t see
  • next I’ll give you the program to fix yourself or make you like me

We might be horribly offended to hear something like this in church yet we endlessly preach it among the secular choirs we prefer. Jesus talked about logs and specs.

You Can’t Push a Rope

The greatest irony is that the most offensive testimony to Jesus’ way is perceived as the most benign, prayer. Prayer is at the same time proclaimed to be the most pointless exercise in a material world yet its promotion is highly offensive.

If you look at Jesus way, however, it stands both at the center and seemingly most impotent. Contrast those who mocked Jesus “he saved (with power!) others, but he cannot save himself” with Jesus praying for them from the cross. Who appears to win?

The church has long asserted that he was saving others by NOT saving himself, with power.

There is a woman in my church who loves to tell stories about her life growing up in Jim Crow south. One of her favorite stories is about her mother. Her mother was a poor black woman who had no money, no status, no power. When she’d see things she’d question or disagree with her line was always the same. “God knows”. The wisdom and perspective given her by a church of poor, mostly uneducated people, gave her the power to believe that finally salvation is of the LORD. The weapons the church is given to wield seem utterly impotent and pointless: prayer, love of enemies, caring for the weak, rehearsing Jesus’ story, announcing his reign.

Jesus didn’t come just to listen to our suffering, he came to suffer with us, to die with us, and to pave the way ahead of us into the resurrection. Our grateful witness to this is finally what the church has to give. It takes many shapes but it is always costly because it borrows against the immense collateral of the age to come.

Advent is about Jesus’ incarnation, but not the incarnation alone. He comes, suffers, rises, reigns and will intervene again. We need nothing less.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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