The Utopia of the Poor

I’ve talked before about an Hermeneutic of Poverty and about the potential difficulty that the rich (that includes me and, I’m sure, most of my readers) have in understanding the Bible. But it’s not limited to biblical interpretation, just as biblical interpretation itself is not just about biblical interpretation. This hermeneutic of poverty is also about how we interpret the whole of our experience and our identity in the world.

Whether or not we are rich or poor has everything to do with how we interpret the systems we find ourselves participating with or struggling against. Our situations, both economic and social, form our imaginations, or as Jon Sobrino puts it, our “utopias”. If our utopian imaginations are guided by an hermeneutic of poverty then the poor will be at the center of those imaginations. Our hope for the poor will be, in itself, our “utopian hope.” Jesus often referred to the centrality of the poor in his utopian hope, in his Kingdom imagination.

Jesus told story after story about the kingdom of God; the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the shepherd who loses a sheep, none of which speak of mansions in heaven, meg-churches, or the accumulation of wealth. No, that stuff is a different narrative, it’s a different dream, and it’s formed by a much different hermeneutic than that of Jesus of Nazareth. For Jesus, the poor were at the center. He came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). He did not dream of God’s kingdom from a position of privilege, and so neither should we.

Sobrino, in his book No Salvation Outside the Poor, talks about the centrality of the poor and the salvation that comes from the poor. Only by adopting utopian dreams of those on the under-side of society can society ever be transformed in such a way that sin and death are truly defeated. But it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God (mark 10:23). Sobrino writes:

“People who are not poor simply take life for granted, and that gives rise to their fantastic utopias. But life is precisely what poor people do not take for granted. Thus, life itself is the utopia, minimally for the nonpoor, but maximally for the poor… We must therefore labor courageously to reverse the current trend and change our death-dealing reality into a life-giving reality.” (No Salvation Outside the Poor, page 81)

The rich do not intrinsically understand the poor, and so it is against our nature to dream as they do. The utopias of the rich are “fantastic” visions of streets f gold; the “good life” and the “American dream.” But to adopt a hermeneutic of poverty and thereafter a utopia of the poor would be to adopt a utopia of life, no longer taking for granted the things of life and trading them for hard cash and beach houses. As Gandhi said (tell me if you know where this is written), “there is enough for everybody’s need, but not enough for anybody’s greed.”

Furthermore we can become trapped into our “fantastic utopias.” As Rob Bell puts it:

“In an empire of entitlement, when the fundamental awareness is lost that this is all a gift, luxuries can begin to seem like necessities. Excess can become normal. And it can be very easy to lose perspective on just how much we have.” (Jesus Wants to Save Christians page 125)

The higher we build our walls and pile up our luxuries, the harder it becomes to see over them into the real world which is truly suffering. We just can’t escape from our wealth long enough to understand those for whom the system is just not working. We can even become quite bitter in our perspective, finding ourselves annoyed and even angry with the poor. We begin to think of them as criminals working against the system we’ve grown to love. Bell, again, writes: “If the system works for you, it can be quite hard to understand the perspective of people who have the boot of the system on their neck” (page 130).

This mix-up of utopian visions doesn’t happen in isolation from the church. There are many churches, though generous they may be, which find themselves trapped inside their walls, helplessly separate from the poor. They want to help, so they hurl their excess goods over their walls, just hoping that the needy might catch it on the other side. Because, in the end, they don’t know the poor. Mother Teresa once said, “I want you to be concerned about your next door neighbor. Do you know your next door neighbor?”

This question should haunt the rich but, sadly, it has been ignored. We don’t know our neighbors who are suffering and so it’s hard for the rich to dream God’s dreams. We need, now more than ever, a hermeneutic of poverty–an way of seeing the world, our experience, and our identity with the poor at the center. Only then can we see the utopia that Jesus dreamed about and begin to live our lives toward it… which might mean, for some, turning around in our tracks.

Here is Your Mother

“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of
Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple
whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Dear woman, here is your
son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this
disciple took her into his home.”

Is there a point to this passage beyond to show that Jesus cared for his mother and wanted to make sure she was cared for in his absence? There are probably several directions you could go from here. The key question I would start with is who is “the disciple whom he loved”?

The most common speculation is that this “beloved disciple” is the man whose name the gospel in which he is found bears—John (this argument hangs on John 21:24 which, some would say, is not as clear as we might be inclined to think it is). Others can argue rather convincingly that the disciple is Lazarus (John hints that it’s Lazarus because he is the only disciple whom the author tells us is loved by Jesus. In John 11:35 and 36 it says “Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’”) But I am honestly not satisfied with either of these options. Why should something which is so cryptic be forced into solidity? Perhaps the beloved disciple is not any one historical character at all. Perhaps the beloved disciple is a device used by the author to draw speculation and to draw the reader into the story. Perhaps the beloved disciple is not John or Lazarus, but you and me. Could the beloved disciple be the sort of character in whose face we should see ourselves (or perhaps just the role to which we are called). This disciple is the one who reclines next to Jesus at the table of the Eucharist (John 13), this disciple outruns all the others to the empty tomb (John 20:2-4), this disciple sees and believes (John 20:8), this disciple recognizes Jesus in a body bearing the scars of crucifixion (John 21:7), and this disciple is the prophetic witness to the gospel (John 21:24). This disciple is there from crucifixion to resurrection. Because of the ambiguity of this character we might speculate that the point is not who it is but how, and thus how we might find ourselves in the story—by Jesus’ side at the meal and at his feet at the cross. The beloved disciple is us; it draws us into the story.

If this interpretation has any merit then what is this “Here is your mother” thing about? Jesus’ mother is the mother of a crucified man, an unwanted of the Roman Empire. She is the mother of the most subjugated and dehumanized of people and she is our mother. On the cross, Jesus brings the reader and the “least of these” together under the same mother. The commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother,” caries new meaning at the cross of Christ for my mother and my father are the mothers and fathers of those “others” about whom I could otherwise so easily forget.

Peace to Shepherds

“There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.'”

The angels said “to you.” “TO YOU”? To who? …Shepherds… dirty, dirty shepherds. Not to kings and rich white folks but to poor shepherds from whom most of their flocks were taken and dedicated, due to decree, to benefit not them but King Herod. This is generally how things went for them. They rarely ate what their own hands had worked for.

Micah 4:4 says “Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.” The Angels said “Fear not!” In the context of oppression those would have been powerful words.

The angels said, “to you a savior is born.” A savior for them. Not Herod?  I am sure they heard lots of “savior” talk in their day, from Caesar and from Herod, but I am sure it hardly ever pertained to them. it was always for someone else. Promises of peace and salvation were made but always to the rich always to the powerful never to shepherds especially Jewish ones. But Angels say “to you.” Amazing!

“…On Earth Peace…” they loudly sang in the chorus. Peace, peace, peace. This too, to shepherds, would have been popular jargon during the “peace of Rome.” But once again, never for them always for someone else. But finally, angels serenade them with “peace.” Finally good news for them and not for someone else. Finally good news to “all the people.” Surely this is “good news to the poor.” Only this would give them courage and the sort of hope it takes to leave Herod’s flocks behind and worship the true Messiah, the son of David, the King of Kings, the good shepherd born in a lowly manger.

May our Christ-mess celebration be good news to the poor and to all the people, not just to the people who hang stockings to be filled with ipods.

Merry Christ-mess

We have certainly made a mess of Christmas. But I think originally, when the birth festival was first being celebrated it would have had just the opposite effect. Christmas, or advent, would have made a mess of society, it would certainly have stirred things up amongst the Romans and it may have been quite a mess, a danger, for those first Christians to celebrate. Rather than being a part of or even a manifestation of culture as it is today, with all it’s commercial and consumerist “traditions,” it was quite counter-cultural.

At the time of Christ’s advent the Romans ruled the world and they did it brutally and forcefully but claimed that their violence and conquest was for the purpose of Pax Romana (the peace of Rome) ushering in an eternal and universal reign of peace and prosperity. Prior to Jesus coming, in 17B.C., a strange star shone in the sky, maybe a comet or something like that, people believed that that star was a sign, the sign of Caesar Augustus’ father Julius going to heaven, ascending to the right hand of God the Father, Zeus. Caesar Augustus thus, believing that if his father was God then he indeed must be the son of God, inaugurated a twelve day celebration of his own birth, a celebration with which the gospel writers along with all of the first Christians would have been quite familiar, a celebration called advent or the advent of Caesar. He believed that he was the “Son of God” coming to earth to bring about Pax Romana.

Now, when Jesus came, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, the vast majority of the wealth in society, something like 95%, belonged to a very small percentage of the population, something like 5%. That means that a few are very, very rich and many are very very poor. Jesus’ family was part of that massive and massively poor population. Jesus’ father, Joseph, was a displaced carpenter who had at some point shamefully lost his family land and Mary was among the anawim, the “poor ones” the poorest in an already poor community. Why was the society like this? Because in order to promote the conquest of Rome, Caesar had to fund his army, to do this he had to tax the people over whom he ruled, he had to tax the people he conquered and he taxed them quite heavily. These taxes were taken by “tax collectors,” people who stood between the people and their oppressors and who essentially robbed from the poor and gave to the rich. Jesus was among the poorest. Jesus is one of those whom Rome is oppressing under the banner of Pax Romana. In fact, it is upon a Roman cross that Jesus suffers his brutal death.

Imagine what it would have been like to celebrate the advent of Christ in a world that celebrated the advent of Caesar. Imagine what a mess it would have made for the Romans and their rulers to have a corner of their empire worshiping and celebrating the birth of a Jewish child who was crushed under Pax Romana. Imagine celebrating, in the face of Rome, the coming of the one who cannot be defeated by Roman crosses. Who, rather than being put on display as a traitor on the cross, put Rome on display for what it really was. Imagine trying to promote the peace of Rome to those proclaiming the peace of Christ whose victory did not come by the sword but by forgiveness. Whose peace makes more sense? Imagine how a Roman emperor would feel about anyone else being called the Son of God.

Imagine living in those days and reading the gospel narrative out loud in your community, reading “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” and “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people… a Savior has been born to you,” and “on earth peace to men.” This Christmas story would have been quite different from what the culture was celebrating. As the culture was celebrating the birth of and imposter savior, a conqueror, those who were “more than conquerors” were celebrating the advent of Christ, the true Lord and the true bringer of peace. What a mess that would have made.

But that’s all in the past, right? We have no imposters on the throne of Christmas. Ah, but don’t we? Look around, just what is it that culture celebrates in the advent season? Are they celebrating Jesus’ coming, the coming of one who can never be defeated by the wealthy and the brutal and in whom we will not suffer any such defeat? No they celebrate the coming of presents, of gifts from stores bought with money on which is printed “In God We Trust”. Our imposter may not be a Roman emperor but it has conquered our society with no lesser degree of oppression. Our culture follows Caesars’ star, not to any manger but to capital gain and “economic stimulus.” Upon the throne of Christmas sits a Scrooge, the almighty dollar which we believe can save us. It is celebrated by shoppers and commercials and Christmas specials from sea to shining sea. Surely there is a corner of this empire in which they are making a mess of such a celebration, surely there is still a corner in which people declare Christ is lord, in which the revolution of Christmas is still a reality. But alas, the Church may have been conquered as well. The Christian celebration of Christmas has been so confused with that of culture that you can hardly tell them apart. Christians too are awaiting the coming of wrapping and ribbons and snowman sweaters. The culture does not feel threatened as perhaps Caesar did in those early years. This culture loves the Christian celebration for it as well makes jingle sounds, not only of sleigh bells but of jingling coins and capital. What changed? When did we get lost in the Christ-mess? When did we stop making a mess of Caesars’ advent? What can we do to join again in that revolutionary birth festival, the advent of Jesus Christ the Lord, and to make a mess of this thing they call Christmas?

Modern Day Parables

Here at Kingdom Conversations we like to tell subsersive parables.  These are parables that get people to think and make people uncomfortable.  Read some of them and tell us what you think.  Can these stories be improved? How do they make you feel?  Some of them have biblical parallels and others do not:

1.  Andrew, Scott, and Jonas

2.  On the Shores of Vietnam

3.  The Little Police Officer that Could

4.  A Tale of Two Gasoline Pumps

5.  Resumes

On the Shores of Vietnam: A Modern Day Parable (2)

Not long ago, I heard a story of a Vietnamese leader of a city.  His son was getting married and he wanted to throw a huge party for him.  He owned a huge vineyard, and gave his hired hands the day off to hand out invitations to all his friends and family.

The servants passed out over a thousand invitations, but the majority of them called and said they couldn’t make it.  One of his servants was even mistreated by the people he invited.  They began to beat him with a baseball bat.

The leader was so angry at the shame brought on his family that he called up one of the ruling military junta.  He showed the junta the list of guests he had invited to the party and said he would provide $100 for each head brought to him dead.  The city was in an uproar as the junta descended upon the city.

All of the thousand people on the list were found and brought out to the public square.  Their families were forced to watch with their eyes forced open as the military shot them through the head and burned down their houses.  All of them were found and the military junta made $100,000 in fees from the rich leader.

“I will show them how it feels to be rejected and truly shamed,” the leader replied after he had given the junta their pay.  “I will bring in the disgraced and the downtrodden.  They will come to my son’s wedding and then all those who should have come, but didn’t, will be left outside in the cold.”

And it was so.

The servants brought the homeless, the destitute, and the sick to his son’s wedding.  One woman was angered to see that the leader of the city had brought a convicted rapist into the party and a convicted drug dealer.  He opened up the jails and let the worst criminals, the ones who had raped and sexually abused children, sit in the front row.  This was the way the leader of the city.  They had all been given the best clothes to wear, no matter what they had done.

Suddenly, however, he noticed that one man was still dressed in filthy clothes.

“What are you doing here?” the leader of the city asked.

The man said nothing.

“You dare to come into my son’s wedding without proper attire?  Get OUT!”

And at that the servants grabbed him and through him out into the cold.

This is like the kingdom of heaven.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Andrew, Scott and Jonas: A modern Day Parable (1)

Andrew, Scott, and Jonas all worked for Mr. Sanmiser.  Mr. Sanmiser was a cold-hearted miser.  He made his fortune by meticulously analyzing every element of every investment he ever made.  Everything to him was a statistic.  He was known on Wall Street for almost always investing in “sure things.”  He had made 100 million because he had what economists called a “long view.”  He had seen others invest heavily in microchips in the 1990s, but he also noticed that microchips only made money by pushing the component parts closer and closer together.  He realized long before anyone else that eventually these microchips would overheat, and he began research into this new field.  He made millions with his findings and eventually, last year, he had had a billion  dollars to his name.

But Mr. Sanmiser had to make a trip to London, and so he got his three most trusted aides to come into his office.

“I have to make a trip to London,” he said quietly.  “Andrew, you are to manage the software department this week while I am gone, Scott, you are to manage the web design department, and Jonas, you are to make sure our investments in the MRI equipment are sound.”

And with that he left.

Andrew went at work at once to sell the software.  Their newest prodcut had to compete with top sellers like Adobe and Microsoft.  He knew that their competitors were going to be putting out similar products, and so he put out a fake press release that said Bill Gates was having an affair and was having heart trouble.  By the time Gates had come out to clear the debacle, stocks at microsoft had gone down and Mr. Sanmiser’s software stock had cone up.

Scott also knew that in order to sell their web pages over others, they would have to supply the cheapest web pages possible.  He called up some contacts in India and gave the work to them so that their prices would be lower than American workers doing the same work.  Scott heard that the amount his Indian contacts were paying the web designers could hardly feed one family, but he went ahead nonetheless.

Jonas, however, was in a bind.  He knew that in order to make money on the MRI’s he would have to lie a few hospitals and not mention some of the defects that their producers had warned them about.  Because Jonas mentioned these things to the hospitals who wanted to buy the MRI equipment, the stock for the MRI equipment stayed the same as it had the day before.  Jonas had made no money at all.

When Mr. Sanmiser returned he quickly gave bonuses to Andrew and Scott.  They had made money for the company, but called Jonas into his office when he found out that the MRI sales had flattened.

“What the hell happened to my MRIs?” Mr. Sanmiser asked angrily.

“Sir, I know that you are a hard man.  I know that you will do anything to make your money, but I can’t hide the fact that the MRIs have some major problems.”

“You’re a salesmen, Jonas.  You are supposed to SELL products, not go on and on about the risks of a product.”

“I know, Sir, but will all due respect….”

“You want to talk to me about respect? You want to know if I am a hard man?  How about this for hard.  Get out of my office and clear you things.  You knew that I was a hard man?  Then should have played hard ball and put my money to good use.  You get out of my office and take your effects and walk right out that door.  Your jobs goes to Andrew.  At least he will sell my products!”

Mr. Sanmiser’s face did not change.  He felt no remorse.  He simply stared at Jonas until he walked out of the room and down the stairs to his office.  He cleared his things and he was gone.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.