Disclaimer: I’m trying to wrestle down a complicated theological question without doing any research whatsoever. The following is a collection of unfiltered ruminations straight from the confused noggin of a lay person. No experts were consulted, so a grain of salt is encouraged.
Day before yesterday, while sitting in the choir loft – as I am wont to do of a Sunday morning – I was struck by something my minister said during his sermon, and I’ve been puzzling over it ever since. It’s usually a good thing when this happens, as I often find myself drawn to new heights of understanding when I puzzle. But this particular knot is just so… knotty. I can’t seem to unravel it. Sometimes writing down a conundrum is the only way I have of working through it.
So, we were celebrating Epiphany Sunday – always fun, ‘cause you get to sing “We Three Kings” – and my preacher was talking about the birth of Jesus 2000-plus years ago, and he said something like the following. (I say “something like” because I’m going on memory, here. I should have jotted it down on the bulletin, but I didn’t). He said, “If you were invested in the establishment, the status quo – the world as it was – then the birth of this baby was not good news for you. Not good news at all. But if you were poor . . . if you were outcast . . . if you were disenfranchised . . . if you were without power or possessions . . . then the birth of this baby was very good news for you, indeed. The birth of this baby would change everything.”
Now, this is not a new message at my church – or at any mainline protestant (i.e. progressive) church, I would guess. Because our churches tend to be filled with mostly middle-to-upper middle class white people, there is great emphasis from the pulpit on the poor, the outcast, the disenfranchised, and on our responsibility as Christians to relieve their suffering. This is as it should be, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
But as I sat looking out at the well-dressed, polished people of First Presbyterian Church in Beaufort, SC, a thought popped into my head, and I couldn’t get rid of it. That thought was this: Many of the people in those pews – possibly even most of them? – have achieved a level of comfort and security here in “the world” because they have lived according to Judeo-Christian principles. For the most part, they work hard, they use their talents wisely, they are thrifty and self-disciplined, they are faithful to their spouses, they are “training up their children in the way they should go,” much as their parents did them, they tithe to their church and give generously in their community . . . In short, these people – though all imperfect sinners – are trying hard to do the right thing, according to the teachings of their faith.
And not in spite of all this, but because of it, most of them are what you’d consider stalwart members of “the establishment.” Respected, admired, depended-upon, liked.
And here was their preacher – one of them, in terms of socio-economics – telling them that the birth of Jesus was not “good news” for people like them.
I don’t think this is what he meant, exactly, but it’s what he said. And it’s what I heard. It’s what I often hear at my church, and what I often read from progressive Christian theologians, who happen to be among my favorite theologians. In their righteous desire to usher in the kingdom – a world of perfect equality – it sometimes feels like they’re reducing Jesus to little more than your average run-of-the-mill social justice warrior.
Now, lest you think I’m merely being defensive here – feeling convicted for my selfish hoarding of wealth – I should probably clear something up. I’m a bit of an outlier at my church. While I’m similar to most of our members in the “socio” sense, I am quite dissimilar in the “economic” sense. I am well educated and come from an (upper?) middle class background, but as a journalist in a small town, my financial status is more like “working class” or maybe even “working poor.” I’m not sure most of the folks at my church know this – they probably see me as one of them – but when my preacher talks about the economically downtrodden, dysfunctional and discombobulated, he’s talking about me. I love my work – and my life in general – so I never think of myself as “poor.” But this ongoing focus on “haves” and “have nots” – this continual emphasis on economic justice – well, it often has me wondering just where I stand in regard to “the kingdom.” And where we all stand. Am I the only one in my well-to-do, well-heeled congregation for whom the birth of Jesus is “good news”? Am I the only one at First Presbyterian who needs a savior?
Because, if Christianity is really just about creating “a more just, fair and equitable world” (apologies to NPR), then the answer is “yes.” Everybody else at my church seems to be doing just fine, so they’re clearly . . . doing just fine.
But I don’t believe that for a minute.
You see, I know too many people who are “well off” by economic standards, but not so well off otherwise. In fact, my experience tells me that some of the “richest” people I know are also the most miserable. Great wealth can be just as destructive to the soul as great poverty. Maybe more?
Now, I’m sure Jesus knew this, and perhaps he really did come into the world just to even things out, so that nobody would be too rich or too poor… so that everybody would have “just enough.” Maybe he came only to shame those with too much money/power and to bring hope to those with too little money/power. But, again, I find that hard to believe. I find it hard to believe that for 2000-plus years, people around the world have worshipped, adored, changed their entire lives, built cathedrals, written epic poems, composed oratorios, and even martyred themselves, for the ancient-day equivalent of Bernie Sanders.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with Bernie Sanders. I like him, but I’ll never compose an oratorio in his name.)
And try as I may, I can’t understand why God would forsake his children who actually follow his rules – rules which do, in fact, tend to make for worldly comfort and security – while lavishing those of us who don’t with the gift of his son.
Here’s a for instance. I have been careless and irresponsible with money all my life. As a result, I don’t have much saved for my future, I don’t have much to spend, and I don’t have much to give others. Because I’ve chosen to do work I love, instead of work that’s highly valued and lucrative, I struggle to pay my bills every month, and I depend on the government to supplement my health care. I am, by any standard, an economic “sinner.” I reap what I sow – and my fellow taxpayers do, too.
So, the birth of Jesus is “good news” for people like me, but not for my friends who have their financial shit together? Friends who work harder than I do, don’t have as much fun at their jobs, take better care of their money, and give way more to charity?
Uh uh. I can’t buy that. That’s not the Jesus I know and love.
In fact, having tugged at this knot for a day or so now, I can only conclude that the birth of Jesus was, and is, good news for us all. Not because Jesus changes the balance of power – though he does, and he will, and it’s a wonderful byproduct – but because Jesus changes the human heart. Turns it toward God. Sure, members of today’s “establishment” might not always recognize their need for Jesus any more than the ancient “establishment” recognized theirs. Worldly success’ll do that to you if you’re not careful; it’ll blind you to your own need. But worldly success does not take away our need for God; it merely obscures it for a time. Even a lifetime, for some.
And when that happens, it’s not something to scoff at . . . something to scorn and deride. It’s a real heartbreaker.
So, here’s what I’m thinking: Those who don’t recognize their need for God? They need our prayers and our compassion and our love every bit as much as the poor, the outcast, and the disenfranchised do. Maybe more.
Because to go through life without ever knowing God? That’s the worst kind of poverty. To live in this world without ever glimpsing the kingdom is to be truly disenfranchised.
Anyway. That’s where I am with this right now. But I’m still pondering.