I want to share with you several ideas that are extremely difficult to grasp and indescribably difficult to embody. If we are willing to grapple with several basic realities integrally related to radical obedience to Jesus Christ, then we have a chance of being the instruments of Christ in changing history. And surely that is the reason that we are here: to discover what it means to belong to Jesus Christ, to celebrate our belonging to him, to give ourselves totally and unreservedly to him, and to find out what he is calling us to in this crucial hour of human history.
I believe that radical obedience to Jesus Christ means to be identified with the poor. The gospel claims that God himself in his Son got into human life at the point of the weak, the despised, the rejected, the sick, the imprisoned, the least of the race -- the last, not the first. He entered into human life with the powerless and the vulnerable who were buffeted to and fro by all the cruelties of physical and human nature, Jesus Christ gave himself to the weak, to the despised, to the forsaken; and because of this identification, Christ was himself despised and rejected. Our savior was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. The forsaken were his people. He didn’t simply dip into their life and problems momentarily and then slip out again. His father had sent him, and it was very clear that it was to the forsaken that he was sent.
While he was with them his posture was that of a servant. He refused to exercise power over them. When they wanted to make him their king, he went into the hills to pray. He would simply be with them, champion their cause, heal their sick, encourage their flagging spirits. He would teach them of the Father’s scandalous love precisely because they were rabble, and finally on their behalf would die between two criminals, themselves outcasts. In the sense that we usually use the expression, he wanted nothing for himself. He loved the riffraff and the rabble so deeply that he simply wanted to be with them, and to serve them in whatever form their need might shape his service. What he got out of it was simply the doing of his father’s will, which to him was his meat and drink. What he got out of it was simply the joy of being with the victimized poor.
He summed up his ministry one day when he visited his home town of Nazareth. Taking out the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he said. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Many scholars feel that means to proclaim the year of the Jubilee, which was the year when debts were forgiven, and there was a whole restructuring of the economic life of the people. Jesus sat down and said, “Today, in your very hearing, this text is come true.”
Although it is not a very pretty picture, when we look at the whole human family in our global village, we will find at the top the wealthy, the powerful, the highly educated, the affluent, the influential. They have carved out for themselves a place. They have secured themselves as best they can against the exigencies of a capricious existence. They have built institutions which secure their privilege. And I think I should not say "they." I think I should say “we” have built institutions which secure our privilege. That’s what you find at the top.
At the bottom are the poor and impotent, their minds and gifts never developed: they are the dumping ground of human life. They couldn’t tell you what the human potential movement is, much less be in the stream of that movement. They are buffeted to and fro because of their helplessness, as those who are helpless are always buffeted to and fro by the powerful. They have no one to protect them, no one to speak for their rights. They are the lonely ones. You’ll find them in prisons and in psychiatric hospitals, their children are in the welfare system. They are jobless, hungry, thirsty. Their options are extremely limited. They are not wanted. In their present state they could not possibly build institutions to secure their rights and their privileges, because they have so few. We, in our contempt, look down from our secure vantage point and call them rabble, and riffraff. They, they, they.
Part of the scandal of the gospel is that when you meet the abandoned, crucified Messiah, he grabs you and you belong to him. Wherever you are in privilege and power and status and opportunity, you start the movement down, not up. And you go down and down and down until you are powerless, except for his power; you go down until you find yourself with the riffraff. The evangelists that I listened to in my youth didn’t make that clear. But the evangelists in the New Testament make that devastatingly clear. One keeps going down and down until one is identified with the victimized poor wherever they are scattered throughout the earth. Wherever you see them and hear about them, you know that your lot is cast with them, that they are your people.
The poor become our people because they are Christ’s people, and we have been given his heart and his mind. We are not to be with them because we ought to get out there and have another burden placed upon us. We are to be there because metanoia has occurred, because a new heart, a new mind has been given us and we simply love them; we want to be there because they are victimized. Radical obedience to Jesus Christ begins with the process of voluntarily relinquishing all worldly power until our lot is cast with the poor.
Barclay’s translation of the tenth chapter of Mark reads, “You know that those who have the prestige of ruling the Gentiles lord it over them.” In our society the mark of greatness is the exercise of authority, but in the church the situation is to be very different: if anyone wishes to be great, that person must be your servant; and if anyone wishes to be first, that person must be everyone’s slave. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”
We in our churches, the society of Christ, do not struggle for the exercise of greater authority in order that from this position of greater power we may help people. If we are set in such a position by the will of God, then we are obedient to that will. But we care nothing for that power, and we see it as nothing. This is one of the most difficult things for us to get hold of, the thing that was so clear when Jesus was standing before Pilate. You remember Pilate said to Jesus, “You better be sensitive to me, and you better handle me properly, because you recognize, do you not, that I have power to release you, and I have power to put you to death.” There was Jesus, absolutely powerless, from a human standpoint; and there was Pilate with all the power of the Roman Empire. Jesus looked at him, and said, "You know, Pilate, you have no power, except that which is given to you of the Father."
We are deeply impressed with worldly power, but when we get into the society of those who are servant people, we de-mythologize that, we are not impressed by power. Power, in a worldly sense, should not be important to us. We need to give up the upward climb, voluntarily relinquish all power, and begin the descent to be with the abandoned and forsaken of society and to serve them.
We need to keep in mind that a serious movement in this downward stripping away is costly, difficult, and dangerous. It is physically dangerous when we actually cast our lot with those who are the oppressed and the victimized.
Not long ago the Church of the Saviour bought two apartment buildings in order to enter into the life of the city on a more profound level and to identify with the victimized poor. We wondered whether God had guided us accurately when in one night’s time there was a holdup in the elevator of one of our buildings, and a rape and a contract murder committed in the other building. In those two buildings, in one night, there were three occasions of violence. One of the things that I have learned about people who are victimized is that the level of violence is much deeper than anything I ever knew, and I think I understand it now as I didn’t understand it before.
To mature in that process of downward movement, to give up power, to be with the powerless and victimized poor of the earth; we need to become part of an intense Christian community which confronts and supports us. If we don’t have that, I think we might as well forget it. Radical obedience means belonging to a deep and intense community which takes seriously both the contemplative relationship with Jesus Christ and the servant posture among the poor and oppressed of the world. The creation of such faith communities is in my judgment the most important task in our time; it is the most effective political action that we can ever perform.
When this article appeared, Gordon Cosby was pastor of Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C.