Pentecost and the Crucifixion of Privilege

Social disparity, durantelallera /

Social disparity, durantelallera /

While the consequences of social privilege are alarming for numerous reasons, we are reminded that such systematic inequalities are by no means unique to the current day and age. For example, during Jesus’ ministry he encountered a predominant culture that distributed a wide variety of elite benefits based upon gender, class, ethnicity, and other forms of false favoritism. However, one of the primary distinctions of Jesus’ life, which he continually modeled for his disciples, was a prophetic confrontation with unjust structures of social privilege. 

As Jesus accompanied women, tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, and others firmly placed on the underprivileged margins of society, he repeatedly sought the reversal of embedded discrimination and disadvantage. In doing so, not only did Jesus promote Good News of eternal life for after death, but he sought to “let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18) for the fullness of life after birth.

While Jesus continually endorsed the revolution of unjust social privilege, and although he taught his followers to do likewise in his name, the harsh reality is that privilege based on prejudice is profitable, which makes it difficult – if not impossible – for those in power to surrender voluntarily

The Violence of Peacemaking

Blessed are the peacemakers Bible passage, Wellford Tiller /

Blessed are the peacemakers Bible passage, Wellford Tiller /

Jesus says some stuff in the inaugural speech of his ministry that really upsets the status quo of both the religious and non-religious. In essence, he says, "If you are to follow me as King of this newly inaugurated Kingdom of God, you will need to start loving your enemies as much as yourself. You will need to start getting creative in how you deal with your oppressors in order to choose the way of love and reconciliation rather than the way of revenge and contempt. In fact, when you live as peacemakers, you best reflect what it looks like to be children of God. Those of you that choose this way of life will be blessed."

A few years later — after Jesus has been announcing the good news of the Kingdom through both word and deed — he looks over Jerusalem and begins to weep. Here is the people and the city that is to symbolize right relationship with God and humanity. It is to be a place of shalom where salvation flows through all aspects of life. It is to be the city of peace. Instead, Jesus stands on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city and laments, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!" 

Finally, Jesus, as king, messiah, and deliverer models this way of life to the point of death on a cross. Refusing to accept the lure of power through military might or pursuing peace through violence, Jesus embodies the life of suffering and self-sacrifice that he is calling his followers to emulate. Jesus, as the ultimate peacemaker, shows us that the life and work of peacemaking isn't some fairy tale euphoria, but the gritty, subversive and sacrificial life of faithfulness to a God and kingdom that lives by a different standard than the systems and powers of the world.

What Jesus Didn't Say

photo by Lawrence OP /

Jesus and a woman at the well, painting in museum of the Dominican priory of Santa Sabina in Rome, photo by Lawrence OP / Flickr

In the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus speaks with a woman when they find themselves alone at a well at midday. We can learn a lot from what he says to her, and from what he chooses not to say.

Jesus tells the woman, “Go, get your husband, and bring him here.” She replies, “I have no husband.” Jesus tells her “That’s right. You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re now with isn’t your husband.”

These could have been shaming words. In her culture, to be without a husband is to risk economic ruin, and to have been divorced by your husband is to be shamed.   

Had he wanted to, Jesus could have scored some serious points here: I’m a prophet, and you’re a sinner. I’m celibate, and you’re promiscuous. You are living in sin by living with a man who is not your husband.

Evidently, he didn’t want to say those things.

Homeless Jesus Sculpture Searches for a Home

Photo courtesy Timothy Schmalz

Peter Larisey seated alongside the Jesus sculpture. Photo courtesy Timothy Schmalz

TORONTO — This homeless Jesus can barely find a home.

Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz notes the ironies in his latest creation, “Jesus the Homeless,” a bronze sculpture depicting the Christian savior huddled beneath a blanket on an actual-size park bench. Only the feet are visible, and their gaping nail wounds reveal the subject.

“If Jesus was watching the streets today,” Schmalz says from his home in St. Jacobs, Ontario, “I think he would want himself represented as one of the most marginalized. That’s what he said in the Gospel.”

Indeed, as Schmalz notes, Jesus calls on his followers to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and tend to the lame. Possibly referring to himself, Jesus says, in the book of Matthew, that “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Heartbreak Beyond Heartbreak (Hill)

Silhouette of runner, Warren Goldswain /

Silhouette of runner, Warren Goldswain /

The Boston Marathon bombing is so shocking because it was obviously done by someone(s) who wanted to prove something not to themselves, but to others. Could they display to the world his repressed rage enough? Could they divert attention to their cause enough? Could they maim and kill the innocent for some misguided agenda enough? That is what makes this act of terrorism so terrifying: a sick person or people trying to prove something to others by targeting those who are simply proving something to themselves, or trying to do something for others. It is jarring.

Ninety minutes before the bombs detonated, I was concluding a presentation on Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. That recent immersion into Luke’s narrative shaped my video viewing of the bombing’s aftermath. The one who “fell into the hands of robbers” was everywhere. The assaulted and bloodied were scattered by the side of the road, in this case, Boylston Street. Instead of people passing by on the other side, however, it was quite the opposite. Spectators and emergency medical personnel waded into the grisly scene and treated the wounded with exquisite care.

Jesus Resurrected and 'The Undocumented'

Screenshot from 'The Undocumented,' airing April 29 on PBS.

Screenshot from 'The Undocumented,' airing April 29 on PBS.

At the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham last week, I saw Marco Williams’ new documentary, The Undocumented, which tracks migrants as they hike into the United States across the border between Mexico and Arizona, trying to escape the detection of border patrol agents, and trying to survive the deadly heat of the Sonoran desert.

The documentary follows a young man, Marcos Hernandez, as he tries to find his father, Francisco,  who was last seen in the desert walking for days in the 120-degree summer heat. Francisco left their home in Mexico with a coyote — man he paid $2,000 to lead him across the border — to make enough money to pay for his son’s expensive dialysis treatments. But he never called; he never returned. The coyote reported that he left Francisco in the desert because he was sick and couldn’t keep up with the other migrants in the group. Marcos fears the worst — that his father died of dehydration, of heat exhaustion. But to confirm the death he has to find the body.

The filmmaker focuses on the morgue in Tucson, Ariz., where the medical examiner investigates human remains, looking for clues that would help identify the dead in order to return whatever is left to family members and friends, to provide some kind of closure, to honor the dead with a burial.

In the film, Marcos won’t believe his dad is dead until he can see his dead body, or whatever is left of his body — a skull, teeth, his rib cage. He will not believe unless he can see.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). That’s what Thomas says to the other disciples about the resurrected Jesus; and what Thomas says about needing to see the body reminds me of the story of Marcos, about the need to see in order to believe.

The Political Subversion of the Cross

Jesus holding the cross, Kobets /

Jesus holding the cross, Kobets /

Last weekend – Easter – was a time where all Christians remember the tragic end of Jesus’ life, as well as the miraculous raising of Jesus the Christ from his death. The week prior to Jesus’ death – Holy Week – is one where Christians focus on Jesus’ arrival and entry into Jerusalem, the hub of Israeli and Jewish power, amid excited and adoring crowds. As we read through and remembered this tragic story, we heard and saw the excitement and adoration of the people quickly turn, resulting in a call by the people to kill – crucify! – this man they so enthusiastically welcomed. Not only do the people cry for his death, but they answer Pilate’s question by declaring let “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt. 27:25). The multitude, in other words, embrace the responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion, whereas Pilate, ironically, acts like a good Israelite seeking to separate himself from a deed that violates covenant justice (Gardner, 390). The result of the people’s eagerness, which was fed, we are told, by the chief priests and elders’ ability to persuade the multitude, lead to the death of Jesus on the cross.

My fear, however, as we remember the horrible and horrific event of the crucifixion, is that we have forgotten much of its significance, both historically in Jesus’ time and for us today. What we now call the “substitutionary atonement theory” has understood the cross primarily as the beginning of salvation, and not also as the culmination of a radical life lived within an Empire. This theory has tended to disconnect the life-path chosen by Jesus from the salvation attributed to the cross. The cross, as represented in the New Testament, is both an end and a beginning. It demonstrates the predictable end of life lived in service to the Kingdom of God within an Empire. It also invites us into a future in which the power of this life-ending cross becomes the power of a cross-initiated life.