“One must bear the burden of reality with all its crushing weight.”
– Jon Sobrino
Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino believes that the mystery and glory of God is revealed in the poor, the oppressed, the destitute. To the extent that this is true, and to the extent that identifying with the poor is to bear the burden of reality with all its crushing weight, I wonder to what extent I am truly bearing this “burden of reality.” Or perhaps, if I were to attempt to quantify it, what percentage would it be? 10% maybe? 5%? On a good day–or especially crushing day–maybe 25%?
There are days when I feel I am in The Truman Show–or The Kelsi Show rather. Screaming and fighting for reality to break through. Screaming and fighting for that voice of truth within that tells me something isn’t right; things feel too light, too sunny. Things occur in neat, disconnected dispensations that seem a little too portion controlled, a little too refined and polished, and I wonder, what happened to the grit of reality? I know it’s there; I just don’t come across it very often, and that scares me. It makes my soul ache. Out of sight, out of mind?
But the thing is, Christ who became poor so that we could become the riches of God (2 Cor. 8:9) tells us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. So really, the “crushing weight” of identifying with him in his poverty and identifying with those with whom he identified is actually liberating weight. It’s freedom. It’s the understanding that we are designed to bear this “burden of reality,” and when we don’t, we are cheating ourselves–and others–of experiencing this light and easy burden.
In the Introduction to Consuming Jesus, Metzger discusses an article published in Portland’s Willamette Week titled, “The J.Crew: Meet Portland’s Evangelicals” (p.4). The reporter, Zach Dundas, discusses not surprisingly the commercialism and paraphernalia of the Christian life: DVDs, strip-mall churches, Sea of Galilee-sized parking lots, Christian romance literature, etc. Dundas’ article is a sincere attempt to understand the evangelical movement, especially given the major role it played in the re-election of President Bush in 2004 and the passing of the ballot measure that resulted in banning same-sex marriage.
Metzger takes special note of the Willamette Week writer’s observation that one is “more likely to find a state-of-the-art sound system than a handcrafted altar” (p. 5), then goes on to talk about the prominence of the coffee bar in many of these churches and the neglect of the altar or table. Coffee bars and stone altars and tables have symbolic meaning. The former connotes “pleasure and leisure (good things in their own right);” the latter connotes “joy through suffering: the bloody grapes of wrath have become a river of life” (p.5). Sound systems replacing stone altars represents a similar shift: impressive performance, but a decrease in the symbolic reconciliation and humility that stone altars and tables provide for the congregation every Sunday, reminding us of what our Christ did for us (which of course we should be continually reminded of, not just on Sundays). I think this speaks volumes of the shift that is taking place in churches today: consumer comfort is sneakily taking precedent over the vision of what these altar tables represent.
Metzger raises a question, in light of this dominant voice among evangelicals that Dundas explored in the article: “…how effective has the movement been in engaging human suffering, including race and class divisions in the church and society?” (p.5)
My guess? uhhh, not very. At least not lately. Metzger gives worthy, much needed acknowledgment that evangelicals have, in the past, played key roles in addressing social evils, such as the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom and the United States (p. 7). This further supports why his concern for the evangelical church is “not the angry and cynical attack of an outsider; rather, it is the criticism of one who loves the evangelical church’s historic values of piety and holistic outreach and mission, but one who longs for reform” (p. 7). This is a compassionate, empathetic, sober love–the kind of love that is imperative to have as Christ’s body.
Because of the disconnect between theology and practice, I often feel like the church is trying to convince or remind Christians that there are indeed “missional” opportunities–real needs and places to go and show Christ’s love. But it’s as if the church is describing another land, another reality that the congregation doesn’t see, hear, or touch. Like the preacher is shaking one of those snow globes in our faces, and describing the darkness and details and this “far off land” to which we must embark. I often feel like I’m in an incubator as a full time Seminary student, being equipped to bring light to the “big, bad” world out there–once I have my diploma in hand and a theology which has “conquered” and “mastered” that esoteric realm of divinity. A degree which states that I now have the biggest questions in life mastered. But that is so wrong to me on so many levels. Jesus didn’t raise up disciples in some manicured, disinfected school, apart from “the others.” Jesus didn’t protect his disciples and teach them theories and methods and hypothetical responses to “real life” situations. They all–Jesus and his crew–were in the MIDST of society–the pain, the suffering, the angst, the confusion, the NEED. They didn’t sit in a classroom, discussing how good their God is and go home, dreaming of the day they would actually embark, leaving their safe island and daring to make–albeit awkward, unnatural, and inexperienced–contact with the “rest” of the world. I by no means am dissing the Seminary experience, but I am arguing it takes conscientious, intentional, and renewed effort to be in community, relation, and real engagement with those outside “the bubble.”
This is what frustrates me, and I believe this is why the students at Reed College (p.8) gave Dr. John M. Perkins a standing ovation in 2001 when he told the real, raw story of the consuming love of Jesus manifested in his life, even after he was beaten within an inch of his life for the color of his skin and the courage of his convictions. He didn’t tell a story of saving souls, or converting people, convincing a body of thinking, critical, intelligent individuals that his way was better than theirs. He told a story about a love that exceeded the depths of his soul. A love that didn’t stop at staring at the hate in the demonic eyes staring down at him as he was beaten, but a love that blazed through that hate and could only have compassion on these individuals wreaking of hatred. A love that bred grace and justice and mercy. A love that was and is REAL. A love that experiences. A love that embraces the challenges, the injustices. A love that fights the oppressive system, and a love that overcame humiliation, suffering, and prejudice. The Reed students saw something REAL in Dr. Perkins. Not a person masquerading as enlightened because he has this Jesus fellow in his heart. Not a man who pointed fingers and ostracized. But rather a man who lay on his back, with a fork shoved in his nose and down his throat, who tasted the compassion that Jesus tasted. A man who ached out of this thing called love.
That’s what we crave, no? I don’t want to be in an incubator. I don’t want to be one of those babies that has a weak immune system because I’ve been isolated my whole life. I don’t want to go out into this world, an alien to the pain and suffering that permeates humanity to its very core. I want to lie there, on my back, staring hatred and division in its stone cold eyes. And when I do that, I don’t want to squeeze my eyes shut. I want to stare back, the love of Christ burning its way through those scared, hateful eyes.
I fear that Christians today are being raised up in incubators, completely terrified and unaware of the very real and very grave injustices and oppression which comprise this world. I fear that we are being taught to accept and not question. To swallow but not chew. And if we do hear of the alleged oppression, slavery, injustice, and racism, it is implied that it is “not ours to deal with,” not our problem, and certainly not something we perpetuate! I want to be able to question my faith, just as John the Baptist did while in prison. He questioned. And not only did he question, but Jesus honored that. Jesus honored his doubt, because he was doubting so that he could understand the truth. Questioning in order to truly understand is, I think, not only honorable but necessary. Truth has nothing to hide! I will examine this truth I profess. I will ask freaky questions, questions that I may or may not be ostracized for asking. I will sometimes wake up and think I’m a delusional nutcase for believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died, rose three days later, and who is miraculously the manifestation of God’s love for us. Who is our atonement. Who is our salvation. I will do this so that I will be able to press on with fear and trembling, so that I will draw near to my Creator for his gracious understanding, his mercy, his revelation. I will do this so that the hard questions are answered. So that the beautiful mysteries are explored.
Just as it was not the religious elite who truly embraced Jesus’ pure and undefiled teaching, but rather the poor, the bottom rung on the social ladder, so I see the same pattern today (Matt. 21:16, Psalm 8:1). While those of us who are full time seminarians or in full time ministry have our morning “quiet times” with “our Lord,” I see the danger in being the religious elite, who are rejecting Christ’s teachings and only fooling ourselves that we are truly following after him. Meanwhile, it is often the weary, the oppressed, the silenced who dare to see the liberating Christ in his glory. Who dare to see him in his mercy and all-consuming love and power. I fear we miss out on that because we are so busy doing “our” ministry and teaching others about “our” religion within our comfort zones.
I guess the question I’m grappling with is, why is it that so often our “reality” is only our immediate surroundings? Those hungry, stoned, and weary in the city dump in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, competing with vultures and cows for scraps of food in the mountains of waste are just as real as seminary students, teachers, lawyers, painters, or supermarket clerks. Their pains are as real as our pains. Their tears are hot and salty, just like ours. Their minds wander before they go to sleep about the upcoming day just like ours do. They hiccup and sneeze and laugh and fear just like us. And my deep, deep sorrow, due to our extreme isolation, detachment, and division from “them” is that they are not as real. Their pain is not as legit. Their eyes are not as clear. They are sort of “half-way” human.
This is not the heart of Christ. This is tragic.
The Reed College students applauded the reality, the compassion, the very truths that were screamingly obvious in Perkins’ life. They were applauding a life of Jesus Christ. But no doubt if one would have articulated it this way to them (hey, let’s give a big round of applause to Jesus!), they would have quit clapping. This only reinforces the tragic disconnect that exists between the genuine love of Christ and the church. The Church truly is a whore, but man, we must tend to her because she is the one to whom Christ has chosen to reveal his love and compassion. But if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. This truly is life or death we are talking about. What is stifling and silencing the compassion of Christ? Dare I, dare I say, in many ways, the church herself? And I bear responsibility, because I am part of this broken but beautiful church.
Steven Spielberg, in response to his resigning as artistic advisor for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Beijing because of China’s involvement with the tragic oppression and crimes being committed in Darfur, said: “I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue business as usual.” Although resigning from the church is not an option-my identity is bound to this church and it exists within and through me- I can repent and respond redemptively, thanking God, and so can you.
My prayer is that, as the heartbeat and conscience of the church, we throw out the “business as usual” structures. I pray that we dare–with creativity, sincerity and responsibility–to grasp ahold of the lives among us and across the world from us, and allow them to grasp ahold of us as well, in the name of the all-encompassing, loving Christ who knows no division in his body.