Many of us have heard that “the wisdom of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” But the cross has mysterious elements for all of us. Christians can retrospectively reason it into seeming obvious. We can make sense of it, but, in many ways, nothing about it naturally makes sense because it is so counter to how we understand and operate in the world.
So much of how we orient ourselves in the world is in relation to power. It comes in many forms and, typically, we want more of it. We recognize that proximity to power can convey privilege. We also recognize ourselves as somewhat unreliable holders of power. No one wants their neighbor to be an autocrat. And yet we also often vote as though our values can only succeed with the accompaniment of strong power, exercised with limited regard for opponents.
Our personal relationship with power can be a tricky thing. Season one of HBO’s popular show White Lotus cuts to the heart of some of the issues in our culture regarding power and our past. A dysfunctional family, including a college-age daughter who has brought along her friend, is having a meal at an expensive resort hotel in Hawaii. The daughter and her friend suggest that there is something wrong about the Hawaiian dancing that happens as part of the evening entertainment. The father responds:
“Obviously colonialism was bad. You shouldn’t kill people, steal their land, and make them dance. But it’s humanity. Welcome to history. Welcome to America. I mean, what are we going to do? Huh? Really? Nobody cedes their privilege. That’s absurd. It goes against human nature. We’re all just trying to win the game of life. How are we going to make it right? Should we give away all our money?… Yeah, that’s what I thought. Or maybe we should just feel shitty about ourselves all the time, for the crimes of the past, wear a hairshirt, not go on vacation.”
“We’re all just trying to win the game of life.” This is not a new insight. In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr emphasized that “the moral attitudes of dominant and privileged groups are characterized by universal self-deception and hypocrisy.” Why? Because they cannot see their position as the result of anything other than merit, not even the aspects of privilege that are not merit-based. Relatedly, Niebuhr writes that the “dominant classes are always slowest to yield power because it is the source of privilege.”
We don’t want to be jerks, but we are reluctant to embrace justice if it means giving up privileges like pre-boarding and better parking. In an introduction to The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote “But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color, lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance and disease of the majority of their fellowmen…” I like sneakers. I don’t think about who stitches them up.
If nowadays power and privilege are dispersed into certain sets of hands or segments of the population, the issues are not new or only connected to what some call “social justice.” The issues are ancient, and they involve justice generally.
In 1 Samuel 8, the people come to Samuel and tell him to tell God that they want a king. Everyone else has one. Through Samuel, God warns them:
“He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day” (1 Samuel 8:11-18, NIV).
And did they listen? “But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19-20). You just can’t stop people from wanting to be–or be aligned with–a powerful figure.
The monarchs kept that pattern up for centuries. Louis XIV was a successful enough absolutist to be able to say, “L’État c’est moi.” The French Revolution came about, in part, because “nobody cedes their privilege.” In Russia, Ivan the Terrible killed his own son in a fit of rage. We would rather kill than lose power.
Against this, what could be more absurd than the logic of the incarnation? Speaking of Jesus, Philippians 2:6-7 reads: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” And what type of human likeness? Isaiah 53:2-3 is taken to be a description: “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.”
We have no frame of reference for such a thing. “Nobody cedes their privilege. That’s absurd.” Who would make themselves nothing and take on earthly form if they did not have to? Who would take on human form and, within those bounds, choose “no beauty or majesty?” Who would come down to be held in “low esteem?” It is so counter to how we operate that we truly cannot comprehend it fully.
Jesus came down into our “welcome to history” world, with the ways in which we exercise power. He subjected himself to it, experiencing some of our worst. “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8) And it was not the horrific but heroic death of so many Spartacus’. Isaiah 53:4-5 reads: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
In our world, such experiences occur in the absence of power. Those among us without power and privilege do in some ways suffer for others. Someone makes the cheap shirt that we wear. Someone cleans the bathroom that we dirty. Many worse things happen to many people. When we have little in the way of power and privilege, we become little in the eyes of the world. If we have the power, we will step out of those roles. When we go down, it is because we cannot do otherwise. And we can be defeated. We will all be defeated. When we are lowered into the ground, we stay there. But Jesus rose from the grave, power intact.
If the idea, not even the reality, of the absurdity of the incarnation in the eyes of the world does not stop you in your tracks, what will? All privilege yielded… for the Passion? Of all things? What about the best of our fields and a tenth of our grain? What about our vineyards? Jesus, no stranger to power, experienced our “welcome to history” but did the unexpected with it. What kind of intervention in history is this? 1 Corinthians 1:19 says “The wisdom of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” At Christmas, we are often asked to consider “what child is this?” At Easter, among other things, we might ask, “what power is this?”
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