Sunday, June 8, 2008

Despised and rejected

The remarkable thing about the Bible is that over and over again, it tells the story of how God chose people completely upside-down from how their societies viewed them. The childless man becomes the ancestor of two great nations. The youngest son prevails over his brothers. The shepherd boy, so insignificant as to be left out in the fields when the prophet summoned the clan, becomes the king. The exiled remnant become the foundation of new prosperity. The crazy hermit is closer to the truth than the mighty warrior. Prostitutes and collaborators get to sup with God's chosen one, while the righteous and the rich are ignored.

According to the Bible, then, who are God's chosen people -- who are the elect? It seems to me that there's a consistent strain in the Biblical narratives that says that the elect are those despised by their societies. The elect are the people that the comfortable, well-off, well-positioned, upper middle class of any particular community don't want to associate with. (For it's precisely the middle class, you know, who are most concerned about who they associate with -- they have the most to gain by playing the game of class and morality correctly, and the most to lose by hanging with the wrong crowd.) The Bible says that to find out whom God values, look to see whom people value -- and then go to the other end of the spectrum.

I'm that middle class person. I've got a comfortable life, a good education, a high-status job. I've been outwardly blessed with a devoted husband, beautiful children, the respect of my peers, good friends and a good living.

It's pretty clear to me that according to the Bible, I'm not God's elect.

That's important because all of us look for God in the signs and signifiers of our societies. Who is it that has God's favor? Who should we follow here on earth? Where is the image of God most clearly to be seen?

Throughout history, human beings have always looked for God in the mainstream of their societies -- in mainstream morality, majority values, high-status lifestyles. But the Bible says that God deliberately chooses to be found as far away from that as possible.

My temptation is to look for God inside myself. Where in my life is God working? What am I doing that Jesus would do?

But the Bible says that my neighborhood, my class, my upbringing, my values, my religion are not where God is likely to be found. "Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me." According to the Bible, I'll find God amongst the people I shun, in the lifestyles my society disparages, in the classes and age groups and values that threaten people like me, and against which people like me spend so much of our energy working and lobbying and bringing ballot initiatives and proposing zoning ordinances.

The least of these. We middle-class Christians work hard to put ourselves into that category by talking about the blackness of our sin and the wonder of grace. But the Bible talks about the least of these in pretty concrete, publicly-available terms -- economic power, job status, demographic desirability, affiliation with favored or patriotic groups, religious majority, moral purity in practice.

I'm not the least -- not in America, not in Arkansas, not in Conway. I'm not the most, either, but I'm a lot closer to that end. If I'm looking for God, and I'm taking the Bible seriously, I'd better be looking in the neighborhoods where people like me don't go.


Doc Thelma said...

I think many "upper middle class" Christians are aware of this status, which is why some seem to have an insatiable need to see themselves as "persecuted" over fairly ridiculous issues like a Wal-Mart clerk saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" to them or not being allowed to hand out VBS flyers in a public school classroom. Unfortunately, certain members of my own denomination are the most guilty of that.
And I suspect the most vocal complainers would be the frst to crumble in the face of any genuine persecuation.

Maureen said...

Thanks for this. The one time I considered walking out on a sermon was one in which the pastor seemed to be giving us permission to not help someone disadvantaged. Maybe I misunderstood him, but I was really irritated. This also brings up the Creflo Dollar-styled churches, which seem to preach that God will reward your faith with cash. I don't get it, but I definitely feel like I should be better at helping those who aren't loved by our society.

the secret knitter said...

I think you've highlighted what gets lost in regard to Christianity. In many ways it makes life harder in the challenges it presents for its followers rather than easier or more comfortable. But try selling that to the curious.

Victor said...

I'd better be looking in the neighborhoods where people like me don't go.

That's self-contradictory ... the minute you do that, you cease to be a member of the group "people like me," where "like" is defined in terms of those who go to certain places. "Me" and thus "people like me" then becomes something else, which then presumably must also be turned against in the name of the perpetual war on privilege.

God cannot by definition be among those whom one shuns, because either God is among not-all (in which case, one's basis for his shunning can be correct and helpful; certainly *someone's* MUST be) or God is among all (but in that case "whom I shun" is a meaningless guide, because He's also equally among those whom I do not shun, by definition).

Taking marginality *as a mark of virtue* -- very different from (1) ignoring privilege as a mark of virtue, or (2) understanding virtue in a way that might make it more likely to be among certain groups at certain times and places -- this essentially turns marginality into its own form of power. Then even the term "least of these" gets transvalued every time you care to, and turned into a self-refuting self-reflexive nullity every even-numbered time you do so.

Donna B. said...

Just to be clear, I'm not trying to make a logical argument about where God is literally and metaphysically located in space/time. (My answer to that would be "adjacent to every entity.") I'm trying to deal with the question of the search for God in existential terms. And nothing in my post, I don't think, expressed the view that marginality is a mark of virtue. Instead, it questioned my own assumption (derived from my own history and culture) that my privilege is a mark of God's presence.