Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Humiliation of Living Humbly

My new friend David Henson wrote a story about Jesus being born into a migrant family that is worth a good read and meditation. It's a bit of a pick-axe if you're like me and you've heard Linus' gospel story on repeat since birth but can't quite make a tangible or visceral connection to it every year. The original hearers of this particular "gospel" story, after all, were quite shocked by it.

A small distraction from this meditation occurred when David proposed that modern readers tend to think of Jesus' birth as being a humble affair, rather than the humiliation he believes it was.

For most of us, I think he's right. We like to imagine being born into wealth, or at the least to rise into wealth so that our children can be privileged. Chances are, if you're reading this, you have some amount of fortune, if not of the wealth variety, then at least enough to find yourself with a computer, internet access, and some amount of spare time. Rare commodities in most of the world. We may pity those without such access and leisure.

I don't need any research to convince anyone that we actually enjoy imagining the life of the glamorous, the fabulous, and the wealthy. Those are what most movies and television shows portray. The roots and bark of hip-hop culture comes from poverty but bloom wealth fantasies. We play the game of watching the thrones. We like to envision ourselves as masters of fate, as having dominion and persuasion, luxury and attractiveness. The greatest crimes are being ugly, or poor, or weak, or humble, or servile.

But Jesus took the opposite approach. A later book in the New Testament said that the Christian God "emptied himself." A result is that he was, "of no stately appearance."

By our standards, it's safe to say that he may have been ugly, but he surely wasn't a sexy, strong stud.

David is right in that we gloss over the full revolution that Jesus' birth signified. But if we suggest that a position is humiliating, we must recognize that it is only that for those who are unwilling to be in such a position.

Such a humble birth - one amongst the beasts and belonging to street-level commoners in a strange land - may be humiliating for the apotheosis and divine cult of the Caesars. These are men who (and let's consider that empires and autocratic states have not changed their essence within the last two thousand years) were conferred the proof of their godness upon the state of their "superior" birth and measured by the tools of their wealth, accumulation, access, and power. The Roman emperor becomes a god to continue the oppressive system and keep the power base faithful. As long as he is faithful to the good of power accumulation - and hence exploiting all those and all that which can be used for the good of the power accumulation - then the god of power is served.

The Hebrew god becomes a man to "confound the wise", "shame the powerful", and turn the world freakingly upside down.  For a god to become man, or man-like, would require that he or she becomes man, and therefore is in tune with what it means to be human, not just become human. And when that god comes in the form of the lowliest of people (which is to say, most of them), then that god can not look down with pity or disgust at the "lowly". That god - Jesus - identifies with the common man because he is the common man.

Christians have a horrible habit of hagiographing everything we respect even though our holy book does not. If Jesus didn't look like the star from The Passion, then he we typically see him as otherworldly. Jesus would have never been tempted to cheat on a math test because he knew all the answers. He would never have struggled with lust, because that's what sinners do. He wouldn't have cried when his friend died, because Jesus knew that his friend was with God... No, wait.

It is nearly impossible for us to imagine our dear Lord and Savior being actual flesh and blood. And often when we do, we middle class Americans like to figure him as one of our own.

But he wouldn't be. Not in the least.

To be sure, if Jesus were born this generation, it's likely that he'd have been born in a ravaged part of the world - say, occupied Palestine or just-"liberated" Iraq. North Korea. Or in the slums of Calcutta, Johannesburg, or Warsaw. Or any number of war-savaged post-colonies throughout Africa and the Americas and Asia.

But if he was born in the US empire - and David makes a good point that Israel/Palestine was in the furthest reaches of its time's super-empire - then it's likely he would have been born to a migrant family, or to homeless vagabonds, or WalMart associates, or to out-of-work coal miners.

His angels would have likely spread their message ("gospel") to AIDS patients, dope fiends, prostitutes, hospice guests. The birth could've happened in a back alley, in North Lawndale, the projects, the Appalachian back roads...

All of which may be terribly shocking for those of us who secretly or openly aspire to be wealthy and beautiful and powerful and who therefore expect that god also worships the wealthy, the beautiful, the powerful. But to the god who became one with humanity, then it only follows that that god is enchanted by the outcasts and misfits - which is to say, all of us.


  1. Anonymous4:32 PM

    I have always from a young age envisioned Jesus this way..always in the trenches with people who are suffering..and always having a disdain for people of wealth..I love this put onto paper what I wish I could..but not all of us are born to write! Thanks for the great reading...

  2. Anonymous5:33 PM

    Oh, there are some very good priests and churches left who don't snob the needy. Like some kind of internalized slave mentality projection of shame. But more like a shaman who has walked a medicine wheel.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, anon #1. I always really, really appreciate when someone is able to articulate what I could never.


Be kind. Rewind.