Wednesday, June 09, 2010

An Apologetic for Failure

To the previous blog Nic wrote:
It seems a bit reductionistic to conflate Christian spirituality to a rather singular expression, that of taking care of the poor, which is what it sounds like you're doing. . . . I'm not sure if Jesus' life itself is even enough to be able to reduce his message to one of economic justice. As much as Jesus loved the poor and called his followers to do the same, he didn't really do much to change institutional poverty, quite honestly. If the gospel he sought to bring was one of economic sustenance for the world's poor, then his life was a failure, because it just didn't happen.

My views have been fundamentally shaped by two theologians, Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx. Both are in accord about this: Jesus was a failure.

“Thus Jesus’ message, bearing the signature of his death, calls upon us to revise our self-understanding, by speaking of God who silently reveals himself in Jesus’ historically helpless failure on the cross.” - Schillebeeckx, Jesus, 638.

“His public life did not last for decades, but at most three years, and possibly only a few dramatic months before it was brought to a violent end . . . his whole story is ultimately a history of suffering with arrest, flogging and finally execution in a cruel, shameful form. This life has nothing enlightened and perfect about it. It remains a fragment, a torso. A fiasco? At any rate, there is no trace of success during Jesus’ lifetime . . .” Kung, Credo, 55.

I understand well that Christianity is a vastly complex system, and that to emphasize one expression is to neglect another. Yet, I’m also unconvinced that Jesus shared our neat divisions of human experience. To put it better: I highly doubt that Jesus viewed economic justice as a separate entity, or even a respectable subcategory, of Justice. He was the prophet of the Kingdom of God, the realm of God’s shalom. He pursued this Kingdom relentlessly unto his death; the very death that marked his ultimate failure to bring about the Kingdom which he hoped for. I don’t see any point at which he appeared ready to compromise for some half-assed notion of justice which slighted economic equity in the name of pragmatic concerns.

In the first part of his book Christ, Schillebeeckx points out that the origins of the word shalom imply peace that is achieved by what equates to socioeconomic reconciliation and fairness. For shalom to exist there must first be a sense of wholeness shared by all in a society, and a settling of debts. These are the preconditions of the peace that is longed for by all. This sense of peace is ultimately the foundation of the Jewish conception of the Kingdom of God as it is expressed in the New Testament. At the core of Jesus’ identity is the driving hope for a world under God where impoverished conditions are a shadow of history. This tangentially demands us to remember that poverty is not ultimately an economic matter. Poverty is a denial of the humanity of others; humanity implying the conditions by which we can identify a life as human. We frame it in terms of bank statements, but that is simply because it calms the cognitive dissonance we feel at caring more for our own comforts than for the meaningless deaths of millions.

Simply put, ignoring the economic implications of shalom destroys the very habitat in which shalom is even a remote possibility. And without shalom, the Kingdom which Jesus held as his central concern is a farce, making Jesus a peddler for a hoax. I agree that economics was not central to Jesus’ message as he preached it, but to claim that the implications of his message have any meaning apart from economic justice is foolish. Shalom implicates the whole of human existence. To maintain the divisions of our fractured reality, and pretend shalom can be approximated in all other realms while we leave a festering dead elephant under a tablecloth is a blasphemous joke.

So, let’s bring this back to where we started: the miserable failure who is our Lord. A first point is that it doesn’t mean much to say that Jesus loved the poor. Of course he loved them. He was one of them. He was born into poverty, he lived in poverty, and died in poverty. His death is a poor death. A meaningless death. His death is like the deaths of millions in our world, who die out of sight: unheard and unknown in Rome. A common disturbance among the authorities in Jerusalem. If we suspend the resurrection, then Jesus was a failure and so were his followers. Without God’s final vindication and endorsement then there is no other possible interpretation of his life. It was too sad to even qualify as a tragedy. Tragedies generally involve a downfall, but Jesus barely rose in the first place.

Yet this is the audacious and absurd claim that makes Christianity unique: it is in meaningless failure for God’s cause that God will raise us like our Christ.

Jesus died deluded, mistaken, and alone. He died meaninglessly - but for God’s final word. How dare we assume that we can claim to follow him and expect success? You choose the evil that stands in our world and attack with the authority of the Kingdom of God. You attack in the knowledge that you will fail. You attack because of Justice that is not fractured but remains unified under the Shalom of God’s existence. Beyond this expectation, apart from a faith that transcends eminent failure, the “gospel” is empty, dated, and hopefully soon forgotten.

A simpler way of saying all this could go something like this:

“I have fought for my whole life a long defeat. . . . I have fought the long defeat and I have brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory. . . . people from our background, we’re used to being on a victory team, [but] actually what we’re really trying to do is make common cause with the losers. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.” - Paul Farmer


At 5:33 PM , Blogger dallasjg said...

This is fantastic. Really.

At 10:17 AM , Anonymous Nicolas Acosta said...

Thanks for the clarification, Joe. What I was wanting to press you on was what I perceived to be a narrow understanding of the gospel, and in this post you've fleshed that out a bit, and presented it a bit more holistically. Economic justice flows out of a deeper sense of Shalom, and we sell ourselves short when we try to think of these things as categorically distinct from one another.

I understand the sense in which Jesus' life was a failure, and I appreciate the perspectives from Kung and Schillebeeckx. This is a good way to understand Jesus' message. Jesus' life was a failure, but in a paradoxical sense. His failure was a success, because it was a failure-unto-God.

What I was pushing back against was the idea that a person's devotion to the cause of the poor might be the one and only litmus test to determine if he/she is a Christian, which was the impression I got from your last post. Salvation in Christ should exude a multitude of expressions, of which service to the poor is but one. (A central one, but still only one.) If we understand Shalom in the deeper sense, then we are free to view the wealthy or those incapable of effecting structural change without being judgmental towards them. I can't help but feel that the more we become concerned with social justice, the more we need a rich understanding of grace. Because real justice is hard to achieve, and if we don't learn to forgive others of their sins the more our healthy commitment to justice risks caving in on itself in a singular expression of bitterness and hatred towards the perpetrators of injustice. If our understanding of the gospel has not filled us with love for our wealthy, suburban, gun-toting, xenophobic and homophobic brethren, then we have not truly understood it. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

However, I may be that I misread you on that; if so, forgive me. Again, I appreciate what you've clarified.


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