Two nearby churches of my small denomination had a special drama for Holy Week, one running the play on Maundy Thursday, the other on Good Friday. It was co-written by a couple we know. I chose to go to a different Good Friday service because I didn't want my Easter politicised. I didn't fully know at the time that was my reason for avoiding the drama, I just vaguely knew there would be something, hmm, unfocused about anything by them. They are lovely, kind people, of sincere faith and depth. But like most of the religious left, their political categories bleed over into their spiritual ones (the Bleeding is supposed to go in the other direction).
My own pastor attended one of the services, and summarised the drama in his sermon this morning. I should have known. Sometimes you just can't get away.
I should fairly point out that there was much possibility for spiritual nourishment in what was described, and the focus was ostensibly spiritual in the entire. There was no political rhinoceros in the room - not even baby rhinos. A few armadillos, maybe. I doubt anyone would see the political connection except those such as I, who was looking for it. That is not a saving grace, however, but the specific danger. At the end, you have absorbed a political lesson without noticing, washed down with the spiritual one.
A prostitute, a person in a wheelchair, a homeless person, and an autistic person tell something of their stories - with some good spiritual meat in there. At the end, it is they who serve communion to the congregation. A fabulous idea in many ways.
My first thought was to feel offended on behalf of the autistic person and the person in a wheelchair, and maybe even the homeless person, to be lumped in with the prostitute. While it is true that all four categories are neglected or devalued in some way, there is nothing sinful about autism or paralysis. Nor is homelessness per se sinful, though sin is often involved. It is also fair to note that prostitutes are often more sinned against than sinning. But we have a serious mixing of categories here, and it is ultimately not accidental. Unconscious, maybe, but not accidental. The mixing is yet one more example of the precise blind spot of the religious left. There's this mushy idea of the downtrodden and dispossessed that we should y'know, care about more than we do.
Perhaps I am already off on the wrong foot. Religious conservatives are likely already getting while I'm driving at, while religious liberals - who usually think of themselves as balanced and centrist, BTW - are immediately shaking their heads about how it is I (we) who don't get it about the disenfranchised and how Christian values tie into political ones.
Another tack: I know a lot of people in all four of those categories, but I would be surprised if they had encountered more than a few of each. These are categories of people who are talked about, particularly among good caring people who want to do ministry to everyone, leaving none behind. If they really wanted to capture the despised of the earth in their context, they should have had the congregation receiving communion from an AIG exec who just got a bonus, and a noisy fundie who they know has been a sexual hypocrite, and the bombastic selectman who voted against funding for the arts last year. People who claim to be transformed, but a whole lot of people aren't sure. That's the Mary Magdalene equivalent. That's the Saul of Tarsus equivalent.
The prostitute is a stock literary figure, used to exemplify the sins common to all, just worse. It's a good image. We are supposed to be reminded that we are not much better, perhaps not any better, than she is, and a lot closer to her in spiritual condition than we are to Jesus. But there is a second stereotype, derived from the spiritual archetype but essentially secular. This is a poor girl who is rough around the edges, foul-mouthed and tough, but really good deep down. All she needs is a fair shake. All she needs is someone to show her a little kindness. This secondary image, a woman in need of secular salvation, fits nicely with the other three categories in the drama. A hug and some good legislation and she's going to be fine.
There are some like that. Certainly there are many who could hardly deserve what they have been through. But let's not overlook the obvious. I know many of these women (and men), and they have been offered rescue many times. They have been sent to expensive rehabs and hospitals at someone else's expense. They have had good boyfriends that they left, kindly aunts that have taken them in, churches that have helped them out, and a slew of government agencies involved with resetting their clocks. They don't need a kind word and an understanding society - they need transformation.
Less often, but still very often, the homeless fall into this category. The news agencies focus on the human-interest stories of folks who were scraping by until some difficulty hit, and now everything is shot to hell and they're living in a tent. Because of the economy. Because of the heartlessness of society. And this bleeds over into the idea that the Church, of all institutions, should do something. And care. This also fits nicely with the autism and disability categories: Through no fault of their own. It could happen to anyone.
That's not generally true. It is sometimes, and I willingly grant that there are many in this category as well who are more sinned against than sinning. They have trusted the wrong people. They have made impulsive decisions. They ran on the edge of life with no cushion, and the first difficulty pulled them under.
But in addition to finding cheap housing, applying for government or charitable benefits, and arranging for rent and security deposit for these folks, I also collect their histories. Most homeless people have been set up by some relative, some agency, some church, several times in the past. The news agencies don't lie, exactly, but they mislead. Thus, the people who talk about the homeless have a skewed idea what the situation is. Legislative and secular solutions will not help all that many (unlike the autistic and disabled). Transforming society's attitude or the Church's attitude toward these folks is not often the issue. They themselves need transformation.
Because some might be transformed, we should perhaps rescue all, over and again. That's fine, and a fit discussion for Christian influence on society and government. But if that's what were intended in these dramas, we wouldn't have this confusion of categories. We've got the sheep and the goats together and being told they're all pretty much sheep, really.
Jesus healed all manner of ills, but he made distinctions between the meaning of those ills. He in fact went out of his way to make those distinctions. In the context of a society that often confused the categories, believing that the merely unfortunate had somehow deserved their fate, Jesus still drew a sharp line. The Gospel is not that misfortune is the same as sin.