Friday, July 31, 2020


I have been hearing for years now that God has a special love for the marginalised, that Jesus is deeply concerned with the marginalised, that there is something special about the marginalised that Christians need to recognise.

This is oversold.  This is an idea that has grown over the centuries and is especially prominent now, but it is reading our values backward onto the scriptures. There is something to it, but it neglects (as do most opinions) to look at itself and see where it comes from, who likes it and benefits from it, what possible objections people might have to it.  The modern word in such discourse is interrogate. This theory that the various categories of marginalised people have an extra value does not interrogate itself.  As a consequence, it bends our reading of both the Old and New Testaments, particularly the Beatitudes, and hip-checks us in the direction of earthly focus, not as an expression of heavenly focus, but as a competition to it.

The short version is that Jesus was speaking to a culture that believed the poor were in especial disfavor. God must not love them, or not as much.  They must have done something wrong. Most cultures believe this, when there is any stratification at all, that you must have been evil in a previous existence, or your parents sinned so you're blind, or the ancestors are punishing you for some infraction.  The Jews had made considerable headway against this idea - or at least, their finest and most inspired thinkers had - but it was still clearly present.  Heck, it is still present among Christians today.  We see it in the extreme in the health-and-wealth, name-it-and-claim it types, but it is not far from the theology of those who teach that God "honors" decisions of ours, or that Jesus rewards nations which are generous and peaceable with enemies that are moved by that example and become our friends.  If you are good you get extra good things, goes the thinking. There seems to be something automatic about it, and it may have been a force to improve cooperativeness for thousands of years, shaping who we are for all I know.

The lesson is repeated throughout the New Testament.  Jesus loves the poor.  The poor are okay. Samaritans are okay.  Women are okay.  Slaves are okay.  Jesus starts it off with the centurion, but Paul brings the message home hard, that even the Roman oppressors are eligible to join us. Greeks, Ethiopians, the formerly-possessed, the murderers, the unclean.  Yet nowhere is there the slightest indication that they are better.  Jesus paid special attention to them because the lesson comes hard to us and needs to be repeated, not because they are special friends of his. (Yes, I'll get to why we think the Beatitudes teaches otherwise - they don't, though it's an understandable error.).

Because some of us can't learn the basic message that God loves the poor just as much as He loves you, Jasper, the counter-message, that he loves them more than the average Bobbi-Sue, has taken strong hold in our culture. There is something of it in Enlightenment thought, in Voltaire and Rousseau.  It is strong in Catholic monastic traditions, but even there it is a shift from the original Benedictine intent. Monks take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and there are verses of scripture which speak of such things with approval.  But these are nowhere absolutes.  Their opposites are dangers and temptations,  and we are told not to despise these conditions. (There are similar near-universal beliefs that if we can direct our own actions rather than having to obey others we are superior people, and that adults [men and women] who don't have children are under a curse.)

If the disciplines were actually virtues, then fasting would be so good that we should all starve to death. Similarly, poverty would be so great that we should all die from that, and obedience would be such an improvement on human nature that we should all follow tyrants and learn to love them. Wealth is a temptation, not a sin.  Poverty is a discipline, not a virtue. Consider the verses about the camel going through the eye of the needle and the competing god Mammon in that light and they make more sense.

If there is any consistent NT message at all, it is that the pains and pleasures of this world are unimportant in contrast to the world to come, and that all our human categories are not important in the face of embracing the Kingdom of God. The shepherds were welcome at the manger, and there is perhaps even a hint that they did get a little extra honor, at least as much as the middle-class family that took in the middle-class Mary and Joseph*, and in advance of the important Magi from Nabatea**.  Jesus praises the widow with the two mites, he breaks tradition to speak with a a) sinful, b) Samaritan, c) woman to make a very emphatic point that even she is welcome.  He pounds it home in Matthew 24 that the least of these should be held in equal regard even to he, himself.  Poor and marginalised people everywhere!  Doesn't that prove their special status?  No, because he also speaks with Nicodemus, with the centurion, with Zacchaeus, and takes a tax-collector as an apostle.  But...but...but...they were also marginalised because people didn't like them.  They aren't counter-examples, they are further examples of Jesus's love for The Marginalised.  Well, if your definition of powerful oppressors and marginalised victims overlaps that fully, then I have to say that you aren't really clear what you mean, and also that it doesn't map very well onto current conditions.  Jesus regarded all as equally eligible.  He repeated some lessons because they go against our instincts.  (There is an exception to this.  If no one picks up on this I will probably have a go at it later.)

I would say that to both the violent Zealots protesting in Portland and the Federal centurions who are trying to enforce safety there Jesus would say "Come, follow me."  Any suggestion that he would especially side with the former because they are in some category of "marginalised" I regard as simply insane.

If your counter is that he wouldn't regard the police as especially favored either I will hold up my hands in wonder and say "And who, pray tell, is claiming that? The strongest statement would be that many people believe they are doing a good thing. There is precisely no Christian claiming that policemen are especially favored by God.  All those claims are coming from the opposite direction, that The Marginalised are special." The claims are not on the same ground.

Those ideas stem from entirely secular philosophies. 

*I am toying with an idea for a Christmas: Mythbusters series at the end of the year.
** Same


james said...

On a slightly related note, I marveled at the extreme austerities and flagellations many of the early monks. Then one day I was reading about civil punishments, and realized that the monks and nuns weren't doing things much more extreme than ordinary people might experience in court or in the hungry season. (OK, some of the Syrian desert monks got pretty weird.)

To your point, though--the early church and monastic focus was not on how much God loved the poor in general, but whether _you_ should become poor for His sake.

engineerlite said...

Jesus often talked and worked against prevailing beliefs. If man perceives value in money/sex/power, and Jesus suggests that love God/love your neighbor is the way to goodness, Jesus is going to attract a large number of poor/weak/marginalized, who were losers by the prevailing values. Conversely, the wealthy/strong perceive they have much more to lose in the new game, which makes it harder to revise their values and follow Jesus.

The real perversion is to pursue money/sex/power while pretending to care for the poor/weak/marginalized.

Brad said...

Well said.