Thursday, December 22, 2011

On Incarnation and Social Change

"Thus it is rightly and truly said: God is born, was nursed or suckled, lay in the crib, felt cold, walked, stood, fell, wandered, ate, drank, suffered, died, etc.
- Martin Luther, Tischreden, VI:68, 18-40)

It is very nearly Christmas, a holiday that is quite dear to me. Not only is it a time that brings back warm memories of childhood traditions with my family in the hills of Pennsylvania, but Christmas is also a time in which I reflect on the incredible, even ineffable, nature of God's incarnation as Jesus Christ.

Which makes me think about organizing for social change. Doesn't it do the same for you?

I recently had a conversation with a friend who is an organizer at a workers' center, and after a while the subject of the Communist Party USA and the Industrial Workers of the World came up. I don't remember exactly how this subject came, but such topics are not unusual in my conversations. We both agreed that in general that we supported similar stances as the radical organizations do, but they are not viable vehicles for social change any more. Specifically talking about the IWW, or better known as the Wobblies, my friend sighed and said that the focus on the general strike as an all-encompassing strategy to bring the capitalist class to its knees just doesn't organize workers. Workers will only strike as a last resort because working is what puts food on the table, not striking.

It's a basic failure to identify with their sisters and brothers, which brings me back to the concept of incarnation.

One of the reasons that people are so moved by the gospel of Jesus Christ is that he was so human. He got angry, got sad, got hungry, and was just generally human. It is one thing to fear one is so unlike yourself--the "numinous" of Rudolf Otto--but it is something else to follow in the footsteps of that one. We may sing praises to the one we do not and cannot identify with, but we strive to emulate the nature of the one who like us in nature. Christ himself is what makes possible the fulfillment of his command to "be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). That is why Christ is Emmanuel, God With Us.

I am convinced that if we want to change the world, to make the world more like the kingdom of God, then this is the philosophy that we should live and organize by: we must understand intimately the concerns of those people around us whom we wish to draw into the kingdom of God. We must become like them. We cannot stand on pedestals and proclaim the gospel of Marxist ideology and expect the masses to sacrifice themselves for the grand utopia. People only become martyrs because the kingdom of God has already been born in them; the incarnation is already within them.

Maybe this is why Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions if he truly wanted to enter the  kingdom of God. And certainly this is why Jesus said that entering the kingdom of heaven is impossible for people, but with God, all things are possible. 

So in this season so close to Christmas, let us lay us aside our ideologies and principles. It is the season of incarnation. If we want to imitate the nativity, instead of extravagant pageants, let us live as the poor, the undocumented, and the marginalized live. Let us not only marvel at the little baby in the feeding trough, but let us live as if our own newborn slept that way. Perhaps then we would not be so quick to pay our debts by selling our little ones into slavery. And perhaps then the masses would indeed cast off their chains.

I can think of no better Christmas story.

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