Part of a Long Line of Prophetic Perishing

An excerpt from Dr. James Perkinson’s 2001 essay “Theology and the City: Learning to Cry, Struggling to See.”

The Christian tradition that underwrites the theology elaborated here offers — as its primary icon of “how” and “where “God is present in the world and “who” God is in the world — an image of a human being hanging on an instrument of state torture, crying out to God, against God (Mark 15:34). That God is not ripped down miraculously from that piece of wood (Mark 15:29-30). That God does not make it into comfy old age. While still alive “in the flesh,” that God did not always have a full belly (Matt. 12:1-4), did not live in the posh quarters of the city (Luke 9:58), was not greeted with acclaim by the movers and shakers of his day (John 7:45-52), did not have a good retirement policy. “He” regularly angered the foundations like the Sanhedrin or the Herodian Temple Corporation that would otherwise have funded his ministry (Mark 3:11-6). He publicly blessed the welfare queens, hookers, day laborers and beggars, and other assorted “rabble” who had been downsized out of legitimate livelihoods (Luke 6:20-23). He publicly cursed the banquet-givers (Luke 6:24-26), and conference-goers, and upright, uptight stalwart citizens, who, as the pillars of their community, continuously expropriated land from the “people” by means of the debt-code in order to reemploy them as tenant farmers on their own lands (Matt. 20:1-16; see Herzog, 1994, 79-97). He loudly and loquaciously denounced the lifestyle supported by such exploitative practices and labeled “abomination” what the elites claimed as “God’s blessing” (Herzog, 1994, 53-73; 2000, 90-108; Myers, 1997, 125). He openly charged the scribal ideologues and their judicial patrons with privately wrestling widows’ last pennies away from them (Mark 12:38-44) even as they were publicly encouraging the sons to give their mothers’ estates away “to God” through the Temple apparatus called “corban” (that, in effect, transferred such endowments from the marginalized elderly to the Temple’s rapacious high-priestly high-livers) (Mark 7:5-13).

My understanding of that God “of incarnation” is not that his death was primarily a cosmic plan, all worked out up front, as a “done deal” from before the beginning of time based on “insider information,” satisfying the debt-plus-interest owed by every human being ever created. Nor is it my view that in his resurrection, he now stands meekly calling at the threshold like a good little shepherd talking to the good little “sheep” in sheep-talk who will then themselves forever after stay quietly in the nice cosy suburban “corral,” surrounded by state-of-the-art security systems, “bleating” over hi-tech sound systems, pooping in all the right places, and “giving wool” at the right hour.

My understanding is that, initially, this incarnate God spoke loud and long as a prophet (Luke 7:16-17, Matt. 21;11; Rev. 3:14), immersed in the harsh everyday world of tenant farmers and tax collectors and wage laborers and HIV-leprosy sufferers and guerrilla fighters and poverty hustlers and dolled up, street-walkers. He learned his message from bombastic, uppity women who would not keep quiet in the courtroom (Luke 18:1-8), would not take “no” for an answer when he was “underground” and trying to hide from the authorities up near the city of Tyre (Mark 7:24-30), would not refrain from wiping him with their hair at hoity-toity dinner parties (Luke 7:36-50) or contaminating him with uncleanness by touching him in the marketplace (Mark 5:24-34), would not even consult their husbands when deciding to “have” him, as a baby, by somebody else! (Matt. 1:18-24; Luke 1:26-38). This God continued to speak even when he was no longer invited to read the bible in nice, respectable “churches” (John 7:11; Luke 4:16-30; John 11:54), pray for the nice sick daughters of the wealthy or their nice dying servants (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43; Luke 7:1-10), or give nice opinions on local events (Luke 13:1-5), because so much of what he had to say did not sound so nice to well-washed and perfumed ears (Matt. 23:1-39; Luke 11:37-54). He spoke even when accompanied by crowds who smelled (John 11:39), who were presumed to be thieves (Luke 19:1-10; John 12:4-6; Mark 11:17, see Herzog, 2000, 139-42), who organized parades on pretenses (Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:39) and misunderstood everything except that their own exploiters and oppressors were getting a public comeuppance in this guy’s words (Mark 12:37). He spoke even when the CIA lurked (Mark 7:1),when the FBI jerked his chain (Mark 3:6; Matt. 12:14), when the spin-meisters sought to catch him in damming sound-bites (Mark 12:13; Luke 11:53-54), when the police threatened arrest after a day-long takeover of the national shrine (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47-48). He only ceased speaking when the kangaroo court demanded that he speak (Mark 14:60- 61).

Then, in the final moment, far from a quiet, complacent passing on, in full control of pain and pathos like some god-in-human-drag, “slumming,” for a brief season, among such poor wayward creatures, this God yelled, yowled, cursed, swore, cried out, groaned, moaned, made it plain this blood-letting was a divine abomination, and even, like Job, finally dared put God “himself” at issue, if such doings as this were “the father’s will” (Mark 15:33-39). That is to say, I understand this death not to have been primarily or in the first place substitutionary, but solidary. It did not so much go bail for us, so we would not have to suffer that way, as it did invite any who would be followers — even recalcitrant and frightened and absent ones, like most of his male friends — to join in the same mission (Mark 8:31-35; John 15:18-27; Matt. 10:24-39). Those “trepid ones” were (and are) invited to join the spirit of resurrection in confronting injustice, unmasking the powers’ mimicry of divinity, confronting the theological “common sense” of the day as just another name for complicity with the oppression (Matt. 10:5-39). And they are to expect the same treatment and the same end as himself (John 12:10; 16:1-4)

That is not to say the idea of Jesus having come expressly to die for the sins of the world is wrong. It is to say rather that such an idea is recuperative — a way of bringing deep meaning out of deep tragedy, after the fact (Acts 3:17-26; 10:34-43). It is a theological move that is retrospective. The gospels present a depiction of Jesus’ ministry as sharply prophetic and part of a long line of such pointed prophetic challenges to concentrated wealth and power, and his death as deplorable and damnable and part of a long line of prophetic perishing at the hands of the well-to-do and rapacious (Matt. 23:1-39; Luke 11:42-52). In this prophetic scenario, the perishing is not God’s intent for either the prophets themselves or for the people who pillory them (Luke 13:31-35). To love oppressors in particular, or sinful human beings in general, is to have continual hope for them that they will stop their oppressing and sinning before they do harm to others and to themselves. To understand Jesus’ death too quickly as part of a divine plan worked out totally in advance is, in fact, to give up too quickly on the potential for responsibility on the part of those who are the most powerful, or really on the part of any of us.

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