In the beginning there was the Word; the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God. The Word was present to God from the beginning. Through the Word all things came into being, and apart from the Word nothing came into being. In the Word was life, and that life was humanity’s light – a Light that shines in the darkness, a Light that the darkness has never overtaken. – John 1:1-5 (The Inclusive Bible, First Egalitarian Translation)
In our monthly Bible Study, Grace at the Circle, we are exploring the theme of poverty in the Bible. I appreciate The Rev. Dominique Atchison for letting me become a part of the Antiracism Devotional, because this is helping me consider ways in which racism and classism/class-exploitation intersect in the lives of the most vulnerable people in our society.
In November, our Grace at the Circle gathering focused on the work of two theologians, Howard Thurman and Richard Horsley, and how these two thinkers addressed the question, Why should the poor have hope? Thurman and Horsley each look at Jesus – the man, his life and his legacy – within the context of Jesus’s cultural/historical context. There were three major ‘take-aways’ in our discussion about hope:
In Jesus’s context, religion was inseparable from politics and economics. Therefore, a study of Jesus can go beyond informing us about religious practices by including guidance for how to fight oppression and why to advocate for social change.
Each theologian points out the significance of Jesus being born a Jewish person. Jesus was a member of a minority group having to negotiate life amongst a majority group made more powerful by an oppressive military. Jesus lived in a time when the main conflict was between people living in villages and those in power. His ability to relate to the ‘common woman and man’ made him relatable to the majority of people living on earth in his time and in ours.
Finally, Jesus did not necessarily ask people in the villages to overthrow the government nor did his actions cause political upheaval; however, his message inspired a radical change in the inner attitude of a people. Jesus’s message of mercy, forgiveness and love seemed to offer radical strategies for coping within an oppressive situation.
Even though Jesus was not advocating resistance, he was often in conflict with the powerful. This is because strengthening oppressed people is often threatening to those in power. Often Jesus found himself in conflict with others, because he walked in authority. Other versions of the scripture we read in John explain that the darkness “could not understand the light” and others read that the darkness “could not overcome the light”. Jesus’s legitimacy challenged those whose authority was fraudulent. Jesus’s power came through his connection with God. And, he invites us all to walk in this authority and to use the power of God to heal others. Oppressed people empowered in this way would be more threatening than an ill-fated uprising would be.
Perhaps the most radical concept comes from Howard Thurman’s notion of a ‘freed soul’. Thurman believed that in order for an oppressed person to participate in Jesus’s directives of love, mercy and forgiveness, she has to see herself as an equal to any other person, especially any member of the oppressive group. Thurman calls the process of seeing one’s self as equal as a ‘freed soul’. He explains that only a freed soul can love and be empowered to forgive. A deep humility coupled with a feeling of authority results in a sense of freedom no one can take away – a sense of freedom that can withstand any set of circumstances.
If Jesus’s words and behaviors are an illumination of God’s love for humanity, then we can be reasonable in believing that God values us all equally. The journey from oppressed to a ‘freed soul’ will be a very challenging one. Once we understand that God values us all equally, then we can feel compelled to advocate for any social group we find is being treated unfairly in society.
I believe the poor can have hope, because the Jesus movement means that anyone who wants to be part of it can have access to the authority and power Jesus used to heal and spread the gospel. All of us can have hope, because through Jesus we can be freed souls empowered to love others the way God loves us.
I want to end with this passage, because I find so much hope in Romans 8…
Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. For the Spirit that God has given you does not enslave you and trap you in fear; instead, through the Spirit God has adopted you as children, and by that Spirit we cry out, “Abba!” God’s Spirit joins with our spirit to declare that we are all God’s children. And if we are children, we are heirs as well: heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, sharing in Christ’s suffering and sharing in Christ’s glory. Indeed, I consider the suffering of the present to be nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed in us. – Romans 8:14-18 (The Inclusive Bible, First Egalitarian Translation)