Self dispossession is the price solidarity exacts
~ M Shawn Copeland
I love asking questions. Most of my life, I have been asking questions, only difference is how and where I ask them as time has passed. I remember when I got employed after college, the secretary at our department was fed up with my questions and one day she raised her voice exasperated and said:
“Joyce! You are like a walking questionnaire!”
One of the questions that has been swirling in my mind for years is the question of solidarity amongst those who claim affinity to the Christian faith. I have suffered a lot in the 37 years I have been on the face of the earth and it is around this suffering that this question arose. I always wondered, sometimes out loud, why are the people of faith unable to fully empathize with those who suffer – physical, emotional, social, mental, spiritual suffering? I always wondered why it is that people of faith seemed lost when in the presence of another suffering human being. For years I asked God this question as well as fellow human beings who proclaim the Christian faith.
I remember when I lost my second child. The most awkward visitors I got were from the church. They looked lost, uncomfortable, out of place. In the end, while nursing my own physical and emotional wounds I cracked jokes to ease the palpable tension. This made them very happy. They ended up extolling my resilience and courage and ability to endure suffering and still laugh. In laughter they easily were enjoined with me, but as soon as my pain showed they coiled into themselves. I found it so odd.
How could followers of the Nazarene Jesus, the man of sorrows, the man of tears, the suffering Christ be so uncomfortable in the presence of pain and suffering? I always thought, this should be your natural inclination. This should be your comfort zone. You should be in your element around pain and suffering as a follower of the Nazarene who was unjustly nailed to a cross in the most humiliating death sentences of his time. But nope, it was mostly the opposite. I found that the people who claimed to Jesus of Nazareth were most comfortable in opulence, in power, in health and wealth. It always made me wonder if there was more than one Christ being ascribed to.
One of the rebuttals I have received over the years to my questions on solidarity in suffering has been lack of experience. That if a person has not experienced a certain pain or suffering they are not able to stand with or be present with an individual going through that particular pain or suffering. And I would then ask: does it mean every human being who claims the Christian faith has to go through all the known and unknown suffering and pain in the world? What about pain and suffering that is not within your anatomy, like my pain of going through two miscarriages? This rebuttal does not hold water for me. I was and I am still convinced that anyone who enjoins themselves with the suffering Jewish Jesus of Nazareth should be able to enjoin themselves in the sufferings of any other human being, bearer of the imago dei, in the world. You do not need to have gone through that specific suffering to be enjoined, to be in solidarity, to empathize, to be present, to mourn and lament with another. I am convinced that it should be an outflow of your being enjoined with Jesus of Nazareth and his suffering.
So it begs the question, could it mean/could it be that those unable to be in solidarity (to disposes of themselves for the another) with those in suffering are not really enjoined with the suffering Jewish Jesus of Nazareth they proclaim to follow? And why would that be so? How can you claim a faith whose leader/source is the epitome of dispossession (Philippians 2:1-11) and somehow bypass the message of his very incarnation, the core of his life and suffering? Where is the disconnect between Jesus and his followers as far as solidarity with those who suffer is concerned?
Could it be the reason for the espousing of violent/sacrificial atonement theologies in the Christian faith? Could it be the reason why a redemptive cross, a suffering and murdered Jesus is not in our comprehension frame? What would happen if we saw the Holy Week and the Easter Weekend in a different light? Jesus of Nazareth, the Divine, enjoining himself with the lowliest, the suffering, the dejected, the poor, the marginalized and all ‘whose backs are against the wall.’ As opposed to a blood thirsty God killing his own son to appease his own wrath? We know violence, but we are uncomfortable in non-violence; we are not sure what to do with it. We can theorize pain and suffering, the head knowledge is not hard, coming up with cause and effect scenarios is a thriving filed for most, just ask the friends of Job; but when it comes to solidarity, to being with, to sitting with, to feeling with we fumble. Why is that?
Reading M Shawn Copeland, courtesy of the Subversive Seminary, in chapter 6 of Knowing Christ Crucified: The Witness of African American Religious Experience and I knew I had been asking the right questions all along. I felt so validated when I read this chapter titled: Following the Tears of a Crucified World: A Theological Meditation on Social Suffering, Solidarity, and the Cross.
In this chapter M Shawn Copeland asks and answers a reiteration of my question on solidarity in suffering: “. . .what might [it] mean to know Christ crucified, to know the tears of a crucified world, to know the suffering and tears of a crucified people. . .?” She answers this question in depth in this chapter, please get the book and read it in its entirety for yourself. I will only give a snippet of her thought processes and arguments here.
She begins by stating that:
“theology must work out the relation between the murderous crucifixion of the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and the murderous crucifixion of countless children, women, and men whom we have impoverished, marginalized, and excluded through our power, privilege, and position . . .”
The cross is then becomes not an individual/personal salvation plan for Christians but a solidarity space backwards and therefore forward. Backward with the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and forward with all in creation who suffer. But to do this, Christians must sit in with the fact that the crucifixion of Jesus was unjust, it was the murder of a man who had done no wrong by a people whose leaders were threatened by his very existence. For most Christians, myself included, we were brought up on a healthy diet of ‘Jesus died on the cross as a fulfillment of prophecy’ and therefore no further interrogation of his death need arise. Well, he was murdered. He was murdered in space and time. He was murdered by a people and under a regime that had crucifixion as its worst punishments reserved for the vilest of criminals. He was murdered as a human body not a spirit. So he suffered. I am convinced that this thought process, this kind of engagement of the crucifixion allows Christians to enter into the pathway of solidarity; of dispossession.
M Shawn Copeland, then goes ahead in this chapter to name and call out social sin. She writes:
Social sin is bred from the cumulative and massive effect of acting from bias (i.e., perverse and self serving individual – and group – interest), of distorting and upending crucial social values, of refusing to ask further question or pursue additional information and insights in order to make knowing authentically relevant to right doing, and of deliberate preference for short-term ratchet than long-term solutions.
Silence is one of the loudest languages ever spoken on earth. It is the language well understood by the oppressed since time began. It is the language of self preservation of individuals and groups over the ages. It is a sin of omission. I wonder what would have happened if Pilate had refused to bow down to the pressure from the irate crowd operating under duress from the church leaders of the time? I really wonder what would have happened in someone in the crowd that was baying for the blood of an innocent man from Nazareth had stood up and said no? I wonder what would have happened if Joseph of Arimathea had showed up at this sham trial of Jesus and stood up for him then instead of asking for his dead body to bury? What would have been the cost for any who would have dared stand up? Yes I know about the prophecies, I was born and bred Christian! But I still wonder . . .
How many times is lack of solidarity in Christian faith excused under ‘it is written’?
How many times have individuals and groups ascribing to the Christian faith done the bypass of the Priest and Levite in Luke 10: 25-37?
In concluding this chapter M Shawn Copeland states:
Solidarity forms the heart and substance of Christian discipleship, for our compassionate, practical, and intelligent action makes the very presence of the Holy One vivid among us. This action revises relationships, heals wounds, and binds us together again as God’s new creation. This demands our active and sustained engagement: We cannot hope to think about ‘God in depth,’ that is, in the concrete; we cannot draw close to God in ‘understanding,’ unless we ‘re-enact within ourselves the conditions of [divine] eing, which is to say dispossession of the self for the sake of the other.
As Fr. Richard Rohr says, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” And I am convinced that is the stumbling block for many who claim to be followers of the crucified Christ; they are stuck at the mind space in their religious pursuit. They are also very much, heavily invested in a fragmented Christianity that divorces the body from the mind, the mind from the spirit. It the Christianity of James 2:15-16
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
It is a faith that argues for salvation of the soul but not of the body, while relying on a crucified, broken body to make this argument! To be able to stand in solidarity with the suffering, you have to be able to stand in solidarity with the suffering Jesus of Nazareth. You have to be able to be present and process your own suffering and pain. You have to be present in your own physical body as a whole not as a fragment being. Dispossession is a cognitive, an aware, a practical step/action. It cannot and does not happen within a fragment human being. It stems from wholeness, from an integrated live – past, present and future. And this dispossession of self, the known self (in a continuous sense), that results in solidarity with the suffering of all creation – human beings, nature, animals, the environment. It is always as M Shawn Copeland writes: ” . . . for the sake of the other”
To be able to be present in the suffering and the pain of humanity and creation as a whole means de-centering yourself. It means removing yourself as the focus point, as the center of attention and centering another and creation. It is not an easy process, neither is it an impossible way of life. As a Christian, as one who prescribes to the faith centered on the suffering Jewish Jesus of Nazareth, this process of dispossession finds its blueprint in Jesus. This lifestyle of dispossession finds its roadmap in the life of Jesus the Nazarene. This way of living finds its most profound and life altering moment at the cross of the crucified Jesus of Nazareth.