This is my second post in a series about privilege and “being last” – if you haven’t already checked out my introductory post, you might want to do so here first.
When I heard Christena Cleveland talk about the call for privileged people to be last, it reminded me of a book I read years ago by Episcopal priest Eric Law called “The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb.”
I read the book at the recommendation of my then co-pastor, Jodi, who had found it offered wisdom for us as white women who were attempting to pastor a church of mainly First Nations people.
As the book’s title suggests, Eric Law uses Isaiah's peaceable kingdom as a guiding image, asking how powerful “wolves” and less-powerful “lambs” in our society can actually coexist peacefully without simply following their fear-based instincts to devour or to run.
He notices that in the Gospels, Jesus tends to address privileged people (wolves) differently than he addresses less powerful people (lambs).
Here are some of Jesus’ words to privileged people:
“Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”
“You are like whitewashed tombs.”
“You unbelieving and perverse generation.”
“Go and sell all you possess and give to the poor.”
And here are some of his words to marginalized people:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”
“What do you want me to do for you?”
“Where are your accusers? Neither do I accuse you.”
“Never have I seen such amazing faith in all of Israel.”
“Your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
His message to the powerful and privileged insiders is one of warning, challenge, and sometimes humiliation. His message to the powerless and marginalized outsiders is one of blessing, encouragement and hope.
It might sound like Jesus is biased toward the poor and powerless, and in fact, that is exactly how some have described it.
But what if Jesus is actually giving these two groups different ways to follow him, different focuses in their common journey of working out their salvation and conquering the power of evil in their lives?
For those who are in positions of power and privilege, Jesus’ call is to follow him to the cross. To choose a downwardly mobile and humiliating path of vulnerability and apparent failure. To give up power and possessions to the poor. To be last. To die. This is how they will be rescued from their power.
But for those who are poor or powerless, that same call would ring hollow, since they’re already on the cross, already vulnerable and humiliated. Instead, their call is to follow him in resurrection. To step up. To be faithful. To claim the hope and empowerment of the empty tomb. This is how they will be rescued from their powerlessness.
Crucifixion and resurrection are both aspects of the Gospel, the Good News, so Eric Law calls this the “Cycle of Gospel Living.” It’s a cycle with different entry points for privileged and marginalized people, for wolves and for lambs.
Of course, there’s an important sense in which all of us, regardless of relative power and privilege, are called both to take up our crosses and to claim the power of the resurrection. But those with more privilege will find themselves frequently empowered, frequently needing to walk the downward path. Those with less privilege will find themselves more often in places of suffering and crucifixion, requiring the upward resurrection path of endurance, empowerment, and deliverance.
Joyce, my colleague at Jacob's Well, made the interesting observation that the church has sometimes reversed these messages with disastrous effects. Assuming that power and wealth reflect God’s favour, we preach words of blessing, encouragement, and hope to privileged insiders, only reinforcing a false sense of comfort. Then we take mission trips to marginalized outsiders and preach a fire and brimstone message of the cross, reinforcing their sense of powerlessness before a harsh God who seems to think suffering is good for them.
I don’t think it’s God’s will for us to become further entrenched in these polarized places of power and powerlessness, in severe comfort and severe discomfort. Instead we have a God who keeps us always on the move by giving us the particular path and focus we need for our sanctification.
Eric Law writes, “The moment I am resurrected into new life of empowerment, I must begin to think about serving and giving away my power and take up the cross again, or I stand the chance of abusing my power. The moment I take up the cross and become powerless, I must begin to think about faithfulness and endurance and look toward empowerment through the empty tomb. It is in this dynamic of death and resurrection, cross and the empty tomb, Lent and Easter, that the Gospel comes to life in each one of us.” (43)
I believe this cycle provides a helpful spirituality for both the "first" and the "last," two ways of following Christ toward our mutual freedom. It’s a beautiful thing when privileged people follow Jesus down, and it’s a beautiful thing when marginalized people follow Jesus up, all of us moving toward a time and place where wolves and lambs can dwell together in peace.
In my next two posts I’ll get more practical about some ways privileged people can “be last,” choosing the path of the cross, and how marginalized people can “be first,” choosing the path of resurrection.