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Donna Schaper

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A Jesus Look at the Issues du Jour

Posted: 06/16/11 11:17 AM ET

When we get bored by both Fox News and MSNBC, and realize that CNN's middle is a muddle, a closer walk with Jesus sharpens our attention. Consider first the debt ceiling, then political polarization and the strangely popular new topic of queer gender bending.

Jesus always spent more than he had, always paid forward, always had a strange understanding of the economy. The workers in the vineyard? The story where the one-hour worker gets the same as the eight-hour one? That Jesus is anti-labor and anti-capitalism in the same breath. Jesus was a self-emptier, a kenotic, one whose way was to spill and spend not hoard and scrimp. I have no idea if he would vote to limit debt or increase it, but I do know he would frame the entire argument in a way no one else did. What will the orphan or the widow get out of it? One of the things it means to love Jesus is to be pro-taxes and for frugality. In other words, reframe the question. The way the subject is reframed will be good for either orphans or widows and will proceed to means from these ends.

I just preached at the First Congregational Church in D.C. where there was a homeless man asleep on a pew the entire service. Not just nodding the way some do when my brilliant words and the time famine coalesce to cause dozing. He was not nodding but sound asleep and snoring. And no one noticed. I daresay Jesus wouldn't have either. Jesus prioritized the poor in a way that only the rare congregation and the rare economy does. He imagined the oppressed and dispossessed as real, not imaginary. He paid attention to all in the room and opened his mouth on their behalf. Jesus did not participate in the befuddled, self-referential quiet about the poor. "I just don't know what to do," is not something Jesus would ever say. The poor were real to him. They were his friends. The option of nothing to say or do was rendered impossible by intimacy.

Jesus spoke up without full solutions to all problems. The deficit would not threaten him so much as engage him. He would push us to resolution and not dilly-dally around, as though someone else needed to help the children and the aged, the orphans and the widowed. These are metaphors for spiritual abandonment and economic loneliness as well as material need.
Jesus spoke on many levels at once, and wasn't afraid to open his mouth.

There are times when I, instead, just can't think of another thing not to say. Prophets tell truth long before people want to hear the truth. Prophets tell it long after they have heard enough too. Prophets tell people more than they want to hear. Jesus spoke with a singular disregard for long range planning and solution oriented programs. He was stuck on the simple verbs: See, Say, Hear. Orphans were not about our own impotence, causing cruel silence. Orphans and widows were the beginning, the end and the middle of Jesus' understanding of the "deficit" problem.

Jesus helps me deal with political polarization as well. He spoke the unspeakable. Love your enemies. Be good to those who hurt you. That means I need to love the Republicans. Now I do have some squabbles with this too good to be true man/God. Did he really not want us to have power? Or victories? Or self-worth? Yes, he probably did. But he wanted also to give it all away, kenotically, as often as possible. For Jesus the way out of mutual demonization was the way in and the way in was the way out. He didn't have or make time to demonize. He kept moving us towards a center in each other -- while driving us out of our comfort zones. Like a labyrinth, he was always trying to head for the mountains, always at the gate of the city, always afraid of the center. He knew the center would throw the homeless man off the pew, even during "services." He knew good Christians would find a way to convince themselves that documentation was an important thing when people crossed national borders. The Jesus I love is a gatekeeper not a border control guard. He gives us the possibility of a center in each other by throwing us off center and outside so we can see the so-called other as a mirror of our most inner self.

There are so many dead ideas walking among us like zombies, acting like nation states were God's idea of a good time, that homeless people were the cause of their own homelessness, or that people should be paid what they are "worth." This latter zombie idea somehow ends up with some executives getting paid more than anybody could ever be worth and other people's unemployment checks having a funny way of running out. Why? Because the widows and the orphans are not prioritized. Jesus' ideas are the opposite of dead. They are different. They are unsettling. They prioritize what we ignore and give us a center in each other and a way out of using the word "other" at all.

Then there is the matter of hope in the future, something I usually refer to as my increasing political pessimism and despair. Jesus is risen. He is the only Messiah who never really shows up, intentionally, I think, to keep us with something to do, to keep history open, to avoid the rigidity of the right, which imagines that God stopped speaking right after the last psalm was written. For better or worse Jesus really meant it when he said we were his hands and his feet.

Jesus also has an uncanny way of bringing me to the matter of gender. He was as queer as a three-dollar bill. He was ungendered and didn't seem to care about his masculinity. As the culture faces a crisis of masculinity, one so deep that it shows up in all the sitcoms coming out for the fall, Jesus, the champion table turner, would argue that we also face a crisis of femininity. We can't blame the capitalists or the union, the Democrats or the Republicans, the men or the women. Jesus turns that table, first in a reframing of demonizing and then driving the demons out and our own goodness in. With Jesus, you can't even have a good enemy or an easy answer or even a fancy, well considered answer.

Just recently, I painfully realized that I didn't like my father, and I didn't like my husband and I didn't like my son. And what my deep disappointments in my intimates meant was that I didn't like myself. I didn't know how to love those who weren't what I wanted them to be. Jesus showed me a way, a way beyond worth. They didn't have to be what I wanted and needed them to be for me to love them or them to love me. This insight was worth decades of psychotherapy. It even drives me to a curious form of non-partisanship. Oprah is not the only one who understands women's deep disappointment with men and men's deep disappointment with women. These matters start with the prison of gender, which Jesus managed to ignore.

With the Jesus I love, I also learned a quiet that I didn't know could be. There is brevity to Jesus' speech, a calm to it, a near nonchalance that keeps me from the world of babbling in the Babel. He doesn't say much but he says enough. He notices, he re-centers and de-centers. He prioritizes the poor. He doesn't care much for the chicken coop of gender.

How did he achieve this equipoise, this rare blend of action and peace? By making the one he called Father his priority and from there noticing the poor. For some people it is uphill both ways. These are the people Jesus loves especially. Most congregations, including mine, could learn to love Jesus' people more, the ones who snore during service, whom others call lame or retarded, whose feet hurt from waiting on tables, who get molested in hotel rooms, whose roommates photograph them having sex, whose only life is a beer on the 5:47 after a long day of bosses and boredom. We could so easily have half the programs and twice the impact, if we stopped being afraid to touch the wounds and the wounded. The programs so often take "staff" which distances ordinary people from other ordinary people.

Jesus' kindness is so often confused with weakness. It is the only strong thing I know in a world that is trying to make me weak. Every time they said this was "Endeavor's Last Launch, " I thought they were talking about my morning. Turns out they weren't. Jesus' love relaunches my hope.

And he does so by reframing the issues that bore and tire and depress me.