God with a Human Face by John C. Purdy
John C. Purdy is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), which he served for 26 years as an editor of curriculum resource. He is also the author of Parables at Work (Westminster) and God with a Human Face (Westminster/Knox). God with a Human Face was published by Westminster/John Knox in l993 and is used by permission of the author, who also prepared the text for Religion Online.
Chapter 3: God is a Visionary (Luke 4:16-21)
On the morning of December 22, 1989, friends came to the Bucharest home of the dissident poet Mircea Dinescu. "Ceausescu ran away, Ceausescu ran away," they told him. Carrying a revolutionary flag and weeping, Dinescu made his way to the city’s television station. He entered a studio, where sympathetic technicians patched him into the national network. The first sign most Romanians had of the overthrow of their tyrant was the appearance on TV of the tear-stained face of Dinescu. He told them, "God has turned his face toward Romania again."
Two millennia earlier, there was this dramatic moment in Roman-occupied Judea:
When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:16-21)
This manifesto has inspired generations of socially conscious Christians. At the time of his retirement at age eighty-seven, Dr. David M. Cory of Brooklyn, New York, was the oldest active Presbyterian clergyman. He was an avowed advocate of the notion that Jesus came to inaugurate radical social betterment. To the New York Times reporter who interviewed him, Cory cited chapter four of Luke. This he called "the first recorded sermon of Jesus Christ." And he said: "If ever there was a proclamation of the Social Gospel, that was it" (Peter Steinfels, "Beliefs," New York Times, Oct. 27, 1990).
It may be an overstatement to call Luke 4:16-21 the proclamation of the Social Gospel, but it certainly reads like a social manifesto. If it is not a full-blown vision of a new society, it is something well on the way to that. It is an expression by a young man, in physical and spiritual prime, of his dreams for humanity.
Others of comparable age have voiced social visions. Thomas Jefferson was thirty-three when he wrote:
"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed." (Declaration of Independence, 1776)
In 1951, twenty-six-year-old William F. Buckley, Jr., startled America with God and Man at Yale. He said of his battle to have Christianity and individualism frankly espoused at his alma mater:
"I myself believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level. I believe that if and when the menace of Communism is gone, other vital battles, at present subordinated, will emerge to the foreground. And the winner must have help from the classroom." (p. xvii)
Martin Luther King, Jr., was thirty-four when from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 he said:
"When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children -- black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants -- will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last.'" (A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1986, p. 220)
There is no intention here to ground any or all of these visions of human freedom in Jesus’ pronouncement at Nazareth. But they provide a background against which we may set that pronouncement: It is the manifesto of a young, courageous social critic, who had been given a powerful vision of the kind of world that God intends.
In the verses that Jesus selected to read from the Hebrew scriptures -- and which he applied to himself and his mission -- four societal groups are singled out as objects of God’s intention: the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. What do we know of such folk in our own time and culture?
We know that the poor are not defined by lack of money only; they are not even those who fall below the poverty level. Rather they are those who belong to the culture of poverty. In this world there are millions upon millions who are born, grow up, live out their lives, and die in a state of want and deprivation. They are the folks described in Oscar Lewis’s The Children of Sanchez. In the 1950s Lewis went into a slum tenement in Mexico City and did a series of extensive interviews with two generations of one family. He was one of the first to teach us to think of the poor not as those who are temporarily out of work, or the victims of a recession, layoff, or bad harvest, but as those who know nothing but deprivation. We have begun to realize that there is a culture of poverty.
We had once thought that the poor were merely those who had not yet found a decent job. In John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath we read about three generations of the Joads. They are rural folks from Oklahoma who lose their farm in the dustbowl years of the ‘30s and trek to California to look for a new life. But when they reach that land of orange groves, they find that they are treated with hatred arid suspicion. Their desperate struggle for work to earn daily bread is painful. Nor is their plight relieved. In the final scene, Rose of Sharon -- whose baby was stillborn -- gives her breast to a man who is dying of hunger.
When that novel appeared in 1939, we thought it was a heart-breaking description of the poor. But we knew that, given some luck and their own history of hard work and success, the Joads would not remain poor. So they do not fairly represent the poor -- those doomed to live out their entire lives in poverty. That whole class of people is something other than what Steinbeck described. They are those who know nothing but poverty and hope for nothing but daily bread. Surely it is possible to yank a few such persons up and out of their misery; but the mass of the poor will remain. There is no realistic hope for them to be anything but poor all of their lives!
We have come to think differently of the poor; we have also learned to think differently of captives. Some of us, as children, thought of captives as white children taken by Indians, or Germans taken prisoner in World War I, or those thrown into prison for robbing or murdering. Then we read first-person accounts of those held in Nazi concentration camps; captivity took on uglier aspects. In the Korean War we learned that men can die from being held captive, even when given food and clothing and fairly decent treatment. In 1980-81 Walter Cronkite daily reminded us of Americans illegally held captive in Iran. In September of 1985 the whole nation was spellbound when Benjamin Weir was released by his terrorist captors and came home to tell about it. In 1988 we saw pictures of the Kurds of Iraq who had been gassed by their own leader, and we knew that an entire people could be held captive. We no longer think of a captive merely as one who has, for a time, been deprived of liberty; we know how captivity compounds evil.
We have begun to think differently about the captives in our prisons. We acknowledge the failure of reformatories to turn out reformed citizens and the failure of penitentiaries to cause men and women to be sorry for their crimes. Psychiatrist and social reformer Karl Menninger wrote The Crime of Punishment, which many of us read as an indictment of our criminal justice system. We have begun to wonder if depriving men and women of their liberty must not necessarily become cruel and inhuman punishment. Instead of an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, we take a pound of flesh for an ounce of offense.
Also, we have begun to wonder: When some deprive others of their liberty, who are the captives? Is not the whole nation somehow captive to a criminal justice system that makes people worse, not better, citizens? Is it only the slave who is enslaved? Those who hold others captive are often themselves captured - like Br’er Rabbit stuck to the Tar Baby. The ex-slave Frederick Douglass writes in his Narrative of being given as a young boy to a woman who had previously held no slaves:
"Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tenderhearted woman. .Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness."
And what of the blind to whom Jesus promised sight, whom we may assume to represent many classifications of those whom we call disabled persons? A person who cannot see is classified with the blind, just as one who cannot hear is classified with the deaf. In his speech Jesus might have referred also to the deaf, the lame, the retarded, the leper. There are millions who, because of some mental or physical difference, are lumped together with others and treated as a special social group.
Just how unthinkingly cruel this process can be is the subject of the 1986 movie, Children of a Lesser God, which tells about James Leeds and Sarah Norman. James, about the age of Jesus when he made his synagogue speech, comes to teach at a school for the deaf. He is told by the head of the school, "Nobody’s trying to save the world around here. We’re just trying to make things a little better for a few deaf kids." But that’s not good enough for Leeds; he believes he can lift his students to a higher level of social competence. He meets and falls in love with Sarah, a 25-year-old former student who is employed as a janitor. She quits her job and goes to live with him. James wants to teach Sarah how to talk, even though she does not want to learn. She wants to be prized for who she is - deaf though she may be. Only after she runs away to live independently does James realize how she feels. And in the closing scene, he asks her in all love and humility, "Is there a place, not in silence nor in sound, where we might meet?"
The film teaches us that disabilities, like deafness and blindness, are social as well as individual misfortunes. They create a class, which in turn creates attitudes that are anti-human, hurtful, imprisoning. So that proclamation of "recovery of sight to the blind" means a great deal more than a few people being able to see again, just as cleansing lepers would mean more than healing some sick folks, or restoring hearing would mean more than fixing the ears of some who cannot hear.
And, finally, who are the oppressed? The Communist Manifesto begins with these words: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another." Yet a generation ago we would have said that the most oppressed were those living under the system based on Karl Marx’s ideas! Living through that generation has led us to widen our understanding of who is oppressed. Some would want to define "the oppressed" as all persons of color, all women, many children, all those living in third world nations, all those who work on assembly lines, disabled persons, and the aged.
In Korea in the 1970s a new way of describing the oppressed came into being. It is called Minjung Theology. It grew out of the struggles of Christian students, pastors, laborers, farmers, and intellectuals for human rights. "Minjung" is based on two Chinese characters meaning "the people" and "the mass." The
Minjung are described by one Korean theologian as "those who are oppressed politically, exploited economically, alienated socially, and kept uneducated in cultural and intellectual matters." A more vivid description is provided by Kim Chi Ha in "The Story of Ando," written when the poet was twenty-eight:
"Ando was a young man who lived in a small rented room in a slum area in Seoul. He was unsuccessful in anything he attempted. Whenever he tried to stand up on his two feet, he saw visions of a crime he was about to commit. In order to avoid the crime, he had to run endlessly. He had to run all day and all night. As a result, Ando was restless and tired all the time.
But his trouble was more than just running and restlessness. He had bad luck in whatever he did and wherever he went. If he earned one dollar, ten dollars were taken away from him. He was robbed and beaten wherever he went until finally he was near starvation. Thus, on one evening he stood up and said, "Damn it! This is a doglike world!" Because he said this, he was taken away and beaten up by the police. He was then taken to court where he was pronounced guilty. His head and legs were chopped off, but he survived with his trunk only. The court issued him a sentence of five-hundred years in prison. In the prison house Ando hit the walls by rolling his trunk. Every time he hit walls, it made a bumping sound which made the powerful people shiver and the wealthy people tremble. This was the sound coming from the minjung. "(Quoted in Jung Young Lee, ed., An Emerging Theology in World Perspective, 1988, p. 1)
When Jesus preached hope for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed, did he have in mind such persons as Ando? Sarah Norman? Frederick Douglass? the Sanchez family? Certainly he had in view those in the Empire who were marginalized, outcast, abused -- the unfortunate, the underprivileged. For those whom he named belong to societal groups; they are not merely unfortunate individuals. Nor are they allegories of spiritual conditions, that is, the poor in spirit, captives of ideologies, those blinded by ignorance, those oppressed by neuroses or severe depressions. You may read them that way if you choose to; some have insisted on doing so. But that goes against the plain sense of the biblical story, and it confirms the Marxist charge that religion is the opiate of the people.
How can we be so sure that the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed are representative of social groups? Why is Luke 4:16-2 1 best read as a social manifesto? Look at the final line of the quotation from Isaiah: "to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." The scripture promises that a time is coming -- near or far off, who knows? -- when God will turn God’s face to such as the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed -- when the light of God’s face will shine on the dark corners where they live. "The year of the Lord’s favor" is an historical event, not something that happens only within the mind or spirit of individuals. It was of such an event that Dinescu spoke when he said, "God has turned his face toward Romania again."
When we hear Jesus speak such phrases as "good news," "release," "recovery of sight," and "let.. . go free," they are to be interpreted as promising social changes. Whether these changes are to come about through revolutionary, reformist, or evolutionary means is not said. There is no way Jesus’ manifesto can be converted -- or perverted -- into a political program. However, Jesus does declare a social dimension to his historical mission: He has received God’s Spirit in order to bring about a new society as well as a new humanity. Although he may be seen to be feeding hungry individuals, comforting those who are in prison, healing the blind, and lifting the burdens from the shoulders of those who are oppressed, his mission is not merely to individuals. The feeding of the hungry is a blow in the War on Poverty; the healing of the blind a skirmish in the fight against disabilities.
Does Jesus, then, belong in the same league with Thomas Jefferson, Bill Buckley, and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Was he a radical social critic and reformer? Are we to see him in the Nazareth synagogue as a young man with a clear social vision and keen, prophetic insight? Or should we reverse the question: Do Jefferson, Buckley, King - and Kim Chi Ha - stand in the train and tradition of Jesus Christ? Did his Spirit-inspired preaching, like a match set to gunpowder, set off a train of social criticism, which in every generation afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted?
Those questions are hotly debated in every generation; there is no final answer. But this much is sure: The face of God is not turned away from the poor, the blind, the captive, the oppressed. God sees beyond their present afflictions to a new and better day. God is a social visionary.
In the 19th century, Norfolk Island -- 1,000 miles east of Australia -- served as a prison colony for incorrigibles. One of these was an Irishman, Laurence Frayne; he left a written account of his captivity. He was sent originally to Australia for theft. For attempting to escape, he was sentenced to death. That sentence was commuted and he was sent to Norfolk. As he lay at night chained to the stone floor of his cell, his back scarred with hundreds of lashes, his mind numbed with months in solitary confinement, he despaired. Because he had been reared a Catholic, suicide was unthinkable. For comfort he clung to verses of the Bible that he had memorized as a youth. Night after night, over and over, he recited the words of Psalm 88. The fourteenth verse reads:
"O Lord, why do you cast me off
How can we believe that God is blind to the Laurence Fraynes of this world? How can we say that God has no vision of a better world for them?
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