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Jesus X and Malcolm X


New Testament scholars frequently have occasion to focus on "apophthegms," "chreias," or "pronouncement stories," naturally starring Jesus. This type of story is quite brief, featuring only enough narrative to set up the punch-line saying of Jesus at the conclusion. Pronouncement stories were common in the ancient world and were used to sum up the thought or style of a prophet or philosopher in a single cameo. But there are modern pronouncement stories, too. I am thinking of one taken from the career of Malcolm X. The story goes that after he had finished speaking at a rally about the black struggle in America, an earnest young woman, wearing what was probably the only white face in his audience, approached the podium, obviously "cut to the heart" (as Luke would say) by what this fiery prophet had said. Perhaps ashamed of her pigmentation and its implications, she asked Malcolm X what she as a white person might do on behalf of struggling blacks in America. Malcolm's sobering answer, a rebuff, came back: "Nothing." She could do nothing precisely because she was white. Her intentions mattered not.

This young white idealist was asking Malcolm X that day, in essence, "What must I do to be saved?" She felt implicated in an oppressor class. She had been made suddenly to feel guilty about the comforts of her station in life because she now felt she enjoyed them at the expense of the oppressed. And she wanted to pay some of the debt of guilt. She was told at least that it wouldn't be that easy. In fact, the way I read it, she was told it wouldn't be possible. It was not so much what she had done that made her guilty, but what she was.

One may dismiss the woman's anguish, as many did in the 60s when these issues were debated, reasoning that the woman had a childish pseudo-guilt, that really she had done nothing and was one of the righteous, that her very concern showed she was on the side of the angels.

When Dr. King was assassinated one heard televised pundits wringing their hands and bemoaning the collective guilt of America. And many resented it: "What? I didn't kill anybody! And I refuse to take the rap for it!" If that is how one felt, one was right--and one was wrong. Of course you didn't pull the trigger. Or more to the point, you wouldn't have if you'd been in James Earl Ray's position. But no one's charging anyone with that sort of guilt. And the woman who spoke to Malcolm X hadn't done anything personally to oppress blacks, no doubt, but then Malcolm didn't say she had.

I suggest that what causes this problem, the problem Malcolm X laid his finger on, is our excessive American individualism. We are like the people of Ezekiel's day who wanted never again to hear the old proverb: "The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge." That is, they were tired of hearing that Israel was suffering for the sins of the previous generations. They were sick of collective guilt. Ezekiel agreed: he announced that God would no more punish anyone for anything they themselves hadn't personally done. As it happened, Ezekiel was as premature in that prophecy as he was about Nebuchadnezzar conquering Tyre. Neither panned out.

The truth is that one is implicated in the sins of one's people. Why should that surprise us? If we feel proud of the accomplishments of the past generations of America, then why shouldn't it work both ways? If we have the right to the one, we are stuck with the other. I will return to the question of corporate guilt in a moment, but first let me draw another inference out of the pronouncement story of Malcolm X. It reminds me of a similar story concerning Jesus X. (The Greek letter Chi is written as an "X" and it is an ancient abbreviation for Christos, which starts with that letter, hence the abbreviation "Xmas" which is really "Chi­-mas," or Christmas. Hence Jesus Christ is Jesus X.)

I am thinking of the story of the Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18-25). Here, too, an earnest young enquirer approaches the radical prophet, apparently inspired by his speech to enlist for great things. "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus establishes that the man, an aristocrat, is one of the righteous, an observant Jew. It seems Jesus is being Socratically coy with the seeker. It will reveal his spiritual state if he pauses and says, "I have kept the commandments from my youth... I see what you mean, Rabbi, I guess I don't have anything to worry about. Thanks!"

But Jesus has correctly assessed the man's moral awareness: he wants to know what to do next, because he assumes there is still something left to do once one has fulfilled the commandments. And Jesus finds the limits of his moral courage by setting the bar higher than the man can jump: "Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and then you will have the treasure in heaven that you seek." Like Malcolm's inquirer, the young man is downcast at this. His moral adventurousness is nipped in the bud.

Jesus goes on to announce to the disciples: "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Jesus is not saying that it is very difficult, though possible, for the rich to enter the Kingdom. How difficult is it for a camel to squeeze his bulk through the hole in a needle? It just cannot be done. Jesus, then, is simply ruling out the salvation of the wealthy. He is saying they are enjoying their good things on this side of the grave, and they cannot expect by some kind of a death bed conversion, to arrange to enjoy them on the other side, too.

So what about the rich young ruler? It suddenly looks as if Jesus knew that there was never a chance, not for a single moment, that the man would give up his wealth and follow him. He was using him as an object lesson. When he says, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the needle's eye than for a rich person to be saved," he is saying "See? Told you so! What do you expect?"

Here is my parallel to Malcolm X's anecdote. Malcolm X and Jesus X both seem to be saying that if you find yourself on the wrong side of the struggle, if you are a member of the oppressor class, then unfortunately you cannot switch sides. It is not that you are not allowed; it's just impossible. And this for two reasons:

First, if you are white you can never know what it is to be black in America. If you are a male, you can never really know the experience of women. If you are straight, you cannot for a moment imagine what the moral choices of a gay person are. If you are rich you cannot know the poverty of the poor.

But can't you? Couldn't the rich young ruler have renounced his wealth and followed Jesus? Granted he couldn't have become a woman, or switched races or sexual orientations, but this he could have done, surely?

No, I'm afraid not. The poor of Palestine had either always been poor, children of the poor, the children of poverty and ignorance that hide huddled beneath the merry robe of Dickens's Ghost of Christmas Present. Or they were those rudely dispossessed of what small land and income they had, when they lost their farms from debt. There is a bitterness to this that the rich young man could never understand in a million years if he voluntarily gave away his wealth.

The Rich Young Ruler was, so to speak, reincarnated as Saint Francis of Assissi, who did dispense with his wealth. Francis was a spoiled rich kid who one day decided to heed the gospel imperatives. He renounced home and family. One day he asked for work with a group of harvest laborers. They knew who he was. What he had done was big news. What was their reaction? Were they grateful for Francis's show of solidarity? Not for a minute! They drove him away in scorn and disgust! How dare he play this game of condescension! Though his stomach truly ached, now that he had left his family's comfort, he was really just playing at being poor!

The proof? None of the harvesters would ever give a thought to doing what he did if they could ever attain the position he had occupied! They called him a fool who was, albeit unintentionally, mocking the poverty of the real poor, those who didn't have a choice in the matter!

What he had done, and what the rich young ruler might have done, was an act of asceticism, self-mortification. It was the difference between fasting and starving. Your stomach is empty either way, but the way you came to your stomach ache makes all the difference. "Gospel poverty" is an exercise in piety, in trying to justify oneself, to escape the guilt of being wealthy in an exploitative system. Even if you cast your wealth overboard, hoping to stay afloat that way, you know nothing of the damnation into which the poor were born.

If you are white and affluent, you can know nothing of the struggles of the people whom Malcolm X spoke for. And if you pretended you did, you would just be showing the condescension of the philanthropist who played the game of doling out dimes to the poor.                                

Here is the strange truth of the politician who contends that taxing the rich will not help the poor. It seems like nothing but a cheap tactic to defend one's own wealth. And it may be so intended. And there may be utility in taxing the rich. I don't know enough about the issues to say. But the fact remains, the problem of the poor is so vast that the wealth of the wealthy, redistributed, would only be a drop in the bucket. So if you do dispense with your wealth, whose good are you seeking? Your own! You seek to palliate your conscience! Maybe that's what Malcolm's interlocutor was doing. That's the only good it could do, and it couldn't even do that, since it would be a futile gesture and one based on self-delusion.

It looks like a kind of predestination: before you make a single moral decision, are you locked into a program that sets everything in advance? If you are born part of the problem is it fore-ordained that you can never be part of the solution? That's what Malcolm X said to the white woman. Maybe that's what Jesus X was saying to the ruler. I'm afraid you are. And let me illustrate this with reference not to the Scriptures, but rather to everyday economics. Suppose some radical theologian told you to do what Jesus said to the ruler: cash in all your savings and property, and give it to the poor. And suppose you seriously considered it. What would be the first thing that would come to your mind as a caution? Probably this: "But what about my children?" And you would rightly decline the whole scheme: you don't have any right to decide such a question for them.

Should you feel bad for defending your "class interests"? Not so fast! After all, that loaded term translates into a very different and equally valid one: your "children's interests." In the same moment, in the same act, you are guilty of protecting your selfish class interests and justified in protecting the interests of your children! To do the one is to do the other; to do the other is to do the one.

Doesn't that implicate you in a system that exploits the poor and other oppressed groups? Sadly, it does. And you find yourself locked into an almost predestined role as one of the bad guys, with no way to change. You are part of the problem, and it would a foolish and futile gesture to try to switch sides. Malcolm was right.

But what's the implication? Should you take as your creed the strange imperative of the Revelation, "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still, and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still"

(Revelation 22:11)? Should you harden your heart and resolve, "In that case, I'll do what I have to do to defend what's mine! If I'm supposed to be a bigot, a racist, an oppressor, fine! I'll do it!"

No, as a Christian, as a human, you can't afford to have that happen. So in conclusion, let me look for a ray of hope, a window to open in this dark prison. I think I can find it in the Old Testament story (2 Kings 5:1, 9-10, 14-19) of the Syrian leper Naaman and the Prophet Elisha. Naaman was a high ranking member of the army of Syria, one of the hereditary enemies of God's people Israel. He had been satisfied to remain an enemy as long as he felt his country and his gods were right. But one day he made an extraordinary step and went to the enemy, an Israelite prophet, for help. He was healed. And now what should he do? He approached Elisha just as the rich young ruler approached Jesus, much as the white woman approached Malcolm X, with a newly awakened conscience toward Yahweh and Israel. He knew now that things were not so simple as he had once thought.

But what was he to do? Leave his position and his family behind and join one of the schools of Elisha's disciples, the sons of the prophets? He now knew that his position and that of his family were predicated on his being ­on the wrong side­: the chamberlain of a pagan king who served and fought for pagan gods! What was he to do? He knew the cards were stacked against him. He was who he was; it was too late to change. It had been since the day he had been born Syrian.

But now he knew that Yahweh was God indeed, and he asked the prophet to recognize and bless the secret devotion he would henceforth render to Yahweh. It was all he could do. Did he have a right to do it? Or would it be hypocrisy? After all, he might again find himself leading troops against Israel in war!

Like Krishna who told Arjuna that his sensitized scruples could not magically free him from his class duties, Elisha tells Naaman to go home with two mules' burden of Israelite soil to build a shrine to Israel's God; to keep his station in life, but to take Yahweh with him in his secret heart. His heart had been changed toward those he once hated, and this would surely make a difference in what choices he would make. He might be able to speak a word in due season to his lord the king on Israel's behalf. Maybe that wouldn't be much, but it would be something. And it would be authentic.

Even so, you can't stop being what you are, but there are choices you can make, choices of how to vote, what to say, what to do, what to give. Nothing spectacular, but something that may quietly make more difference than you think. That's all you can do, I suspect, without playing the pious hypocrite and the condescending benefactor, without embracing the necessary poverty of the poor as an ascetic luxury to soothe your middle-class conscience. The oppressed would remain oppressed if you won their battle for them. Don't prove you think them incapable of it by trying to fight their fight.




Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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