We can just look outside our window and see that narrative unfolding all around us. It’s the oldest and most worn out story there is. Any interest that tale ever held has been used up and spent out, if nothing else, through the sheer overuse.
So it’s astounding to me how many people truly believe that the Good News of Jesus the Christ is nothing more than a cosmic repetition of the “winners win; loser’s lose” story—choose the right savior, make the right decisions, be good (and probably white, straight, well-to-do, etc.), and you’ll be inducted into the eternal winner’s circle. What a redundant waste of paper the Bible would be if that’s all it had to say (and, yes, in the hands of some readers, it is exactly that).
The Biblical narrative is only interesting because it is not that tired old trope. Albeit, in the only 3 steps forward 2 steps back way that humans know how to fumble out any real truth, it actually manages to say something new. It is "Good News," meaning (pardon if this point belittles your intelligence but a lot of Christians seem to miss it) not bad and not old. But so distorted has this message become in our own little WASPy, capitalistic winner’s circle, that sometimes it requires a gimmick to get at what’s actually there. So I use the angle provided by this brilliant quote by Henry James, that was going around my twitter feed shortly after the election.
“Life is, in fact, a battle. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting, but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no narrow illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of the night; we wake up to it, forever and ever; and we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.” (Henry James; Theory of Fiction)
Now compare that to just one passage, of which there are thousands comparable, where Jeremiah shares Henry James’ lament exactly.
“Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all who are treacherous thrive?...
You are near in their mouth
And far from their heart…
How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither?
How long will the land mourn,
And the grass of every field wither?
For the wickedness of those who live in it
The animals and the birds are swept away,
Because people said, “He is blind to our ways.” (Jer. 12:1-4)
The poetry doesn’t quite hold up almost three millennia and a translation later, like James’ more recent quote, but the sentiment is exactly the same. Now we can finally get to the chore of the message. God will not tolerate the tragedy of existence forever. But neither can God keep the bad guys from finishing first by simply burying them in a show of violence and strength—that would be stooping to their level. The solution must be a bit paradoxical. Power can be defeated by power. Sure. But it can only be replaced by its opposite.
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights…
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice…
a bruised reed, he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench…
I will give you [speaking directly to the servant] as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:1-9)
When Jesus takes Isaiah’s final stanza here (originally spoken of the nation of Israel as a whole) almost verbatim as his mission statement in Luke 4:18-20, he is saying something so out of step with our official Christian culture in 21st century US, let alone with the larger culture of domination which that religion supports, that it hardly registers.
He is making the statement, as foolish sounding then as it is today (remember he almost got pushed off a cliff immediately afterward), that
Once the wealthy and the powerful have had their fun,
Once the yelling and the saber-rattling has died down,
When the pundits have gone silent and the tweets have gone dead,
When the back room deals and the campaign dollars are no longer worth their paper;
Finally, given enough time and faithful patience,
The laughter of the weak will drown out the yelling of the strong,
The delicate earth will outlast its brutish exploiters,
Facts will matter and truth will win,
Love and only love will make us great again.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.