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    a business man hurriedly walking past a homeless man on a sidewalk

    Jesus, the Failure

    What would salvation look like for my homeless friend?

    By Michael Manning

    August 20, 2020
    • Terrence Conrad

      In your recent essay, Jesus, The Failure, you noted that "If Jesus is God, our conception of God must change. Here there is no omnipotent, impassive, omniscient potentate on a throne...". But, it needs to be stated in a different way, explaining that the Father is still on the throne while the incarnate Son is the Jesus you are referring to in the essay. Furthermore, I would strike out the description of God being impassive since the incarnation shows the very opposite!

    • alice hesselrode

      Very good article. i am saving this one.

    A young man – let’s call him Adam – writes to me from prison. He’s in his early twenties and has been in and out of prison several times. In a few brief lines he describes his lack of hope. Homeless before going into prison, he expects to be homeless again when he’s released. He has a bad reputation with landlords and no one will give him a chance. He was staying in our homeless shelter here in Douglas, on the Isle of Man, before he was sentenced. He’s writing to say please could I hold on to the shorts and flip-flops that he left in the shelter, just until he’s released? His writing is neater than I expected. The whole letter is polite.

    My work with Graih – a charity serving the homeless, “graih” means “love” in Manx – means that I know many people like Adam: men and women struggling with deep wounds. Adam is only just starting his adult life but is already heir to multiple failures. His parents have chronic problems with mental illness and drug use. He was brought up by his grandparents, but they died during his early adolescence. He has been in and out of care. Adam’s own mental health is poor, his social skills limited, his communication often painfully difficult and monosyllabic. When he does speak it’s often when he’s under the influence of several substances. He doesn’t really have friends as much as acquaintances who will tolerate him, people who will come round to his digs, trash the place in a drunken party, and then leave Adam to pick up the pieces. These “friends” are noticeably absent when Adam is on the streets with nowhere to go. In so many ways this young man is still a child, adrift in an adult world he can’t navigate or survive.

    What has caused this painful mess marring Adam’s life? There are individual failures, to be sure. Adam continually makes poor choices, though it’s clear his capacity for choice is limited by his circumstances and self-awareness. Adam’s parents have failed, a result of their own struggles. The institutions that have dealt with Adam have failed: the criminal justice system, the welfare system, and particularly the mental health system – the best they can attempt is to keep him stable with medication and occasional calming “interventions.” There are wider horizons too. Adam’s life, like those of too many others, has been fundamentally deformed by a political and economic system that prizes individualism and material gain above all else. Those on the margins of this system, unable to reap its benefits yet manipulated to desire its offerings, are left to flail in a demeaning cycle of constant failure. Adam is alone, and he knows it.

    a business man hurriedly walking past a homeless man on a sidewalk

    Photograph by Paolo Trabattoni (Public domain)

    Salvation and Failure

    What does salvation look like for Adam? My church tradition has understood salvation in primarily, even solely, spiritual terms. What matters is an individual’s soul before God, forgiven by Jesus. What matters is praying and believing certain things about Jesus: conversion and baptism provide the bedrock of salvation. Surely Adam “needs” Jesus in this sense.

    There are richer dimensions to salvation, though. Adam needs somewhere to live, somewhere to call home. He needs something to do, a sense of purpose and value that he’ll never get as an ill-educated, unskilled member of global capitalism’s underclass. He needs a close family where he lives, not just one that meets together a couple of times a week for worship services and small group discussion. He needs people who will be committed to his flourishing come what may, people who will love him.

    We stand before the cross of Christ and find our world transfigured in uncomfortable and disturbing ways.

    Ironically, the most effective responses to Adam’s need and pain have come from institutions: shelters, drop-in centers, social services, and the like. There’s nothing wrong with these institutions; many vulnerable people need far better services and far more of them. Enabling, advocating for, and running these is a crucial act of justice. But they cannot provide Adam with the loving family he needs. Money cannot buy love. You can’t be paid to love people.

    Churches have too often ignored the wider dimensions of God’s redemptive purposes, or have simply been unable to see Adam’s needs in these terms and take responsibility for them. Even if Christians wanted to, what could they do? The depth of Adam’s need is terrifying. Who is going to invite him home, be his family, and help bear his burdens? When Adam was staying in the shelter he would sometimes come in angry and abusive, lashing out at those who were trying to help him. How do you welcome a man expressing his anguish in a tantrum, unable to perceive or believe that people care? We want to believe that love will bring some transformation, but this isn’t always the case. The wounds of those on the margins are like black holes, easily sucking in and exhausting individual good intentions. The current set-up of our individual lives and households means that we’re physically and relationally incapable of bearing the social cost of salvation, of loving the unlovable like they were our own family.

    The coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated these problems. Forced to retreat into our own households, we have ebbed away like the tide, leaving those without even more starkly exposed in their need. It must be borne in mind that Adam’s suffering, his constant stumbling over his and others’ failures, takes place in one of the most affluent societies ever known. And there are wider horizons yet. The affluence of this society is built on the systemic exploitation of others around the world and of the environment. Entire peoples are denied a flourishing life in order to give us what we think we want.

    God and Failure

    This appalling suffering points to the most disturbing failure of all: the failure of God. People generally shy away from such a recognition, or are defensive of God. But no amount of denial will negate the stubborn reality of suffering that God has failed to stop. If we cannot face this, we must question what sort of faith we have and what sort of God we believe in.

    Who can deliver us? If God has failed, where does that leave us? Are we abandoned in our sorrow and pain? Is the best response to be glad we don’t suffer more, wring our hands in prayer over those who do, and move on?

    We stand before the cross of Christ and find our world transfigured in uncomfortable and disturbing ways. Here hangs a poor man who went about doing good, announcing and enacting a kingdom of justice and peace. He has been humiliated and executed.

    This appalling suffering points to the most disturbing failure of all: the failure of God.

    If Jesus is God, then our conception of God must change. Here is no omnipotent, impassive, omniscient potentate on a throne; here is a tortured human being on a cross. This was the offensive claim of the early church: that in this humiliating failure they saw the fullest revelation of God. It was scandalous then and it remains so now. We want a victorious God who crushes our enemies. We want God to make everything right.

    Jesus has turned this around. This is what God’s power looks like: a failure. This is what God’s sovereignty looks like: humiliation. At the very heart of God we find…suffering. God’s way in the world is that of a poor man who talked about body and blood and bread broken and shared. His almighty power kneels and washes dirty feet. God’s response to dehumanizing empires is not military crushing but solidarity in weeping. God’s victory in the world is a gory execution as the consummation of an abject failure to realize the kingdom. What sort of God is this?

    Ah yes, we say, but on the third day…Yes indeed. We are not abandoned. We are not forsaken. There is hope. But the risen Jesus still bears the scars from his wounds. In fact, he offers them as the deepest proof of his identity. The ruined hands of Jesus remind us that renunciation and powerlessness are God’s way in the world, the way of self-giving love. Suffering does not have the last word because God himself in love has embraced it, taken it, carried it through into a new day.

    A Suffering Church

    Where does this leave the church? Only as Christians follow in these strange and demanding ways will they be able to reflect something of this strange God. The only possible response to the suffering of others is compassionate, loving presence. It is suffering with and for others, as God suffers with and for us. Jesus renounced coercive power over others and modeled a downward journey of self-emptying love, and he invites his people to walk a similar way. Christian claims only make sense when the church is at the bottom of society, poor and powerless and suffering and giving all she has for others, crying out for a better world. The only credibility we have is in living such a life.

    The early Christians knew the pattern of cross and resurrection well. Next to the joyous knowledge of the new creation was a clear-eyed understanding of the reality of suffering in the world. This didn’t threaten their faith as they followed the pioneer who had gone before them. Suffering and failure are writ large in Saint Paul as he plunges into despair, is beaten and imprisoned, watches the churches he founded lurch into confusion, and sees his life’s work of reconciliation collapse in rioting. Yet in these struggles he senses that he is joined with the suffering of Jesus, and learning to trust in the love that bears and endures all.

    Our journeys may be more prosaic than Paul’s but they will share the same pattern. In a culture of success, we often give in to the perceived need to present a favorable face to the world, or even to maintain our masks within the church. The ways of humility and renunciation and powerlessness are mundane and costly in a hidden way: daily self-sacrifice rather than the grand gesture, event, or program; poverty, not riches; marginalization, not influence. Such is the way of the kingdom.

    Suffering and Community

    When I went to the shelter to search for Adam’s flip-flops, they were gone. In this world still ruled by divisive and dehumanizing idols, it seems that even the little Adam has will be taken from him.

    What might incarnate love look like in response to Adam’s suffering? Love means relationship and family. Adam needs a community of people who will not only seek to bear with him but also be prepared to look out for and celebrate the unique gifts he brings. If our current living arrangements – small, private households and busy work – do not allow for this, then other arrangements must be sought. Houses must be shared, space made for shared work. A place for everyone at a shared table.

    Who wants to take up an invitation to the slavery of love?

    Unfortunately, there are too few models of this way of life. They remain on the margins of the world and the church, which is perhaps the powerfully subversive place they should be. In my context they are mostly absent, leaving Adam and others as strangers without a welcome.

    Community is demanding. It’s no panacea. It’s not a guaranteed success in any sense of the word. Human relationships are riven with petty conflicts, impatience, and wounds that mar our attempts to love one another. Families can be places of horror just as much as of hope. Adam would often join us for walks around the island – he enjoyed the distraction of getting away from his situation – and once he came to my shared house for a common meal. Conversation was difficult with him, as always, but he was sober and had smartened himself up and sometimes we would catch him smiling. Soon afterward he was back in prison. There are no certainties to love, no easy roads home. To bear with the pain of people is a long and mostly thankless task, with no sure outcome. But to love like the God who loves us we must take that risk, with a hope that refuses to be completely disappointed no matter how much rejection it faces. The demands of loving deeply wounded individuals in all their desire, confusion, annoyingness, chaos, and violence are huge. In an unredeemed world we will hurt one another in our clumsy attempts to love, but our failures are borne by the scarred one who loves us and longs to see the world set right in justice and peace.

    Community is also, in many ways, unattractive. Who wants to take up an invitation to the slavery of love? Who wants to be part of a poor, broken people whose very self-understanding rests on a realization that they live to serve others? Who wants to give his life? I’ve spent enough time with Adam and others to know that an offer of community, of family, with all the baggage and burden and structure that involves, will not be so enthusiastically received by desperate, wounded people. Many, too many, will prefer to nurse their wounds in the darkness. They will walk away from love, and this failure, too, will cause us pain. But perhaps at the very least they will have been shown a glimpse of something, an attempt to be more alive. They will have had an invitation to come into a real home, a real family, and gather around a real table with real hope.

    Contributed By

    Michael Manning is a community worker with Graih in the Isle of Man – a role offering plenty of opportunity for him to reflect on his failures. He is the author of No King but God: Walking as Jesus Walked (Resource Publications, 2015).

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