September 15, 2006

God of the Margins

2006 1526 page8 capOW DO WE DEFINE A GENERATION such as ours? A generation at home in contradictions, in uncertainties; a generation bent on challenging notions of truth, displacing old centers, interrogating and redefining a world that is constantly evolving. A generation in search of the margins.
As Christians, what can we learn from the spirit of interrogation embodied in the margins? What can we learn from the fearless questioning, the attempt at learning and relearning, remapping and regrouping embodied in the concept of the margins? Undoubtedly, the legacy of this interrogative process has given us much that we have come to cherish: the end of slavery, the unmasking of genocide, the end of empire, the affirmation of the marginalized, and the staking of human rights issues around the world. If some of the pain of the world has been eased through this interrogative spirit, it would seem appropriate to consider why and how this spirit can be harnessed for the Christian church.
Why should we as Christians search for entry points into those margins? The answer is simply that home for too many lies outside the established centers. Then again, if Christ is our anchor, why should seeking new questions and clarifying old doubts terrify us? Why should we not apply the privileges of our freedom in search of a God who is bigger than our fears and our crippling prejudices?
2006 1526 page8Perhaps this is a time to let God rewrite our history. Perhaps this is the time to consider what the exile, the vagrant, the refugee, the migrant, the skeptic, the poet, and the philosopher have to say to us about how they view Christianity. Perhaps it is only through the integrity of taking seriously the experience of the marginalized among us that we will discover Christ more painfully, more personally, and more meaningfully. Perhaps it is only through the margins that we will negotiate a more compassionate, inclusive language that fosters a greater Christ-conscious ministry in a complex world. Only as we dare to enter the world for Christ will the world be changed by His grace. Perhaps there is value in collapsing the walls of our fears, doubts, and prejudices that we have come to cherish.
In Search of New Margins
Can we speak of God without speaking of the margins? If the world as we know it today presents us—the church—with a challenge, what would it be? I would like to suggest that it will be to release the God we have confined within these walls. In that freedom, who knows what we will find, or how God will choose to speak for Himself to people who inhabit the complex and intersecting margins of doubt and fear and alienation?
We have only to visit Bethlehem and Golgotha to see how God collapsed the walls of our religiosity and set us in search of new margins of thought. Consider too how the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ challenged codes of human reason and rationality. Three decades or so before the cross, a Child was born in Bethlehem, on the fringes of a vast empire. A Child of the margins. A divine Child! Out of the desolate, desperate margins of human history, God carved a divine and breathtaking gift for the world. He poured a fragment of Himself into the world. The Son came to us not as a prince among men, but as a Child of the margins. To a world that hungered for a militant Messiah, He came unexpectedly in the form of a Suffering Servant. The Messiah came and walked among us, lived and died among us, and went unrecognized by too many of us. To those who anticipated a Messiah who embodied the center—the metropolitan Jerusalem—it was inconceivable that the Christ out of Nazareth could be the Beloved, the Chosen One. Locked in a rigid theology, it was inconceivable to many that the long-awaited Messiah would interrogate the very centers of their established faith.
Here the God-man came and dismantled legalism and collapsed the false centers of worship. Here the God-man labored with a world drunk on its own sense of righteousness, distinguished between theology and bigotry, center and periphery, and declared Himself as God of the margins. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). Here the God-man dared to ask the difficult questions. Christ came cast as an exile from the moment of His birth, who embraced humanity on the margins of poverty and homelessness, who came among peasant shepherds, who was destined to live on the fringes, and destined to die on the margins of civilization! This was the Jesus of Golgotha. The God-man framed upon that cross is a God of the margins. While God stands at the center of creation, of the universe, and of human history, the Scriptures remind us that He is no stranger to the margins. In Him, center and margin negate themselves, and a new awareness is born. The God-man sought no crown, no sovereign mantle, no human scepter, and no palace. Instead He sought a stable for His home, a carpenter’s trade for His living, a desert for His retreat, a cross for His death. He touched the publican, the sinner, the prostitute, the homeless, the blind, the deaf, and the lame with the same passion. Perhaps more than anything else, Jesus came to show us how to live. He came to show us that life is about encountering the margins of our existence.
A Moment in the Mind of God
It is in the light of this interrogative process that Gethsemane stands as a critical point between Bethlehem and the open tomb. There in the olive groves of Gethsemane, surrounded by the rich and ripe symbols of fertility and of life, Christ faced the excruciating prospect of His own death. Here He sought answers no human mind can articulate or fathom. Here He chose His agony. His death, as we know it, was no ordinary death. God the Father was faced with a lonely and comfortless prospect: the death of His Son. No model existed before Him, and none would come after Him!
2006 1526 page8If Gethsemane stands as a narrative of solitude and suffering, it stands also as a narrative of instruction. Gethsemane is a continuing phenomenon. Christ continues to be overwhelmed to the point of death as He surveys human history, as He watches a world fitfully asleep through the tragic cycles of the world’s history. The premodern, the modern, and the postmodern worlds hold one thing in common: they return us again and again to the margins of Gethsemane. Gethsemane: the suffering season. And for some, the suffering is a long and seasonless passage. And for those on the seasonless margins of this predicament, the moon makes way for the sun and life ripens only to reveal a litany of untold horrors.
Underscoring the anguish of Jesus is the echo of millions of people tested to the point of death. The world heaves under the pangs of a suffering humanity: war, disease, violence, hunger, and spiritual malaise continue to cripple the world. A struggling world on the margins. A world for which Christ grieved in Gethsemane and on Golgotha. Every untold injustice crowded into one single moment in the mind of Christ at Gethsemane. In that sense, Christ suffered for the victims of every unimaginable crime. He suffered for every victim: slaves who crossed the Atlantic in chains, dispossessed “natives” and refugees, homeless beggars, AIDS victims, alcoholics, harassed youth, every child, woman, and man for whom death has or will come too early!
Spreading out from the margins of Gethsemane to Golgotha to the open tomb and reaching down to us here in the portals of the twenty-first century is a new and unprecedented canvas. From that canvas I claim the one true God whose name will be etched in history forever. The one true God, whose face will be inscribed and reinscribed for generations to come. The one true God, whose love will be written and rewritten till the end of time. The poetry of Golgotha, asleep in the Crucifixion, comes alive on resurrection morning! From that momentous stirring of divine life comes to us the reality of God that will remain for most of us an enigma—a beautiful, sublime enigma. The Lord of spring who stirred gloriously to life from the winter of death! This is the God the psalmists and the prophets struggled to define: a God of fire, wind, thunder; a God of gentleness, beauty, and peace. A God whose wisdom stretches like a tent, who rises like the sun, whose presence spills from the holy mountain down to the shackles and recesses of the world’s unholiest sites. The God of the margins who through His sweat, His toil, His love, His grace, and His presence consecrated the earth to the glory of His Father.
Claiming a God to Worship
As Christians, our challenge is to align and realign ourselves to this awareness. In a world of crumbling ideologies, the Christian church meets today at the intersection of its greatest anxieties and the moment of its greatest potential. From this intersection, we must ask, “Has the modern church returned to sleep again in Gethsemane? Are we waiting in Gethsemane for the world to come to us? Are we living as people unconscious yet of Golgotha and the open tomb?” If this is the predicament of the modern church, what do we do when we wake from our slumber? Do we run from the difficult questions?
2006 1526 page8God waits in the margins to be claimed. God seeks a relationship with us that is relational and contextual. God rests behind us, before us, and beside us, hungering to love and to be loved as much as He does to be understood. He is an old and a new God. The God of history and of new beginnings. The God who defies closure. The God who cannot be confined within the portals of our schools, our churches, our finite minds. He can be experienced only in the most intimate, most honest critical experiences of our human existence.
On the margins our fears and our pain meet with the narrative of those He loved and touched. We meet John the Baptist, a man of the desert, who shows us how to prepare the world for the Savior; a wilderness man who will teach us to live on little and give much. At the margins we meet the prostitute, Mary, the woman forgiven, who teaches us how to love the Lord with passion and without reserve. On the margins we meet the tax collector, the publican, the crippled, the outcast, the exile, the Samaritan woman, and the Gentile. We listen to their narratives, and we learn of the God magnanimous. A God who invites us to reach not merely for understanding, but for Him!
Where and how do we begin to worship?
With Him, we can make a temple in the midst of squalor—yes, in the midst of nothing. There our bare spirits are enough to worship Him!
    “Leave this chanting and singing and
            telling of beads!
    Whom dost thou worship
            in this lonely dark temple
            with doors all shut?
    Open thine eyes and see
            thy God is not before thee!
    He is there where the tiller is tilling
            the hard ground
    and where the pathmaker is breaking
            stones. . . .”*
Jane Fernandez, Ph.D., lectures for the Faculty of Arts of Avondale College in Australia.