Friday, April 17, 2020

He emptied himself

As James Scott has shown, centuries of social hierarchy have equipped disempowered groups with techniques for dissembling and subtly subverting those above them who have power and resources. Lying, parodying, stealing, cajoling, avoiding, loitering and mocking are entirely understandable ways of resisting the powerful and exploitative. But they are deadly to any healthy relationship, which ultimately needs to unfold between equals. Moreover, once they are in play, these corrosive dynamics are next to impossible to erase. A relationship that begins in this fashion tends to stay there.

The church today is especially aware of this dilemma. The modern missionary movement was launched by Christians from Europe and the USA, areas that were the cradle of the industrial revolution, which in turn catapulted these regions to enormous accumulations of capital and to global dominance. Consequently, missionaries sent out from these regions to evangelize other parts of the world arrived with vast amounts of capital, in material, political, and cultural terms. The result was frequently a pernicious colonial dynamic. Converts were framed in terms of need and were victimized and infantilized. Missionaries were framed in terms of provision and identified with European mores—often described as quintessentially white values. Authentic relationships were distorted and difficult. What are we to do? Can Paul help us here?

In fact he can. Although he was not materially rich, Paul was rich in cultural capital. He was highly educated, well connected back in his homeland, and a leader. He was accustomed to organizing, pronouncing, and formulating and directing policy. So he was a wealthy person compared with the despised handworkers who occupied one of the lowest echelons in the ancient city and had no such training, connections, or confidence. But what did he do?

It is highly significant that Paul arrived in Thessalonica looking like the people he was hoping to befriend and to convert. He adopted the persona of a handworker and worked alongside the humble Thessalonians.—Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, 57

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