This year, I told Twitter, I want to stable Rudolph and his red nose. I don’t want to hear the angels talking about peace and goodwill. With a nation still unwilling to comprehensively address abusive policing and community distrust as youth have asked, angelic pronouncements about peace feel premature, if not presumptuous.
Over the weekend, I read through the goodwill messages that 70 or so nations sent to NASA in the 1960s for the Apollo 11 moon landing. NASA engraved these messages in a small silicon disc and the astronauts left it behind them in the dust of our only natural satellite.
“It is our earnest hope for mankind,” one message read, “that while we gain the moon, we shall not lose the world.”
That message came from Eric Williams, then Trinidad’s prime-minister. Williams was also one of the Caribbean’s preeminent historians. He’s now best known for his 1944 book, Capitalism and Slavery, one of the first studies to explicitly describe how the British slave trade thrived on its enmeshment with the Industrial Revolution and a blend of non-monopolistic capitalism and free or cheap human labor.
Just as US slavery adapted with the nation’s farming culture and favored crops—tobacco, cotton, and corn—and then later morphed with the rise of manufacturing, British slavery adapted with new markets in Asia and South America, and England enriched itself with the profits from that trade. Both American and British systems predicated their success and stability on the labor of certain kinds of human beings, and both societies continue to do so.
Some people are waking up from the system’s slumber, though.
I’ve written about David Gushee, an American evangelical who, earlier this year, wrote a book and a few well-placed articles on his changing theology and support for LGBT people. And then there’s Herb Montgomery, who uses the gospel stories and Girardian anthropology to teach Adventist audiences about Jesus’ new world.
I talked with Herb recently about the redemption myth of former slave trader John Newton. Many Christians know the tidy traditional story as told by evangelists like Wintley Phipps. At a Gaithers Band concert in 2002, Phipps told his audience that John Newton was a sailor and slave trader who converted to Christianity. Moved by the “amazing grace” that saved him, Newton then set his poem to the tune of a “Negro sorrow chant.”
“I believe God wanted that song written just the way it was,” Phipps says. “We’re connected by God’s amazing grace!” The audience whoops for this point.
But as I told Herb, Phipps’ story and the Amazing Grace myth it’s based on leaves a long forty years out of Newton’s tale. It actually took 40 years for Newton’s conversion to filter into his public stance on slavery—and in those 40 years he continued to buy and sell human beings or profit from their sale.
He became a Christian in 1748, yes, and he even served the Church of England as a priest, but he didn’t publish his Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade until 1788 after connecting with English politician and abolitionist William Wilberforce. Months before he died in 1807, Newton saw the British parliament abolish slave trading across its empire in 1807. The last boat of slaves docked in Jamaica that year.
While slave trading was now illegal, slave holding remained legal until the 1833 Abolition Act. Slaves forced into post-abolition “apprenticeship”—freedom training in theory and indentured servitude in fact—only became free in 1838. As slaves were finally emancipated, the government paid British slave-owners a total of £20 million in compensation for “lost property.” That grant would be worth over £989.8 million today (about US$1.5 billion). Former slaves received no such compensation for stolen liberty.
A corrupt system hates it when a body leaves its assigned place. When that body does leave, the system will come hunting for it in every possible way. It doesn’t matter whether your assigned place is farming as a slave, scraping by as a sharecropper, or running usurious and manipulative housing scams on people the banks won’t lend to; it really doesn’t matter. Unless you comply or cooperate with the system, unless you continue to be complicit, the system will come for you.
Knowing this makes Luke’s story about Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) somewhat incomplete for me.
Luke is the third gospel, traditionally described as the gospel that emphasizes interactions between Jesus and his culture’s outsiders, from non-Jewish people and children to women and tax collectors like Zacchaeus. Luke’s gospel is also the only one to mention Zacchaeus, a man who becomes rich through professional grift. Having stolen from the people as he ported money between them and the state, Zacchaeus was viewed as a “sinner” and therefore unworthy of Jesus’ time and company.
The story spins in an unexpected direction when Zacchaeus responds to Jesus with a restitution plan instead of pride, comparison, or dissociation: “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Just for today, I’ll give Zacchaeus a pass on that word “if.” Twenty-first Century readers are all too accustomed to public apologies that throw the responsibility back on the interpreting, aggrieved audience.
“If I offended you…”
“If I hurt your feelings…”
“If I disappointed you, I’m sorry.”
But in this story, instead of becoming a character for us to be cynical about, Zacchaeus becomes a sympathetic figure. Zacchaeus is sympathetic not because he offers the community restitution but because no one had to ask him to. He doesn’t wait for Jesus’ permission to make things right. He doesn’t seek anyone’s permission at all: he knows what went wrong, and what his part in it was, and he announces ways he can restore good order.
I wish the Church—my Church—might be more like Zacchaeus at times like this. I wish it would acknowledge that its recent discoveries about racism, sexism, and heterosexism are still so late for so many, that it cannot hide in ignorance or empty disavowals, that it ought to be returning to its Earth community four times all that it’s taken. Perhaps we’d see a lot less self-congratulating about our latest revelations, and we’d carry several buckets more humility for the human costs of our tardiness.
I also wish Luke had chosen to report whether Zacchaeus followed through with his insight after that wild day. Or did his conviction fade as the crowd moved on to the next strange Jesus event and no one hung back to audit his promise? There’s a Clementine tradition that Zacchaeus earned a new name and joined the post-resurrection disciples as Matthias in Acts 1. But I don’t know. It may be just enough that this man survives in the tales of Luke as a wayshower for the well-intentioned souls in every age.
“There are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal, kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.” —Terry Pratchett, Small Gods
So Jesus sees this man in the tree he’s using to elevate himself above the masses. He calls him by his name and not his social position; he addresses him by the name that means “the pure, the innocent” and not by all the names that accurately label this man’s guilt. He calls him by his name, and invites him into relationship.
“I must stay at your house today.”
That’s the invitation to all tax collectors. To all who’re enmeshed with the enslavement and abuse of other human beings, Jesus says, “Come down immediately.”
To those who’ve been complicit with the violence of rank- and classism, Jesus says, “The new world has room for you; now you make room for me today.”
“You’re not a lost cause because you have been complicit. Come down from your lynching tree. Come down so we can commune; we can’t commune while you set yourself apart.”
I think it was in Paolo Freire’s writings that I first saw oppressors as humans being dehumanized through their own acts of oppression. And then when I reread the Hebrew Proverbs, I saw the lesson there too: “Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him.”
If oppressing others degrades the self, then none are more in need of healing than those who harm others.
Zacchaeus climbs down from his tree and stands on level ground. His awakening doesn’t change his height, nor the press of the people blocking his path. Perhaps the hostile crowd around him makes him doubt his choice to abandon his old perch. The known life might have been lonely, but at least it was familiar. At least it paid. The promise of a shared meal with those he has stolen from only pays him a choice: will he choose complicity or communion?
Complicity secures ill-gotten privilege and protects one from the system—at least for a time. Communion makes us no such promises: it exposes us to others, and we sit around the common table awkward and unsure. There’s no script for this relationship, only invitation.
Merry Christmas, all of you.