Why does the Bible, and why does Jesus, tell us to care for the poor and the outsider? Is it first of all because people need help? Maybe, but I believe it has a much deeper genius. We are the ones who need to move into the worlds of powerlessness for our own conversion! We need to meet people whose faith, patience, and forgiveness tell us we are still in the kindergarten of love. We need to be influenced by people who are happy without having all the things we think are essential to happiness.
When we are too smug and content, we really have little need for the Gospel, so we make Christianity into pious devotions that ask nothing of us and do nothing for the world. We are never in need of forgiveness because we have constructed a world that allows us to always be right and “normal.” We are highly insulated from the human situation. When we are self-sufficient, our religion will be corrupt because it doesn’t understand the Mystery of how divine life is transferred, how people change, how life flows, how we become something more, and how we fall into the great compassion.
Only vulnerable people change. Only vulnerable people change others. Jesus presented us with an icon of absolute vulnerability, and said, “Gaze on this until you get the point. Gaze on this until you know what God is like!” That demanded too much of us, so we made the cross instead into a juridical transaction between Jesus and God (“substitutionary atonement theory”), which in great part robbed the cross of its deep transformative power.
It has been said that religion is largely filled with people who are afraid of hell, and spirituality is for people who have gone through hell. As all initiation rites say in one way or another: you have to die before you die, and then you know. Peter Dumitriu, a Romanian novelist, writes, “Jesus is always on the side of the crucified ones, and I believe he changes sides in the twinkling of an eye. He is not loyal to the person, or even less the group; Jesus is loyal to suffering.” Jesus is what mythology called a “shape-shifter.” He goes wherever the pain is.
Do you realize that takes away all of our usual group-think? Jesus is just as loyal to the suffering of Iraqi and Russian soldiers as he is to the suffering of American and British soldiers. He grabs all our boundaries away from us, and suddenly we are forced to see that we are a universal people. Most people do not like being that exposed and that shared. Yes, God is on the side of the pain, and goes wherever the pain is (which is abundantly clear in the Gospels). We can no longer preempt Jesus for our own group, religion, or country. People seeking power cannot use him for their private purposes. He belongs to the powerless.
A lawyer who joined the Catholic Church and then became a Franciscan said to me one day, “You know, this Church is harder and harder for me to understand. We claim to have the perfect medicine, the healing power to restore and renew hearts and souls, but we seem to say in the same breath, ‘But make sure you don’t really need it! Because if you really need it, you are a less than ideal member!’”
Too often it seems forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion, and healing are mere concessions, carefully doled out, to those unfortunate sinners and outsiders, instead of the very path of salvation itself. Let us be shouting mercy from the housetops—for everybody who needs it and wants it. Desire is the only pre-requisite.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 95-97.