Sunday morning thoughts

1. A much-publicized Oxford study from September 2013 found that 47% of total US employment stands at risk of automation in the next several decades. In the words of one commentator from the Atlantic, “imagine a robot that costs $5 to manufacture and can do everything you do, only better. You would be as obsolete as a horse.”

2. If the machines don’t take your job, it might well become part-time or less compensated. In addition to automation, the rise of part-time and the rollback of benefits are also changing the shape of global employment. Guy Standing, a British economist, coined the term “precariat” to describe the emerging class of people worldwide characterized by insecure, “precarious” work. According to the Irish Times

this precariat is becoming more characteristic of 21st century capitalism based on flexible, periodic and insecure employment, transiency, lack of control over time, over-qualification and uncertainty. It is recruited from the traditional working class, from denizens – migrants, asylum seekers and ethnic minorities – and especially from the new youthful well-educated who cannot find stable work.

3. The Canadian scholar and cultural critic, Henry Giroux, amongst others, has written much about the “politics of disposability”:

As the 21st century tumbles forward, ever more individuals and groups are now considered “excess” by the onslaught of global forces that no longer offer the possibility of alternative futures. This politics of “disposability” can be seen in the rising numbers of homeless, the growing army of debt-ridden students, those lacking basic necessities amid widening income disparities, the surveillance of immigrants, the school-to-prison pipeline and the destruction of the middle class.

4. In sum, many of us who are now relevant, gainfully employed, and secure, may soon find ourselves obsolete, underemployed, and disposable.

This is, understandably, cause for alarm.

But it may also present an opportunity: to reenvision our humanness quite apart from productivity. Who are we, once abstracted from work? What would be left to us, as cosmic loiterers and moochers, as use-less and worth-less humans?

I don’t know. But I heard a podcast recently that made me think the witness of communities like L’Arche could be vital for answering these questions. Jean Vanier founded this organization to care for people with disabilities. But instead of only servicing the needs of such individuals, Vanier found himself deeply instructed by them. Shorn of many “capabilities” that give status and meaning to able persons’ lives, Vanier discovered that the disabled persons for whom he cared pose “a mystery of the human reality.” The human remainder, after subtracting all the paraphernalia of productivity, is “a cry for relationship.” Tenderness and touch endure, and suffice! even where jobs and usefulness and even words are impossible. “We love people,” says Vanier, “not because they’re beautiful or clever, [but] because they’re a person.” Because they belong in relationship, however simple.

There is a Christian wisdom there. Perhaps many of us who worship Jesus have become too enamored of success and productivity, as if these were the earmarks of godliness. We ought to remember that the man whom we confess as God was himself unemployed, ineffectual, and disposable (in fact, disposed of): “rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him” (1 Pet 2:4, NIV). A man who was not powerful and did not produce much, but who was remembered for lending his presence to unlikely people around him. So Jean Vanier:

I think the mystery of Christianity is just living with Jesus the way Jesus lived in Nazareth with Mary, his mother, and with Joseph. A relationship. John the Baptist was strong, he was powerful […] He was prophetic. Jesus was quiet. And he ate with people who are caught up in prostitution, with tax collectors, with lepers and all that. I mean, there’s something so simple about Jesus that he is disarming. We don’t quite know what to do with it. Because frequently, we would want a powerful Jesus who will put everything straight, who will cure everybody, who will do everything that we tell him to do. And it’s not like that.

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disappointing glory

Asaph was a man in ancient Israel who saw that some people in this world have smooth, easy lives. Their bodies are capable and free of pain. They live without anxiety about run-ins with the law or paying the bills or managing family trouble. They eat well.

I observed how the wicked are well off:

They suffer no pain;

their bodies are fit and strong.

They are never in trouble;

they aren’t weighed down like other people…

Their eyes bulge out from eating so well. (Ps 73:3b-5, 7a, CEB)

All this surplus and freedom has a numbing effect on these people. Because they don’t have to toil against the grain of the world, they feel invincible. Because they do not share the struggle of other humans, other humans who do struggle become less real to them. Hardship is, for them, far off and fantastical; little wonder these people cannot empathize with others for whom hardship is asphyxiating. They speak harshly of those about whose lives they know nothing. These people are, in a genial, passive way, violent. Not violent like two men in a bar lashing out. The violence of the wealthy is quieter and more pervasive. Asaph describes it with the metaphor of clothing; something worn day in and day out, and so customary as to cause no surprise.

That’s why they wear arrogance like a necklace,

why violence covers them like clothes…

They scoff and talk so cruel;

from their privileged positions

they plan oppression. (Ps 73:6, 8, CEB)

These people do not fear any power greater than their own. They have command of all resources, economic and legal and military and so forth. The thought of an invisible superpower that could topple them is – ridiculous. The luxury of their lives persists unbroken; if there is a God, whatever that God may be is singularly unthreatening. Asaph writes:

And what they say is this: “How could God possibly know!

Does the Most High know anything at all!”

Look at these wicked ones,

always relaxed, piling up the wealth! (Ps 73:11-12, CEB)

Asaph envies these people. In fact, he almost admits to himself that his belief in God is a waste of time. God seems powerless and ineffective. The rich get richer and the poor suffer on and on.

Asaph came close to this edge. But then he had an experience that reined  him in.

when I tried to understand these things,

it just seemed like hard work

until I entered God’s sanctuary

and understood what would happen to the wicked. (Ps 73:16-17, CEB)

Asaph entered God’s sanctuary, and, apparently, saw something there that completely rejuvenated his faith: his faith that God would rise up from God’s profound, age-long inaction; that God would burn through all the numbness and wealth and violence of the wicked and that they would be “utterly destroyed by terrors” (Ps 73:19b).

What was it that Asaph saw, that gave him such a new vision of God’s terrifying, satisfying vengeance on the wicked?

I don’t know. But other psalms also speak about entering God’s sanctuary, the Jerusalem temple, and experiencing something transformative there. They speak of seeing God: Psalm 63 says to God: “I’ve seen you in the sanctuary; I’ve seen your power and your glory” (63:2). The glory of the Lord that would appear in the Jerusalem temple was indeed overwhelming. Think of the temple’s dedication, when the glory filled the temple with such an ominous thick cloud that the priests could not carry out their duties. Or think of the tumult and horror of God’s glory making landfall on Sinai. Perhaps like these times, God encountered Asaph in glory: with a display of raw superhuman power and alien darkness. This would certainly reassure: that God was yet older, more powerful, and more fearsome than the oldest and most entrenched human powers.

I see the same things as Asaph. The smooth lives at the top of the human food chain, and the increasing misery along its descending rungs. And sometimes, like Asaph, I think that God does nothing to interrupt this regime.

But unlike Asaph, I do not have a temple to enter and a lowering glory to behold, to bolster my faith that God will rise up and set things right. Far from it. The New Testament seems to indicate that God didn’t rise up and set things right, but lay down and left them wrong. The New Testament tells me that my temple is a single human body, and one that was mauled and punctured and drained of its life (“the temple Jesus was talking about was his body” John 2:21). The glory of God that I am to behold is “the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6): a sad face, a marred face, and then a dead face.

Jesus died at the hands of the world’s powers. The Roman authorities. The Jewish authorities. By killing him, the top of the food chain triumphed once more. If they ever feared losing their power and ease, murdering Jesus proved they had nothing to worry about, at least from him. So far as we know, Pilate and the Sanhedrin lived happily ever after: “always relaxed, piling up the wealth!” And since then, to crib the words of 2 Peter, “nothing has changed” (3:4).

This is very disappointing and disturbing.

And, as far as I am concerned, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t so much cancel out this disappointment as amplify it. By raising Jesus from the dead, God didn’t say, “just kidding! actually, I am still really powerful and terrifying. Don’t let that whole Good Friday thing get you down.” Rather, by the resurrection, God said: “I love Jesus and his way of being human so much that I cannot stand to let him stay in the ground.” God loved Jesus’s obedience more than any other human’s, ever: how Jesus willingly stuck his body in the way of the powerful, and was crushed. God exalted him because he did that.

And that is God’s victory – the foolishness of one human standing out of love wholly against the powers of this world. And that is God’s glory – the annihilation of Jesus.

I am not comforted like Asaph was. Nor should we be, who believe this message.