In a fascinating collection of personal papers and essays on public theology penned against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and titled The Pseudonyms of God, Robert McAfee Brown invites us to imagine finding ourselves in a place where we are waiting for some tremendous manifestation of God’s activity. He invites us to imagine a situation where we have heard – or thought we had heard – a promise that God would intervene in our human situation, and that it was now clear that the time was at hand. Where would we look for God?
Brown suggests that we might most likely be found looking ‘in one of the great nations, where as many people as possible would be exposed to this important fact; surely in a well-established family with much influence; surely in such a way that all the resources of public opinion and mass media could be used to acquaint people with what had happened; surely it would be the most public and open and widely accessible event possible’ (pp. 84–5). He then paints a scenario more in keeping with the event of divine disclosure now known to us, but is no less in the stream of divine pseudonymity for that:
A child would be born into a backward South African tribe, the child of poor parents with almost no education. He would grow up under a government that would not acknowledge his right to citizenship. During his entire lifetime he would travel no more than about fifty miles from the village of his birth, and would spend most of that lifetime simply following his father’s trade – a hunter, perhaps, or a primitive farmer. Toward the end he would begin to gather a few followers together, talking about things that sounded so dangerous to the authorities that the police would finally move in and arrest him, at which point his following would collapse and his friends would fade back into their former jobs and situations. After a short time in prison and a rigged trial he would be shot by the prison guards as an enemy of the state. (p. 85)
Contemporaries ought not to be surprised to find the outcast – and the outcasted – God among the outcast. We must look for signs of the Servant God’s presence among those who serve. Numbered among an oppressed minority, we must expect to hear the echo of God’s voice among those who are oppressed. The pieta-like image above recalls that since 800 million of the planet’s people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, we might well expect that God’s availability is made tangible in loaves and fishes, rice and safe drinking water. Since God’s identification with the world involves God’s becoming creaturely, we ought look for God not only in ‘holy’ places or by means of ‘holy’ words, but we will look for God also in the very common, ordinary things of life, in the well over 500 million people who are living in what the World Bank has called ‘absolute poverty’, and in all those gathered up in the one great movement of divine kenosis-plerosis. ‘We will not be surprised to discover’, Brown writes, ‘that [God] suffered also, nor will we flinch when Bonhoeffer pronounces the initially disturbing words, “Only the suffering God can help,” even though it is probably the ultimate in the pseudonymous activity of God that he could be acquainted with grief’ (p. 86).
Brown then turns to Kierkegaard, and specifically to the Danes’ parable of the king and the maiden:
The servant-form is no mere outer garment, and therefore God must suffer all things, endure all things, make experience of all things. He must suffer hunger in the desert, he must thirst in the time of his agony, he must be forsaken in death, absolutely like the humblest – behold the man! His suffering is not that of his death, but his entire life is a story of suffering; and it is love that suffers, the love which gives all is itself in want (pp. 86–7).
Truly, in the economy of holy love, the locus of greatest clarity equates to the point of greatest incongruity and surprise. Jesus is God’s grand pseudonym, the supreme instance of God acting in ways contrary to our expectation, the point at which we are offered the criterion in terms of which the action of God elsewhere can be measured. And so if we miss God’s presence in the world, it will not be because God is absent. It will be because we have been looking in the wrong places.