He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
– Rowan Williams, The Poems of Rowan Williams (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 31.
A few Wednesdays ago, I was exploring the vibrant and crowded city of Mumbai. With a population of over 20 million, Mumbai is India’s most populous city, and the fourth most populous in the world. It’s a city of colour, of noise, and of enormous energy.
There were many memorable experiences: simply navigating my way across the road, for example, or holding my breath while praying for life at the rear of a speeding and bald-tyred rickshaw while the driver checked messages on his cell phone, or fighting to get my graceful frame on and then off a moving second-class train carriage – moving, because that’s the only way you have anything of a skerrick of a chance of getting on or off the train in the first place. I’ve never seen so many people on a train; it felt like trying to get a kilo of olives into a 500ml jar. Any closer and we’d be talking something like mass perichoresis. Equally crowded though, and more violently etched on my memory, is the kilometres and kilometres of Mumbai slums. As with some of the places I visited and stayed in Burma, it is impossible to put this ‘hopeless’ image into words. (Of course, one of the ever-present dangers in theology attends our perpetual attempts to find words for everything, even for God, as if by writing or speaking about things we can somehow harbour control over, or a sense of distance from, them. Woe to those of us who so do.)
That Wednesday was also the first time in my life when I encountered someone who seriously tried to sell me some children. In fact, I was offered 3 children for 900 rupees, which is 200 rupees more than I had just paid for a scarf for my partner Judy. These small children – they can’t have been older than 5 or 6 – were standing around barefoot on what was literally a small sea of broken glass, mostly light bulbs it seems, where they were attempting to retrieve small pieces of metal and other parts that could then be sold. Perhaps this is how they earned their keep.
I uttered an ancient prayer – ‘Where is God?’
And I found myself hearing again Rowan Williams’ words, that God ‘will come, will come/will come like crying in the night/like blood, like breaking/as the earth writhes to toss him free/He will come like child‘.
It was only a few days later when, in Mangalore, some 900 kilometres away, I had the privildge to share a meal with Rev Dr Manohar Chandra Prasad who serves as president of the Dalit Christian Federation in Karnataka, and as bishop of the Church of South India. Not only did he generously give me a short but utterly-fascinating course in Dalit politics, hiercharchy, hermeneutics and history, he also spoke to me of God’s plan for the liberation of all oppressed people’s via God’s action of becoming incarnate, not as a one-off act but rather as a continual act of God’s becoming among us. He also spoke of God identifying himself with the ‘least of us’, taking up the exploitation and oppression into his own body, and becoming the first among the oppressed and the marginalised.
In The Pseudonyms of God, a book penned against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, 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 God’s disclosure now known to us:
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)
Those who have heard the message of Jesus ought not to be surprised to hear that the only God there is is the outcasted God, and to find the outcasted God among the outcast. Is this not the message of Matthew 25?:
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (vv. 31–40)
We must look for signs of the Servant-God’s presence among those who serve. Numbered among the world’s neglected and forgotten castes, we must expect to hear the echo of God’s voice among those who are oppressed. The pieta-like image on the left 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 also in the very common and 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 emptying and filling. ‘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).
The words ‘only the suffering God can help’ come from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. And it’s worth hearing the context – both literary and historical/political – from which these words come:
The same God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34!). The same God who makes us to live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God, and with God, we live without God. God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross; God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence but rather by virtue of his weakness and suffering! This is the crucial distinction between Christianity and all religions. Human religiosity directs people in need to the power of God in the world, God as deus ex machina. The Bible directs people toward the powerlessness and the suffering of God; only the suffering God can help. (pp. 478–79)
Bonhoeffer reminds us that in the economy of grace, Jesus is God’s grand pseudonym, the supreme occurrence of God acting in ways contrary to our expectation. 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.
As with so many of the great saints, such looking drove the imprisoned Bonhoeffer, again and again, to prayer – to prayer for his fellow prisoners, to prayer for those charged with performing the ‘difficult duty’ of guarding them, to prayer for himself:
God, I call to you early in the morning,
help me pray and collect my thoughts,
I cannot do so alone.
In me it is dark, but with you there is light.
I am lonely, but do not abandon me.
I am faint-hearted, but from you comes my help.
I am restless, but with you is peace.
In me is bitterness, but with you is patience.
I do not understand your ways, but you know [the] right way for me.
Father in heaven,
Praise and thanks be to you for the quiet of the night.
Praise and thanks be to you for the new day.
Praise and thanks be to you for all your goodness and faithfulness in my life thus far.
You have granted me much good,
now let me also accept hardship from your hand.
You will not lay on me more than I can
You make all things serve your children for the best.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you were poor and miserable, imprisoned and abandoned as I am.
You know all human need,
you remain with me when no human being stands by me,
you do not forget me and you seek me,
you want me to recognize you and turn back to you.
Lord, I hear your call and follow.
Grant me the faith
that saves me from despair and vice.
Grant me the love for God and others
that purges all hate and bitterness,
grant me the hope
that frees me from fear and despondency.
Teach me to discern Jesus Christ and to do his will.
my Creator and my Savior,
this day belongs to you. My time is in your hands.
Holy, merciful God,
my Creator and my Savior
my Judge and my Redeemer,
you know me and all my ways and actions.
You hate and punish evil in this and every world
without regard for person,
you forgive sins
for anyone who asks you sincerely,
and you love the good and reward it
on this earth with a clear conscience
and in the world to come with the crown of righteousness.
Before you I remember all those I love,
my fellow prisoners, and all
who in this house perform their difficult duty.
Lord, have mercy.
Grant me freedom again
and in the meantime let me live in such a way
that I can give account before [you] and others.
Lord, whatever this day may bring – your name be praised.
– Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, pp. 94–96.
I do not, of course, want to foster the impression that the looking (or groping; Acts 17.27) for God is solely, or even primarily, a human activity. Even in prayer, the prime mover is always God. As I have written elsewhere, it is principally God and not us who is on the prowl, awaiting his own time to enact the ‘terrible death leap and single blow’ upon us. To be found by God is to be made love’s victim.