Incarnation and Cultural Engagement

When I wrote last month’s post on “pro-choice” evangelicals, some commenters on Facebook claimed I was arguing that Christians shouldn’t make moral choices but instead adopt an “anything goes” mentality to get along in pluralistic society. I tried to explain in comments and e-mails that I was arguing that we have had a tendency to oversimplify our rhetoric which makes moral positions harder to explain. The problem was not moral choice but how that choice gets characterized by listeners we are trying to influence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the dynamics of moral argument in a complex, diverse, post-modern, post-Christendom culture. It’s been one of the overarching themes of my blogging over the last six months. I’ve written before about the impact of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (which I’m using in my social science of religion class this semester). Hunter, who had written earlier pieces on Culture Wars (1992) now suggests that we evangelicals have been too concerned about leveraging power to create cultural change. In the newer book, he calls for what he labels Faithful Presence.

While discussing the difficulties of cultural engagement with a colleague this week, I was suddenly struck with an image from my childhood: Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. It became a way of explaining the problem with conflict-based cultural engagement that has characterized so much of the Culture War debates.

If you ever saw Disney’s Song of the South (known for introducing “Zippity-Do-Dah” to the American songbook), you know it’s way too close to a minstrel show. The happy slave Uncle Remus tells stories in broken dialect to the owner’s young son. The Tar Baby is characterized in the stories and by Disney animators as an insolent black child. But there is a lesson for us in the story valuable enough to make me repeat part of the tale (I found a version without the dialect). In the story, Brer Fox places a Tar Baby in the road as a way to trick Brer Rabbit. The Rabbit greets the Tar Baby who says nothing (being a bunch of Tar shaped like a person).

Brer_Rabbit_and_the_Tar_BabyBrer Rabbit frowned. This strange creature was not very polite. It was beginning to make him mad. “Ahem!” said Brer Rabbit loudly, wondering if the Tar Baby were deaf. “I said ‘HOW ARE YOU THIS MORNING?” The Tar Baby said nothing. Brer Fox curled up into a ball to hide his laugher. His plan was working perfectly! “Are you deaf or just rude?” demanded Brer Rabbit, losing his temper. “I can’t stand folks that are stuck up! You take off that hat and say ‘Howdy-do’ or I’m going to give you such a lickin’!” The Tar Baby just sat in the middle of the road looking as cute as a button and saying nothing at all. Brer Fox rolled over and over under the bushes, fit to bust because he didn’t dare laugh out loud. “I’ll learn ya!” Brer Rabbit yelled. He took a swing at the cute little Tar Baby and his paw got stuck in the tar. “Lemme go or I’ll hit you again,” shouted Brer Rabbit. The Tar Baby, she said nothing. “Fine! Be that way,” said Brer Rabbit, swinging at the Tar Baby with his free paw. Now both his paws were stuck in the tar, and Brer Fox danced with glee behind the bushes. “I’m gonna kick the stuffin’ out of you,” Brer Rabbit said and pounced on the Tar Baby with both feet. They sank deep into the Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit was so furious he head-butted the cute little creature until he was completely covered with tar and unable to move.

Here’s my takeaway about Culture Warriors. The more one punches at the opposition, the more one gets ensnared in the debate. Regardless of what other good is done, including the desire to reach others for Christ, the tar remains. The culture warrior gets stuck in all the mess and seems unable to move in any way at all. And whatever he or she does, the tar remains behind. Just to name one example among many possible, even though Gordon College has attempted to explain the purpose of the Executive Order letter this summer, groups continue to separate from them (this week it was a school district). The tar is stickier than we imagine.

The difficulty, as Hunter tells us, is that power is a fickle weapon. It’s always dependent upon someone else exerting power from another side. Walter Brueggemann reminds us that power within empire always has a strong element of fear of scarcity. The power must be exercised to protect one against loss.

I was reviewing Brueggemann’s argument in class Thursday night. I had a chart on the board illustrating the connection between Empire, Pharaoh, and Pilate (see chapter one of Truth Speaks to Power). The center of my Empire column was Power. Then, using Brueggemann’s analysis, I contrasted that with the Kingdom of God. What Yahweh, Moses, Jesus all share is a different starting point — a negation of power. We explored what would be in the center of that column. Students suggested Love, Grace, Sacrifice.

I told them that my word in the center is Kenosis. It is the emptying act of the Incarnation that establishes all of Kingdom thinking. As the Philippians passages tell us, this is the concept that was in Christ’s mind that is also to be in ours.

KenosisIf we begin mirroring the Incarnation, we don’t strike out at others. We try instead to enter their space and see things from their perspective. By showing sacrificial love from within that authentic place, we have the opportunity to demonstrate Faithful Presence.

I had two friends illustrate exactly this form of incarnational living in the past few days. Both of them happened into it accidentally, but quickly discovered what it means to incarnate another’s place. My colleague Eric told a story of how he had gone running on a warm Michigan day and had tied up his slightly longish (yet fashionable) hair in what he calls a “snork-like” pony-tail. When completing his run, a car of young men come up behind him and gave a catcall (thinking they were dealing with a woman). In that quick moment before the men realized their mistake, Eric knew the evil of sexism. He had occupied that space with others.

My friend Karen was asked to be on a radio program to discuss Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. What she didn’t know was that the show was organized around calling out all whites for the evils of racism (which the host called “White Supremacy”). A white woman from Virginia got to try to identify with structural racism for a couple of hours. Having listened to the interview, I can say she did a great job under the circumstances. She wasn’t defensive and when she couldn’t fully identify with the host or a caller, she said so. She validated their experiences, fears, and concerns while being clear in her own place as a white Christian academic. That she spoke so consistently of the evils of structural racism and why it must be exposed was as incarnational as I think one could be under the circumstances.

On Friday, Alastair Roberts wrote a fabulous piece for Christ and Pop Culture. Titled “Evangelicalism’s Poor Form“, it analyzed some of the cultural challenges of evangelicals in the postmodern age. But it ended in a hopeful place; one that I think aligns well with an Incarnational Faithful Presence within the culture:

 Among this wisdom is the recognition that, treated in the right manner, the external forms of our faith need not distract from our core evangelical commitments but can serve and strengthen them, forming the people of God within them and establishing us in the skills with which we can improvise a Christian culture that is robust and deep. My hope is that, through a recovery of the importance of these formative “externals” of our culture, we will once more be able to cast our core evangelical and Christian convictions in the sharpest of reliefs, living out an evangelicalism in which our evangelical culture neither distracts nor detracts from our evangelical faith.

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3 thoughts on “Incarnation and Cultural Engagement

  1. Thanks for this essay. Great line here –

    “Here’s my takeaway about Culture Warriors. The more one punches at the opposition, the more one gets ensnared ….”

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