When I (Nathaniel) was a child, someone asked me, “how do you know if people are Christian?” I racked my young brain for the categories and signifiers that best captured what I knew of Christianity and responded, “they don’t smoke.”
Friends and family thought this was a hoot, but I had really grasped something essential to American Christianity. I was reminded of this during a recent reading of the parable of the “prodigal” son. It is often pointed out that the elder son can represent the religious leaders of both Jesus’ time and today, and that we should shun pride or any feelings of superiority. But perhaps this does not speak closely enough to the serious issue of identity which this story captures. The elder son had come to understand himself and his relationship to the father not through the father’s graciousness, but over against his brother. Sin was the defining factor in this view, not grace. I knew I was a Christian because I didn’t smoke. If there were no smokers, what could I hold on to?
This dynamic came to mind again when I read the article Why Do Americans Feel Entitled to Tell Poor People What to Eat? – a question that anyone who has spent too much time on their Facebook newsfeed might be asking. The answer becomes clear when it is paired with the related phenomena of “welfare” drug testing, vagrancy laws, and anti-homeless spikes.
As a society we see the poor as prodigals, ones who have chosen to squander their inheritance and then have the gall to ask for a handout. We are the ones who have chosen to be home with the father. It is only in punishing and and quite literally pushing them to the margins that we can retain any kind of identity. The cruel irony here is that we actually require this underclass, both economically and psychologically.
The evangelism of a capitalist church also requires, creates, and maintains an underclass of non members to preserve its identity. In America, we say that everyone has a chance to be successful, but of course not everyone can realize this potential. In the same way, Christianity is the VIP section which anyone could theoretically join, but if they did, what would be the appeal?
Crucial to this setup is the construction of “sin,” or the choice to rebel against the good. The poor choose to be poor, and the sinful choose sin, and only through this foundation can we create an identity for ourselves. We can acknowledge the influence of sin on all humanity, but in practice it allows us to demarcate the boundaries between ourselves and “the other.”
For Karl Barth, the grace offered by a God (whose nature is understood by his choice in Christ to be with us and for us) is the ground of reality. Sin is seen as “unreality,” or an “impossible possibility.”
Godlessness, therefore, is an ontological impossibility for human being…this does not mean of course that there is no godless human being. Sin does happen. But even so, sin is the ontological impossibility of human being. (III/2, 162)
Maybe you are like me, and you used to ask your parents which child was their favorite; maybe your parents are like mine, and they insisted that each child was the favorite. Hogwash. For the title of favorite to have any meaning, someone has to be left out. I require sin not only in the actions of my brothers, against whom I come to understand myself, but also in the corruption of a father who shows partiality. We need this corruption, which we might sometimes call justice, as an ideological protection from exposure to the pure grace shown in Jesus Christ. The universality of God’s choice to be with and for humanity creates a serious identity crisis. It attests to the fact that I already have an identity, as one loved and chosen by God, and any that might be created from a foundation other than grace is “unreality.”
If sin is truly this definitive for prevailing assumptions about Christian life, we can better understand the mission of Jesus in “becoming sin.” As a challenge to existing structures of domination, we can make a definitive choice to be with and for the underclasses. It is not enough to simply invite into our midst the non-believers, the undeserving poor, the undocumented immigrants, the Muslims, “the gays,” etc. on the condition that they conform. The basis for our understanding of identity moves from being “sin” to being the person of Jesus. Following his example, we can transgress the boundaries of respectability, and take on the scorn we had previously placed on them. Barth describes this process as the redemptive analogy to the journey of the younger son:
…And yet it cannot be denied that the way of the latter (of Jesus Christ) is in fact the way into the far country of a lost human existence – the way in which He accepts identity and solidarity with this lost son, unreservedly taking his place, taking to Himself his sin and shame, his transgression, as though He Himself had committed it, making his misery His own, as if He Himself had deserved it, and all this in such a way that the frightfulness of this far country, the evil of the human situation, is revealed in its full depths only as it becomes His situation, that of the holy and righteous Son of God. (IV/2, 23)
The temptation for evangelism is to simply invite others to join us on this side of the velvet rope, to join the ranks of power. Yet no form of religious or secular exceptionalism is enough. We can not provide converts with the opportunity to identify themselves over against outsiders. Instead we can speak a word to the ideology that delineates between member and non member, citizen and non citizen, loved and unloved. This word is Jesus, and following his directive we can choose to be on the right side, the side of those whom our religion has excluded, what we have previously determined as the wrong side. How do you know if people are Christian? They are with the smokers.
Picture of Jesus and Karl Barth… smoking.