Saturday, 26 June 2010

Identification with the Plight of the Wretched

When Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace describes the divine incarnation as ‘that fugitive from the camp of the conquerors’ she is pinpointing something beyond simple contingency about the event. When she talks of ‘Christ’s paradoxical identification with the plight of the wretched’ she presumably means ‘paradoxical’ in the sense that Christ, as God, is something like the opposite of ‘wretched’. But I wonder about this. The particularities of the incarnation, whilst fit the circumstances of a marginalised and persecuted people in a geographical backwater, surely present a problem to believers when it becomes the cultural logic of a overwhelmingly populous (two and a half billion of the world’s six billion people are Christians; vastly more than any other religion) and powerful. When Christians are the most powerful people in the world, how do they make of Christ’s message to the disempowered? When Christianity is culturally central, how can it apprehend Christ’s message of marginality? It’s an old question, of course. Perhaps the answer is that Christians, consciously or otherwise, imbibe a kind of psychological marginality—they take Christ’s address to actual disempowerment, poverty and oppression to be statements about ‘metaphorical’ disempowerment, poverty and oppression. But that’s a pretty lame way of taking it, surely? Wouldn’t it make more sense to assume that a Christian life requires the genuine attempt to live all that is marginalised by contemporary existence—to live, for instance, and paradoxically, as an isolated individual rather than a member of a supportive congregation, to live as an atheist rather than a believer? That’s less paradoxical than it might appear, I think.

To put this another way: Christ as a Jew came to redeem not mainstream Jewry, but a small obscure brand-new Jewish sect existing on the margins of Jewry. But now, in the same way that Christian thinkers assert that the phrase 'Christian tragedy' is a contradiction in terms, because the fullness of divine Grace now fills what was previously an empty world (death can hardly be a tragedy if death leads to eternal bliss) -- in such a circumstance where are the wretched to be found, if not on the outskirts of that revelation, amongst the unbelievers and atheists? And precisely not, of course, in order to convert them, but to engage with them precisely on these terms of unbelief?

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