What Udonis Haslem taught me about hunger
Thanks to my friend Josiah, I read Udonis Haslem’s column for The Players Tribune and he got really real. You can read the whole thing for yourself here. If you’re precious about profanity, you’ve been warned, but I think you can get through some curse words to hear the prophecy of a man who grew up in poverty. Udonis talks about what it means to be really hungry and how the world right now, because this dreaded deadly virus makes no distinctions between gender, class, race, or social standing, is experiencing something that poor kids in Miami (and all over the U.S. and world) have always experienced. There’s something universalizing about this plague that might teach the dominant about people on the margins. It’s the same idea that Shannon Dingle wrote about for Sojourners when she said this disease was teaching us about casual ableism and how people with able bodies are now finally seeing people who suffer with disabilities.
There is something that the people who have enjoyed the excess of the United States are learning now in their relative poverty. This virus, in its perverse way, is bringing us together—and thus, the powers are threatened by it. It’s not surprising that people are calling it a hoax, at the cue of the President, or that the red/blue state divide is manifesting once again, or that even Christians are calling to care more for the economy than human lives. Apparently we live in a time where facts are a matter of opinion, and everything is a culture war.
The virus is mocking our false idols and gods
In my opinion, this virus is showing us the problems with our for-profit healthcare system and the limitations of this economic form to handle the crisis, despite promising to solve poverty, hunger, and inequality “in the long run.” It is showing us the limitations of a global economy that only functions during times of peace. It is showing us how hollow our societal structures are and how ill-prepared we are for any serious threat to our way of life. The Pax Americana that is required for our economic form is fragile, and when it breaks, it is the least among us that feel it the most.
But when people with higher social standing experience what the folks with the lower social standing experience, a revolution can begin. When we’re all hungry for something new, we can finally empathize with people who have been hungry as a matter of their lives. It means we’re connected with people who suffer at the expense of ableism and those who grew up in poverty.
And that is a real opportunity for Christians. You see, God is on the side of the oppressed. In Matthew 25, Jesus says he is in the “least of these.” When Mary first learns that she will give birth to Jesus, she sings a song to the oppressed in Luke 1. The more we commune with, empathize with, and experience oppression, the closer we are to God.
Christians started out as oppressed people. And even before the incarnation of Jesus, the people of God, called the Israelites, who came to inhabit Israel, and then Judah, were a nation made up of emancipated slaves. God was with the oppressed from the beginning and God made a nation for the oppressed that existed in the shadows of the huge empires whether they were Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, or Roman.
Power tempts us, but God is with the powerless
I’m afraid that the American project, fit with freedom of religion, makes our faith merely a luxurious accommodation to our full life. Rather than resisting the Empire, we become incorporated into it. It’s why the aforementioned Christians are deciding to favor the economy to human life. They are acting with empire preservation in mind and not life preservation. It’s also why Christians succumbed to Constantine’s temptation of empire as they got incorporated into the Roman Empire. This is an old story. God’s people have always been tempted to join the empires instead of being oppressed by them; it is a cautionary tale for us, not a condemning one. It is easy to fall into the trap of empire and to lose the essence of our faith.
Lent is all about that very temptation. Jesus was tempted in that very same way by the devil in the Wilderness. The devil tempted Jesus with food, power, and wealth for the price of serving another God and he even used scripture to do it. That’s the temptations Christians face every day, and in the moment of strife, like the one we’re all in, we can clearly see the folly of such temptations.
It’s hard to see this when you are in luxury and wealth, though. It’s hard to see that the cathedral, and the sacrament, and the Christian city in the Christian empire isn’t the best place to meet God. It’s not the thinnest of places, it seems. It is in poverty that we relate most closely to Jesus, though, despite the drama of the high church and the liturgy.
I don’t think low church Protestants totally grasp this because rather than mimic the Old European Christian cities, they sort of create their own cathedral, except it looks like a mall (which, in the 1990s, was the American cathedral). Suburban Evangelical Christianity may have lost the religious architecture, but it adopted another form of empire and excess that didn’t allow it to relate more closely to God, but rather to disassociate with Christendom because it had “Americandom.”
Anabaptists have always had another, simpler way of connecting to God—never in big cathedrals, or with an alliance to the state or economy—but also in face-to-face contexts. The grace of God wasn’t administered through a special ritual or through a special clergy, but in the body, in the flesh, in the moment. We have our own traditions that limit us though, and we sometimes principalize the face-to-faceness of our faith to its own detriment. But the virus rooted that out of us too.
Necessity is the mother of invention
We were surprised about how well our online meetings went over the last three weeks and how many people, old and new, experienced God’s goodness in our worship. Even our most luddite of leaders have experienced their cell, via online videos, to be moving. And even now, we’re imagining new ways to consider covenant and baptism during this time. We are realizing the church can’t wait until it’s over, and so we need to invent something new now. And we can’t beholden to our traditions, principles, and ideology. We are realizing that in poverty and in oppression, the best invention occurs and even the most intimacy with God occurs.
The clearest moment of this was when we observed the communion meal together. Communion is a high sacrament, normally. It is the center of the Catholic mass. It is the reason that many Christians come together in worship. In Circle of Hope, we’ve traditionally observed communion during our Love Feasts and during the Sundays in Lent. This plague caused us to move our meeting online, and for the first two weeks, we didn’t observe communion. We lacked the time and the ingenuity to figure out how we could do communion online. We didn’t think it was possible, or that it would lose its meaning. That’s the problem with living in luxury though, you can’t imagine life without it. And all of a sudden not being able to go to the bar is true oppression.
Nevertheless, on the third week, this time when we recorded the meeting in separate spaces—which we thought was a stretch—we took communion all by ourselves, with whatever we had: Cheez-Its, raisins, Goldfish, seltzer water, old wine. They all were the body and blood of Jesus. And we took it together, after reading the words of the institution, and it was truly beautiful. I was so moved by it, I told them that that disparate communion, without a church building, without priest, with no singular sacrament was more moving than any that I could experience even in the most majestic cathedrals in France. We were bonded together in our common experience and in our common plight. We were connected, even in our far away locations, by the body of Christ. It was a wonderful expression of our solidarity despite our hardship. And that’s exactly why it was more authentic than any other expression of the meal that I’ve experienced. And it’s because we’re hungry for it. It’s hard to be hungry when you’re partnering with excess and empire. It’s hard to feel the need for God when you’re worshiping another god. But that all changed because of this plague and we have a new opportunity to worship together now.
There’s life that might come from this shadow of death, though. We might leave more related, more in common, more connected. We might have a deeper faith because it was tested by a brutal plague. We might have more authentic relationships because we kept them in the hardest of times. We might even have more gratitude for things we take for granted and that might lead us to empathize with those who don’t have them even when a plague isn’t overtaking the world.