The incarnate God shows us how to relate
Relationships are a way that God, through Jesus, decided to reveal Godself to the world. God came to us as a baby, and lived among us, in order to relate to us and show us the truth that God loves us. God lowers Godself, God condescends, to relate to us. It’s a beautiful image of the nature of our faith, both relational and humble.
It wasn’t enough for God to relate to us, God decided to lower Godself in order to relate to us. God entered the fragile form of a baby, and the frail condition of humanity, to demonstrate love. What’s more, ultimately, on the cross, Jesus self-empties succumbs to death, to show us, once again, how he loves us. Relationships are essential for our faith, for our love, and for our development. God shows us that for relationships to truly have their transformative power, their enemy-ending power, we must consider the power that keeps them apart. God lowers Godself and shows us the power humility plays in the intimacy of relating. Jesus never denies his divinity, but rather demonstrates it through miracles and acts of compassion. He heals people, feeds them, gives them drink. He speaks to them in parables, in a way that only the available would hear what he has to say.
This message is made manifest not just in the incarnation, but in the whole of the Gospels. Jesus begins his ministry by being baptized by John. The Messiah, whom John recognizes, lowers himself to be baptized by John. When Jesus calls his disciples, he asks them to drop their nets and follow him. Once again, they humbly self-empty. As a result, Jesus develops a large following of people, many of whom are poor and oppressed. He names them as such in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus consistently relates to the sick, the needy, the outcast and rebukes the religious leaders for their hypocrisy in not doing so. When he sends his disciples out, he sends them with no provisions, so that they might rely on the hospitality of others, as an expression of acceptance. In accepting his disciples, or as Matthew says, in accepting “the least of these,” they accept Jesus himself and the one who sent him.
In the Gospel of Mark, the last are first, and the first last
In Mark, when Jesus begins to predict his death to his disciples in chapter 8, the ultimate act of giving up power, the disciples refuse to believe it. Peter rebukes him, even! Jesus harkens back to when Satan tempted him to pursue economic, political, and religious power and calls Peter Satan. He then proceeds to tell them that they will all have to carry their cross to follow him. Jesus tells them they need to lose their life, to save it. What good is it to gain the whole world, and forfeit our souls?
In chapter 9, Jesus disrupts a discussion his disciples are having about who is the greatest among them, but centering a child in their midst. He says the last will be first, and the first last. And if they welcome this child, they welcome himself, and his Father, the one who sent him. Jesus then tells us that if we cause a little one to stumble, instead of accepting them, we’ll suffer a worse fate than we can imagine. He says it would be better for a millstone to be hung around necks and if we were thrown into the Sea of Galilee then what awaits us. Jesus both tells us that if we accept the child, we’ll be redeemed; but if we cause it to stumble, we’ll be rejected.
Finally, in chapter 10, Jesus shows us once again that the last will be first and the first last. Jesus is intent on telling us that the way our relationships will transform one another and the world is if we demonstrate an inversion of the worldly order. Here, Jesus is approached by a man we will soon find out is rich, and Jesus tells him that in order to follow him, he needs to sell his possessions to the poor. The man can’t, and the disciples wonder who then can be saved. Jesus warns us that it will be impossible for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God, to follow Jesus, in other words, if they can’t divest of their wealth. God will make the impossible possible.
Jesus finally tells his disciples that God asks us to give up our status, our worldly power, and our money to follow him. Jesus demonstrates this radical way of discipleship in his life and he asks us to do the same.
Our relationships are fullest when we defeat oppression
Ultimately, what Jesus is showing us is that the power of human relationships is found most fully when we let go of worldly power to meet one another where we are at. Jesus demonstrates this and asks us to do the same.
What stands in the way of relationships? Oppression. Hate. Violence. Jesus makes it clear that for relationships to bring about transformation, or the righteousness and justice of God, we need to change how we relate to one another. We need to let go of our inherited power and strength to accept the least among us.
Too often, though, we believe that to overcome our differences, we need to simply relate to one another. But I want to emphasize that asking the oppressed to relate to their oppressor so they have a chance to be seen and known is a dangerous formula. And in fact, it is the opposite of what Jesus suggests. Jesus expects us to let go of our power to oppress to relate to the people who follow him, the people who have divested of their power already.
When it comes to sins like sexism, homophobia, racism, for example, we cannot expect victims to relate to perpetrators, without confronting the perpetrators. For some reason, and it is not a biblical one, Christians believe that relationships, alone, can defeat the sins that separate us. But the fact is, we need to defeat those things in order to relate. Sexism, racism, ableism, and homophobia stand in the way of relationships.
It’s not ideology, it is relationships that attunes us to the oppressed
Instead of seeing the people who oppression harms though, our society leads us to consider the powerful first. Often, the needs of the oppressed are reduced to “ideology,” whereas, when the oppressor is injured we hear calls for empathy and understanding. The burden of relating too often falls on the oppressed, and too little the oppressor. Jesus changes that dynamic, fundamentally, when he tells us to accept the least of these and rebukes those who cause them to stumble. Relationships and empathy do not overcome enmity; but if we want to relate, we need to defeat enmity and the powers of death.
Some people are finally paying attention to the fact that the burden of relating and overcoming enmity falls on the oppressed and never inconveniences the oppressor. This is why David Brooks, for example, writes a thinly-veiled racist column, suggesting that we could overcome our differences, if only oppressed people would stop “essentializing” their oppressor. He never names white supremacists as doing this (and makes sure to tell us that not all white people are racist) but implies that progressives are the ones essentializing, even comparing them to Nazis. Brooks’ understanding of our differences expresses itself when he equates the “hipster, evangelical, nerd,” with “white [people] or Black [people].”
Brooks burdens, equally, oppressed and oppressor with empathizing with one another in order to overcome their differences. But he never names power or oppression, which are the forces that ruin relationships.
We see this in the political arena, as well. With racial progress finally becoming a national issue, we hear that progressives will hurt the Democrats’ chances at re-election if they keep making the white moderates uncomfortable. David Shor, who lost his job for suggesting that the Black Lives Matter protesting 2020 would hurt the Democrats’ chance at election (since it, according to him, paved the way for Nixon to get elected), recently double-downed to Ezra Klein by, again, suggesting (this time with no statistical data), that Democrats should focus on popular issues that do not alienate Republicans or swing-state voters. There is no data to prove he is correct, but it is not data that informs this hypothesis but rather prejudice.
Want to relate? Start with the least of these
Too often, the needs of the oppressed are reduced to ideology, and the demeaned as not relational enough. Too often, the oppressor is excused because their enablers love them, relate to them, and cannot imagine confronting them, for fear of offending them. In those cases, relationships with the oppressor burdens the oppressed. Jesus has an answer for us when that is the case: he asks us to leave our “houses or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news.”
Relationships are transformative. And for the oppressor to be transformed, they must stop relating to like-minded people that do not challenge them, but rather, to the oppressed who are neglected, misunderstood, and sidelined. We need to defeat the forces of death that separate us and polarize them, not pander to them. We need to relate to the oppressed and accept them, in order to accept Jesus and the one who sent him. If we want to be relational, we need to defeat oppression, which ruins relationships.