Political Theology Today A Forum for inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dialogue among clergy, scholars, students, and activists

Offender, Victim, or Teacher? Seeing through the Eyes of the Powerless–Rob Barrett

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I remember my first experience at charity work when I was a teenager. I hadn’t expected to feel this way after distributing Thanksgiving food boxes to poor families in my town: dejected. A more experienced volunteer asked the probing question: “Did you expect them to say thank you?” Yes, I did. I had expected a picture of happiness, a Hallmark moment. But instead I felt rejected. It had been awkward and difficult. It didn’t play out like on TV: the grateful poor smiling over Thanksgiving goodies. The worlds of giver and receiver collided, misunderstandingly, somewhere among the potato flakes. Why didn’t they say thank you?

Consider Naboth’s rejection of King Ahab (1 Kings 21). The king also attempted charity. But Naboth said no and Ahab was—like me—dejected. Now Ahab wasn’t utterly selfless. He envisioned a win-win: “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money” (1 Kings 21:2). But Naboth went off about ancestral inheritances and offending God and the king was caught off guard. “Ahab went home resentful and sullen” (1 Kings 21:4). Not according to plan.

My “charitable” activity was also a win-win offer: you get food; I get your gratitude. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Offending a teenage food deliverer is one thing, but offending the king is something else. Ahab’s juvenile sullenness + Jezebel’s outrage and cunning = Naboth’s murder. A nice outcome: Ahab got the field and…well…Naboth’s death didn’t matter much to Ahab. He wasn’t really looking for a win for Naboth anyway. But fortunately Ahab didn’t have the final word. That comes from Elijah speaking the Lord’s condemnation to Ahab (1 Kings 21:19).

It seems the rich misjudging the perspective of ordinary folk can cause real trouble. We the rich and powerful can’t assume that those at the other end of the spectrum look at the world like we do. In fact, Naboth the commoner had a clearer vision of God’s ways than Ahab the powerful did. Naboth—not Ahab—understood the protection of ancestral land.

The lectionary connects this royal failure to another: David killing Uriah to cover-up the Bathsheba affair. Nathan confronts David through a parable (2 Samuel 12:1-6). The rich man of the parable offers no win-win to the poor man: he simply takes the precious ewe-lamb. As Nathan puts it, “Because he had no pity.” In other words, the parabolic rich man cared not a whit for the poor man’s love. The poor man’s perspective wasn’t worth considering, much less was it accounted a reflection of God’s love. David did the same to Uriah: he just took his wife. The great David sank even lower than Ahab.

When we give to the poor, do we treat them like Ahab did Naboth: offering a “win-win” in our own eyes that makes no sense to them? Maybe the potato flakes aren’t worth the insult of a self-congratulatory stranger driving their luxury car over for a Thanksgiving Day presentation. I guess that’s better than simply taking advantage of them outright. But is it possible that the poor might have a deeper understanding of a reality fraught with God’s love than the rich? How might that affect the way the rich approach the poor? Maybe the poor could suggest a truly “win-win” proposition to the needy rich. But we’d need to ask.

Fast forward to the New Testament, where the lectionary has Jesus in the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36). This story is filled with gaps and ambiguities, but reading alongside Ahab and David suggests connections. Simon has invited Jesus to a banquet, but with no stated intention. There’s some concern in the air about Jesus’ hanging out with unsavories (Luke 7:34). By eating with sinners, Jesus challenged the Pharisees’ separatist, pure tables. Simon offered Jesus an example of dinner-done-right, with only the right sorts of people. But as with Ahab and Naboth, and David and Uriah, Simon’s “generous” offer was derailed.

In walks an uninvited, sinful woman, upsetting the banquet. This offensive woman shocks with her tears, hair, and ointment. Even more offensive: Jesus affirms her. Jesus manages to demote Simon from host-as-it-should-be to host-as-it-shouldn’t-be. The prophetic Lord put Simon in his place as the Old Testament prophets did Ahab and David.

Simon couldn’t comprehend Jesus’ love for this woman. To Simon, she was just another piece of trash. He’s like Ahab, who couldn’t understand Naboth’s love for his ancestral inheritance: it was just another piece of land. He’s like David, who was blind to Uriah’s love for his wife: she was just another attractive woman. Each of these: Simon, Ahab, and David were offered the divine perspective through the eyes of their victims. But in the end they received only divine censure. They couldn’t see their victims’ loves. Each sought to increase his own share of the world without perceiving that this world is shared with others. And in each case, the powerless lover died: Ahab killed Naboth; David killed Uriah; and with or without Simon’s help Jesus ended up dead, too. The powerless were martyred for displaying a divine love to the powerful. But God’s vision doesn’t die. Elijah confronted Ahab; Nathan confronted David; and the Holy Spirit confronts all of us who find prim and proper ways to condemn Jesus for valuing the despised.

So what does this mean for our politics? Well, obviously we should rethink what it means to help a poor family in the neighborhood. Not that a turkey dinner is a bad thing, but love of one in need really can’t be reduced to this. Maybe love of the poor sometimes means asking them to lead us, the blind.

I’m reminded of a ministry to urban heroin addicts I once visited. I was (in good Simon fashion) offended when the ministers asked the addicts what good news would look like to them. The ministers wanted to shape the gospel to fit this world of bad news. My shortsightedness assumed a heroin addict loves nothing beyond heroin. Surely they’d utterly defaced their likeness to God. Surely they wouldn’t recognize Jesus’ gospel if it bit them on the nose. But let’s talk at them anyway in the revival tent. I regret now not listening better to those addicts. Maybe I’d understand the good news of the gospel better today. Did I miss an opportunity to be transformed by what they saw of God’s love? There’s no particular merit to being drug-addicted or powerless, but Naboth, Uriah, and Jesus saw something beautiful that Ahab, David, and Simon didn’t.

What might Naboth have said if Ahab had asked what that vineyard meant to him? Or if David had asked Uriah about his love for Bathsheba? Or if Simon had asked Jesus what he saw in “this woman…a sinner”? (I, for one, would love to have heard the answers.) Maybe these offensive victims would have amazed us. Maybe not. But we’ll never know. What we do know is that the victims held glimpses of beauty that evaded the power-players who manipulated them.

On a grander scale, might it illuminate some of our blind spots to ask America’s enemies—those who “hate our freedom”— what they really hate and love? The powerless aren’t necessarily saints, but they might well be gifts to those with ears to hear. The perspectives from the margins are no end, but they might provide a beginning. If our power politics, both local and global, fail to attend to others’ loves, we will regularly end up disappointed and sullen as our generous and gracious (as we judge them) offers are rejected. And disappointment coupled with power can spill considerable blood.

It can be frightening to look through another’s eyes. But the worshippers of the God of the Bible have always needed to do this, for our God loves things that we can’t imagine loving. (God also hates things that we can’t imagine hating.) Our discipleship demands we risk listening to others’ loves. We might discover some unimaginable, divine love. Or at the very least, we may begin the hard and risky journey of loving someone other than ourselves.

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Rob Barrett is Director of Fellows and Forums for The Colossian Forum, a non-profit organization that creates hospitable spaces for Christians to engage the most divisive questions of our day. He has PhDs both in Applied Physics from Stanford University and Theology from Durham University in England. He worked as a research scientist at IBM for over ten years, as a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew in England, and most recently as a postdoctoral researcher of Old Testament in Göttingen, Germany. He has numerous publications in fields ranging from biblical studies to physics, data storage technology, and human-computer interaction, and holds many patents. He has also earned degrees from Washington University in St. Louis and Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.  His varied background is unified by his longstanding interest in the intersection of faith, Bible, science/technology, and culture. Rob and his wife Crystal have two young children.

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