Speaking to the Soul: Blessings and Woes

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by Tricia Gates Brown

 

Luke 6:20-26

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[a] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Blessings and Woes

When things are good, we want to shield our eyes from whatever is up ahead. If we do this in an effort to live in the moment, acknowledging impermanence and accepting whatever life offers—wonderful. But most often, not wonderful. Most often we cling to the good like the cat in that 1970s “Hang in There” poster. You remember the one?

Most typically, I have read Jesus’ Blessings and Woes as an expression of the upside-down values he commends in the Sermon on the Mount. Here, as elsewhere, he teaches that unlike the values of the Domination System (upward mobility at any cost, hoarding, overpowering), the values of God’s reign are bottom-up, opposing the top-down systems of this world. In the reign of God, the first will be last, and the last first. Those in high positions are considered less honorable than the poor, and God is eternally on the side of those feeling the heel of oppression.

But in reading the Blessings and Woes this past week, I recognize an additional dimension of truth in the sayings. I hear Jesus saying: Things change. Things will always change. When you find yourself at the top, Woe to you! because this too will change. When you find yourself at the bottom, Rejoice and count your blessings! because things will inevitably get better. We can only count on one thing, and that is change.

When you interweave the blessings and woes, this comes across more starkly:

20 Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

__________________________

24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.

__________________________
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.

__________________________

25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.

 

Moreover, in reading the passage I pondered how, globally speaking, I am rich. Even regionally speaking, I am full. In other words, according to this reading of Jesus’ sayings I am on the woe side of the equation, as are the majority of my friends.

 

As an educated white woman from a stable middle-class background, I benefit from a system where opportunity streams have been dammed to divert the good stuff my way. Such domination was happening in Europe and various colonies long before white people set foot on the North-American continent. But in the United States, the inequity has been systematized from the beginning. Laws and policies have been in place to ensure that white mid-to-upper class people thrive at the expense of others—from slavery to red-lining to unequal drug sentencing aimed at Black Americans; from the theft of land from Mexico to blatant discrimination against Latinos in our immigration system to Trump’s wall; from the Chinese Exclusion Act to internment camps on US soil to glaring biases against Asians in entertainment and other spheres to this day; from the crimes of Christopher Columbus to the Indian Removal Act to the struggle at Standing Rock; from the partition of Palestine to US military occupations in the Middle East to the ban on Muslim immigration. I can see that at every step, the violent coupling of white bigotry and political power have birthed white privilege. As a Christian, I want to work for a world where streams of opportunity are shared equitably, but this has to begin with understanding more fully the inequities in which I participate, and how to repair them. Yet I have had the luxury of not having to see them, of not even having to acknowledge reality.

 

As I read Jesus sayings in this new, additional way, I hear the warning: “Change is coming”! Those of us who are “full now” will not always be so. And of course this is true. Change is inevitable, as articulated most expertly by Buddha and subsequent Buddhist teachers. Everything is impermanent; we should know this by now. Yet it remains hard news for those at the top. Most often, we shield our eyes and cling and pretend the endless party is just getting started.

 

It was not hard to see certain dynamics at play in the 2016 presidential election. The language of “taking back America” and “making America great again” involves veiled references to the protection and resurgence of white domination. Those who may have doubted this during the forty-fifth’s campaign, or who held their noses hoping it was not true, should find proof in the appointment of Steve Bannon—an outright white supremacist—as head strategist of the administration (he is also the man who wrote the belligerent inauguration address). I know not all who voted for the forty-fifth were voting for white supremacy—perhaps not even the majority. Yet unconsciously, that is what they did. Few can now deny that at the very least, fear of white decline was an animating force—perhaps the animating force—in the election.

 

According to demographic trends, America will not remain a realm of white dominance. Change is coming and has been for a long time. Woe to those who cling to their white power! Blessed are those who are disempowered now!

 

No doubt, this is a hard subject to discuss; it raises the collective hackles. My intent is not to be provocative, but to point out the truth. I wish white people could approach the topics of privilege, change, and equity with more curiosity than fear. In fact I feel comedians are doing the best job with the discussion because they afford people the release valve of laughter.

 

Come to think of it, I believe the laugh track is one of the features absent when we study the sayings of Jesus. We hear him as a stern and cranky prophet–like John the Baptist minus the hair shirt. But what if the sayings gathered into the Sermon on the Mount were not delivered sternly but joyously? Several authors have suggested Jesus had a sense of humor, and I tend to agree. He certainly used exaggeration (hyperbole) to great effect.

 

Jesus is certainly not making light of domination. But what if he is shedding light on it in a new way by saying: We are all blessed and woe-d?! Not one of us will outrun the plodding course of change. We are in it together. Blessing and woe. Woe and blessing.

 

The saddest individuals are those who cling to their privilege and refuse to see it for what it is. They refuse to see that any privileged position is doomed. In Buddhist language, there is “loss” and there is “gain” and we will all experience both. I believe the billionaire president and his billionaire associates are in reality a good deal like that cat in the 1970s poster. They cling to their positions in the world because a chill whisper coming in dream, or on the tide of truth that occasionally accompanies dread, tells them their position in the world is tenuous. The problem with being in the .001 percent is knowing you are grossly outnumbered. The balance is already starting to change, thus they grasp for power so determinedly. Blessing and woe. Woe and blessing. What we must ask ourselves is this: How are we, too, hoarding the good?

 


 

Tricia Gates Brown works as a writer, garden designer, and emotional wellness coach in Nehalem, Oregon. She holds a PhD from the University of St. Andrews. In 2015 she completed her first novel and the essay collection Season of Wonder, and is currently at work on her second novel. For more, see: triciagatesbrown.net

 

Image: The six islands of the Indies, woodcut from the 1494 Basel edition of Columbus’s letter By Unknown (prob. swiss artist) – “Epistola de insulis nuper inventis”, Basel, 1493, Public Domain, Link

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6 Responses to "Speaking to the Soul: Blessings and Woes"
  1. Thanks for a wonderful piece. This is possibly the most level-headed, honest and approachable essay on white privilege I've read to date. I know it's a difficult topic but the ranting and screaming, even the well meant varieties, get us nowhere. I'm not optimistic enough to expect civil dialog to return any time soon but if only we could ratchet the venom down to at least somewhat less corrosive levels maybe we'd hear one another's stories a little more easily. I know it's hard. I struggle with it too but it it badly needed.

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    • Thank you, Denise, for your thoughtful engagement with the article and for sharing your comments. You may enjoy reading more of my reflections at theologyofnonviolentresistance.com . Peace!

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  2. Ever since I worked in a hospital and church in a profoundly distressed neighborhood in Columbus I have been left with the question of how do I do ministry with people that Jesus says are more blessed than me? I very much appreciate the questions you raise here and the insights offered.

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    • Thank you for commenting, Jon. Your perspective is a good one. There is a reason the unique, transformative understandings of "liberation theology" did not originate in the academy, but among distressed communties of Latin America. Peace, Tricia theologyofnonviolentresistance.com

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  3. --enjoyed the piece very much. something to re-read.

    I think the rich have been over-looked, in terms of evangelizing them. I have compassion on the rich. Being rich has many built-in burdens, not just the prospect of losing it all. (how would you like not knowing who your real friends are?)

    Rich people need Jesus.

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    • Well, Christ Jesus requires much of rich people, so his demands on them might not be such a draw in their eyes. Still, one hopes minds will change and hearts will be moved...

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