Rock! Paper! Scissors!
Tools for anarchist + Christian thought and action
Vol 1. No. 1
The Movement Makes Us Human
The Movement Makes Us Human
Editor: Joanna Shenk
By: Sarah Lynne Gershon
Reflections on what it takes to be a guest at the banquet laid in the kingdom of God.
Whenever I am asked why I joined the Catholic Worker this passage comes to mind. To be totally honest, it’s not like I read this passage, ruminated on it, and then decided to become a Catholic Worker. But over the last decade it has become central to why I live the way I do. Why I invite people who would otherwise be unhoused to share a home with me. It’s why I offer them a place at the table. It’s why I listen to their stories.
I grew up attending a large evangelical church. Going to heaven was a no-brainer. According to that church heaven is good and hell is bad. Heaven is connected to the Kingdom of God and it’s a good place. We want to live there. It seemed to me that the main incentive for going to heaven was to avoid hell. Hell is a horrible place of eternal suffering, so obviously going to heaven is preferable.
When I asked evangelicals what exactly the Kingdom of God is like, they struggled. It’s a place where people experience joy, where people don’t fight, where God is in charge. Those are the responses I got. I found them unsatisfactory. Jesus told several parables describing the Kingdom of God which suggest that understanding heaven is a bit more complicated.
In this particular parable the Kingdom of God is like a huge banquet that none of the wealthy people think is worth attending. They are too busy dealing with property, business deals, and advantageous marriages. They don’t have the time. Nonetheless, they are very polite and send their regrets with their RSVPs.
In their place people who are poor, crippled, blind, and lame show up. So the Kingdom of God is like a huge feast full of people oppressed by economic injustice and socially stigmatized disabilities. There is still plenty of room, but other folks have to be compelled to come in. The master is pissed at his original invitees, so he wants to make sure they can’t change their mind and show up after all.
I once attended a talk by author Richard Beck, who was discussing how he researched his book Unclean. He shared about an experiment that psychologists conducted to see which parts of people’s brains lit up when looking at different images. The psychologists found that when their participants (college undergraduates in the United States) looked at images of people without homes, the part of the brain that lit up was the same part that lit up when they saw trash or toilets. There are other parts of the brain that light up when we see people whom we recognize as humans. But that’s not the part that lit up. What this study suggests is that the people who were at the table in the Kingdom of God literally look like trash.
The findings of the study also confirmed what I thought when I graduated from college and joined a Catholic Worker community. I got my degree in anthropology with a minor in human rights and was primarily interested in eliminating extreme poverty. I began to suspect that the reason we tolerate extreme poverty is that on some level those of us who are (relatively) financially privileged don’t recognized the person-ness of people experiencing homelessness or financial destitution. The same phenomenon--what Beck typifies as uncleanliness versus cleanliness--has been found to also be true of how abled-bodied people view people with disabilities.
Jesus was unique. He was fully human and in his fully embodied person-ness he was able to identify the fully human person-ness of people who at the time (and today) were viewed as unclean and consequently not quite human.
Howard Thurman emphasizes this in Jesus and the Disinherited, a book that explores “what the teachings of Jesus have to say to those who stand at a moment in human history with their backs against the wall… the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed.” He writes that those who have their backs against the wall must, in the face of our dehumanizing culture, be secure in God’s assurance of their humanity. I believe this is true. However, this doesn’t relieve their suffering or bring about justice; it isn’t enough. But when Jesus dines with those considered unclean, he attests to their humanity and in doing so also attests to his own fully embodied humanity.
What does this mean for me? I grew up middle class. I am educated and able-bodied. Most of the people I like to hang out with are also relatively wealthy, educated, and physically able. I am not sure I actually want to go to the Master’s banquet. Evangelicals think it’s a given that people will enjoy heaven. I don’t. If I am not able to lay down my white, able-bodied, middle class identity to become a person--a person who is able to identify with the person-ness of the people at the Master’s table, I don’t see how the Kingdom of God can reside within me or among the people with whom I worship.
My inability to recognize another’s humanity attests to a lack of humanity in myself. My repulsion, however mild, to folks experiencing homelessness or with some kind of illness or disability threatens my own ability to recognize, embrace, and enjoy the Kingdom of God. The solution is ongoing repentance and, as Howard Thurman argues, real relationship with the disinherited. This is who Jesus identifies with and declares present at the heavenly banquet.
The inhumanity within myself makes this difficult, but after almost a decade of being a Catholic Worker, living and dining with folks who have experienced ongoing homelessness and who struggle with mental illness and physical challenges, I have found myself becoming more human. I find myself being more and more able to identify the basic person-ness of the people who come stay with us. I believe that God’s Kingdom is truly the place of peace and joy and I am thankful that my guests are welcoming me to that table.
About the journal
Rock! Paper! Scissors! is a topic-focused, web-publication exploring issues from anarchist, radical Christian and other anti-oppression perspectives. To find out more, read the introductory piece, "What's in a name?"