Strength on the Margins


“And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground (Hebrews 11:32-38 NRSV).

It pained me several months ago to learn that the prosperity gospel is making headway in Africa. The last thing the body of Christ in that part of the Third World needs is this distortion of God’s nature and humankind’s purpose.

In Brazil South America the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has grown rapidly since the 1970’s. In the city where I served as missionary this group built a massive "temple” on one of the main drags through town, just up the street from the mall and the federal university. Most days as I rode past in the city bus I avoided looking at it. All I could think of was how many lies were told and believed and how much personal pain had gone into each brick, ceramic tile and bag of cement that built the behemoth structure.

Now the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is said to have a temple in Africa that dwarfs their prior efforts at temple-building. Not having seen a picture yet or read a detailed description, I can’t confirm this. It makes be feel terrible to think about it, though.

The God we encounter in Scripture has a radical preference for the underdog. Consider Abel. While his mother, Eve, celebrated her firstborn’s arrival with fanfare, she bestowed on her second son a name that may signify either “vapor” or “puff of air.” Cain was the great hope, his mother believed, while Able was the lesser child. Yet it was Abel’s offering that God ultimately found acceptable.

Moses was just another anonymous Hebrew baby destined for slaughter when his determined mother kept him a secret for months before having him set adrift in a basket on the river. God’s providential hand took him to the palace of power, then to life on the lam in the wilderness and then back again in the power of God to rescue Israel’s children from captivity.

There was the shepherd boy who was raised to the throne, and then his son Solomon who was born to the woman with whom David had shamed himself in adultery and homicide (though Solomon was conceived later). There were numerous prophets of Israel and Judah who depicted the judgment to come on the two kingdoms in personally embarrassing ways and who preached repentance despite torture and death.

Though in the purposes of God there were some, like Abraham and Solomon, who became wealthy, the vast majority of God’s servants lived lives of mere subsistence. This is certainly true of Jesus of Nazareth. Who doesn’t know the story of a child born under questionable circumstances to impoverished parents in a stable while the nation was under foreign occupation and oppressively taxed? Having taught a deeply subversive message involving turning the other cheek, giving the other coat and going another mile, he himself lived out his message. Turned over to the powers, he was slain. On the cross he unmasked the powers and authorities, displaying what they really were.

The early Christians were no exception to this humility and even humiliation:

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31 NRSV).

In our day we still have found strength on the margins. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr came from humble circumstances to confront the powers non-violently. Gandhi made himself nothing to challenge Britain’s imperialism and India’s caste system.

The world looks to political leaders, wealthy corporate tycoons and even celebrities for solutions…or at least a distraction from the pain. The Scriptures point in a different direction, making us look to the jails, recovery programs, homeless shelters and communities of “illegal” immigrants fearful of deportation. Why? Simply because if you look to the wealthy and powerful you will find only the world’s failed and fallen “strength,” far weaker than “God’s weakness.”

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25 NRSV).

If it is signs of new creation you seek, look to the margins of society. You will find God’s greatest strength – though certainly not material prosperity – embodied there in the weakest of all.
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Check out these other Synchroblogs on the topic of foolish/weak things:

The Power of Paradox by Julie Clawson
That Darn Ego by Jonathan Brink
Won’t Get Fooled Again by Alan Knox
Foolish Heart by Erin Word
A Fool’s Choice by Cindy Harvey
Quiet Now, God’s Calling by Jennelle D’Alessandro
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right… By Mike Bursell
Ship of Fools by David Fisher
Hut Burning for God by Father Gregory
God Used This Fool by Cobus van Wyngaard
Fool if you think its over by Paul Walker
Blessed are the foolish – foolish are the blessed by Steve Hayes

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