Singing of where and who God is, Rabindranath Tagore, a Hindu philosopher and a Nobel laureate for literature, passionately insisted, “God is where the tiller is tilling the hard ground.” God breaks stones. God toils in sun and in rain, creating new paths. God’s garments are dirtied, Tagore chanted in his “Gitanjali” (“An Offering of Songs”). Addressing those who confine God to the sacred shrines, Tagore pleaded with worshippers to find God in rocky grounds, streets and slums. As an adolescent, I loved reading Tagore’s short stories and poems. I read him not only because his writings were required texts in high school, but also because I loved reading them. Tagore was a Hindu and I grew up a Christian. Though we were generations apart, we shared questions about who God is. Often, we arrived at answers about God that were not altogether different from each other. As a Christian, I was associated with a faith community that often presented God in colonial garb and Christ as a crusader; thus I found Tagore’s image of a toiling God both edifying and challenging. It helped me to look deep into my own Christian heritage.
I am eternally grateful to my Hindu and Muslim neighbors who constantly challenged me with the question, “Who is God, really?” My Marxist-Maoist friends asked the same question, but with different strategies to find an answer. We all had answers that we had some level of certainty about. We were equally prudent in our convictions. Anything less would vitiate our neighborliness and thus challenge the Spirit who blows wherever she wishes. Today, I have much more conviction about my answers to this shared question than when I was a child. I’ve also grown more open to learning from others. Probing together and sharing our answers enriched our faith experiences.
God as the divine at the margins
In the neighborhood in India where I resided during the first 15 years of my life, my family was one of only two Dalit (historically untouchable) families. We were also the only two Christian families. My Dalit ancestors embraced Christianity in the 19th century. They found in Christianity a God who touches the untouchable and identifies with the scum of society. As Dalits, we were regarded in this manner. Even after becoming Christians, we retained some of our tales of life and death, beginnings and ends, victories and humiliations. These stories packaged as memories enabled our ancestors to survive centuries of bonded labor and servitude. The god-talk in them shaped our faith in the God of the Bible. It continues to help us unearth and reclaim Christ buried in the mounds of centuries-long colonialism in which the church was deeply complicit.
These ancient stories Dalits tell and retell have some identifiable parallels. In all of them, human greed breeds violence, victimizing the defenseless and innocent. Within our wounds – rape or ostracism or murder –
the divine is born. The divine does not let the cycles of violence persist as normal. She challenges the natural order, unsettles the social balance and administers justice in ways perpetrators cannot even imagine. Human history is a story of human greed and divine intervention, an endless account of human beings seeking to victimize others and God using the victim to create a new order.
By the way, the notion of God on the side of the vulnerable was not at all unfamiliar within my own Dalit tradition, as we existed at the social margins. An important part of my experience of growing up Christian in India entailed accustomed meetings every evening to hear Bible stories. We relayed the tales of God’s love for the weak and the vulnerable in the Hebrew Bible, the stories we gratefully share with our Jewish brothers and sisters. As people located at the social and economic margins, the tales of God’s covenant with the weak captivated our imagination, stirred our hearts and inspired our souls. We retold and enacted the stories of God’s favor for Abel, Joseph and David — often violent, but resonant with our Dalit Christian experiences. After all, most social systems then and now, there and here, are violent.
I was reminded of the formative power of my childhood experience of retelling and enacting Bible stories on a recent travel seminar to Ghana. During a discussion with a youth group in the Volta region, we asked what some of their favorite Bible stories might be. A 12-year-old girl surprised us with an impromptu, extraordinarily detailed and eloquent retelling of David’s unlikely and nonchalant victory over Goliath. Her version of the story resonated with me deeply, for it was akin to the one I grew up with. We, too, celebrated that story, along with that of Moses. Indeed, the story of the once at-risk baby who grew up to become a leader who brought the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt was a central theme of songs we sang, plays we performed and sermons we heard. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, we found, and continue to find, God’s unwavering penchant for the alienated and the alien. The alienated and the alien are God’s people, regardless of their biological bonds and ethnic identities.
God as human flesh
In my quest to understand who God really is, the Christian tradition offered me a theological key: astounding affirmation that God became human. God could not completely reveal Godself to humanity except through flesh. God manifested Godself through Jesus of Nazareth, who was as human as we are. The scandalous origins, lifelong humiliations and brutal murder of Jesus – and God’s response to them throughout Jesus’ life and especially on the third day after his death – reveal God’s nature. In the crucified and risen Christ, we encounter God. We await and encounter God’s continued advents throughout the liturgical year. On a regular basis, we reenact this empowering story by receiving the bread broken and wine poured out. The grace received in Holy Communion empowers us to seek God’s face in all flesh that is violated and wounded.
God, in Christ, not only became human, but the very least of humans. The Gospel of Matthew’s vivid scenario of Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) reveals this mystery of incarnation. It presents a vision of the last days, when the victim-king judge sits upon a throne in glory, surrounded by a host of angels. Nations – great, not so great and those seeking to be great again – gather before him, awaiting judgment. The king separates the nations, one from another, the sheep from the goats. He pronounces judgment upon them all; some are acquitted and others found guilty. The story evokes awed curiosity in all who hear it, given the power and grandeur of the central figure in this celestial courtroom. Who is the glorious one seated upon the throne?
On the contrary, the divided nations have no role in the administration of justice. They have no power to appeal either. They can only wonder who this king is. Jesus the master storyteller slowly discloses the king’s identity. The king is none other than the Son of Man, a title that first emerges in apocalyptic literature cherished by suffering communities (Daniel 7:13; Book of Enoch), and came to be used exclusively by the earthly Jesus in reference to himself. Much to the surprise of the righteous nations, the sheep gathered before the throne, the king reveals that he himself was once hungry, but their economic policies provided enough for all to eat. He was thirsty and they gave him access to drinking water. He was a migrant and they welcomed him. He was ill and they provided healthcare. He was incarcerated and they respected his humanity. They are shocked to learn that hunger, thirst, alienation, sickness and incarceration could be divine attributes.
The goats, the accursed nations, are just as bewildered by their guilty verdict. The king turns to them and reveals that they denied food to the hungry, poisoned the drinking water of the thirsty, deprived the sick of healthcare, built walls to keep migrants out and withheld basic human rights from the incarcerated. The king discloses that he was among the victimized. The Son of Man himself was a victim of the unjust policies and programs of the nations. All who grow up in India, regardless of their religious tradition, are familiar with stories of the deities visiting human beings in the guise of needy individuals. The stranger is or could be God, just as much as God is strange (and holy). I wonder if the initial auditors and Matthew’s readers were prepared for this revelation of God. The disclosure that the divine was vulnerable would surely have baffled them.
Matthew’s stunning judgment scenario is a stark reminder that God encounters nations as one of their victims. It is also an indictment of their theologies. The nations did not know who God really is. Their god-talk did not consider the possibility of God becoming vulnerable. Their theologies failed to recognize God in the streets, in hospitals and in prisons. Like the Magi from the East, their inclination was to look for divine advent in royal palaces; they could hardly have imagined that divine disclosure took place in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.
God as incarnational paradox
In the incarnation, God became not only one of us but the least of us. A God who is one with us may not challenge us, but a God who is different from us does. God refuses to be domesticated by our constructs of incarnation. God became one of us but remained different from us, taking the form of a slave, of the very least among us. In other words, God chose to be our victim — a victim of our greed and cruelty, yet one who will sit in judgment over us.
The apostle Paul also gives eloquent expression to this incarnational paradox in the stunning Christ-hymn in Philippians 2:1-11, which draws on a hymn that early Christian communities sang to affirm their faith in God. The hymn bears witness to the enigmatic mystery that God in God’s sovereignty chose to empty Godself. God in Christ negated Godself, choosing to be born in the form of a slave. God chose to be defenseless, for it is within God’s DNA to shun the kind of power that humans seek to grab for themselves. Human beings gravitate towards power; but God gives up power. This is what differentiated Jesus from other beings. Jesus shared our human frailties, yet resisted the drive towards domination (Hebrews 3:15).
I wonder what Christians in Philippi were like, and how alike they were with us. What we know of their circumstances suggests that they lived in an environment much like ours in which people strove to regard themselves as better than others. Philippi, after all, was a Roman colony, a proud and loyal outpost of Roman civilization in the Greek world. Indeed, it was given the nickname “Little Rome,” for its roads and architecture were modeled on the capital city, and the imperial cult was a dominant presence in it. Thus imperial patterns of grabbing power and glorying in it were part of the air that people breathed. Christians in the cities of Rome and Corinth were no doubt also subject to this impulse. I suspect this is why Paul had to remind the Corinthian Christians that their generous Lord Jesus Christ, though rich, chose to become poor for their sakes (2 Corinthians 8:9). What must it have been like to be citizens of a proud Roman colony like Philippi? I would not be surprised if they enlisted God in their power-struggles, boxing rings or beauty pageants, claiming their God to be more powerful than the gods of others. Paul preempts any such inclination with an image of a self-emptying God.
Like most faith communities, then and now, Christians in Philippi were living with a theological conundrum. They confessed a God who by nature and choice neither grabs power nor glories in it. They affirmed a God who did not consider equality with God worth claiming but rather renounced Godself and embraced weakness. They sang of a God who became not just human but the very least of humans. They proclaimed a God who in Christ died on a cross, enduring the most humiliating form of death in the era. However, they shared an impulse to rank themselves better than others, which is why Paul exhorts them, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). We too share this impulse and are ever in need of this exhortation.
In Philippians 2, Paul deploys the Christ-hymn to convey the narrative of God’s downward mobility in Jesus Christ; but the hymn concludes with an astonishing upswing that further explains who God is and what God does. God, who in Christ chose to die, challenges death. God raised the victim from death and exalted him as Lord of all, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11). Ironically, this is language and imagery that emerges from a war zone —
it is a hymn suited for a victory procession. Paul engages this language and imagery not to justify the militant instincts of warring nations, but to explain the divine nature to minds that were accustomed to imperial militarism and to convey a great mystery. The victim is made Lord of all. Before the victim, every knee shall bow. Every tongue shall confess this victim’s name, not the name of the emperor. This portrait of the movement of God in Christ among us resonates profoundly with Matthew’s breathtaking tableau imagery of the Son of Man’s judgment of the nations. The victim-God rebukes our theologies and reshapes our understandings of sovereignty, holiness and freedom. This humble God challenges world orders, then and now, in which individuals and nations seek status, glory and honor only by devaluing others.
Who is God, really? The mystery of God the incarnate suggests we will discern answers to that question in unexpected places. In God’s vulnerability, we experience God’s sovereignty. In God’s weakness, we comprehend God’s power. In God’s nothingness, we behold God’s fullness. In the emaciated faces of our victims, we meet God.
James Taneti is an ordained Presbyterian minister and serves as the director of the Syngman Rhee Global Mission Center for Christian Education and as assistant professor of world Christianity at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.