I often make the mistake of thinking that the incarnation is exclusively about God bridging the gap between humanity and deity, as if Jesus took one cosmic dumpster dive to earth and it all ended there. But if I look carefully at the Gospels, I’m reminded that even after Jesus “emptied” himself of his divine privileges and took on human form (as Paul eloquently describes in Philippians 2), he didn’t stop there. Jesus’ incarnation traversed not only the vast status differences between God and man, but also the vast status differences between privileged and oppressed humans.
Incarnation means embodied in flesh or taking on flesh. As a human, Jesus repeatedly took on the flesh of those around him, examined the world from their perspective, bore their burdens, and took up their causes. And he often did so not only across cultural lines, but also across status lines.
JESUS THE PRIVILEGED
As a free Jewish man, Jesus enjoyed an “invisible knapsack” of privileges in the inequitable society of his day. Unlike slaves, he was free to go where he wanted and even build personal wealth. Unlike Samaritans, he wasn’t shunned by Jewish people or targeted by their unflattering and oppressive stereotypes of Samaritans. Unlike women, he didn’t have to worry that his life was less valuable than a man’s or that his testimony was perceived as less legitimate than a man’s.
Granted, Jesus wasn’t the most privileged person in his society. In fact, in some ways he was a target of oppression. But his social position situated him above a good number of other folks – namely, slaves, Samaritans and women.
But Jesus wasn’t just any old privileged person in his society. He likely possessed a sociological imagination, something that sociologists argue that everybody needs. Broadly speaking, a sociological imagination is an understanding of how societal structures (e.g., norms, cultural beliefs, institutions, etc.) propel or impede an individual’s movement in society.
You probably have some sort of a sociological imagination if you understand where you and similar others are located on the social status ladder, see how current and historical injustices affect individuals today, and are aware of how society empowers or limits you based on your memberships in race, class and gender groups.
I bet Jesus had a sociological imagination. I bet he knew that he had more voice/status/power/influence than slaves, Samaritans, and women. I bet he was aware of the powerful status divisions in his society and knew that emptying himself of his privilege would come at great cost to himself. I bet he knew that sticking his neck out for the oppressed would be “bad” for his ministry platform and relationships. I bet he knew that “good” things awaited him if he just stayed in his lane and didn’t try to disrupt the social order. I bet he knew that he could use his elevated social position to cling to power, create a privileged bubble with his fellow free Jewish male buddies, and make a better life for himself.
Nevertheless, as a free Jewish man, Jesus rejected cronyism, abandoned his privileged turf, “emptied” himself of his voice/status/power/influence, and used it to take on the flesh of the disempowered and re-order God’s creation. He repeatedly and strategically emptied himself of his status by defending the defenseless (such as the woman caught in adultery), using his platform to draw attention to the voiceless (such as the woman with the bleeding issue), and paying close attention to justice issues that didn’t directly affect him (as he did with the Caananite woman).
In all three of these cases, Jesus emptied himself for individuals who were considered so unimportant that their names were not even recorded in Scripture. And in all three of these cases, Jesus emptied himself at great risk to his own social status and livelihood. Greg Boyd says that “Love is ascribing worth to others at cost to ourselves.” Jesus the Privileged did this repeatedly and strategically – even to the point of death.
If we want to be like Jesus, we need more than good intentions and humble, prayerful hearts. We need to use our sociological imaginations. Privileged Christians often vaguely talk of “emptying” themselves as Jesus did, but rarely do we stop to critically evaluate our social position relative to others, measure power/status discrepancies relative to others and strategically imagine what it would look like to empty ourselves in our various social settings.
This makes no sense.
How do we even begin to empty ourselves, as Jesus did, if we haven’t taken inventory of the status/privilege/power/influence that we are supposedly trying to empty? We must be aware and we must be strategic. As Andy Crouch says, “”Privilege is unconscious power. The problem with unconscious power…it’s almost never used for flourishing.”
As someone who identifies with both privileged and oppressed groups, I find that my social position is constantly in flux, depending on the social situation and the types of people around. So, I regularly (about once a month, and often in conversation with God and others) take time to sociologically imagine my social situations (e.g., at church where I’m a leader, at work where I’m a professor, in my low-income neighborhood where I have relatively more economic means, in the blogosphere where I have a platform, in my ministry where I have a captive audience, etc.). During this time of reflection, I take note of where I have power and a voice relative to others in my social situations. And then I ask God and others to help me strategize ways to empty myself to empower others in my social situations in honoring and collaborative ways.
Seeing my social world through the lens of a sociological imagination is no easy feat — it requires wisdom and conviction from the Holy Spirit, input from people around me, and a high level of intentionality on my part. And frankly, I often fall short, succumbing to the cronyism and comforts of privilege that Jesus so heroically rejected. My power is used for flourishing so little of the time.
But Jesus’ example haunts me, beckoning me to to follow him as he re-orders creation. Jesus defended the woman caught in adultery, essentially facing off against a vigilante mob armed with rocks, pointing out their unjust behavior, and preserving the woman’s dignity and life.
If I want to be like Jesus I have to use my sociological imagination to ask myself, which people in my various social worlds are unjustly targeted by society’s rocks? What steps do I need to undergo in order to “take on their flesh”, see the world from their perspective, empathize with them, stand with them and ultimately become them? What would it look like for me to put my own body, reputation and livelihood on the line (as Jesus did), in defense of those who are being targeted? What would it cost me? And am I willing to pay the price?
Up next, Jesus the Oppressed.