The crux of the Christian story gets played out in the coming days. But where will the drama be staged?
Everybody – Christians and non-Christians alike – knows the plot of the drama by now, even if it will go through millions of reruns again this year, just like every year.
The plot goes like this: The chosen and beloved offspring of the richest and most bountiful God takes human form and freely chooses to undergo unbearable suffering and even death so that the everlasting desire of the divine parent to redeem (give ongoing and meaningful life to) all the siblings and restore the fullness of life to the whole family can be accomplished.
Yes, the presentation of this plot, as is always the case, will have immense variations and embellishments this year. But for all that multiformity, the storyline comes to the same conclusion: ultimately, suffering has – or can have – meaning and purpose.
There are two key components to the plot. First, the abundance of a God who wills the good of all creation. Second, the free decision on the part of the chosen and beloved offspring, in human form, to demonstrate and endure the suffering and sacrifice required to fulfill the divine will of redeemed creatures and a restored creation.
What good would be accomplished if the desiring God had no bounty, no riches?
What good would be accomplished if the chosen and beloved offspring were coerced into doing the redeeming and restoring demonstration and work?
The plot wouldn’t work unless those elements of abundance and freely chosen suffering for the common good were prominent.
So in all its variable forms, expressions and embellishments, that’s the drama that gets re-enacted on church venues in the coming days.
But there is another drama that is being played out in the coming days, weeks and months, maybe even years. The drama works with somewhat the same plot about suffering: that suffering is required for there to be redemption and restoration.
This drama, however, has exactly the opposite key components. First, an attempt to achieve the good for all by drawing on the resources of those who have the least. Second, to force, coerce or demand the required suffering and sacrifice on those who are poor and their offspring.
After years of what now was clearly reckless economic growth, a time of reckoning finally arrived in the form of a Great Recession. Up until this reckoning, many in the United States had lived beyond their means. Some Americans had experienced huge economic gains. The very rich got very much richer, and the gap between the very wealthy and everyone else became even greater. All this occurred while the very poor continued to remain poor and invisible.
Not only millions of individuals and families are hurting, but businesses, institutions and organizations are also afflicted. And state and local governments have found their revenues falling despite – as could be expected in any economic downturn, but especially one as severe as this one – a greater demand for services.
In short, the common good, the commonweal, the general welfare is threatened. And, somehow, now more than ever, human lives need to be redeemed, human families need to be restored, human communities need to be saved.
But how are we across the nation, in most instances, trying to pull off that redemption, that restoration, that salvation?
Are we seriously drawing on whatever abundance there is among us? Are we asking everyone to freely share in the suffering that will be needed?
Take my own state, Illinois, as an example. When last year the state faced a staggering multibillion dollar deficit, the Democratic governor proposed a 1.5 percent increase in the income tax, even though it was fairly clear that only a 2 percent increase would begin to meet the demand. But only one chamber of our state’s legislature concurred, resulting in the beginning of reductions in funds for human services and public education at all levels and a greater dependence on state borrowing.
This year, with the budget crisis even more severe, the governor proposed only a 1 percent increase in the income tax, a continued reliance on borrowing (which, in turn, will result in diminished bond ratings and a greater cost of debt), and deep and crippling cuts in human services and public education. But this being an election year, there is broad consensus that even this outrageously inadequate but desperately needed proposed tax increase will fail again and that only more drastic budget cuts will be seen as the answer.
Illinois may be an extreme case, but this drama is being played out in most states across the nation.
Americans want to achieve the redemption of the common good, the restoration of the commonweal, the salvation of the general welfare not by drawing on whatever abundance there is among them through fair and graduated taxation, but rather on forcing, coercing, demanding the poorest among us, the most vulnerable among us, the most in need of education among us, to endure the suffering for all the rest of us.
That, tragically, is the real venue where the drama of our shared life is being played out in the coming days and weeks and months and, yes, years, despite what is being played out in church venues across the nation in the near term.
There could be a connection between these venues. But that connection appears not to be in the script as currently written.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.