For over 28 years I have pursued a Gospel that has potency to change lives and mobilize people as agents of transformation. I long to see transformation from below, and regularly anticipate seeing this happen among peasants in rural Honduras, Mexican immigrant farm workers in migrant labor camps in Washington State and with inmates in Skagit County Jail or in other countries. I find that men and women entrapped in addictions, violence, penal systems and poverty are often desperate enough to be open themselves to help from God. However negative images of God and self often sabotage the conversion process.
Transformation begins when we find ourselves in some way met by a God who reveals himself as one who knows and respects us just as we are. Facilitating this transformation involves identifying and breaking agreement with imaginary images of God and self that demobilize us from becoming freer subjects. The process of conversion involves progressive differentiation of images of God and self from false notions of otherness and identity to increasingly truer perceptions. This happens through deliberate confrontation of negative theology and most importantly, through experiences of the authentic Other in Christ. This frees humans to be the subject of their desire.
Confronting negative images of God
Many people on the margins of society have images of God that are mostly negative in ways that hold them back from any positive benefit or any spiritual attraction whatsoever. For many the “other”(the disempowering god) has already been defined by core experiences of human father who abandoned or rejected them, punished or abused them, was impossible to please and controlling or permissive and negligent.
In contrast to these negative images of God, New Testament writers depict Jesus as God’s most total self-revelation. In Jesus, God becomes flesh in ways that make room for humans to emerge as subjects.
In these last days God has spoken to us in his Son, … and he is the radiance of his glory and the exact representation of his nature. (Heb 1:2-3)
For he delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of this beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. And he is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation (Col 1:13-15).
In the Gospel of John there is a clear articulation of God’s unexpected otherness revealed in Jesus. In the prologue the logos is identified as present with God at the beginning and as actually being God. To avoid any confusion the writer emphasizes that this logos-God created all things, is the life and light shining on people and cannot be overcome by darkness. The writer of John emphasizes that this word/life/light enlightens every human (1:9),
Yet in a surprising twist the prologue states that the world does not recognize the word who becomes flesh, nor do his own people receive him! This is because a God “full of grace and truth” is completely different than the familiar, dominant images of God as an all-powerful, imposing, aggressive and conquering Sovereign. This word/life/light God represents an Other who is powerful. Yet at the same time there is an Alterite to this kind of power, and it can go unperceived. It can be resisted.
Receiving/believing in this very different God leads to being born of God— a filial event called adoption. When this one is received and believed people share in God’s “other” power, which is called exousia, “authority.”
But a many as received him, who believe in his name, to them he gave the authority to become children of God (Jn 1:12)
Does being born of God according to John shift people away from the limitations of their human identities as addicted, bound, imprisoned, unemployed, and oppressed? People on the margins are interested in knowing what sort of authority might be available to them over familiar kinds of powers that oppress. They want to know what it means to become a child of God.
John’s Gospel describes with great subtlety the process of becoming such an empowered child of God—and it all has to do with communion with Jesus. Human witnesses point to this Other God, who is described quite clearly as Jesus in John 1:18 “No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known.”
John the Baptist articulates the role of the announcer of this Only One (true Alterite) as the “voice crying in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord’ (Jn 1:23). He points people to Jesus, who himself invites potential disciples to come and see where he stays. His team grows as he exercises his prophetic gifting: naming Simon “Cephas/Peter”, seeing Nathaniel where only God could see him and affirming his true identity “behold an Israelite in whom is no guile!” (1:47).
Often my colleagues and I find ourselves sharing spontaneous impressions that people recognize as bringing to light details that only God could know. Recently while praying for a Mexican farm worker in his late thirties a faint picture flashed across my mind of an adult throwing rocks at young boy who was shepherded animals. I asked him if his father ever lost his temper and threw rocks at him when he was a boy, causing him to run away terrified. He began to cry and grabbed his leg where he had been hit. That day he forgave his father for this offence, which was one of many others that contributed to this man’s fear of displeasing employers and others in authority.
The Apostle Paul writes that the one who prophesies “speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation” (1 Cor 14:3) and makes God real to a person who do not yet believe “when the secrets of his heart are disclosed” (1 Cor 14:25).
A close look at Jesus’ prophetic ministry as depicted in the Gospels overturns alienating traditional images of God. Jesus’ revelation to the astounded Samaritan woman that she had had five husbands as he offered her living water in John 4 is one of many examples that subverts contemporary readers assumption. Jesus’ witness regularly challenges common beliefs that God favors the righteous over sinners, law-abiding people over criminals, the rich over the poor, the beautiful over the ugly, the intelligent over the ignorant, offering flashes of a very different sort of God.
People assume that God is like a rigorous admissions officer at an exclusive University or a demanding, scrupulous employer examining resumes— choosing only the most deserving into his ranks—especially if they are to be ministry workers or any kind of leader.
I recently led a Bible study on 1 Corinthians 1:26-2:5 to a group of 12-14 bedraggled Caucasian and Hispanic inmates in the jail. Most of the men were in their 20s and 30s were addicted to drugs and alcohol, had not completed high school and would be hard pressed to qualify for anything but low-wage jobs. Before reading the text I asked the men what sort of people they think God would chose to be pastors or missionaries.
“People from higher social classes,” said one man. “People who were smart and educated, who had their shit together,” he continued.
“I think he’d chose people who’d been through lots of big troubles,” said an older man. “He’d want people who could relate to ordinary people like us.”
“Do you think they’d have to be educated, able to explain things well, be good public speakers and all?” I asked.
I could see that the men were unsure how to answer, divided between the what they assumed to be the conventional answer that God chooses strong, smart, righteous people and the wisdom of the older man that included them. I invited someone to read the texts and watch people’s eyes brighten as the words witnessed to an Other unlike normal human authorities.
Consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that he might nullify the things that are… (1 Cor 1:26-28).
A God who purposely chooses those not mighty, noble, brilliant but rather those who are despised and nothing is a God that gives them hope. What kinds of God reveals through being crucified, through speaking through the weak and nobodies? The next reading brought even more hope to the inarticulate ones there in the circle.
Brothers I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God… And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words f wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God (1 Cor 2:-5).
I often invite people to read the account of Jesus’ calling of the fishermen in Matthew 4:18-22, asking questions like “where were Jesus’ first recruits and what were they looking for when Jesus called them? Inmates are sometimes visibly afraid to state the obvious as the “correct” answer as it do directly counters the dominant theology. “At the sea looking for fish” is contextualized to “at work looking for money” and people are invited to include their actual places of work—even if they are drug houses, bars, factories or fields.
When I ask people what Jesus’ call of the disciples in Matthew tells us about God people begin to perceive the refreshing otherness revealed in Jesus. God comes to where we are, wherever we are. God calls people who are not visibly seeking God, righteous or religious in any way to join him. Luke 15:1’s description that “all the tax-collectors and sinners drew near to Jesus to listen to him” confounds people expecting God to be a law-enforcement agent type. There must have been something about Jesus that attracted the bad guys. What was it?
I often invite people to look at the immediate aftermath of the first disciples’ following of Jesus. In response to the question “where did they go and what did they do?” The text offers a compelling picture of an adventurous life that positively impacts hurting people that is far more attractive than minimum-wage jobs, drugs and alcohol or a life of crime.
And Jesus was going about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people… and they brought to him all who were ill, taken with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and he healed them. (Matt 4:23-24)
In our weekly jail Bible studies, visits to migrant camps and rural villages in Central America and everywhere we go we regularly pray for suffering people and witness God’s power to heal. Healing often happens before people come to faith, undermining the dominant image of God that sees healing or any sort of benefit as a reward for good behavior.
Once I offered to pray for a man suffering from shoulder and lower back pain after the police had violently pulled his arms behind his back nearly dislocating his shoulders to handcuff him. They had thrown him in the back of the police car and the handcuffs had dug into his back. Before praying for him I asked if he felt he needed to forgive the police for their excessive use of force.
“No,” he said. “I was drunk and resisting arrest. I’m a big dude and was pretty out of control They were just doing their job.”
I prayed that Jesus would undo the damage done by the police and show the man how much he loved him regardless of his violence. I stepped away and asked him if he felt any improvement. He said he felt the pain leave his lower back but said he was sure that if he drew his arms back behind his back the pain would be intolerable. He began to gingerly move his arms behind his back and amazement came over his face. “I’ll grant it to you. I’ll grant it to you. The pain is completely gone,” he said, dropping to his chair and crying with his head in his hands. Like in the Gospel accounts we regularly see God’s healing presence overturn people’s negative expectations as the one full of grace and truth makes himself known concretely.
Last year I traveled to Guatemala to train pastors working with gang members. We visited one of Central America’s most infamous prisons to visit the gang member inmates of perhaps the most notorious street gang in the Western Hemisphere. A week before leaving for Guatemala City I dreamed of a heavily-tattooed man with a hole in his right side. I met this man in the second prison– a big intimidating guy with tattoos and a myriad of scars from stab wounds and bullets all over his body—including a big indentation on his right side from a near-death shootout with the police.
This man, a gang leader serving a 135-year sentence, ended up taking me back into the heart of the prison to find a bathroom, and then inviting me into his cell. I shared with him my dream and he was visibly moved, welcoming my offer to pray for him. He told me about his worries about his son and shared his longing for God’s peace and love in his heart. I prayed for him and anointed him with oil.
He led me back into the yard where we succeeded in gathering many inmates for a Bible study on Jesus’ call of Matthew the tax collector. I described how Matthew was a tax-collector—a member of a notorious class of people that nearly everyone hated.
“Who might fit the description of tax-collectors today?” I asked.
Gangs in Guatemala force businesses in their territories to pay “protection taxes” [from themselves] and taxi drivers to pay “circulation taxes”- and the men smiled and looked at each other, acknowledging that they fit the description.
“So what was Matthew doing when Jesus called him?” I ask.
The men look surprised when they note that he wasn’t following any rules, seeking God or doing anything religious, but practicing his despised trade when Jesus showed up on the street and chose him.
“So let’s see if Jesus made Matthew leave his gang to be a Christian,” I suggest, and people look closely at the next verse.
There Jesus is eating at Matthew’s house with other tax-collectors and sinners and the disciples.
“So who followed whom?” I ask, excited to see people’s reaction.
The men could see the Jesus had apparently followed gangster Matthew into his barrio and joined his homies for a meal.
“So what do you think you guys, would you let Jesus join your gang?” I ask, looking directly to the man I’d just prayed for in his cell and the other gang chief.
They were caught off guard by such a question—but there we all were, deep in their turf being welcomed, Bibles, guitar and all– and nobody was resisting. Big smiles lit up both their faces as we looked at Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees’ distain. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
I ask them if they are at all offended to think of themselves as sick—and they don’t seem to be at all. I’ve got their attention and Jesus’ final word to the religious insiders hits these guys like a spray of spiritual bullets from a drive by:
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Jesus’ firm dismissal of the accusing Pharisees “go and learn” and clear preference for sinners as the “called” drew the circle of gang members irresistibly into Jesus’ company.
I was delighted that the men agreed to let us lay hands on every one of their bare, heavily-tatted backs as my colleague sang worship songs over them, including: “Jesus, friend of sinners, we love you.” I heard from a pastor that the gang leader I had prayed with was amazed at how his “homies” (fellow gang members) were letting us pray for him and whispered: “It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the Presence of the Holy Spirit in my life and seen the homies at peace. I feel really good.”
Two months later last November 22nd I spent a day in a bleak French prison in Lyon where suicide was rampant. I was there training French prison chaplains and ministering to inmates. That night I took a train back to Paris to learn the horrific news that the Guatemalan gang leader I’d prayed with who had the hole in his side and three others had been taken in the middle of the night by the police and placed into a prison of 900 inmates that were all violently anti-gang. On the morning of November 22, 2008 rioting inmates killed, decapitated and mutilated the bodies of these four men who we’d laid hands on to bless.
While carrying off these men authorities also burned all the 150+ inmates possessions, sheets and makeshift shacks they’d built for conjugal visits in a big bonfire—leaving them beaten up, naked and traumatized. Local gang pastors boldly accompanied the shattered families and inmates in the aftermath of this event. They brought over 25 huge bags of clothes collected from churches, deeply touching the gang inmates who are used to being despised and excluded.
Yet anti-gang sentiment is rising in the country and scapegoating continues in full swing. Recently authorities invaded the prison again and apprehended the other leader and two others, transporting to another prison. A plot was exposed showing their killings were being arranged for the anniversary of last year’s killing of four. This time high level advocacy on their behalf exposed the plot and led to greater security and visits for these inmates. The gang members inside and outside the prison and their families have been deeply moved by Christian solidarity.
Direct confrontation of false images of God, fresh readings of Biblical texts, pastoral accompaniment, advocacy, prophetic ministry and healing prayer are some of the ways that prepare people to meet God as an Other who transforms. The kindness of God leads to repentance—understood as a change of heart (Rom 2:4). So we do everything we can to effectively pluck up, break down, destroy and overthrow the false while also facilitating, ushering in, and preparing the way for the revelation of the kind God who has the power to save.