God’s Wisdom in the Shadow of the Cross                    

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                   March 7, 2021            I Corinthians 1:18-25

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

In today’s scripture reading, Paul is holding up the cross as a symbol of God’s wisdom. Why the cross? The Jewish people were awaiting the Messiah who would finally lead them out from under Roman oppression. When Jesus was killed by the Romans on the cross, the most cruel instrument of death in its time, it was clear to the Jewish people that Jesus was not the Messiah. Their oppression was only increasing. When Jewish theologian Martin Buber was asked, “Why don’t you believe Jesus was the Messiah?” he answered, “because there was no redemption.” Jews continued to be oppressed, repeatedly targeted with genocide. For them, there has been no redemption. In Paul’s time, the cross was therefore a stumbling block for any Jewish convert to Christianity. For the Greeks, who had perfected the passionate art of rhetorical persuasion, the cross made no logical sense. It represented oppression and failure at its worst. It therefore seemed a foolish symbol of an impotent faith.

Paul is praying that by holding up the cross to the Corinthian congregation, he might silence them in their heated arguments. Although Paul was a skilled writer, he was not a very effective speaker and he admitted this in the letter. Effective speakers draw attention to themselves and Paul wants people to attend instead to the message of the cross. Conflict is very much centered on the ego of individuals trying to justify themselves by proving others wrong. Even if their arguments are good and their reasoning solid, Paul is begging them to stop. What is the point of winning an argument with their clever speeches? Their wisdom is foolishness in the eyes of God. Instead, Paul begs them to look beyond their arguments to the very purpose of their calling to serve one another and the most vulnerable in their communities. The cross is a symbol of this purpose—to love one another even to the point of self-sacrifice and suffering solidarity. It is not to win others over; rather it is to be a humble servant; even to lose one’s life of harmful habits in order to gain a new life of suffering love in Christ. In this way, the cross symbolizes God’s wisdom.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke often about his vision for the Beloved Community. It is a community that has its origin in the African American communities that supported each other through their horrendous enslavement. They brought with them African wisdom of communal wellbeing. One African proverb states, “I am because we are.” There is no sense of independence or individual liberty. The only way they survived was because they pulled together as one community. The name for this 2,000-year-old African philosophy is Ubuntu, a Zulu word that means the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. Indeed, it is our very interaction with one another that makes us human. As one African scholar explains, “we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am.”

We have a neighbour on our street who was a refugee from Rwanda. He has adopted the entire block as his family. He looks out for everyone, is quick to help with yard work or construction, gives the children on our block gifts, and welcomes newcomers. Nancy & I consider him part of our family and when we’re away, he takes pride in looking after our house. He will often drop off a delicious Rwandan dish that he is excited for us to try—he is a very good cook! He has even created for sale his own hot sauce exploding with flavour.

Our whole block calls him the Mayor of Dundurn. He has taught us the meaning of Ubuntu—each of our households is only as safe and secure as our entire block is. We have sheltered each other from a horrendous fire that sent people fleeing in the middle of the night. We have stood together when one of us was robbed, sending the attackers away. We band all of our trees together and, in non-COVID times, we share a multicultural potluck feast, a porch concert and children’s games in an annual block party. If someone needs something, they post it on our block Facebook page and within minutes whatever is needed is offered by someone else. As well, neighbours often post when they have more than they need of something and offer it to others. We have become one large, multifaith, interracial family.

This was Martin Luther King’s vision of a Beloved Community. He predicted a period of social harmony and universal friendship where Blacks and Whites would be reconciled and able to walk together as a family of siblings without racial strife or disharmony. Martin Luther King often said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The twin pillars of his Beloved Community are economic and social justice.

Social status is one of the best predictors of health. The lower the social status, the higher the stress, the greater the hypertension, the less access to medical care and social supports. We see this playing itself out within Indigenous communities right here in Manitoba, which is why their life expectancy is lower and their health vulnerability is higher. The Beloved Community would work as hard as possible to ensure equal social status, access to clean drinking water and adequate housing for everyone.

During these COVID times, we are gaining a glimmer into the possibility of such equity as First Nations are given a 10-year head start in age requirements for the vaccine. We’re financially supporting those most affected by job loss, which are largely ethnic minorities and women, who more often work part-time in low-paid, front-line jobs.

This is the vision of the cross which Paul gives to the Corinthians. The cross is a social equalizer, which does away with heirachies of class, race, ability and gender. Paul tells us, “Don’t boast of the success of you and your children. Boast, instead, of Christ’s sacrificial love that makes sure the least of us has enough.

There is a fascinating study of human evolution that I came across just over a year ago. We are all familiar with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” This was the central premise of evolution. However, more recent studies have suggested that, at least in reference to humans and to dogs, the phrase, “survival of the friendliest” might be more accurate.

Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham noted that Homo Sapiens differ from their predecessors by a decline of reactive aggression. Physically, their faces and brow ridges diminished. Male faces became more feminine and sex differences were reduced. In essence, Homo Sapiens became more domesticated than Neanderthals, Denisovans and the Homo Erectus.

Because of their increased docility, Homo Sapiens were better able to learn from and cooperate with one another. Wrangham writes, “Docility should be considered…a vital precondition for advanced cooperation and social learning.”

One might question this assumption because of the level of brutality that has been higher than ever over this past century with our nuclear and conventional wars, genocides and immense cruelty. Wrangham agrees that humans are uniquely capable of proactive aggression that requires advanced planning. However, what contributes to the evolution of humans is a major reduction in immediate, reflexive, violent responses to real or apparent threats and frustrations. One might argue that not every world leader has such evolved responses, but on the whole, Wrangham believes that humans have advanced.

One writer responded to this study by saying perhaps the word “docility” needs to be replaced with the word “grace”. Grace, he said, “signals an ability to think charitably of others, which is crucial to an absence of reactive aggression. And in social interactions, grace generally breeds more of itself.”[1]

May we find hope in this theory of the survival of the most gracious. We have seen both graciousness and selfishness in this COVID lockdown. I pray that the Spirit will continue to prod us humans to an ever-increasing ability for sacrificial love and communal care—the wisdom of God in the shadow of the cross. Amen.

[1] Cass R. Sunstein, “How dogs and people ended up ruling the world,” The Winnipeg Free Press, Dec. 2, 2019.