I read an article by a Cuban guy about his experience riding in taxi cabs all over the world. He gets in a cab in New York City. The driver’s a Pakistani. The driver is a little unfriendly at first, arguing with him about how to get to his destination. They are trying to communicate in English, though neither speaks it well. Finally the cab driver turns around, and looks him over and says, “what country you from?” He says, “Cuba.” The driver smiles. He is suddenly excited and energetic. He pats the Cuban guy on the shoulder. He says, “Cuba! Castro!” He doesn’t have the right words but he wants badly to express all he’s feeling so he strikes the palm of his right hand loudly against his left fist, agitated, and bright eyed: “Fidel! He gave to the Americans up the ass!”
The Cuban guy gets in a cab in Madrid. Immigrant driver. Same sort of thing. Turkey, Rome–It’s like all the taxi drivers all over the world, all the displaced, misplaced hear he’s from Cuba, and they are delighted to live for a moment in the glow: a tiny country, a poor people confront the empire and win–the delicious insubordination of it–a revolution. It captures the imagination of anybody who ever felt the impossibility of impacting the behemoth, anybody who ever felt like opposition in the face of power was futile.
I often wish the name Jesus had that same impact. Like you might get in a cab and you actually might want to casually mention somehow that you’re a Christian minister because you’d know that all the immigrant taxi drivers of the world, would be like, ah, Jesus, he gave it to the empire up the … like you were a part of a revolution.
John the Baptist is an important figure in advent, the days leading up to Christmas. The stories about him give the impression that this might have been John’s desire as well. The Jews were a minority group who had been crushed by one empire after another–slaves in Egypt, exiled by Babylon. In John’s day it was the Romans. You could hardly imagine a more powerful, pervasive oppression.
The stories the Jewish people cherished were about liberation. They were stories about defying the empire–and it all culminated in the hope for a messiah–A revolutionary leader.
Sometimes I get John the Baptist mixed up with Billy Sunday or Billy Graham–a guy who gathers crowds and says repent a lot and does altar calls. But John the Baptist wasn’t an Evangelical Christian. At all. He was a revolutionary Jew in a time that was ripe for revolution.
John the Baptist is not talking to a church full of capitalists who drove their cars to church. He’s not trying to get little Sunday school children to repent of their sins–he’s like gathering the Mayans in the hills around Chiapas. He’s a revolutionary and he’s preparing the people for a revolution.
“Repent” for John the Baptist doesn’t men get on your knees by your warm little bed and apologize for not being nice. It means get ready to change your allegiance–repent of your constant accommodation to Empire. Bear fruits that befit revolution–the wrath is coming. He’s not giving instructions for all people for all time on how to be good–he’s preparing people for imminent revolt.
It seems like advent could use a dose of the Revolutionary Expectation. I think we could get a little more of that energy going on at Christmas time. What are we waiting for? Presents under the tree? Yule kaka? Cookies? We’re waiting for a revolution. We’re waiting for a leader to rise up from the people to overthrow the empire. Tis the season of revolution. Maybe we should dress up the shepherds in our manger scenes in a little Zapatista garb–bandanas over their faces. How about some of that instead of buying the tools of capitalism at the Mac store? I like winter wonderland, and holly jolly Christmas, but it doesn’t seem like it’s really in the spirit of the season.
If we get some of that going on, then when Christmas comes, maybe we’ll feel the full impact–the sheer surprise on Christmas day. We’re waiting for Fidel. We’re waiting for the wrath to come–the one mightier than John the Baptist. Then you wake up on Christmas morning to find Little Baby Jesus Away In The Manger. It’s not sentimental and cute as much as it is shocking. The messiah couldn’t come in a more vulnerable way. It’s almost like the people who wrote these stories went a little overboard to make their point.
You’re waiting for Che Guevara and you get an infant laying in his mother’s lap, unable to even hold up his head. You couldn’t make up a more emphatic image of a god stripped of glory and power and wrath. You’re waiting for the wrath to come and take down the empire and you get goo goo gah gah. It is really a little bit offensive.
The guy who wrote about the taxi cabs grew up in the midst of one of the most significant revolutions in history. He has no love of empire. But he gets sad when the taxi drivers get excited about the revolution because he says what they (and I) believe about the characters is not really true. He doesn’t even like the word revolution because he says, it’s a sort of stage play with predictable and simplified characters. There is a villain and there are good people. But it’s not True, he says–or that simple or clean. Heroic epics with very bad bad guys and very good good guys are lies, he says. And it’s life-sucking to live captive to that kind of narrative.
Maybe John the Baptist didn’t have that clear of an understanding of the one who came after him. Maybe Jesus was a bit of a surprise to everyone.
Jesus doesn’t give it to the empire like the people might have hoped he would. Castro might have had him shot. He betrays the revolution in a certain way–he’s a sympathizer with all manner of unrepentant men and women. He forgives his executioners.
The wrath John predicts never comes. John the Baptist made it seem like the move is ours– we need to repent, turn toward God. But the surprising thing is how God ends up turning to us–stripped of glory and power and wrath, naked, vulnerable, indiscriminately loving–full of a scandalous, startling amount of generosity– a generosity that is way more relaxed than what would seem prudent.