“He has chosen the lowly things of this world: the despised ones and those who are not, to bring to nothing the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:28). It isn’t just my heart’s tattoo; I really believe it’s one of the most important prophecies of the Bible. Jesus was the ultimate despised one, a king whose reign is defined precisely by his utter social rejection. When we are truly saved, we become despised ones with Jesus, being “crucified together with Christ” so that “it is no longer [we] who live but Christ who lives in [us]” (Galatians 2:19-20). What are we saved from? Legitimacy, which is “friendship with the world [and] enmity with God” (James 4:4), since it is a declaration of independence from God. How do the despised ones that Paul describes “bring to nothing the things that are”? By destroying the categories of legitimacy constructed by the normal majority (a.k.a. “the world”) as a substitute for reliance on God’s mercy.
I recognize that this way of narrating Christian salvation may not be universal to everyone, but I think it’s helpful to revealing a different side of it. Legitimacy is the basic existential problem of the modern middle-class. It’s what you worry about when your life isn’t defined by running away from people with guns or wondering how you’re going to pay the next rent check. When we’ve got stability in our basic necessities, then we move on to the great goal posed by the builders of the tower of Babel: “Let us make a name for ourselves.” (Genesis 11:4).
In the ancient world, having a name was everything. It was your legitimacy. One of the greatest insults you could throw at other people was to call them banei b’li shem — “sons with no name,” an epithet Job uses in Job 30:8 about the “worthless” people he’s forced to pitch his tent with when he loses his legitimacy as a prince (the NRSV translates it as a “senseless, disreputable brood”).
The thing that differentiates Israel from every other ancient people (if we’re willing to accept their status as a uniquely elect people) is that their legitimacy is completely contingent on the name YHWH. That was how they understood themselves: the people upon whom God had “caused his name to dwell” (Exodus 20:24, Numbers 6:27, Deut 7:13, 12:5, 12:21, 16:5-6, 16:11, 26:2, and many other references). In fact, God’s name is so sacred that it cannot be pronounced, so God is often referred to as simply “The Name” (ha shem).
The Israelites’ basic vocation was simply to depend on God for their legitimacy, and they failed time and time again. God was supposed to be their king, but they wanted to have a real human king like all the other people around them since they wanted to be a legitimate nation (1 Samuel 8). Then, instead of worshiping a God who had neither an image nor a mechanistic responsibility to provide fertility or a plentiful harvest in exchange for a sacrificial “tax,” they would hedge their bets by bringing other gods into the mix, just in case Asherah or Baal might tip the scale and bring the rains or the long-awaited pregnancy.
Christians believe that we have been grafted onto the tree of Abraham as children adopted into the Israelite family of God-wrestlers. Our branches are really connected to that tree and not independent plants of our own only insofar as our legitimacy comes entirely from Christ, who is the one who restores Israel’s legitimacy as their messiah and savior. The apostle Paul fought many strenuous battles against a sect that believed Jesus was the messiah, but that “circumcision” (which may have been Paul’s short-hand for the whole of Torah observance) was the basis for a Christian disciple’s legitimacy.
The incredible irony is that Christians today try to create our own legitimacy-determining “circumcisions” out of either doctrinal points or social teachings taken from the very same apostle who said so emphatically that Jesus is our legitimacy, not circumcision or works of any other kind. When my legitimacy as a Christian is a short list of middle-class taboos like no cussing, no drugs, no premarital sex, then this legitimacy becomes the means by which I stiff-arm God’s more radical call to live at the beckoned call of His breath.
It is only if I live in the cruciform freedom of utter illegitimacy (crucified with Christ so that I no longer live but Christ lives in me) that I can follow God anywhere. Now stop. Before you object, true illegitimacy in the sense that I’m speaking does not mean being so jaded with cynicism that you do crass and immoral things without shame. When you live that way, your legitimacy is your cynicism. You’re still putting on a performance even if you’re feigning a sort of exhibitionist indifference.
Cynicism is the default legitimacy of postmodernity just like objectivity is the default legitimacy of modernity. When people are truly free from the burden of seeking legitimacy in either rebellion or a sycophantic performance of various circumcisions, they express this freedom in genuine, joyful obedience to God’s will, which is to say that they live genuinely inspired lives, blowing wherever God’s breath chooses to blow them (John 3:8). John 3:8 is one of those verses that fundamentalists really ought to cross out of their Bibles along with John 1:5, because both of these verses present a vision of divine inspiration that is too open to be legitimate.
Within middle-class white Christianity, there are two main narratives of self-legitimacy right now. They are called “family values” and “social justice.” The delusion is that if I follow the right set of circumcision guidelines for “family values” or “social justice,” then I can say to God, “Paid in full.” I can hand him back precisely the amount of silver that he gave me in the beginning (Matthew 25:14-30), feeling perfectly confident that I don’t owe him a thing because I have made myself legitimate and I’ve got a whole litany of self-justifying “family values” or “social justice” Biblical proof-texts to throw in His face if He tries to argue.
Do you see now what an evil thing legitimacy is? When we are invested in our legitimacy, we don’t stop to help bleeding men on the side of the road unless there’s an opportunity for a photo op. We aren’t “moved with compassion” like the Samaritan was (Luke 10:33) because the purpose of everything we do in life is to maintain our legitimacy.
Others are allowed to be the indirect beneficiaries of our pursuit of legitimacy at times because it may involve marching on behalf of their needs (“social justice”) or giving enough money to charity to validate our ideological convictions (“family values”). But authentic love of neighbor, or God for that matter, is not a part of the equation. Instead of the genuine delight in the presence of God that worship is supposed to be, when we’re slaves to our legitimacy, our worship constitutes saying and doing the correct things to God in order to reassure ourselves that we’re still legitimate.
So here’s where the despised ones come into the picture (meaning the real despised ones, not wannabe cross-bearers like I am). Our pursuit of legitimacy depends upon foils of illegitimacy to define ourselves against. One set of middle-class white Christians needs an anti-“social justice” figure to define themselves against: racist, bigoted, cigar-chomping billionaire rednecks who don’t deserve to be rich because they read on a sixth grade level (this of course being a fabulously ridiculous caricature).
So who do the “family values” Christian need as a foil? The gays (of course!), whom it’s still okay to define yourself against openly since the Bible says so, and then all the people you can’t admit aloud that you’re defining yourself against, which may or may not include the blacks with their “government-subsidized promiscuity,” the Muslims with their “Sharia law,” the “illegal aliens” with their “anchor babies,” etc.
What happens when the “family values” Christian has a son who comes out as gay is analogous to what happens when the “social justice” Christian meets a rich white person who turns out to be a humble, deeply compassionate, and socially conscious philanthropist. The tower of truth that we were building to heaven is knocked down and replaced with holy confusion (Genesis 11 replaced by Acts 2). The despised ones bring to nothing the things that are, flattening all the categories of legitimacy upon which our entire world was built, at least if we haven’t been hardened enough by our investment in our legitimacy.
Am I calling for the invalidation of Biblical teachings on the basis of their inappropriate use as a means of saying “I thank you God that I am not like other people” (Luke 18:11)?” By no means! There is an overlap between the various strategies we come up with to justify ourselves and the Biblical wisdom that has been revealed as a means of grace for our pursuit of intimacy with God and more radical hospitality towards each other.
But here’s what I would contend. Our journey of being liberated from the abuse of truth for the sake of our legitimacy greatly benefits from having personal relationships with people who are illegitimate in our eyes whether they are gays, homeless people, undocumented immigrants, redneck hillbillies, black people who refuse to act white, kids with cognitive or psychological conditions who are presumed to have “attitude problems,” the incarcerated, etc.
The people who fall into these categories are not interchangeable token “others” like a doll collection to put on a shelf, but real people with richly complex identities that cannot be reduced to foils for us to thank God that we’re not. They muddy the waters; they “queer” our categories; they make us less confident in our own legitimacy, which hopefully doesn’t result in a doubled-down defensiveness, but a deeper resolve to “know only Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
What is most powerful is when the despised ones who shipwreck our categories act more Christlike than we do. Then we are utterly lost, which is actually a very holy place to be because it means that we lack the stability of any idol. We can respond to the loss of our confidence and certitude by stomping out of the room and finding another legitimacy to cling to: perhaps becoming a fundamentalist atheist to make up for having been a fundamentalist Christian. But the liberating illegitimacy is only given to those who stay in the room with God and let Him pour hydrogen peroxide on the wounds of the circumcisions they tried to use to justify themselves before God.
When we have been liberated from legitimacy, we become “honorary” despised ones, kind of analogous to the status of Gentiles grafted onto a Jewish tree (the paradox of course being that many white “social justice” Christians secretly wish that they could have been born black with no idea about the repercussions of that beyond the surface level “legitimacy” that they would gain with other white “social justice” Christians). If your appropriation of a “despised” status is the basis for your self-justifying legitimacy, then you remain un-liberated.
People who are genuinely illegitimate and no longer speak and behave as those who live “under the critic” (hypo-crites, c.f. Matthew 6) have the freedom of spirit to go right up to Jesus and start making out with his feet like the “sinful woman” in Luke 7:36-50 instead of recoiling in disgusted horror like Simon the Pharisee, indifferent to the presence of his messiah except as a means of bringing honor to his dinner party.
Are the despised ones always right? Heck no. Are there real sources for the stereotypical caricatures we make of them in legitimately sinful behavior? Sometimes. But if our focus as Christians is on figuring out exactly how to adjudicate who’s in and who’s out, that’s a pretty clear revelation that our primary investment is in reinforcing our sense of legitimacy and not in actually serving God.
I am increasingly convinced that it is the people who stand aloof to God’s mercy because of their confidence in their own legitimacy whom God will not receive into His kingdom. That’s what I see confirmed again and again in the scriptures I have been reading, particularly the psalms. Some of you might very well be damned right now precisely by your confidence in your authority to damn others.
God can handle sinners, even sinners who are ignorant and stubborn about their sin. That’s precisely what Jesus shows us when we look at who He spends time with and who He stands up for. God can deal with people who know they’re illegitimate and utterly lost without Jesus, their only legitimacy, because whatever their flaws, illegitimate, grateful sinners have open hearts, open minds, and open doors not just to each other but to the God who is always knocking and always ready to purify a soul that welcomes His Spirit.