Incarnation as Poverty Tourism
Benefits Street is a channel 4 documentary, widely criticized as the thinly-veiled public-shaming of Britain’s poorest and most vulnerable people. It’s a TV series designed to leave us looking down on people, judging them as feckless, undeserving and passive. It’s how many people imagine God viewing humanity.
As a Chaplain, I sometimes wonder how, if there is a place called heaven, its inhabitants must view life on earth:
It’s easy to imagine the TV lounges of heaven packed with angels glued to gigantic Flat Screen TVs that narrate events on earth today in the same way. With detached superiority, shaking their immortal heads as they peer down upon the lives of terminally pathetic mortals: pathetic morals merrily grumbling their way through a series of avoidable crises, as their quest for a happy life slowly turns the world into a cosmic ash tray. And what happens when God barges into the TV Lounge? My sense is that, metaphorically, the God of Scripture would want to appear on a TV show:
This is not the God who appears as a contestant on Love Island, off to swan around on planet earth, get noticed and achieve some kind of cheap fame that might last a millennium or two.
This is not the God who appears on I’m a celebrity get me out of here: in a desperate bid to revive his waning popularity and win public acclaim by enduring some fake and trivial hardship.
This is not even the God who commits Poverty Tourism in a charity fact-finding documentary, visiting the most God-forsaken parts of earth, be they Nazareth, Bethlehem, or Stoke on Trent.
The reading from John’s Gospel speaks of a God who takes up residence on Benefits Street. The God who becomes mortal, a vulnerable, impoverished, fragile, pathetic mortal. Not simply visiting Benefit Street for the experience, but subjecting himself fully to the terrible conditions in which so many people struggle.
In front of the entire cosmos, the human Jesus is God incarnate – not as a celebrity, or an adonis, not as a champagne socialist, or a boutique activist. The God of heaven becomes powerless. A fragile baby in all the finery and luxury of an animal feeding trough.
If there is a place called heaven, and if it ever touches the earth – it allies itself with the baby in the feeding trough: Its love radiates from those who have relinquished the quest for popularity; its power electrifies those who embrace powerlessness, its hope animates those who have abandoned every false utopia.
That is the message of Christmas: God-with-us.