There are two ways to read the gospel. Is God working to rescue the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, or is God working through them to save everyone else?
Today is Jonathan Daniels feast day—the anniversary of his martyrdom. On this day in 1965, he and several other people who had been arrested in Hayneville, Alabama, made their way from the squalid jail cells where they had been held to a convenience store. Standing behind the door was an unemployed highway worker with a shotgun. As the man prepared to fire, Jonathan Daniels pulled sixteen-year-old Ruby Sales, who was standing in front of him, out of the way, and he was hit by the blast of the gun.
Where was God in that moment? Was he in the hands of Jonathan Daniels, who saved the young woman from death? Was he in the death of Daniels, who gave his life for something he cared so much about—a cause he considered inextricable from the work of the gospel?
It’s easy for me to think that God’s work is reaching down to life those in need out of their poverty and bringing them to a life that looks more like mine—rich, secure, happy. But I think that misses the point. My premise of salvation is built upon the belief that my life is good and their lives are bad. (Where is Randy Newman when you need him?) But the story of scripture reminds us over and over that there is a holiness in the struggles of the underclass. They don’t just reveal God to us as they depart their place of struggle, but they show us God’s face in the midst of their pain.
Mary’s song says it all. She does not sing of the one-day salvation God will offer. She proclaims that God has shown strength, that he has scattered the proud, that he has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry. No, that doesn’t mean it’s all finished yet, but it does mean that God has already shown us his salvation. He has already demonstrated his love. And it’s not in “moving on up.” It’s in the realization that God is in the poverty, that God is in the tragedy, that God is in the shotgun blast.
We should stop dreaming of salvation as the moment when God makes the world look like the lives we already lead. If you want to see salvation, go to Hayneville. If you want to see salvation, go to the soup kitchen, go to the bread line, go to the chicken plant. If you want to see God at work, start with the poor, hungry, outcast, and oppressed. Their salvation isn’t achieved by bringing them to us. Our salvation lies with them.