Standing in the Tragic Gap


In the passage before us today, James introduces us to a group that seems to be the equivalent of our modern middle class.  They are not the rich--the rich are those whose attention they are trying to get.  They are not the poor--the poor are those they are ignoring.  They are somewhere in between, a kind of bell-curve group that represents the broad middle.  In other words, they are people like most of us. 

So these in-between people are gathering for worship, and they're giving special attention to the wealthy members of their congregation.  James doesn't tell us why they are showing favoritism, but we can guess: Maybe they're hoping to work a business deal.  Maybe they're trying to improve their social status, for we are known by the company we keep.  Maybe they are just schmoozing.  Or maybe, just maybe, they recognize that to meet the needs of the larger community they have to have some benefactors, some folks who can provide the financial support to get it done.

I'm sure there are more than a few congregations today that are attending to the wealthy members among them, making sure that folks are feeling okay about how things are going at the church, making sure that they and their families are happy, making sure that they will keep their pledge at or above the same level as last year.  At the same time, I know that committees and finance officers will be looking carefully at budgets and trying to figure out where churches will in all likelihood need to cut their expenses.  And, in all likelihood, some will choose to cut their outreach dollars so that they can keep their lights on and pay their employees. 

These choices are real, and they are ancient.  And while James' challenge to his early community clearly names God's preferential option for the poor, it does not simply condemn the rich.  The rich certainly had their problems, and those problems are as perennial as those church budgets.  What is it about human beings that we get seduced by the gold and jewels of others, even when those others have often acquired such riches at our expense?   But that's not the primary issue for James.  No, the problem was with favoritism: James' challenge is to those who choose to associate with the rich at the expense of the poor. 

Can you picture that ancient gathering?  You can almost feel the tension in the room as folks heard these words read to them.  I can imagine that the peripheral vision intensified as people worked very hard to see who was seated with whom.  And surely those who were rich were aware of those who had been "playing them"--if you will--giving them excessive attention to the neglect of the poor.  This was one of those worship services where a lot of folks probably wished they had just stayed home.

What James' listeners had fallen prey to is a dynamic that is all too human: when resources are scarce, when the future is uncertain, when enemies are at the gate, we often find ourselves trying to hedge our bets, to try and persuade or curry favor from those of means, even if those folks have beaten us down in the past.  When money is tight, it seems foolish to ask if we stand with the poor because it is among them that we are called to show mercy and compassion.  It is far more rational to stand with the rich, knowing the financial viability of our congregation or our community depends on their patronage, that we may not be able to provide the support the poor need without the money we can get from the rich. 

At The Fund for Theological Education, we offer a program for young people who participate through fourteen different faith-based, year-long service programs.  At a recent gathering of these young people, one young woman told me a bit of her story, about how she was raised in an upper-middle class home, about how success--while often couched in the language of a meaningful life--always had a strong sense of financial wealth as a part of it, about how living on $100 a month had been a tremendous struggle, about how much she had to "un-learn" about the rich and the poor.  She said that after the first few months, she was really angry about all the wealth in this country and the persistence of homelessness, hunger, and poverty.  In time, however, she realized she could not have known these things if she didn't take time to stand in a very different place, to give a year of her life not only to her volunteer program but, more importantly, to those whom the program serves.  She realizes that she knows how to move among the rich and the poor now, and that perhaps her call is to bring the two together.  She has come to believe that while wealthy folks may have many temptations and that poor people may have many challenges, it is her call to introduce them to one another, for it is through such relationships that true change can occur. 

This is James' call to us--not to simply critique the rich.  Not to simply empathize with the poor.  We are called to stand in what Parker Parmer calls "the tragic gap," the space between what is and what should be, the place between rich and poor, the place between the privileged few and the alien masses.  It is the place where we are called to stand, for it is the place of the cross.

Sandor Teszler knew what it meant to stand in this tragic gap[1].  Teszler left Hungary for the United States after escaping from a concentration camp with his family in the early part of World War II.  Trained as a textile worker, he made his way to Spartenburg, SC, which has long been a center of the textile industry.  In the 1950's, after Brown vs. Board of Education, Mr. Teszler became anxious as he saw the rise and the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan and as he heard the racist rhetoric around him begin to intensify.  He recognized it from his days in Europe, and he could not simply ignore it for the sake of business.  He went to his foreman and asked where the racial tensions were most hostile in the area.  The foreman replied that he wasn't sure where the worst was, but it couldn't get much worse than around King's Mountain.  Mr. Teszler announced that day that he would be building a new factory in King's Mountain.

When word got out, the white mayor of King's Mountain came to see Mr. Teszler, asking if he planned to hire white workers.  Mr. Teszler told him to recruit the best workers he could find, and if they were good enough, he would hire them.  Shortly thereafter, the black pastor of a large African-American church came to Mr. Teszler and expressed his hope that Mr. Teszler would be hiring black workers.  Again, Mr. Teszler encouraged him to find the best workers he could, and if they were good enough, he would hire them.

In the end, Sandor hired 16 new employees: 8 white and 8 black.  In the mill, there was one bathroom, one set of showers, one water fountain.  After initial introductions and a tour of the plant were complete, one white worker boldly asked, "Is this gonna be some kind of integrated plant?"  Mr. Teszler replied, "You are being paid twice as much as any other textile worker in the area.  You can work with us here in the way we work, or you can go somewhere else.  Any other questions?"  There were none, and all 16 employees stayed.

Several months later, the plant had grown in production such that a new group of employees was hired.  And after their tour, the same question was raised by a white worker: "Is this some kind of integrated plant?"  And this time, the white foreman replied, "You are being paid twice as much as any other textile worker in the area.  You can work with us here in the way we work, or you can go somewhere else.  Any other questions?"

Because Sandor Teszler dared to stand in the tragic gap, an entire industry was integrated.  James calls us not to choose between rich and poor, not to choose between black and white, not to choose between young and old, first world and third world, free and imprisoned, sick and healthy, naked and clothed, hungry and fed.  In the end, these are all false dichotomies, for we are all children of God.  James calls us to stand with the cross of Jesus Chris--to take up residence in the tragic gap between what is and what should be.  To profess a faith that stands anywhere else is to profess death.

Let us pray.  God, grant us the courage, the compassion, and the wisdom to heed your call to let the shadow of the cross be the lens through which we live and serve and have our very being.  Through Jesus Christ we pray.  Amen.


[1] This story is adapted from a presentation given by Ben Dunlap, president of Wofford College in Spartenburg, SC at a 2007 TED Conference.  The full video can be accessed here.