The Problem of Incarnation

What the camp does is challenge the church with the problem of the incarnation – that you have God who is grand and almighty, who gets born in a stable. St Paul was a tent maker. If you tried to recreate where Jesus would have been born, for me I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp.

– Rev. Giles Fraser, Former Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London UK.

I wonder if it could be true. You know, that the saviour of the world could have been born in an Occupy camp. What does that do to my imagination? What does it stir up in me? In what ways does it cause me to think?

It’s all terribly inconvenient, this Occupy nonsense. Terribly inconvenient to the way I live my life. Or it would be, if I thought about it much. If I thought about what it might represent. If I cared to think about the ways in which the stories of this kind of encampment might intersect with the story of God’s grace and mercy.

“What are these people doing,” some taunt, “don’t they have a job?

“Couldn’t they find something better to do, like volunteering at a soup kitchen or picking up trash on the street?”

Betrayed in these kinds of sentiment, of course, is the notion that for people to be of any value, they have to be economically productive citizens. They need to contribute to the economy, to the bottom line, to what makes our society tick.

And yet. And yet, isn’t this precisely the point? Isn’t it precisely the point of these protests that our government, banks and major corporations have crucified human dignity with their unwavering emphasis on an economic bottom line ignorant of human suffering?

What then do we do with our story?

The story of Jesus, the no-good dirty child from the backwoods. With a mother who had a habit of seeing visions. Could have been the drugs. Baby daddy nowhere present, and stand-in Joseph, a rough-around-the-edges carpenter does his best, but can’t find, probably can’t afford a decent room.

What then do we do with that?

Have we seen Jesus this week? Have we seen his mom and dad? Were any of us there when they crucified our Lord?

Equally pressing. Have we seen the church? Have we seen the church present and active? Have we seen the Christians who worship a homeless man who was murdered by the elite of his day in the midst of this fray?

These camps certainly do challenge our church with the problem of the incarnation. And for those of us who read the words of the Apostle Paul, tent maker that he was, there may be some other necessary connections to make.

Yet all too often, even we Christians default to incredulous, ignorant commentary. We have become so entirely enculturated that we won’t try to understand what’s going on, what issues are at play, that we join those who point a finger.

Yet what would happen if we attempted to make friends amongst those who have been made poor? What would happen if we looked Maria or Yusuf or Yeshua in the eye? What if we engaged them in sustained conversation, came to know their stories over the course of days, weeks, years, a lifetime?

Would we respond differently?

I wonder if our response would change through friendship. I wonder if our responses would change through mutuality and respect. I wonder what would happen if we let down our defences and let others into our highly protected lives.

Yet we worship a crucified God. As Peter Dumitriu puts it

Jesus is always on the side of the crucified ones, and I believe he changes sides in the twinkling of an eye. he is not loyal to the person, or even less the group; Jesus is loyal to suffering.

We worship a crucified God, yet all too often we skip ahead to resurrection. We skip ahead to new life and restoration.

We are a crucified people. Or, rather, we should be. We should aspire to be. Yet, I think Richard Rohr might be on to something when he shares

We would sooner have control than real conversion; we would sooner have well-oiled church societies than transformed people. Cosmetic piety takes away our anxiety about God and about ourselves, but it does not address the real and subtle ways that we “lose our soul.”

Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

5 Responses to “The Problem of Incarnation”

  1. Jennifer Galicinski

    Dammit, Andrew, you just wrote my response article for me!! ha. But GREAT sobering thoughts, I may use some of them (and give you credit, of course).

  2. andrew

    Sorry. I felt inspired to write after our great conversation yesterday afternoon!

  3. geekzmama

    Thanks for the meditation. I’ve been having a hard time dealing with people who don’t get it, who don’t realize that they are in the 99%, and that it will only get worse unless there are actions like the occupy movement to make a big noise. At the Open Table planning meeting last week some took the initiative to go to the Occupy Ottawa camp and find out what we, the churches, can do to help them. Isn’t that something?

    • andrew

      I think that’s a great place to start. I wonder what would happen if churches re-embraced a more vocal, prophetic role as well…calling institutions and individuals to account for our complicity in these injustices. From Isaiah:

      How the faithful city
      has become a whore!
      She that was full of justice,
      righteousness lodged in her—
      but now murderers!
      Your silver has become dross,
      your wine is mixed with water.
      Your princes are rebels
      and companions of thieves.
      Everyone loves a bribe
      and runs after gifts.
      They do not defend the orphan,
      and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

  4. Just a guy

    I enjoyed your article as whole. And I’ve come to truly enjoy and respect several of the Occupiers with whom I’ve spent time. I do my best to love them all :-]

    You wrote:

    “What are these people doing,” some taunt, “don’t they have a job?“

    “Couldn’t they find something better to do, like volunteering at a soup kitchen or picking up trash on the street?”

    Betrayed in *these kinds of sentiment*, of course, is the notion that for people to be of any value, they have to be economically productive citizens. They need to contribute to the economy, to the bottom line, to what makes our society tick.”

    No, that just isn’t true. Yes, some of the people, the first kind you mention, might fall into that category. Of assuming that only those economically productive have worth.

    But that second idea is precisely not about being economically productive. I can’t blame someone for looking at the vast energy consumed at these encampments, and wondering “What if they did something, right now, to directly aid the homeless, the hungry and the indigent? Or what if they were focusing on preaching the message of Christ during their many peoples mic sessions?”

    Instead, we have large swathes of children angry at their student loans, smaller contingents of people talking about killing the rich, large numbers of employed people asking for higher taxes, or a living wage, or whatever. The many who say they aren’t for violence “yet.” Those complaining about all the homeless folks who keep coming — night after night — for a meal.

    Yes, there are many, many decent folks there.

    But please don’t forget that these people are as flawed as any others. Their motives range from terribly selfish, to mostly selfless. They are certainly not beyond critique, and it’s ridiculous to assume that every critique is motivated by a love of the World or a love of money.

    I smell an idol, and that idol is utopian socialism.


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