Jesus Failed the Downtown East Side

This is the first of our memorable posts from 2013 as we take a time of looking back to see where God is working in the midst of the 24-7 Prayer Canada community. Last January, we had this post from Aaron White in Vancouver…

Today as I was prayer walking around Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, meeting with friends on the street and just generally shooting the breeze, I saw someone I knew out of the corner of my eye. She is a young woman who had previously been involved in our community, but who had in the last year fallen back into a life of drug addiction and prostitution. As sometimes happens she had become quite belligerent to people she used to hang out with and call friends, even going so far as pulling a knife on one of our community members. The last time I had seen her she had been aggressively trying to pull a trick on the side of the road, and the driver had pulled away, dragging her alongside the car as he went.

Now she approached me as I talked with a friend and, passing by, called out in a sing-song  voice: “Jesus failed the Downtown Eastside!”

She said it out of anger and to wound.  I considered what she said though. Has Jesus failed the Downtown Eastside? The Evangelical – Preacher – Pastor – Theologian in me thought, “No, of course he hasn’t.”  But then I thought, well, how does it appear to those who are caught yet again in a life that is a pretty fair description of hell?

It also made me think of the Metallica song, The God That Failed. This is a song about lead singer James Hetfield’s mother who died of cancer after refusing medical treatment. A strict Christian Scientist, she believed that only faith in God would heal her. Hetfield was devastated when she died, and blamed God for her death.

I get that. It doesn’t matter that true faith doesn’t require anyone to refuse medical treatment. Nor does it matter that addiction and prostitution are both, at least to some extent, the results of choices made by the individual (though those choices are often determined by a whole host of other factors that the person has little to no control over). In that moment of grief, in the consideration of a destroyed life, in the daily cycle of horror that compels one to seek drugs and sell sex, it makes a lot of sense to describe Jesus as an abysmal failure.

Every time I hear someone talk about the failure of God, my thoughts are driven to the cross. The cross, from a particular light, is the clearest and most humiliating evidence of God’s failure. “If you are truly the Son of God, take yourself off of that cross! Save yourself, and save me while you’re at it!” Every earthly hope is utterly extinguished in that moment. Rome wins. The religious authorities win. Oppression, tyranny, injustice, legalism, violence, hatred and despair all win, and it’s not even close. The forces of the world did exactly what they wanted to the body of Jesus, torturing it and breaking it and killing it. Who could stand up against such a thing? Whatever Jesus had thought and said about God, he was clearly proven wrong in this moment. His God, or his understanding of God, had failed as completely as it is possible to fail.

And yet…

What if Jesus had come down off of that cross? There would be no questions left. Jesus wins, earthly power is overthrown, and we all have no choice but to follow this God. That is the way we wish it could have happened. We still want Jesus to be Superman, don’t we? And this despite the fact that he said, quite clearly, that he wasn’t going to do that. That was not the way he was to follow, nor the way that we are to follow. He simply would not and will not conform to our uninformed demands. Jesus experienced the full force of death and failure, much to our chagrin and frustration. This is our Saviour, our Lord, our King, our model for living.

Jesus failed on the cross, and that “failure” was the greatest victory ever won. And Jesus continues to fail to act like a benevolent dictator in the Downtown Eastside. He continues to be found in the midst of the deepest pain, the most powerful despair. And in that place, Jesus, the great failing victor, is able to say to people, “Yes, I know your pain. I know it fully. There is nothing you can say to me that will surprise or shock me, because I have been there.”

As followers of Jesus, can we embrace this failure? Can we inhabit this place of pain? Can we acknowledge that people’s expectations of God are unmet, and our expectations of God are unmet, because they are faulty expectations? Can we learn to pray to the God that failed, knowing that, ultimately, this failure has led to the great Redemption?


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