A beautiful meditation from Michael Allen on Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye:
“And the years folded up like pocket handkerchiefs. Sammy left town long ago; Cholly died in the workhouse; Mrs. Breedlove still does housework. And Pecola is somewhere in that little brown house she and her mother moved to on the edge of town, where you can see her even now, once in a while. The birdlike gestures are worn away to a mere picking and plucking her way between the tire rims and the sunflowers, between Coke bottles and milkweed, among all the waste and beauty of the world—which is what she herself was. All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us—all who knew her—felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used—to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.” – pg. 205
In this vivid passage, Claudia McTeer tells of the city-wide treatment shown to little Pecola Breedlove—the black girl raped by her father, ignored by her mother, and shunned by the community. Pecola’s troubles provide redemption for the struggling community as she is scapegoated. She gives all her promise and potential to those who find themselves down and out. And she takes all their ugliness, all their waste, upon her tiny, abused self. The rape is only the beginning. The whole community abuses her by basing their glorification upon her humiliation. They are valuable in as much as she is demeaned. They express their inclusion precisely by excluding her. Bullying, jeering, pitying, ignoring – she absorbs it all. Bruised and battered, she came to her own, but her own did not receive her. In the end, she died so they will rise.
Into this type of world, Jesus came. As the Apostle Paul tells us in his second letter to the Corinthian church, “Be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
God does not deal with human misery as we would. The parallel looks quite similar in structure: something taken from one person and heaped on another, while something else is taken from another and given to one – an exchange of bad for good, waste for beauty. But something else is going on here: Christ does not merely take our waste. Christ does not merely suffer the pangs of death, enduring God’s silence on the cross and groaning as even the company of hope dispels. Rather, Christ defeats death and brings beauty to himself and all united with him in death and resurrection (Rom. 6: 5-11).
“And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intelligence; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.” – pp.205-6
Toni Morrison here depicts the futile efforts of humans to deal with evil and trouble, to remove filth and ugliness. We exchange rags for riches, shirking our responsibility and ails onto those nearby and helpless, those distant and unaware, those we fear and wish to attack. We assume competition: for my gain, you must lose; to attain beauty, ugliness must be given a name.
It is precisely this competition that the cross subverts. The cross dispels the despair of human restoration projects. The cross tells of God’s journey into our filth and his renovation of sinful humanity. The cross speaks of mortification and vivification, death and resurrection, descent into hell and rapture unto heaven. The life of the Son of God in our place – a life of true righteousness and beauty – given to us, who navel-gaze and gleefully mourn with those who suffer. The death of the Son of God in our place – a death brought by the suffocating asphyxia of God’s wrath and judgment, the judgment honed on our wrongs and evils. The exchange brings newness and hope to all. The bickering of competition is nixed, because God calls life out of even a grave. God grants beauty where only ugliness and despair were placed.