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Jesus and Eugene Debs Jim McGuiggan
Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan

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Jesus and Eugene Debs

Followers of the Christ insist that sin is sin but in their better moments they insist on the difference between sin and sinners. 
    Sin doesn’t weep, sinners do. Sin has no remorse; many sinners have and wish they could make up for their wrongs. Sin is brutal and malicious without regret but sinners break down with hearts sore and pleas for forgiveness; sin is undifferentiated, pure evil but sinners have good and bad in them if only we had the sense and purity of heart to recognize it.

Followers of Christ believe their Master gave himself for all of us and that they too are to give themselves for others (1 John). He was made in the likeness of sinful flesh and though without sin he was made like them in all things. Christians believe they are an extension of the risen Christ since they are his Body and they’re in the world for the same reason he was (John 17:11-16; 20:21).

We don’t always believe that nor do we always practice it. Because so many in the world care little for honourable and compassionate living and because believers most often do care, their temptation is to think themselves superior—they aren’t! Besides, people aren’t only sinners, they’re sinned against. Sin whips without pity those who haven’t found life and purpose in Christ and drives them without mercy down into the abyss. Who can gloat while that’s going on? Who can be content to have interior security and a post-mortem hope and care nothing about what’s happening to their fellow-humans? Could Christ do it?

Christ’s battle against Sin was not only to give to God his own life, spotless and rich—he identified with and fought for others. He did this because it was the will of his Father who had sent him into the world for that very purpose. It would be silly to think we aren’t to seek our own spiritual enrichment and godliness—of course we are; but maybe our spiritual enrichment comes more quickly and more surely when we think less of it than we tend to do. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if we learned one day that Christ was so busy blessing others in his Father’s name that he didn’t pray that particular day.

He made it clear that his own pursuit of holiness and his own devotion to the will of God had more than the personal element in it. Here’s how he put it in John 17:19 when he was talking to his Father, “For them I sanctify myself...” It wasn’t simply for himself he separated himself to God and his purpose, it was for others. He always had an eye on the needs of others, didn’t he?

And when God anointed him with power and with the Holy Spirit, what did he do with it? Peter, who saw it all happen before his very eyes said he went about doing good, healing people, liberating them because God was with him. (Acts 10:38) Knowing he had God at his side, Jesus got involved in the hurt of people and this was how he made known that the reign of God was breaking into the world to undo the curse!

For Christians, Christ ranks as the most serving of all humans but that’s not to say every moment he lived he was thinking, “I must serve, I must serve.” That would have been too contrived, too self-conscious. My suspicion is that Jesus of Nazareth was the most unconscious God-conscious person who ever lived. In the same way, though supremely devoted to human service it was probably rarely in his mind that he was doing it. He knew he was a servant and said he came to do that, but that wouldn’t have been how he lived it out—ceaselessly talking about it. He lived a glorious life before God and serving was a natural part of it—not programmed, not fabricated.

And how the Dragon must hate people like that; people who can be deeply moved by the pain and poverty and ignorance of their fellow-humans. How he must hate people who hate injustice and can’t easily sleep at night thinking about it; people who lie planning to do something about it and then do something about it.

We find God at work doing just that and doing it even through people who have no time for him; people who give no credit to him. But what does he care? He’s been blessing ungrateful and ignorant people from the beginning until now. As long as the poor are fed and the oppressed are liberated God is willing to work without getting the immediate credit. And because this is true, we find a Christ-like identification with others in their struggle even in people who don’t follow the Christ. People that shame us and call us up to the heights we profess in our creeds.

Take the case of the American, Eugene V. Debs, who at fourteen began work in railroad shops, eventually becoming a locomotive fireman and then a union official. His anti-war, pro-labour and (later his) strong socialist views made him a pain in the neck to courts, capitalists and powerful political figures. While in jail for contempt of court by continuing to direct his constituents in a strike outlawed by the courts (a strike he himself was opposed to) he read Marx and others socialist writings. He took socialism which had been a sect and made it a mass movement. Whatever his economics or politics (and he wasn’t an intellectual or a hard-headed politician), he was a man of integrity who cared for people and that’s why, in 1920 while he was in prison, nearly a million people voted for him in as the Socialist nominee for the presidency.

Henry Steele Commager, no great fan of Debs, said that Debs’ conversion to Socialism was “almost a conspiracy, entered upon by business and government” and he explained his continuous leadership of American socialism in personal terms. “What Debs had was a very simple thing: a hold on the affection and the imagination of the rank and file of the American workingmen that no other labour leader of his time enjoyed...He was passionately convinced that the workingman was the victim of a raw deal...”

When the man who travelled tirelessly, who was so often broke he couldn’t rent a hotel room, who was let down again and again by his own fellow union leaders—when that man was going to prison he said, “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” No wonder they followed him so consistently. He made good his words by his deeds and when he said, “When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks,” they believed him.

And it’s that kind of costly involvement that gives a man’s words substance and makes him an inspiration to countless others. As sports writer Heywood Broun noted in his eulogy for Debs, quoting a fellow Socialist: "That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that's not the funniest part of it. As long as he's around I believe it myself."

However imperfectly we carry out our convictions we should work at and mean to work at Matthew 25:31-46 if for no other reason than to make goodness attractive and have people glorify God when they see our good works.

Convinced believer, Mame Garner Miller, had that kind of Debsian involvement in mind when she wrote:

                         So long as hungry faces,

                         Ask and are denied;

                         So long as barefoot bodies

                         Shiver far and wide;

                         So long as there are hearts

                         That never hear of Christ;

                         So long as there is sorrow

                         And youth is sacrificed...

                         I have to give.

                         So long as there is heartache

                         Or suffering anywhere;

                         So long as men are homeless

                         With burdens I can share;

                         So long as life abundant

                         Is lived by, oh so few;

                         So long as the Kingdom calls

                         Some things I must do...

                         I have to give.

Let me repeat: the coming of God in Jesus Christ was not just so that certain individuals could cast out their demons and clean up their inner houses. There’s more at stake than personal holiness—in the name of the Christ we’re to give the chance for personal holiness to every human by fully identifying with them and where it’s needed, giving them something to eat, to wear, to work at and somewhere to live. And Someone to trust!

Christians shouldn’t apologize for providing clothes and foods and jobs for people. They should be ashamed if they won’t! But they shouldn’t be ashamed to say that the more fundamental problem that affects the human family and generates hunger and oppression and indifference to the needs of others is sin. All loss stems from there, our refusal to help people bear their loss stems from there and if while we’re working at putting food in their stomachs, clothes on their back, decent jobs at their disposal, we speak to their lives about the Christ, we’re in there fully identified with them.

We’re all in the same armed conflict! We’re all being attacked by Sin, all in danger of being swallowed. If you lose, I lose. We might be angry at one another for perfectly good reasons but above and beyond and in our personal differences is the satanic mindset that keeps us at each others’ throats.

But every heart that longs for freedom is calling to us, often without words: “Don’t leave me to perish! Help me escape from his iron grip that stifles my breath and takes my life. See me as a slave who longs to be free. Don’t judge me as one who takes pleasure in his slavery just because you see me doing Sin’s will. Look at my eyes, listen to my fear-filled tone, and take note of my air of defeat at Sin’s hands. And when you see me on the run from Sin, don’t help him to get me back! Urge me on and give me food and clothing and encouragement as I flee. Don’t rejoice at the sound of his dogs—sense my horror when I think he’s gaining on me. Cover my tracks, outwit the dogs, give me a place to sleep, be wiser than the hunters, be as passionate about my getting clean away as the bounty-hunting confederates of the Dragon are that I’ll be dragged back in stronger chains. Be a brother to me, be a sister to me. See my need, don’t let me go back. Make my freedom and protection your concern. Feel as passionately about my freedom in God as others have felt about the poor oppressed in visible slave systems. Feel what Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed for so many in their response to the Fugitive Slave Act which threatened reprisal against those who didn’t help the slave-hunters in their mission. He said:

“There is infamy in the air. I have a new experience. I wake in the morning with a painful sensation, which I carry about all day, and which, when traced home, is the odious remembrance of the ignominy that has fallen on Massachusetts, which robs the landscape of beauty and takes the sunshine out of every hour... I will not obey it, by God.”

Yes, I know I’ve brought a lot of my trouble down on my own head, but it’s no less trouble. I know I must be out of my mind but I’m not so out of my mind that I don’t know I can’t make it alone. Help me!”

Even the people we upright see as moral villains stand by each other. Didn’t the Christ say the tax collectors and Gentiles loved one another? Neil Young’s moving appeal to his home city, Philadelphia, in the song of that name, gives the sense of my own need. The hungry, pathetic appeal for help by those dying from a disease they dread, expresses well my appeal to the church, the city I call home; a city in which the inhabitants are said to love one another.

                         City of brotherly love

                         Place I call home,

                         Don’t turn your back on me

                         I don’t want to be alone,

                         Love lasts forever.

Debs was a charismatic speaker who sometimes called on the vocabulary of Christianity and much of the oratorical style of evangelism—even though he characteristically scorned organized religion. Again, the Heywood Broun remark in his eulogy for Debs: "That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that's not the funniest part of it. As long as he's around I believe it myself."

Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan