Caliban in the Coal Mines

GOD, we don’t like to complain;
We know that the mine is no lark.
But — there’s the pools from the rain;
But — there’s the cold and the dark.

God, You don’t know what it is —
You, in Your well-lighted sky —
Watching the meteors whizz;
Warm, with a sun always by.

God, if You had but the moon
Stuck in Your cap for a lamp,
Even You’d tire of it soon,
Down in the dark and the damp.

Nothing but blackness above
And nothing that moves but the cars …
God, if You wish for our love,
Fling us a handful of stars!

~Louis Untermeyer

The Christian answer is that God does know what it’s like down in the dark and the damp, but the protest of the miner Caliban remains unanswered because he can’t hear answers tossed down from bright, warm places of elevated comfort and security. What Christians call the Incarnation (the Word or life-giving truth of God made human flesh and blood) means God down here with us, living in our conditions with our limitations, feelings, and pains.

If my reaction to Untermeyer’s poem with its irreverent Caliban is to take offense and argue that God has already come down into suffering and shame worse than his in the mines, then the question becomes, I think, “Why are the Calibans of this world still stuck down in the dark and the damp where they continue to make wealth for the prosperous up in the warmth and brightness?”

If we believe in the understanding, compassion, and promise of liberation represented by our doctrine of the Incarnation, don’t we need to be incarnational ourselves, also? Or can the churches stay in the warmth and the light dropping pious truisms down for Calibans to accept or be damned? Can we justify supplying the religious rationalizations for the supposed rightness of the way things are?

A just society needs to change the conditions in which many people are forced to live. Promising heaven upon death has become a convenient way to avoid challenges to prosperity and comfort not shared in life.

As “First World” Christian religion fades even here in the United States as it has already faded in Europe, can we, as the theologian Douglas John Hall hopes, accept the challenge of becoming the servant people we were meant to be from the outset? Christendom is dead. Here in America, we still hear Christians shouting angrily over our religion’s loss of the prestige and privilege it enjoyed in its cultural establishment as the unofficial American religion, but who called us to privilege and prestige? Who put us in charge of society? It was the Roman emperors Constantine and Theodosius who did that, not Jesus.