Charles Waddell Chesnutt was a short story writer, tireless civil rights activist, lawyer, and one of the first published African American novelists. He is best known for his uniquely thoughtful treatment of complex issues, such as racial and social identity, during the years following the Civil War. Chesnutt employed a stealthy yet even handed tactic in critiquing and exposing the deficiencies within systems and cultures of power and privilege.
My favorite of Chesnutt’s short stories is “Baxter’s Procrustes.” It’s an almost-friendly mocking of the overt arrogance and covert ignorance of highbrow society. Published in 1904, it features the ultra-dignified men of The Bodleian Club, who regularly gather in their ornate setting to reverence and discuss rare books. The story centers around a particular discussion about a new book titled “Procrustes” written by one of their comrades, the mysterious Baxter.
In Greek lore, Procrustes was a villainous ironsmith, known for luring weary travelers to his home with the false promise of providing a perfect bed for their slumber, one precisely crafted to fit their bodies. Once enticed by his invitation, Procrustes would either stretch those too short to fit into the bed or amputate the limbs of those who proved too long.
In Chesnutt’s story club members make big fusses, going into great detail over the high quality of the book’s exquisite cover, its fine paper and exquisite binding. They pretend to grasp the deeper themes and meanings of the new publication. They mutually delight in high-sounding banter, describing the work as “not exactly Spencerian, although it squints at the Spencerian view, with a slight deflection toward Hegelianism,” as just one example.
Such lofty commentary on Baxter’s work runs throughout the short story, until Chesnutt reveals that none of the club members had actually read the book; Baxter had intentionally left the inner pages blank. The men of the Bodleian Club, lost in the conceits of their chewy words, had fallen victim to the clever ruse of the discontented Baxter, who longed to see them stumble in the drunkenness of their pretension, exposing them as a haughty bunch of effective illiterates.
The global poor are no strangers to the chewy-word arrogance, often dispensed with good intent, of those stammering in the drunkenness of advantage. Just as the men of The Bodleian Club failed to truly welcome and embrace the contributions of the aloof Baxter, and just as the Sadducees in today’s Gospel refused to accept the realities of the resurrection, systems of privilege can be averse to the realities of those experiencing poverty, even while offering lofty banter on their behalf.
For the poor, the resurrection represents the culmination of the victorious Good News of the incarnation. It is the transition into a new global economy, one free of the injustices and exploitation that scar those subjugated under oppressive economic, spiritual and political dominions. The incarnation was not an act of sympathy…it was much bigger. It was a marvel of surrendering privilege and embracing the very conditions of the impoverished, a miraculous arrangement where “he that was rich, for the sake of the poor, became poor.” (2 Cor. 8:9)
It’s tempting to over-villainize the Sadducees for their spiritual disconnect from Jesus. Instead, we should approach these verses with much more humility. James Cone once said, “The Christian community, therefore, is that community that freely becomes oppressed.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t see much privilege-surrender and poverty-embrace in my neck of the woods.
Is it possible that we, along with the Sadducees, are simply wayward travelers enticed by the lies of scarcity and the comforts of privilege and status promised in the procrustean bed. In doing so, have we become like the amputees with arms shortened to the point where we are incapable of embracing the fullness of the incarnation, the resurrection, and the conditions of poverty so severely wounding our sisters and brothers? Perhaps the limits of our embrace put us in a position where we only feel capable of offering chewy words. But we should remember that God is always extending his invitation for something deeper and more real.