The High Calling of the Second SonBecoming the Great Us, Essays — By David Zimmerman on September 25, 2012 at 4:47 am
The fact has never been lost on me that I am the second son of a second son. I have one older brother, just like my father before me. I also have one younger sister, just like my father before me, so I am also the middle child of a middle child. But for whatever reason, that fact doesn’t speak to me as much as the fact of being born second to a second-born.
I like the poetry of “second son of a second son”—both the cadence of the words strung together and the pregnant meaning therein. In a world preoccupied by primogeniture—the notion that the firstborn in a family ultimately will take the place of the family’s head—being second-born is a mixed blessing: none of the privilege, but also none of the responsibility. In a world ruled by primogeniture, Prince William gets the lavish wedding and the paparazzi and the keys to the kingdom, but Prince Harry gets to play as many games of billiards, in whatever city in the world, in whatever state of dress, as he likes. Being born second has its disappointments, but it also has its privileges.
One of those privileges is, in fact, that in the Bible, the second son is usually the hero; the firstborn son, frequently, is the villain. Cain (firstborn) killed Abel (second son). Isaac (second son) was the fruit of God’s promise to Abraham; Ishmael (firstborn) was “a wild donkey of a man; his hand . . . against everyone and everyone’s hand against him” (Genesis 16:12). Esau (firstborn) God “hated,” whereas Jacob (second son) God “loved” (Romans 9:13).
This doesn’t mean, of course, that the second son is always good, always right. Jacob was named “deceiver” and lived up to his name; Isaac was a weak husband and father who didn’t seem to live up to all the hoopla over his birth; we understand Abel to be innocent only because we don’t know much about him, and only because any human being who is killed or exploited or otherwise victimized by another human being must be called innocent. You’re not better by virtue of being a second son, but in many ways you’re better off.
You’re better off because while you get to see the kingdom up close and personal, you’re never in the driver’s seat. So you learn from early on that the kingdom isn’t as great as it’s made out to be—you’re privy to its profound failings and its silly quirks. You are under no illusions about the kingdom you find yourself in, the kingdom that grants you its privileges.
You’re also better off because you are free to do whatever you want. Someone else is calling the shots and balancing the books. You can walk away, you can live off the fat of the land, you can say or do whatever you like. You’ll even be considered a hero as you do it—the common people will think of you as the fun uncle or the proof that underneath it all, the emperor (your older brother) has no clothes.
I like to think of the church as a second son. There was a time—right around a thousand years—where the church functioned in society like a firstborn. It set imperial boundaries for the table of nations; it crowned and deposed kings at will; it set explorers to sail across oceans to discover uncharted lands. But for the past five hundred years or so the church has been thrust from the throne to the card table: its authority has been relegated to private convictions and emotional ceremonies. For half a millennium now, the church has been stripped of much of the power it had previously amassed for itself and been set free to privately indulge itself pretty much however it likes.
Those of us who are second sons often take a long time to discover (or at least accept) that there is a responsibility incumbent on the second-born. For those who can see power up close and personal—who have been granted special insight into its profound failings and silly quirks—there is an inherent responsibility to call such shortcomings out: to graciously and lovingly remind our emperors that underneath it all they have no clothes, and (more importantly) to remind them that with great power comes great responsibility, and that there is a God behind the workings of the world who will one day call all his children, firstborn and later-born alike, to account for what they have done and what they have failed to do.
The church, I think, has often lost sight of this important second-born role in the last five hundred years. We’ve contented ourselves with private parties and public pouting. I think it’s high time we lived up to the high calling of the second son and spoke truth to the powers of the world, in love and with grace, all the while reminding ourselves and everyone else that underneath it all, we and they, just like the emperors we love to hate, have no clothes.
Jesus, it strikes me, was simultaneously firstborn of all creation and second Adam. He has been given all authority on heaven and earth by his Father and our Father; he has also reminded us that Adam, our firstborn and thus the federal head of all of us, was naked, and that there was no shame in that.