Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Jesus: The Upside-down Messiah

Here at The Wild Reed I've developed a tradition of special Holy Week postings. Last year, for instance, I shared a number of excerpts from Cynthia Bourgeault's book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – A New Perspective on Christ and His Message. In 2011, I shared excerpts from Albert Nolan’s groundbreaking book Jesus Before Christianity, accompanied by images of various cinematic depictions of Jesus.

Looking further back, I shared in 2010 a series of excerpts from Andrew Harvey’s book Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ, while in 2009 I posted a special Holy Week series featuring the artwork of Doug Blanchard and the writings of Marcus Borg, James and Evelyn Whitehead, John Dominic Crossan, Andrew Harvey, Francis Webb, Dianna Ortiz, Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Paula Fredriksen.

This year I turn once again to the words and insights of Albert Nolan, though drawn this time not, as in 2011, from Jesus Before Christianity but from his later book Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom.

The images that I've chosen for this year's Holy Week series are, you could say, unconventional depictions of Jesus. I opted for these after reading Chauncey DeVega's AlterNet article "Dear White Christian America: Jesus Was Not a White Surfer Dude." DeVega's piece is a critique of the depiction of Jesus in the "(white) American popular imagination." The most recent example of this depiction can be seen in the History Channel's series The Bible.

Writes DeVega:

The historical figure known as Jesus of Nazareth was not "white." He was not European. Based on the scholarly consensus, the historical Jesus would be a Middle Eastern Jew of medium, if not dark, complexion. . . . This Jesus would be hounded and harassed by the TSA, looked at as a de facto "suspicious" person in post-9/11 America, and be racially profiled by the national security state. The historical Jesus would likely be subject to stop-and-frisk policies by the New York police and others. If it were too late at night, and the historical Jesus was trying to get a cab – especially if he were not attired "professionally" – he would be left standing curbside because brown folks in their 20s and 30s who look like him are presumed to be criminals. Despite the "common sense" depiction of Jesus in the (white) American popular imagination, the historical Jesus Christ is not a white surfer dude with blue eyes, long flowing hair, and tanned and toned skin.

One way to move beyond the narrow depictions of Jesus produced by the "(white) American popular imagination" is by viewing the array of alternative depictions that are out there. It is these types of alternative images that I'll be sharing throughout this series of posts. Of course, most of these depictions are just as historically inaccurate as those that depict a white Jesus. For me, however, it's not so much about historical accuracy as it is about not being limited in imagining and visualizing Jesus.

Seeing a non-European looking Jesus has the potential to turn upside-down our thinking and perception of Jesus and, by extension, those around us whom we might consider as 'other.' But then, as the following excerpt from Albert Nolan's Jesus Today confirms, this is exactly what Jesus' life was all about.

It was with extreme reluctance that Jesus allowed himself to be spoken of as the Messiah. He discouraged his disciples from saying this to people because he was not a Messiah in the sense in which most of them understood that word (Mt 16:20). He had no intention of being served by the people, nor did he want his disciples to be like rulers who are served by others. He wanted to be the servant (Mk 10:42-45). It is hard to imagine how strange this reversal of the relationship between master and servant must have sounded to the ears of his contemporaries. John the evangelist captures it powerfully with his story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet (Jn 13:4-16).

Jesus did not try to avoid the crucially important role that he had been called to play. He would preach, teach, and introduce the kingdom or family of God, but he would have to do so by suffering and dying for it. His image of the true Messiah would be that of the suffering servant as depicted in the Book of Isaiah (Is 52:13-53:12).

This would be the most radical reversal of all. Jesus was not going to be the triumphant conquering Messiah who would crush and kill Israel's oppressors, humiliating them and making them into victims in order to liberate his people. He would triumph by being conquered, by being arrested, beaten, humiliated, and nailed to a cross like a rebellious slave or a common criminal – the most disgraceful and shameful death imaginable in those days.

He was the victor; he was the victim. And, paradoxically, this would turn out to be his greatest achievement. Truth and justice were on the side of the victim. In fact, that is where God is to be found – on the side of the world's victims. This is what Jesus had been saying all along.

René Girand sees the reversal of victim and victor as the final answer to the problem of violence. Instead of sacrificing someone or other as a scapegoat to save the people, Jesus takes upon himself the role of scapegoat or sacrificial lamb.

From the point of view of the world around him, Jesus was a failure. They arrested him, charged him, and executed him for treason. Nothing turned the world of his time upside down more radically than treating this kind of failure as a success. It was his willingness to fail that revolutionized the spirituality of the time. His death was his triumph.

Jesus' willingness to die for others meant that he was alive and his executioners were dead. This excruciating paradox was a very important part of his spirituality. He expressed it as a riddle or paradox about life and death that appears in a variety of forms in all the gospels. It can be summed up as: Anyone who saves his/her life will lose it. Anyone who loses his/her life will save it.

Nothing contradicts the conventional attitude with regard to ego more thoroughly than this. When we are unwilling to give up our lives for others, we are already dead. When we are willing to die for others, we are truly alive. Or, when we are unwilling to let go of our egos, we are dead. When we are willing to let go, we begin to live with an abundance of life. That is why, shortly after his crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and then the other disciples experienced Jesus as very much alive – as risen from the dead.

– Albert Nolan

NEXT: Part 2

For the The Wild Reed's 2012 Holy week series, see:
The Passion: "A Sacred Path of Liberation"
Beyond Anger and Guilt
Judas and Peter
No Deeper Darkness
When Love Entered Hell
The Resurrected Jesus . . .

For The Wild Reed's 2011 Holy week series (featuring excerpts from Albert Nolan’s book Jesus Before Christianity, accompanied by images of various cinematic depictions of Jesus), see:
"Who Is This Man?"
A Uniquely Liberated Man
An Expression of Human Solidarity
No Other Way
Two Betrayals
And What of Resurrection?
Jesus: The Breakthrough in the History of Humanity
To Believe in Jesus

For The Wild Reed’s 2010 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Andrew Harvey’s book Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ), see:
Jesus: Path-Blazer of Radical Transformation
The Essential Christ
One Symbolic Iconoclastic Act
One Overwhelming Fire of Love
The Most Dangerous Kind of Rebel
Resurrection: Beyond Words, Dogmas and All Possible Theological Formulations
The Cosmic Christ: Brother, Lover, Friend, Divine and Tender Guide

For The Wild Reed’s 2009 Holy Week series (featuring the artwork of Doug Blanchard and the writings of Marcus Borg, James and Evelyn Whitehead, John Dominic Crossan, Andrew Harvey, Francis Webb, Dianna Ortiz, Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Paula Fredriksen), see:
The Passion of Christ (Part 1) – Jesus Enters the City
The Passion of Christ (Part 2) – Jesus Drives Out the Money Changers
The Passion of Christ (Part 3) – Last Supper
The Passion of Christ (Part 4) – Jesus Prays Alone
The Passion of Christ (Part 5) – Jesus Before the People
The Passion of Christ (Part 6) – Jesus Before the Soldiers
The Passion of Christ (Part 7) – Jesus Goes to His Execution
The Passion of Christ (Part 8) – Jesus is Nailed the Cross
The Passion of Christ (Part 9) – Jesus Dies
The Passion of Christ (Part 10) – Jesus Among the Dead
The Passion of Christ (Part 11) – Jesus Appears to Mary
The Passion of Christ (Part 12) – Jesus Appears to His Friends

Recommended Off-site Link:
No, Jesus Wasn't a White Guy – Chauncey DeVega (Salon, March 19, 2013).
The Problem with White JesusUpwrite (July 9, 2011).

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