Disputing about the body…

Jude 1:9 Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation…

“Hello… is anybody in there?”

Recently there has been quite the kerfuffle in the media in reaction to Megyn Kelly’s comments about white Santa (and Jesus).  Quite a few folks have written in response reaction and amongst those social media folks I call friends, most of the reaction has been rather negative.

The whole episode of course called to mind images of Jesus from my own childhood, which were all of white men. Interestingly, one of the most beautiful and memorable of those images was one of Jesus knocking at the door; an image meant evoke Revelation 3:20 (‘behold I stand at the door and knock…).  However, since that particular picture hung over the entrance to the washrooms in our church, the image evoked the rather less sublime notion of knocking on the door before entering the toilet, thus avoiding embarrassment for everyone – something I was quite convinced that Jesus would want us to do!

“Hey girl, you interested in abundant life? I got some for ya!”

The other image that came to mind was a decidedly different one, of a handsome, muscular and dreadlocked Black Christ with his hands tied with rope while his gaze was directed towards the viewer.  I’m unsure what exactly was meant to be evoked by that particular portrayal, but when the picture was hung, more than few of the sisters in the Christian fellowship I led seemed to suddenly acquire a new found appreciation for reflecting on his image.  Whatever else was intended by that particular picture, I’m sure that images of Christ should not be the cause of our Christian sisters stumbling.

Upon more (and deeper) reflection however, theological and cultural issues began to emerge for me.  I understand well the reason for the controversy.  For many, Kelly’s comments, off-handed and unsophisticated, seems to reflect a White, Euro-Western proprietary stake in the person of Jesus; an assertion of ownership of Christ for her own culture and the implicit rejection of the claims of other cultures upon Christ.  Such an assertion is made more problematic by the comments having been made on Fox News, the news network most popularly associated with all things right-wing and politically conservative.  Her words were not, and indeed could not, be taken simply as a light-hearted statement of historical ‘fact’, but were culturally and theologically significant.

Kelly’s words were indeed a kind of assertion, though not necessarily one full of the intention ascribed to it.  Her words, coming as they did in response to questions about the possibility of deracination of Santa Claus, were a kind of riposte intended to stake a historical claim as over and against efforts to deconstruct and reconstruct Christmas and its attendant imagery along politically correct lines.  By stating that Santa AND Jesus were white guys, she was attempting to head off efforts to wrest the holidays from their moorings in Euro-Western history and culture.  As a point of historical fact, neo-Africanist critiques aside, Jesus would likely have been counted as or considered ‘white’ if he were alive in contemporary America by the US Census Bureau definition and, depending on his actual appearance, would be treated that way. This fact, however, is not the point. Both her initial statement and the reactions she engendered were contestations over the cultural, historical and by implication, theological meaning of the Christmas holiday.

While admitting to my limitations, I want to suggest that part of the theological dissonance surrounding this teapot tempest is due to a failure of theological & cultural engagement.

The book of Jude contains an obscure reference to an event not recorded in any canonical scripture of a fight over the body of Moses; Moses being the iconic figure of Israel’s faith, the lawgiver who towered over the history of Israel like a colossus and whose law was the entire reference point for Israel’s theology.    Although Abraham was the progenitor of the Israelite people, Moses was the author of their religious identity – a fact all too apparent throughout the New Testament in Jesus’ encounters with the scribes and teachers of the law, and in his follower’s wrestling with the meaning of Jesus and the cross in the shadow of the Mosaic Law.  Indeed we can say that the whole of the New Testament is, in fact, a contestation over the body of Moses; over what he meant and what he came to do.

Just as Moses’ body was taken up by God himself and was never found by man so too was the body of Jesus, raised from the dead and taken up by God.  And just as there was dispute and contest over the body of Moses, so too is their dispute and contest over Jesus’ body – over his race, his cultural identity, and what that means for us.  This wrestling is good, necessary, and healing for the Church which has too often ignored these questions.  And yet such wrestling, as we see in the controversy over Kelly’s remarks, falls short because of an impoverished theo-cultural imagination that is so Christ focused that the Father and the Spirit fall entirely from view.

The entry of God into the world that we celebrate at Advent is a necessarily limiting enterprise, for it is not possible for God to be incarnate as anything other than a particularity rooted in time and place.  This statement may seem at first to affirm those who have pushed back against Kelly’s statement, for Christ did not enter the world as a person of privilege, nor does he belong to Euro-Western culture.  This is of course true, but it is beside the point, for it misses the broader context of Christ’s coming. It is out of the redemptive mission of God that Jesus was sent.  It is God’s reconciling initiative that gives birth to the mission of Christ and consequently to the incarnation.  Contestation over the identity of Jesus threatens to turn the incarnation on its head, making it about our identification with God rather than about his condescension and identification with us.  It is too Christo-centric, if I can dare to say so, for Christ’s coming into the world is not, in fact, about Christ.

Contestation about Moses the Lawgiver and the man Jesus Christ are inevitable and easy, because they are contests about particularity.  The law of course is particular, dealing as it must with temporal and localised matter.  The incarnation as I’ve said, cannot have been otherwise for it is not possible that God should be fully incarnate in anything other than particularity.  So we fight over his image, contending for the legacy entailed in his ‘body’ and imagine ourselves somehow immune from the rebuke enjoined by Michael upon Satan.  We fail to see that the legacy of Jesus is a thing of heaven rather than of earth.

Contestation about Jesus fail in the same way that disputes about Moses did, for both are premised on the same error, which is that Moses and Jesus (the man) are somehow the point.  Yet Moses, the arbiter of the old covenant, and Jesus the author (and finisher) of the new, both pointed beyond themselves to the Father who through Moses (temporally and incompletely) and through Jesus (eternally and completely) created and called a people to Himself.  And Jesus pointedly made it clear that his mission was not about him, but was about the one who sent him.   God, while he is particularized in Christ, remains unlimited and universal – a fact that is simultaneously comfort and terror.  The angels who heralded his coming announced, “Glory to God in the Highest”, because the praise and glory of God is what Jesus’ coming really is all about.

The Israelites pleaded with Moses to speak to God on their behalf, so frightened were they at the awesome terribleness of his majesty, and yet years later divided into factions contesting the Mosaic legacy; seeking to make their claim of ownership rights.  Christians too face the same temptation of contending over the image of Jesus, co-opting him to our cultural and socio-political agendas and laying claim to him as one of us.  But he is not one of us, and we do not have stakes of ownership in his particularity, just as the Jews did not own Moses or the law.  But God through Jesus lays claim to us in our particularity, speaking the word of rebuke to Satan on our behalf, and all of this for the praise of his glory.

Addendum:  My former colleague has written about the culture wars that frame this whole discussion here: http://thewarrenpeace.wordpress.com/2013/12/24/the-prince-of-peace-and-the-culture-wars-a-lamenting-meditation/.  It is a worthy read.  Blessings.