Jesus, race, and the scandal of particularity.

NB: edited for style 4/4

Jesus does not transcend culture.

This is another way of stating the “scandal of particularity”: Why was Jesus Jewish?  What is the meaning of his Jewishness, aside from fulfilling earlier promises?   

For Jesus to be a human means he must be a particular human like you and me; born into specific circumstances with specific family relationships and assumptions.  To be like you and me, He too, had to live as limited and defined by cultural possibilities.  If he came as some proto-man, he would not have taken on our humanity in meaningful way, let alone saved it, because we exist as people who are products of our environments.  To be human means to be a people with minds and emotions shaped since birth by culture.  A regular person is someone who lives in a specific time and location and circumstance, who is shaped by their environment.  Christ has to be born into a culture to be truly incarnate.  

To save us, Jesus could not transcend our cultural existence.

To be particular, specific, and limited like we all are, was not an impediment for God's saving work through Him, though. When the Temple curtain was rent through the obedience of this specific man, Jesus, the Holy Spirit was made available to inhabit anyone.   And the work of the Spirit is now also always a specific work: it is the Spirit of God at work in regular, particular people like you and I.  It's instructive to remember that when the Spirit is "poured out on all flesh" in Acts, people hear their own tongue, not one universal language.  Language is the primal cultural artifact that shapes our selves and the Spirit inhabits these various tongues instead of insisting on a new, generic language.  And so Cornelius is welcomed into the faith because the Spirit can then inhabit gentile flesh, and Paul would go on to argue that Gentiles needn’t become Jews to be saved.  They are fine as people with a different culture. 

He redeems culture, making a way for the Spirit to inhabit it.

Some implications:

Unity:  Because Jesus inhabits particular life, Christian unity will always look diverse.  There must be differences that are recognized and valued in the larger Church because our confession is not that Jesus has absorbed us, but rather that he has come for every local, specific person.  

“I don’t see race”:  Simply, if you can’t see race and cultural differences, then you can’t see Jesus at work, either.  You must insist on a generic humanity that Jesus does not bear witness to in the incarnation.  Denying cultural differences by an appeal to something more fundamentally Christian or human underneath our cultural trappings is a subtle way of insisting that we are a different kind of people then the kind Jesus came as.  He came as a local, specific persons whose options and vision were in part limited by his location.  We must be wary of appeals to a "generic" human being because upon examination, it turns out we all have slightly different versions of what that humanity looks like, because they are all in part, projections of our own cultural understandings.

It might be further argued that the racialization of the United States (as opposed to culture and ethnicity) is the enforcement of an ideal of humanity that is really just a cultural ideal of whiteness.  In only measuring the work of the Spirit by behaviors familiar to whiteness, connected with socioecenomic habits, this racialization actively ignores and suppresses the work of the Spirit; even blasphemes it to the degree it considers other particular flesh  less-than.  This racialization is a denial of what Jesus has done.  Also it is unjust.  Which is also a denial of what Jesus came for.  And that's in the Bible, too, so there's that..

Anti-Semitism:  The Scandal of Particularity should highlight the incarnation as the way Christ inhabits Jewishness without attempting to escape it or deny it.  Jesus does not supersede Jewishness , so why would the church?  Since Jesus can exist fully contained as a product of Jewish identity, and a blessing for all, then there is hope that we, too, can be faithful and redeemed and accepted by God in the midst of our own individual cultural locations. -Not because all flesh is the same, but because God can live in specific people.   AntiSemitism in the church, then, is a denial of the work of Christ because it claims a transcendent Jesus who is beyond culture.  It is a deficient view of incarnation.     

Culture Wars:  We need to stop asking people to be “Christian” first.  Certainly we must ask people to be loyal and faithful to Christ first and to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  But you have to be careful not to subtly ask people to ditch their culture because they are somehow generic- human underneath.  It gets pretty iffy if you somehow perceive yourself as Christian first – that’s a great way to divinize your own viewpoint and become rigid. 

Asking people to deny their culture by being Christian is the beginning of building another earthly power, another system of domination.  Culture is the container our selves are formed in.  Language, relationships, stories and practices all shape who we are before we are even conscious of their existence.  To ask people to leave one cultural existence and join a church culture because you think it is the “right” one is another way to hide how particular, specific, and ultimately contingent the culture of a given church is.

The real danger here is that we politicize our specific existence as the Divine one instead of understanding our own faith as a testament that  faith can be in other places, too.  We generalize ourselves instead of the work of Christ.  This is the beginning of an imperialism that must suppress others cultures and insist on itself as the norm, unable to the Spirit at work in particular ways. 

Faith is not an escape from our cultural location but reclamation by God.
We are not Christians first, but rather people with culture who Christ has accepted.  Repent and believe!


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