Christ after Christmas—a conceptual experiment

Let me begin with an admission. As a follower of Yeshua (Jesus of Nazareth) and as a member of the religious body (the Christian church, Presbyterian branch) that stands as his legacy, I have always been troubled by the use of Christ as an exclusivism that hides a superiority complex. I have been “. . . tempted, whether for political, historical, or theological reasons, to give up on Christ—in the name of Jesus.[1]

A statement in a recent read on political theology—“. . . there will not be a single square inch in all of creation over which Christ does not say, ‘Mine!’”[2]—aroused in me the incipient sense of disconnect that the use of Christ brings. When I ask what the Mine! statement means, visions of the Salem witch trials, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Crusades come to mind. Or, more recently, I hear new accounts of Muslim mosques and Jewish synagogues being defaced or burned. I hear Ku Klux Klan members finding airtime to denounce a whole variety of people they deem to be sub-human. I hear bakers refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple because doing so would compromise their Christian faith. In every situation mentioned above, I hear echoes of the word “Mine?”—the dark shadow of Christian exclusivism.

Before going on a further rant, I need to back up and ask how we Christians have become, in our own minds, an exclusive club!

I believe two images (one from the Hebrew scriptures and one from Yeshua’s teachings) lay the foundation for understanding Christ—the Jubilee and the kingdom of God. Furthermore, this examination necessitates a temporary dividing Christ off of the name Jesus Christ. (Later I will examine whether I can stitch the terms back together.

Leviticus 25 details the Jubilee year—a sabbath of sabbaths. This was to be an interlude in the midst of Israel’s life. Jubilee was a year of restoration—primarily focusing on the land. Family relationships, connection to the land, and property rights are all to be restored, renewed, or transformed during the Jubilee year—a reminder that Israel’s existence was grounded in the reality that “the land is mine [God’s].” [Leviticus 25:23] The problem is that there is no evidence that a Jubilee was ever declared. “It is always coming but it never quite shows up; it keeps getting postponed.”[3] For a brilliant essay on the Jubilee that never comes, see It Spooks.[4]

Because the Jubilee was a promise never fulfilled, a new vision had taken its place by the Yeshua’s time. Yeshua’s teachings were grounded in the imminence of the kingdom of God—a permanent restoration of social structure so that the poor and marginalized people of the world would be brought into the mainstream of life. But the restorative kingdom, like the Jubilee, did not arrive. The Jubilee, re-branded as the kingdom of God, was projected by the early church onto a timeless eternity.

Jubilee, in the Hebrew scriptures, and kingdom, in developing Christian thought, are concepts grounded in an understanding that God has been involved in the forming and sustaining of Israel and its native son, Yeshua. Both, however, are unfulfilled promises that are now planted in the future. As a result, we are left with living “. . . in the space between a memory and a promise.”[5] Enter Christ into that spaciousness.

In popular thought and inherent in much Christian theology is the understanding that Christ is a substantial being that subsists across time. That being is, on God’s behalf, in charge of salvation—that is, the risen savior. While Christian theology is clear that the salvific act was the mediated through the death and resurrection of Yeshua, the persistence of the Christ-image suggests that there is still work for the redeemer to do.

Let me go out on a limb here—Christ is not a reality, but a vision, a hope, and a dream. It is the successor to Jubilee and kingdom. Better yet, Christ is the poetic image that takes Jubilee and kingdom and projects them onto a cosmic canvas. Yeshua was a very special human being whose embodiment of a God-filled life is normative for Christians—a life embodying compassion, peace, and tender justice; a life given for self, others, and the creation. During the short years of his mission, he tried to form his band of followers into a community of compassion, peace, and tender justice.

After Yeshua’s crucifixion, those followers returned to the lives that they had remembered from before they met Yeshua. But something happened! The passion for God and for others that had characterized Yeshua’s Way of life, began to stir the passions of those who had been with him for his ministry and mission. Something irrupted into their lives. They called it resurrection. It was as if Yeshua continued to instruct and form them. He had come alive within and among them. Yeshua’s Way was a path upon which they now were traveling.

Yeshua’s Way had become a way of life for them. Compassion, peace, and tender justice “. . . is a Christ-haunted call to long for kingdom come”[6] Christ is a call that haunts us, not from the future, but from the midst of life here and now, in the meantime. It is a spectral call that arises from we know not where. Is it God or some machination of my own mind? Is it the unheard voice of the cosmic hum or something more or less substantial? “I know not what, one or many, real or unreal, saving or dangerous, whoever or whatever this is will not leave me alone.”[7] Call it God if you will; or Allah or Buddha, or Thou, or Mystery, or YHWH or . . . . What I do know is that I have committed myself to this “Christ-haunted call.”

Neil doGrasse Tyson, speaking as a scientist (in a conversation with Bill Moyers), suggested that myth has a significant power in life when “. . . we take it to the next frontier and apply it there.” Living between memory and promise causes us to construct our theology with myths and symbols and then to project then out to the next frontier—not some heavenly afterlife, but to the frontier of a life in community lived for self, others, and the creation. That projection was the Way taught by Yeshua, the Jubilee, and the kingdom of God wrapped into one and trying desperately to find traction in the midst of daily living.

In Christmas pageants conducted thousands of times across the face of the church, the children have it right—Christmas is about baby Jesus. Christmas is the arrival of human potential embodied in a personal. Full human potential involves a connection with something (call it God or Mystery) that stirs us deeply toward compassion, peace, and tender justice.

But what do we do after Christmas?

There is no waiting for an afterlife to attain that full potential. The only arena for personal and community development is here and now. Christ is the haunting call that is experienced within and among us; the call toward the frontier ahead—the well-being of all in society.

When we say “Jesus Christ” it is as if we have called him by name—Jesus is his first name; Christ, his family name. That is neither appropriate nor sufficient. Whether it is putting a “ruach pause” between Jesus and Christ in order to “put breathing room back into Christology”[8] or simply saying Jesus the Christ, separating the two terms helps me track new understandings. Yeshua is the memory and Christ, the frontier (or promise), between which I am called to live my life to the full—embracing compassion, peace, and tender justice that forms, sustains, and renews self, others, and the creation.

 

[1] Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), 134.

[2] James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, Cultural Liturgies, Volume 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 83.

[3] John D Caputo, It Spooks: Living in Response to an Unheard Call, 2015, 15.

[4] Caputo, It Spooks. 13-45.

[5] Caputo, 21.å

[6] Smith, Awaiting the King, 89.

[7] Caputo, It Spooks, 26.

[8] Keller, On the Mystery, 136.