The Helpless Christ

On the classical account of strong theology, Jesus was just holding back his divine power in order to let his human nature suffer. He freely chose to check his power because the Father had a plan to redeem the world with his blood. … That is not the weakness of God that I am here defending. God, the event harbored by the name of God, is present at the crucifixion, as the power of the powerlessness of Jesus, in and as the protest against the injustice that rises up from the cross, in and as the words of forgiveness, not a deferred power that will be visited upon one’s enemies at a later time. God is in attendance as the weak force of the call that cries out from Calvary and calls across the epochs, that cries out from every corpse created by every cruel and unjust power.

John Caputo

We understandably always offer qualifiers for Christ’s humanity–Jesus was like us but not entirely. He was divine, too. Christians have been doing this for the majority of Christian history. It’s called Christology, the study of the nature of Christ. Entirely divine? Entirely human? Exactly half human and half divine? The early creeds and foundational theological documents of the early Christian churches were largely centered on this issue.

The impetus for the unwillingness to fully assert Jesus’ humanity, to take it all the way to the end, is the fear that we don’t know what to do with a fully human Christ. Christ has to be able to save us. In order to do that he must be stronger than us, better than us, stand above us so as to be able to reach down and pull us up from sin and death. Yet we are continuously surprised by his humanity. We are amazed to think that he got sick, hungry, impatient with religious authorities and even his own followers. When pressed, we might even admit that it must be true that he evacuated his bowels, stank and had to bathe, experienced sexual desire… what about doubts concerning his own mission and the crushing weight of responsibility he surely felt? What about his cry of forsakenness from the cross? Where is the line that tells us to stop this line of thinking and turn again to his ominpotence? Where is the point where this logical chain of human qualities becomes illogical with respect to a Savior and Messiah?

It’s vital that we pay attention to the unexpectedness of our encounters with his humanity. It signals that his humanity is what most draws us to him. Above all, we identify with his suffering, not with his righteousness, and therefore with his humanity, not with a notion of divinity that makes him a higher order of being than ourselves. It was his very human suffering that made him at-one with us. What is atonement if not this?

But if Christ is emptied too much of his divinity doesn’t he becomes helpless like us? Maybe we assume too strongly that we understand what it means to be divine. What if divinity is nothing more than the fullest humanity? Therefore, what if the essence of being Christ is not being the most powerful or most perfect being but in becoming the most helpless? What if our salvation is therefore forestalled to the extent that we refuse to give up our own power, build our walls higher, and stand above others? What is the notion of Christ descending lower than any other but the notion that Christ can save only by being more open to obliteration than any other?

But we can’t necessarily equate discipleship with imitation. We are not Christ and in many ways are not supposed to be. “Becoming like Jesus” has some very real limitations. For example, people that are already physically and politically vulnerable unnecessarily risk too much by submitting in ways that are physically and spiritually detrimental to themselves and not necessarily beneficial to others. We expect relentless sacrifice of certain groups of people in particular ways and we can be insensitive to the overwhelming burdens we place on people when we call for greater submission and surrender in imitating Christ’s submission and obedience.

Such caution with respect to imitation doesn’t make discipleship less difficult. Attending to the needs of the poor and the sick, the marginalized and alone, can be hard enough in themselves. That we so often do so imperfectly and insufficiently, that our own spiritual and physical limitations get in the way, compounds the demands of discipleship exponentially. Kierkegaard’s task of trying to make Christianity “harder” for his fellows finds particular impact in our situation — we who find ourselves in a situation of almost unlimited spiritual and physical resources have the additional task of trying to tear away that which makes discipleship too easy–and therefore, not discipleship. If the Book of Mormon is anything, it is an enormous and tragic commentary on a people for whom the earthen roughness and otherness of the Gospel proved too difficult, comfort and pleasure too seductive. Discipleship can become deceptively task-oriented and not person-centric, beginning, as always, with ourselves. Ironically, the very plight of the poor and desperate that we identify with the core of authentic discipleship can mask the necessity of seeing ourselves truly and vulnerably in the desperate situation we are already at least spiritually in. Thus, not wealth and prosperity alone, but even the central locus of the call of the Good News–to care for those who most need it–can become an excuse to not be existentially confronted with the truth of one’s own existence and ways of lovingly relating to others. We consequently can be deceived into thinking our hearts are in the right place, we interpret the sacred texts correctly, and our practices sufficiently mirror those of the Master. Such deception not only prolongs personal turmoil, but makes our response to the Call of Christ to reach out to the hopeless less effective and paradoxically about us, obscuring the truth that both striving to see oneself truly by being in a constant mode of repentance, and helping those in need is ultimately the same work of Love. We cannot truly love others without being able to truly love ourselves. When we hate ourselves, or run from those truths that constitute our being, our discipleship becomes impossible.

Because we are Christ’s body, the call of the helpless Christ is what is most omnipresent for us here and now, where bodies can and should respond. The call of Christ is in every cry of despair, every burrowing into the deep abyss of hopelessness, every hungry mouth who does not know whether there will be food to fill it, every howl elicited by abuse and mistreatment, and as an intimately familiar echo of our own cries of helplessness when confronted by our own darkness and failed desires to do good, be better, and love more deeply. The call is relentless and constantly in our ears, though we become expert at drowning it out with increasingly complex and frenzied distractions. Christ confronts us with our own humanity, as one who was so thoroughly confronted with his own. The essence of being human is not merely a particular, concretized vulnerability in a world that marks all living things for change and death, but the terrifying awareness of that vulnerability. Christ’s helplessness, echoing in the vulnerability of all things that must suffer and pass through death, issues in a call for others to respond, to collectively acknowledge this vulnerability and face the suffering of the universe together, as beings who understand that no one, not even God, is exempt from such self-exposure; indeed, God in many ways is the most vulnerable, and so understands the necessity of salvation as an ongoing effort of the multitudes, not simply of one overwhelmingly powerful Savior who needs no one else to do the work of redemption. Our own redemption can be heard in that helpless call, multiplied in the billions of mouths of the wounded across the ages, because it summons us, often overwhelmingly, often subtly, to descend from the deceptive comfort of what we think it means to be ourselves–the vain -identities we have protectively wrapped ourselves in–to be with others, creating a vantage point from which we can finally begin to see ourselves truly. In the end, with the preservation of agency so vital and incorrigible, with the resolute divine recognition of each one of us as eternal facts of the cosmos, persons with whom God would always and forever have to reckon and love, could there really be any other way than such helpless vulnerability in suffering? No matter how long hard an omnipotent God might roar, such an overwhelming show of strength and power could never do what the broken Christ on the cross did. It would be the cross that would draw all to him, not the triumphant return in earth-shaking glory at a future time. The cross does its terrible work of redemption even now. That is the story that we return to, again and again, in the midst of our own suffering, the shared bond of helplessness in the face of death. We will face it together, the story tells us. We will doubt together, falter together, be forsaken together. And in being drawn to him we help to create one another’s redemption.

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