Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever, writes the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (He. 13:8, NIV). What do we make of such a declaration of permanence and static unalterability? The answer given was met with a question by a man who found himself in a prison in WWII. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian, pastor, and resistance fighter, was languishing in prison, it seems he found little comfort in these words. Rather, he was deeply concerned with the question of relevance. He writes: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”
A Docetic Christ
In times of liminality, when we are about to cross the threshold of the unknown or approaching the impossible, assurances of the unchanging nature of Christ can be experienced as meaningless or even a threat. The eternal unchanging Jesus is great for when everything goes well. The stability of our civil order or the regularity of the repetitive patterns of our personal lives are sustained by the idea of an eternal and steady Christ who “changeth” not.
The unchanging Christ functions as a kind of ideal type to which we aspire and to which we, the changing ones, seek to conform. He represents the unbreakable chain of order and destiny between the supernatural and the natural, the seen and the unseen. And to function as such, Christ cannot be tainted by earthly change and volatility. Thus we get a docetic Christ, i.e. one who with his radiant appearance looks kind of disembodied.
But in times of upheaval, when things are changing rapidly, what good is an unchanging Christ? To the extent that Christ represents the old order, he is in process of fading away as a meaningless symbol of a past age. Or he is a threat. As the towering Christ he rules from on high and will certainly punish those who do not follow the rules (if you still believe in that sort of thing).
A World Come Of Age
It is not difficult to see why Bonhoeffer wonders who Jesus Christ is for today. His “today” was a dark world in which the Nazi regime was killing millions of people, plowing the soil of a continent that would never be the same again. It was precisely in this tumultuous and torturous world that Western civilization was approaching a new consciousness and a new awareness of the world in which it found itself.
Two hundred years of modernity were culminating in a “world come of age” as Bonhoeffer labeled it. It no longer needed God. It had no need for an unchanging Christ. If you can’t adapt, dear Christ, then you are no longer part of the new. The unchanging Christ was welcome to be tomorrow the same he had been yesterday. But he had to do so in the shrouds of a religion that is dead.
Bonhoeffer realized that the unchanging nature of the religious symbol, Christ, was its own undoing. Besides, there was little comfort in it, as the stench of death was proof that no higher hand or will put an end to the evil committed by the Nazi regime.
Pushed Out Of The World
But instead of simply denying Christ or scripture, Bonhoeffer digs deeper. He re-envisions the meaning of the unchanging Christ into something that thoroughly belongs to a changing world. Pondering the meaning of God’s being pushed out of the secular world, he notes that this is precisely how it has always been. God is always being kicked out.
Indeed, God is always despised. In a religious age this is expressed in either the crucifixion or the domestication of God. Religious people like religiousness but do not like the self-giving of God in Christ. It is too confrontational. So Christ is crucified. In a post-religious world, we do not believe in gods anymore and therefore see little need in crucifixions. But there is an analogy. We simply push God out by means of “moving on,” having “no need of a spiritual crutch,” etc.
What is it then that people, whether they are religious or non-religious, Christian or post-Christian, hate so much about the Christ? Simply this: Christ represents change and subversion: renewal but also judgment, reconciliation but also a calling to account. The Christ exposes what we are with the intention of seeing it changed.
When I say “The Christ” I’m using the definite article on purpose. In a post-Christian society, people do encounter Jesus Christ anymore–at least not consciously–and therefore have no need to push him out of the world. Yet, they still encounter “the Christ,” i.e. situations and people, communally and privately. A mirror is held up that exposes what they are; a call for change is issued.
The Liminal Space Of The Cross
We find then that the cross leads us to a better understanding of what is meant by Jesus Christ remaining the same. We could say that the liminality the cross represents is the material content of the unchanging nature of Christ. What we find there is that the unchanging nature of Christ is unmitigated change.
You can count on Jesus bringing and effecting change. We can use two terms to describe the change he represents, one from the theological wordbook and one from critical theory, kenosis and deconstruction, respectively. The first is primarily connected with the notion of the incarnation (the Word became flesh) but also with the crucifixion of Christ. The second finds it full deployment in the cross.
Kenosis; the first term. In Christ God enters, time and again, kenotically into every possible human context. Incarnation means dwelling among human beings as a human being taking on human flesh. Embodiment is not just physical (carnal), however, but cultural, linguistic, historical. This denotes a tremendous amount of change on part of the Christ. Kenosis also represents the laying down of one’s life. Christ’s kenosis brings him to participate in human death. Death is the ultimate change in the life of a human being.
Deconstruction, the second term, takes the antithetical appearance of God in Christ and comes to full force in the cross, i.e. the destruction of Jesus’s body. Though a term from postmodern theory, deconstruction is precisely what a genuine encounter with Christ effects. Most Reformation traditions have preserved only the antithetical notion of justification by faith as they adapted Luther’s theology.
For Luther, however, justification by faith was complemented by another opposite, the antithetical nature of God’s self-revelation in Christ as such. People typically conceive of God as powerful, eternal, sitting on a throne, etc. But what we get with Christ, is servanthood, weakness, sickness, powerlessness, and death. As such Jesus represents, in his weakness and destruction at the hands of the system, the destruction of all human systems.
With Jesus Christ, any link between the gods and humans is tethered. No human can claim special access to God; no system can claim divine approval via apostolic succession or the right method, etc. Jesus is the counter-cultural God who walks in the margin, there where weakness and powerless characterize the human condition, whether that be Nazareth, the favela’s of Rio de Janeiro, or the black hood.
All of human life, especially its systems of thought and its religious, political and economic systems are disrupted by the appearance of the Christ from the vantage point of kenosis and deconstruction.
Who Is Jesus Christ For Us Today?
Jesus did not come to bring peace but war, division, upheaval, etc. Jesus did not appear to uphold a particular system of theology with his eternal sameness. The only constant in his identity is that he will bring disruption yesterday, today, and forever.
For Bonhoeffer this meant that the task upon him was to interpret the Christian religion for a world come of age. He foresaw the emergence of a religionless Christianity. That was his answer to the question “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” He was able to see the contours of such a project precisely because Christ is not religion but kenotic deconstruction. And he saw himself, as a Christian, taken up in this process of self-giving and resistance.
Asking the same question, we find ourselves in a situation in which some of the questions are similar though they have shifted. We now know that secularity does not have the last word and that a new interest in religion (notably in Europe) and an ongoing interest in spirituality (the USA) is slowly emerging. Yet secularity is here to stay even though it has allowed a secularized form of religion in the form of capitalism and neoliberalism to wreak havoc in our world. God may be dead but the religious aptitude of humanity is alive and kicking.
Let’s Be The Change
The emphasize today, then, is not so much on secularity and its implications as it is on justice for the exploited, for the downtrodden and the marginalized. We also urgently sense the need to save our planet from wholesale ecological destruction. Those are the pressing issues of today.
Who is Jesus Christ for us today? He is disruption my friends, for the sake of justice and ecological salvation. Tracing the patterns of kenosis, we should know by now that Christ is incarnated among those who suffer death, exploitation, and oppression. It is there that we need to be found ourselves.
The systems of deadly economic and racial oppression need to be broken down. The cross testifies, in spite of all the weakness it represents, to the disruption of hierarchies and authorities. Where those authorities think to have overcome the disruption, it deconstructs and destroys them.
Religious people and non-religious people need to work together for change. The dividing line is not between religion and non-religion but between those who seek self-preservation and those who are willing to invest themselves for change. In this sense both church and gospel have become secularized and have found their true meaning in their expression of the genuine wordliness of Christ.
This is the meaning of Jesus today, because Jesus represents the change of disruption needed at this hour in terms of his example and in terms of the work of the Spirit of Christ at work in humanity. Change is upon us precisely because Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Let’s be the change!