Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Sociality of Jesus Christ

By Don Schweitzer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer used the term “sociality” to describe how a person’s identity is partly constituted by their relationships. He argued that Jesus Christ becomes present in history through helping constitute the identity of others. But this also works in reverse. When people believe in Jesus Christ, aspects of who they are enter into Jesus’ identity. Who Jesus is as the Christ is partly constituted by his relationships with others. This is the sociality of Jesus Christ.

We can see this in Jesus’ public ministry, beginning with John the Baptist. Themes from John echoed throughout Jesus’ ministry even as Jesus proclaimed a different vision of the future. The crowds who came to hear Jesus helped constitute his identity by making him a public figure threatening to Pilate and the Sanhedrin. Jesus’ followers gave him an identity as a messianic figure. Jesus touched them through his proclamation and call. They in turn embodied his message, participated in his ministry and enabled it through their support. These relationships were dialogical. Jesus became the Christ through his interactions with others. The responses of others to him became part of who he was. This continues in the present.

However the gospels portray the relationships of Jesus’ to his followers as asymmetrical. There was a uniqueness to Jesus. After his death no one took his place. Instead, through his resurrection and experiences of the Holy Spirit, his followers and subsequent converts understood themselves as living in him.

Finally, there was occasionally a dialectical quality to the relationship of others to Jesus. This is strikingly evident in the gospels of Matthew and Mark where Jesus is corrected by the Canaanite or Syrophoenician woman (Matthew 15: 21-28; Mark 7:24-30). She said “yes” to Jesus’ power to save, but “no” to his restricted understanding of who might receive this. Her response to Jesus’ rebuke moved him to expand his own horizons in this regard.

This dialectical relationship to previous understandings of Jesus becomes repeatedly necessary as the church journeys through history and enters into new contexts where the forms of evil threatening creation may be very different from previous eras. Jesus is always the Christ. But as the face of evil changes, the church has to ask, “Who is Jesus for us today?” and its understanding of this must often change to remain faithful to him.

Carter Heyward noted that Jesus stretches people to become more than they would have been without him, but that Jesus is also stretched by others to become more than he was, so that he is not trapped in the past, but speaks to the present with prophetic and pastoral power.

For instance, through the struggles, faithfulness and creativity of the black church Jesus became the Black Christ. Here the agency and stories of African-Americans entered into Jesus’ identity. Another example is the sculpture Crucified Woman by Almuth Lutkenhaus-Lackey, which incorporates the agency and experiences of women into the identity of Jesus Christ.

Crucified Woman by Almuth Lutkenhaus-Lackey. Photo courtesy of Emmanuel College, Toronto.

Through the dialogical nature of people’s relationship to Jesus aspects of their identity enter into his and they assist in his transformative work. Yet they may also hinder and deface it. In Canada from the late 1800s until the 1960s, faith in Jesus who welcomed little children helped motivate taking First Nations children away from their parents to residential schools, where they were frequently separated from other members of their families, susceptible to severe discipline, sexual abuse and often punished for speaking their own language.

As Jesus is received by people in faith, he may be stretched to become more than he was before, but he may also become less.

Yet there is a transcendence to Jesus Christ. He is risen regardless of people’s responses to him. This is part of the asymmetrical nature of his relationships and gives rise to hope for the final overcoming of evil. The sociality of Jesus then will reach beyond its past and present forms to include all peoples, bringing all of creation to fulfillment, while reversing present injustices and sources of suffering.

The sociality of Jesus Christ is a permanent dimension of his being. As others receive Jesus as the Word of God, they become part of who he is. Their responses to him, their context, struggles and faithfulness enter into his identity. As we believe in Jesus, who we are helps constitute who he is and who he will be.

*Don Schweitzer is McDougald Professor of Theology at St. Andrew's College, Saskatoon, Canada. He is the author of Contemporary Christologies (Fortress Press, 2010).

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