Who is ‘abject’? A Good Friday reflection.

TRIGGER WARNING: mentions of rape, death, physical violence.

The radical Good News of the Messiah Jesus, according to John (12:27-33, brackets mine):

[Jesus said:] ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Abject and Crucified One:
Give us the grace and the courage to walk as children of light,
and include us now in the life of your coming Kingdom,
where you reign for ever and ever.

Critical theorists use the term abjection to refer to things that “disturb identity, system, [and] order”—the abject is “what does not respect borders, positions, [and] rules.” Something is abject when we feel so threatened that we have a visceral, gut-level response: fear, vomiting, revulsion. We know something is abject when we fear the world as we understand it will end—or even explode! Abjection, paradoxically, makes our worldview coherent, but only by making it the repressed centre of our understanding.

Who is ‘abject’? A young wife abused by her drunk husband so that he can maintain some delusional sense that everything is under control. A man with severe physical disabilities rolling down the street in an automated chair, drool glistening on his chin—deemed ugly and asexual. A gay man or trans* person beaten, a lesbian woman raped, by some local straight boys as their understanding of gender identity implodes and their internalized male privilege erupts. A child working in a sweatshop somewhere in Southeast Asia as a strapped-for-cash student (raises hand) thanks his lucky stars he can afford to buy shoes that won’t break the bank at the local super-corporate everything-in-one-place store. Abject: Out of sight, out of mind. If it, if they, came to mind, we would be faced with our refusal to face reality—so we don’t let them come to mind, and shove them under again, with our words–or our boots. Careful now—we might be faced with the sheer, stinking and rotten realities created by our own hearts and systems.

Jesus says in John that the world is under judgment, and “now the prince of this world will be driven out.” Jesus has been poking holes in the system by performing signs and wonders, and the keepers of the system, the ones helping to reinforce business-as-usual, want Jesus dead. If they face the reality of what Jesus represents, the whole system will come apart. So they want him to die, and Jesus knows it.

Interestingly, critical scholars who write about abjection say that we face it most in the presence of death or dying. We might be able to process death if a friend tells us about it, or if we see someone’s heartbeat flat-lining on a computer screen—these are things that exist in the symbolic order, things that are more-or-less manageable because they are at one remove from death and dying itself. But if we are present at a death: the death of a friend after an illness, or the implosion of a friendship, romance, or marriage—that moment often breaks something inside us. Reality, or at least the Shadow, comes in like a flood, sweeping to one side everything we thought we knew, everything we thought kept us safe.

According to John, Jesus has recently raised his beloved Lazarus from the dead. Let’s get specific, here: Jesus has raised Lazarus’ corpse to life again. For one incredible moment, the reality of human mortality in a world under the influence of the Satan has been utterly disrupted by the Voice of the Word made flesh calling him to life. And now the world—meaning the system under the control of its prince, the Adversary—is going to put Jesus to death. Jesus is about to become the abject, the shadowy “not-quite-a-thing” that the system has to ignore and suppress in order to continue.

BUT. (When we hear about disaster in the context of the Gospel, there’s always a ‘but’)

Hear the words of Jesus: “But when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Without violence, without fanfare, the stark reality of Jesus death has destroyed, is destroying, and will destroy Satan’s ability to keep humanity and our Earth under its control. In the foolishness of God, God makes the Abject One the light of the cosmos and the path to eternal life. The glory of God is the utterly despised and foolish Man hanging on a Roman cross. The ultimate symbol of death and the victory of the world becomes—because it is Godself who hangs there, subverting it—the gateway to the New Creation and the resurrection of the dead.

This is the scandal of the Gospel—“Christ crucified—a stumbling block to Jews” (because the Messiah can’t be a Roman criminal cursed by hanging on a tree, it makes no sense!) “and foolishness to Greeks” (the body is disgusting and corrupt, how could flesh ever save the world? It makes no sense!), “but to us who are being liberated, the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

When we remember the events of Holy Week, and especially when we gather at the foot of Christ’s cross on Good Friday, we find that we are standing in the presence of God, waiting for new life to erupt seemingly out of nowhere, from the very Centre of things. Perhaps the wrong sorts of people: the abused, and the disabled, and the Queer (along with anyone who finds that they, too, are partly responsible for the death and rot in the world), find the favour to walk as children of light. And let us make ourselves available, friends, to let God’s scandalous love, flowing through us, disrupt—if even for a moment—the hold of the Prince of this World over God’s beloved creation, which, in his Cross and Resurrection, Jesus is drawing to completion in Himself. May God grant that we find it so.

(I preached an earlier version of this reflection on Tuesday of Holy Week 2010, at Trinity College Chapel, Toronto.)


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