The Son of Man with No Name

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Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name. (AP Photo/file)

God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth … (Phil 2:9-10)

The upshot of this entire undertaking [to pray for a theology of the event] is to liberate ourselves from the anxious and obsessive search for the name … The very idea of the truth of the event is to explode the notion that there is a name that is above all other names … (John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God)

Prior to encountering the radical theology of John D. Caputo, my identity as a Christian was defined by an “anxious and obsessive” relationship to the name of Jesus. The prayer most constantly on my lips was “Jesus”, which is, arguably, the simplest of all Christian prayers, commended by many saints of the Church. Insofar as it is obsessively fixed upon a determinate name, it is the very opposite of Caputo’s idea of prayer, in which prayer comes into its own qua prayer precisely in that moment when the one who prays admits — in a radically honest confession or concession — that he has no idea to whom or what he is praying.

Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Over the years, I repeated his name, devoutly, under my breath, a thousand times. The object of this prayer — if it was a prayer — was the disclosure of a presence, the conferral of a genuine certificate of authenticity, a fulfillment of the promise that “Jesus” is “real”. Not only did this prayer fall short of its goal, it was like an infinite audio loop, completely closed upon itself — closed, as Jack Caputo would say, to the solicitation of the event that stirs within the name.

What is the “event”? The long and fascinating answer can be found in Caputo’s excellent book, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event. More briefly, I offer a pair of imaginative exercises:

  1. Imagine the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus in the gospels — not the parts about walking on water or raising people from the dead, but the parts about loving your enemies and inviting strangers off the street to your wedding reception — enacted this very day in your personal life, your workplace, your politics.
  2. Imagine unfolding a paper clip and sticking it into a live electrical socket.

Put those two experiences together. That’s the event.

Repeating the name of Jesus a thousand times, no matter how devotedly, is not the event. In fact, such a spiritual practice could very well close off contact with the event. It’s like sticking the paper clip into a dead socket. It’s a religious habit.

As long as the event that is desired with a desire beyond desire is contracted to the specific terms of a Proper Name, there will be wars of private property, battles over the copyright, over who owns that name, or who gets to speak authoritatively, with all the authority of the Name. (Caputo, The Weakness of God)

Inquisitions, persecutions, religious wars. This what comes of missing the event by fixating on the name, which might be close to what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.

These are not spiritually easy or politically correct thoughts to entertain in the Advent season, a few days before Christmas. Jesus is the Reason for the Season. Keep Christ in Christmas. Imagine a different sign lit up in blinking lights or different words on the marque outside the church:

Whoever receives me, receives not me, but him who sent me.

The high Christology and strong Eucharistic theology animating my Jesus prayer have often stumbled over those words of Christ. How can it be that I do not receive Jesus when I receive Jesus? Happily (by my accounting of religious happiness), such sayings that de-center a Jesus-centric theology have been compensated for by many other words of Christ in red that put the name and person of Jesus at center stage. But if the properly Christocentric sayings of Christ have shored up my strong theology, have they helped me to take up a truly radical prayer? The sort of prayer in which I confess and concede that I haven’t a clue to whom I’m praying?

The Son of Man, unlike the foxes, is homeless, and true to his solidarity with the nothings and nobodies of the world, nameless. Many of his sayings are painfully obscure. He has to be pointed out to the thugs who come to arrest him. There is no disclosure of presence, no certificate of authenticity. All the while, the event stirs, to the point of boiling.

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Seven Words and the Enemies of Thought

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The Trump administration has issued a list of seven words the CDC is forbidden to use in budget documents for 2018. Among these is the word “fetus”, now banned from CDC documents used in preparing budgets for scientific work addressing public health threats to pregnant women and their unborn children.

The alternative terminology forced upon the CDC is clearly intended to freight scientific discourse — and the budgetary process supporting scientific research — with the politics of abortion. To what end? What are such cynical language games intended to accomplish? Does the Trump administration seriously believe that coercing the CDC to say “unborn child” instead of “fetus” when talking about how to fund efforts against the Zika virus will take abortion out of play?

No one is going to be fooled or converted by this Orwellian maneuver. If anything, people who see abortion as a legitimate strategy in the battle against Zika will be hardened in their resolve. Hearts and minds are never won by attempts at fascistic control over language and thought. Everyone, including pro-life Christians, should resist.

Oh say, can you see …

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weeping flag

People who protest during the anthem know what the flag stands for. They are fully aware of the meaning of the flag. They are not protesting the flag. They are protesting specific social injustices that exist in this country, which cannot be denied, and which those who protest believe are tragic contradictions of the flag and its meaning. That’s why they take a knee.

It is injustice itself, not the people who protest injustice, that gives disrespect to the flag. Taking a knee should be seen in a prophetic light, as a lamentation of the rude slap given the flag each time injustice is done to the vulnerable and marginalized, whom the flag is supposed to protect. Think of the flag thus wounded, and the protesters bearing witness to the wound.

“Oh say, can you see …”, indeed.

A Sign of Contradiction

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national anthem

Racial injustice is a contradiction of the lofty ideals symbolized by our patriotic pre-game rituals. As we participate in these rituals, do we give thought to the contradictions? If we do not, it might be the case that our participation in patriotic rituals lacks sufficient depth. Therefore, we should be grateful to anyone who makes the effort to wrench us from a civic participation that has become all too habitual.

Jesus on Divorce

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Jesus’ “hard teaching” on divorce (Mt 5:31-32) is a rebuke of hypocrites and a call of mercy to all:

The Rebuke
In the time of Jesus, when a Jew “put away” his wife with a bill of divorce (remember, only the men were considered observant Jews), he cast her out to the margins of society. Essentially, he made her an adulterer and a prostitute. Not only did Jesus call attention to the extreme injustice of this situation, he delivered this zinger to the hypocritical Jewish male: if you do this to your wife, you make yourself an adulterer. This stinging rebuke, not the prohibition of divorce per se, is what made Jesus’ (male) audience want to kill him.

The Call of Mercy
Like many of the “You have heard … I’m here to tell you …” pairings in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ saying on divorce serves to underscore the absolute impossibility of achieving the level of moral perfection demanded of an all-perfect God. Jesus turns the tables and suggests that since a loving Father would not demand the impossible of his children, perfection is not, after all, what God demands. The Lord demands mercy, which Jesus demonstrates in his every word and deed, including the word recorded at Mt 5:31-32.

DACA and “Law and Order” Christians

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I hear from some Christians, including Catholics, that we should not be outraged by the cruel rescission of DACA and the injustice it visits upon over half a million children and young adults who’ve only known America as their home. I’m told by my fellow Christians that we should reserve our outrage for the (alleged) illegality of Obama’s executive action extending DACA. “We’re a nation of laws,” they scold. Well, my bible reminds me that one thing was certain to elicit the outrage of Christ: people who cling zealously and selectively to the letter of the law, while neglecting the weightier matters of the law, such as justice and mercy (cf. Mt 23:23). There’s a word for that: pharisaism.

I understand why these “law and order” Christians might be upset when Pope Francis frames the DACA rescission as anti-family or contrary to pro-life principles. They wish the Pope would see that their goal is not to break up families, but to preserve the unity of DACA families within the “rule of law”. Many such people are sympathetic to the plight of the so-called Dreamers, as I’ve learned in recent conversations.

I would simply ask these Christian conservatives to consider how this rescission is seen and felt by those who are most vulnerable to its potentially dreadful affects, especially when viewed against the backdrop of Trump’s extreme nationalist rhetoric, the virulence of which was the most salient characteristic of the Trump “brand” during the presidential campaign. Remember: “We’re going to get them all out!” That was in reference to the promised deportation of all 11 million undocumented immigrants. Do you really expect the Dreamers to forget that rhetoric? Do you really expect them to trust Trump when he says “You’ve got nothing to worry about”?

The argument is offered that the Dreamers are suffering in a “prison” of “legal limbo”, and Trump’s intention is to free them by respecting the “rule of law”. It might be worth considering that the Dreamers are far less afraid of their current state of “legal limbo”, than they are of the “rule of law”, when the latter conveys the aura of ICE vans and deportation cages.

Coffee with Alex Jones

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Alex Jones got coffee thrown in his face while ranting and disturbing the peace in downtown Seattle this week. Jones was haranguing “brainwashed” pedestrians about the MSM’s refusal to call “ISLAMIC terrorism” by name. Frankly, I would love it if Alex Jones approached me on the street with his bullshit theories. Here’s what I’d tell him:

There isn’t an educated person in the world who doesn’t understand there is a connection between the religion of Islam and acts of terror carried out by Muslims in the name of Islam. No one is hiding this information from us. It’s out there in plain sight and everyone gets it. When someone says, “ISIS has nothing to do with Islam”, that’s basically like saying “Shooting abortionists has nothing to do with Christianity”. Saying that sort of thing isn’t to literally deny any connection at all between the religion in question and the (evil) act done the religion’s name. It is precisely to bring into focus what is essential to the religion, and what is a perverse deviation.

The question is, what is the precise nature of this connection between the religion of Islam and Islamic terrorism? This is a complex question and there is no simple answer to it, unless you’re a simpleton. Nothing is gained by shouting “ISLAMIC terrorism” from the rooftops, except to marginalize every Muslim and expose an entire religious community to hate crimes by neo-Nazis and other right-wing goons.