This post comes out a discussion we had yesterday on Jurgen Moltmann's The Way of Jesus Christ in my Contemporary Theology class.
In his section on "The Messianic Perspective," Moltmann wrestles with Buber's understanding of the distinction between the "Messiah" and the "Son of Man" within the tradition of Jewish Messianic expectation, and uses that as an entry point to discuss his understanding of the role of Jesus as the Christ in a post-Holocaust world. Here Moltmann is interested in asserting the universal nature of Jesus' role as the Christ without totally trampling Judaism, or articulating some abhorrent concept of supercessionism. In this his attempt is, I think, admirable. He is wrestling with his own beliefs about Jesus in light of the problem of Jewish-Christian relations, which in light of the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism (which culminated in the Holocaust) is necessary for any responsible Christian theologian.
However, some of what he says greatly troubled students in my class. Interestingly, the two lines on which we spent most of our time is discussion - while they set up his attempt to understand Jesus in a way that is sensitive to what he calls "the Jewish 'no'" to Jesus as the Christ - don't explicitly have to do with Jewish-Christian relations. Instead, they have to do with the kinds of social and material conditions that he sees as the concern of the "Kingdom of God." In these lines many of my fellow student heard Moltmann articulating what we might call a "multiple Jesus theory" - that is, that Jesus is not the same person for different people:
The same Christ Jesus is not the same for everyone, because people are different. He has one profile for the poor and another for the rich, one profile for the sick and another for the healthy.
While this should be read in the immediate context of Moltmann's concern for understanding differences between Christians and Jews concerning both Messianic hope and the meaning and significance of Jesus (the line that follows these two lines is, after all, "Accordingly, this same Christ Jesus has one particular profile for Jews and another for Gentiles,"), and while Moltmann's wading into the turbulent waters of Jewish-Christian relations in light of Christian claims about Jesus, it is no accident that Moltmann articulates a difference not only between Jesus' profile for Jews and Gentiles, but also between his profile for the poor and the rich, the sick and the healthy.
To this one could add any number of other divisions: black and white, gay and straight, first world and two-thirds world, etc.
That Jesus is not seen the same way by different people is obvious. Jesus looks very different in an Evangelical church than in a Mainline church. Jesus looks very different in a black church than a white church. Jesus looks very different in Asia than he does in Europe.
And, not only does Jesus look different, he has very different concerns. The message and meaning of Jesus varies dramatically from setting to setting, at least in terms of how it is received and understood. But, if this is all that Moltmann means, he is articulating something painfully obvious, without offering any real guidance for how faithful Christians should respond to this situation.
After all, the white Jesus is not just cosmetically different from the black Jesus: he has a totally different ethical, theological, and political agenda. The poor Jesus is not just cosmetically different from the rich Jesus: again, he has a totally different ethical, theological and political agenda. Not only is Jesus' ministry - his message and meaning - different in different settings, Jesus is used differently by different groups of Christians.
The maleness of the human Jesus has been used by many churches throughout Christian history to deny ordination to women. If Jesus is a man, and if it is not accidental (as these churches might claim) that Jesus is a man, then how can women represent Christ, who is essentially (rather than accidentally) male? Similarly, in the American context the normative image of Jesus as white has been used to deny both the full humanity blacks, as well as their participation in the imago Dei. Jesus' concern in many Evangelical churches for personal salvation rather than political and systemic transformation has been used to justify an ethos that looks to an honest reader of the Gospels very little like the ethos of Jesus.
But if it is simply a plain fact - without any value or significance - that Jesus is different for different people, how can anyone's reading of Jesus be used to call anyone else's reading of Jesus into question? If Jesus is so amorphous in nature that he is in fact a different person for different people, can anyone call the white Jesus, or the rich Jesus, or the gay-bashing Jesus, or even the gun-toting Jesus an idolatrous creation by a corrupt people crafting their own Jesus to baptize their prejudices and call them "good"?
These were the very valid concerns of many in class yesterday as we discussed Moltmann's own reading of Jesus and its Christological implications. I can't claim to be an expert on Moltmann, and I certainly shared some of the concerns of those in the room who thought that Moltmann's apparent positing of multiple Jesuses (spell check is going to love my pluralizing "Jesus"!) doesn't leave much room for a prophetic critique of the misuses of Jesus through history. This is, after all, one of the main problems with postmodernism. If there is no grand meta-narrative, no universally valid truth-claim (and I agree that there isn't) by what means can one mediate between competing narratives or truth-claims?
And when these narratives or claims concern Jesus - who has been used by some many different kinds of people in so many varying ways, both good and bad - the situation is even more urgent.
But I think that there is a quite charitable and even helpful way to read Moltmann's articulation of different profiles for Jesus among different kinds of people. While of course this claim can be a valueless claim that legitimates the use of Jesus by some groups to abuse and marginalize others, it can also be a powerfully prophetic claim that acknowledges the different needs of and demands on different groups of people.
This is perhaps most obvious in Moltmann's articulation of a difference between Jesus' profile among the rich and the poor. While this can be used to state the obvious - that the Jesus of the rich in infinitely less concerned with economic justice than the Jesus of the poor - it can also be used in a very different way. One could easily say, as I hear Moltmann saying by his inclusion of God's concern for the poor in his later articulation of the Kingdom of God, that the Jesus of the rich and the Jesus of the poor differ not in their essential nature, but in their message to and demands on their respective communities.
That is to say that, perhaps to say that Jesus has a different profile among the rich than among the poor is not just to state the historical fact that among the rich Jesus' concern for economic justice is minimalized; but rather, it is to say that to the rich Jesus has a very different message and a very different call than he does to the poor. It could mean something more like this.
To the rich, Jesus says: "Anyone who would come after me must take up their cross and follow me."
And to the poor, Jesus says: "Come to me, all who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
These are very different messages to very different communities, but they are both liberative. The poor, those on the margins of society, do not have to be invited to take up their cross. They are crucified daily. And so from Jesus they receive a very different message, a very different invitation. Rather than being invited into suffering, they are invited into comfort. But those who are comfortable in the midst of this fallen world, so characterized by injustice and inequity, they are invited to the cross.
This invitation to the cross is a liberating invitation, because it frees the rich from their slavery to money, it frees the powerful from their slavery to oppressing. This is because, ultimately, the rich, the powerful, the oppressor, is held every bit as captive as the poor, the powerless, the one under the thumb of the worldly powers. To wield power over others, to idolize wealth and to justify oppression, is to be estranged from God and from one's own true nature. This as much as the plight of the poor, is within the realm of God's concern.
But this situation demands a different cure. And so to the rich Jesus appears one way, and to the poor another, because rich and poor, sick and healthy, black and white, gay and straight, all have different needs. But the same Jesus who has so many profiles appears to all and offers reconciliation to all, even if that appearance and that reconciliation looks different for each.
This is at least one viable way to read Moltmann here.
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