Friday, April 03, 2015

Wholly Othered: A Good Friday Reflection

"...God reveals his strength in the weak, his honor in lowliness, and his splendor in the cross of Christ. His glory is not the splendor of otherworldly superior power but the beauty of love... The glory of the crucified God leads of necessity to a transformation of all values and takes away the glory from those who have proclaimed themselves divine." -J├╝rgen Moltmann (Theology of Play, 41-42). 
"Wholly Other": this is the term we often use in theology to describe God's relationship to everything else in the world, particularly us. An "other" is simply someone who is different, someone who is not you. An "other" is a neighbor, a stranger, even an enemy. To be Wholly Other, is to be in every way distinct, to have no share in you, to be completely dependent and distinct in identity from the start. It is a term that has been helpful to theologians who are concerned not to univocally confuse anything in creation with its creator. But on its own it is a dangerously misleading term. We must think a little further about what kind of "other" God really is.

"Other" is not the only term we must understand. We must also understand "other-ing" and "other-ed." Othering is marginalizing those who are different. The Othered are those subject to marginalization, those on the underside of whatever hegemonic experience is to be privileged.
Othering is violent and the othered suffers violence.

In the misguided theology of glory, "Wholly Other" is used to describe a god who lords over us. Confronted by the vast difference of God we are distanced from God. This God is nothing like us, high above us, and is so wholly other that the very thought of being in communion with us is a threat and so we must be abolished, replaced but this God. So those whose sins are still with them must be sent to hell and banished from the sight of God. In this sense the Wholly Other is wholly othering.

Now, as John Wall puts it,
"...it is possible, indeed necessary, to recognize otherness without (as some have claimed) abandoning the notion of a hermeneutical circle. “Otherness” does not mean “othering”: the marginalization of those who are different. Rather, it refers to the sense in which each singular human being is ultimately irreducible to any understanding, narration, or construction of them whatsoever."* 
 Marc Chagall's "Crucifixion in Yellow"
(This painting hung above Moltmann's
desk as he wrote The Crucified God)
We can talk about God as Wholly Other without assuming that God must be an othering other. God can be different, distinct, and yet also our neighbor and our friend with a sort of friendly responsibility toward us. We cannot subject God to one story or try to reduce God to any part of God. But God is not distant in God's distinctness. This is, indeed, key to understanding the incarnation. In Jesus of Nazareth, God who is different decided not to be distant. God who is Wholly Other chose not to be othering--"I have called you friends..." (John 15:15). And a subtle theology might stop there. But the theology of the cross, the theology by which we are confronted on Good Friday, is unable to stop there.

On Good Friday God is revealed to us as the Wholly Othered.

It is not just that God is not an oppressor (which is nice), but that the Wholly Other has been revealed as the oppressed. God is made subject to the arbitrary use of power. God, in Jesus' broken body, is violently marginalized under the hegemony of those who have declared themselves divine.

It is the case that God has done more than come close to us. God, the Wholly Other, has shared our place in becoming the Wholly Othered. God's otherness is revealed in God's suffering at our hands, God's being marginalized by us, God's pain in hearing God's beloved cry out, "crucify him!!"

And in being othered, God reveals God's closeness to those who are othered. We must look to the hungry and to the poor and expect to discover God. It is in this sense that, as Jon Sobrino has suggested, there is no salvation outside the poor. And We are invited to look to our poorest selves, our selves which are hidden in the darkness of a tomb. God reveals God's solidarity with us--even us!--when we are othered by others and by ourselves. The Wholly Other is one of us, even in the depths, even in violence, even in death. God is with us in hell and, in God's otherness, promises to bring us back to life. 

*"Childhood Studies, Hermeneutics, and Theological Ethics" in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 86, No. 4 (October 2006), pp. 523-548

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