In the third installment to “The Vulnerability Series,” Tyler Sirokman expands upon the concept of “powerful vulnerability” by demonstrating the strength found in non-violent resistance to oppressive authority. This is not only a literal shedding of armor, but a refusal to abandon one’s selfhood during the persecutor’s attempt to strip him or her of humanity. The defiance of dehumanization serves to reinforce a different type of power — one rooted in vulnerability. Read “Powerful Vulnerability, pt. 2: The Fullness of Selfhood and a Vulnerable God” below.
Powerful Vulnerability, pt. 2: The Fullness of Selfhood and a Vulnerable God
Disclaimer: What I have to say in this post is not me knocking at your door on a Saturday morning with a Bible in my hand, asking you if you’ve heard the Good News.
In my last post, I used the example of Beowulf shedding himself of his armor and presenting himself to Grendel as a bare, weaponless body to explicate the idea that limited, vulnerable humanity has the faculty to trump ferocious, seemingly impervious inhumanity. The most compelling critique I got from a few people is that Beowulf’s vulnerability is compensated by his proclivity for violence — a fundamental quality to hypermasculinity, something that defines his humanity to a large degree. The implication presented by this critique is this: because he defaulted to hostility, Beowulf didn’t fully embrace his vulnerability, and thus, the fullness of his humanity wasn’t achieved.
No need to worry, though. I gotchu.
As one of the most pivotal historical figures in the human narrative, a Palestinian Jew by the name of Jesus of Nazareth (or better yet, Yeshua ben Yosef) set in motion one of the most prolific revolutions known to man without ever resorting to violence.
Now I get it, not everyone is religious and believes in Jesus (either as a historical figure or as the Son of God). That’s cool. But for the sake of argument, let us for the time being treat Jesus like a protagonist in a novel, and let’s uncover the didactic function of his character (just like with Beowulf). We’ll start with three fundamental conditions on which his character is built: (1) Jesus is the human manifestation of God¹ — “Immanuel,” God among us. (2) Jesus’ mission was to bring about a new kingdom on Earth that is antithetical to the “Caesar-like” kingdoms we find throughout the human narrative, in which people are systematically oppressed and socially ostracized. The kingdom of Jesus ideally consists of empowering the lowly and fostering life-giving communities. (3) Jesus, as the human manifestation of God, died a violent death at the hands of Judean religious authorities and the Roman Empire without committing a true crime or raising an army.
In order to get a better understanding of Jesus and the condition of his vulnerability, let us examine the following passage from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus has just verbally declared himself the Messiah to Pilate (the Roman governor), now making himself an enemy of the state:
“Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.
Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”
As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”
But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”
The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”
When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace.“Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” (John 19:1-12)
There are countless things going on here, each with their own theological significance. For one, this passage conveys something interesting about the identity of God as revealed through Jesus. The flogging, the slap in the face, the mockery, and the subsequent crucifixion are rooted in the idea that the process of dehumanization — in which one is violently coerced into submission, stripped of their agency — is the means by which a threat to the establishment is eradicated most thoroughly. In Jesus, we see a God who undergoes the process of dehumanization and boldly exposes the illusion of Pilate’s power over him. In doing so, we see a man assert the inherent power of his selfhood from a position of vulnerability. A brutally beaten, mocked man tells a political authority that he has no power over him, and the political authority is convinced.
Yet, despite his conviction, Pilate still has Jesus crucified out of the fear that he (Pilate) would be an enemy of the Caesar’s state and suffer the same fate of crucifixion² if he chooses not to sentence Jesus to death. Thus, we see two contrasting conditions of power at play in this instance (particularly verses 9-12): Pilate’s power is predicated on the fear of losing his power; Jesus’ power is predicated on the assertion of his autonomy, the belief that his intrinsic power is inalienable despite his vulnerability and the attempts made by Pilate and the Jewish authorities to terrorize the power out of him.
With all due respect to the historical differences, a more modern parallel to this instance is an African American man in Jim Crow South looking the Grand Master of the Klan in the face with a rope around his neck, moments away from being lynched, and telling him that the white supremacy has no power over him. In the same way this man refuses to submit his power (his humanity) to a powerful, oppressive establishment, Jesus refuses to submit his power (his selfhood) to an imperial regime.
Thus, it is out of the depths of persecution and vulnerability that Jesus achieves the fullness of his selfhood, the power that interestingly unites his divinity and humanity together. Yes, he is sentenced to death, but he leaves us the legacy of powerful vulnerability — one that challenges us to remain true to our selfhood even when another person/group/establishment attempts to strip it from us in order to perpetuate the illusion of their power.
Like last time, I end (hopefully not too abruptly) with a benediction: let us achieve the fullness of our selfhood by boldly embracing the conditions of our vulnerability, whether it is done on a small, interpersonal scale or a large, revolutionary scale. Our humanity is incomplete if we neglect, mask, or deny our vulnerability.
¹ John 1:14
² Crucifixion was a common practice during the Roman rule. Insurgents were often crucified.
*Point taken, but I don’t believe it negates the merit of my analysis.
Read “Revelation,” the previous entry of “The Vulnerability Series.”
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