Pauline Universalism (Pt. 1)

Jesus and those who have no place

Jesus died as the archetypal ‘other.’ Jesus died anathema. Every identity be it economic, political, social, religious, was stripped from him as he was beaten, flogged and nailed up on a Roman cross to asphyxiate.

We might say at this point Jesus became nothing but a human person. Cursed and forsaken by all, Jesus was nothing but a man. (The perfect way for Romans to advertise their dominance – working with a blank canvas we might say.)

Slavoj Zizek draws out how this notion functions profoundly, on a political level, in ‘The Puppet and The Dwarf,’

A phenomenon which, for the first time, appeared in Ancient Greece when the members of demos (those with no firmly determined place in the hierarchical social edifice) not only demanded that their voice be heard against those in power, those who exerted social control – that is, they not only protested the wrong (le tort) they suffered, and wanted their voice to be heard, to be recognized as included in the public sphere, on an equal footing with the ruling oligarchy and aristocracy – even more, they, the excluded, those with no fixed place within the social edifice, presented themselves as the representatives, the stand-ins, for the Whole of Society, for the true Universality (‘we – the “nothing”, not counted in the order – are the people, we are All against others who stand only
for their particular privileged interest’). (p64)

Is this not continuous with Jesus himself? At the heart of Christianity we can see quite clearly this move to universality in the one who had “no fixed place within the social edifice,” as the crucified, excluded, cursed and forsaken one, the one who when crucified was nothing but a man becomes the resurrected one who stands for “true Universality” claims, “all authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.” The excluded one is vindicated in the resurrection as “Lord of all.”

An Example: An Olympian

The Olympics this year actually saw a wonderful example of this sort occur when South Sudanese athlete Guor Marial claimed that he was running the Olympic marathon as one “representing the world.”

Marial fled Sudan, where he had lived as refugee, during the civil war there, moving to Cairo and then the US. South Sudan, which now exists in it’s right as a nation, has not yet joined the Olympic movement – meaning Marial could run for them.

It is fascinating that Marial’s running on behalf of the world sees something of the above play out; the once oppressed, alienated refugee, “who had no place in the social edifice,” takes upon himself a universality, daring to represent the whole because his particular political identity has been allowed some distance from him in such a way that he has freed to be nothing but a human, representing “the Whole of Society.”

Crucifixion as identity dispossession

In all of this we can see that the crucifixion (or symbolic crucifixions, such as impoverishment or exile) function(s) as a dispossessing event, shearing away particular and peculiar; inherent and inherited, identities. It is in this that one becomes human in such a way as to become a universal character.

What it is vital to note is that in the case of Jesus, as the resurrected one he is still the crucified one. Jesus is “Lord of all” because he was anathematized from Roman and Jewish society on a cross. Jesus as resurrected Lord still bears the scars of his crucifixion – Jesus is who he is in his universal position as ‘Lord of Heaven and Earth’ because he is and will always be the one who received “true Universality” by way of his being dispossessed of all particular and inherited identities in crucifixion.

Zizek and radical universalism

It is with this in mind that we can consider that there is a universalism embedded within the Christian faith. This is not simply the conservative formulation that insists “the gospel is a message to be communicated to all.” Nor is it merely the liberal “everyone gets saved.”

This universalism is what has been called a “radical universalism” because of its ever historic, material implications. This universalism cuts through and dispossesses people of every currently existing identity; acting as a division that aims at uniting all within the new, supremely political collective.

Zizek puts it this way,

Radical universality “covers all its particular content” precisely insofar as it is linked to the Remainder – its logic is: “it is those who are excluded, with no proper place within the global order, who directly embody true universality, who represent the Whole in contrast to all others who stand only for their particular interests.” Lacking any specific difference, such a paradoxical element stands for the absolute difference, for pure Difference as such. In this precise sense, Pauline universality is not mute universality as the empty neutral container of its particular content, but a “struggling universality,” a universality the actual existence of which is a radical division which cuts through the entire particular content. (p109)

With that to chew on I shall take up further elaboration on the particularly Christian consequences of these ideas tomorrow – keep your eyes open for the links then, if you’re interested.

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