All That Jazz

Editorial by Art Dewey

From The Fourth R
Volume 31, Issue 4
July – August 2018
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As we veer into the summer with politicians marching conspicuously in Fourth of July parades that will launch them into the fall elections, I find myself once again thinking about our American civic religion. Despite protestations to the contrary—that this country keeps a sharp boundary between religion and state—we know (even without the ongoing pandering to evangelicals by both our president and vice-president) that “it ain’t necessarily so.” All one has to do is to stand in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and look up, gazing on the fresco by the Greek-Italian artist Constantino Brumidi. As you steady your eye you may be surprised to see George Washington, exalted and ascending, flanked by the goddesses of Liberty (to his right) and Victory (to his left). Washington is draped in royal purple with a rainbow arched beneath his feet. Thirteen maidens, symbolizing the original colonies, fi ll out the heavenly circle (Martha Washington somehow was not invited to this celestial celebration). It took Brumidi eleven months to paint this fresco as the Civil War came to a close. Washington was already a national icon and now he was a god. Lincoln would soon follow.

Ceiling fresco in the Rotunda of the US Capitol

Many Americans are not only content with this display of national fervor but also underscore this heavenly appointment by noting that such an elevation (apotheosis in Greek) follows the example set by Jesus. Does not Paul deliver a hymn (Phil 2:6–11) describing how Jesus was exalted to the glory of God? Indeed, a quick reading of the verses in question would seem to support such a claim. Jesus is acclaimed “Anointed” and “lord” for his steadfast obedience even onto death on the cross (Phil 2:8). Moreover, scholars have pointed out how this exaltation of Jesus resembles the deification of Greek and Roman rulers. Alexander left for the heavens after conquering the Persians and setting the foundation of a “civilized,” that is, Greek, world. Augustus was lauded and set on the throne of Jupiter for bringing peace and prosperity to the world. Jesus follows in their mold.

But there is something peculiar about this hymn in Philippians. When Paul writes that Jesus was “born in the image of God,” he immediately qualifies this by noting that Jesus did not regard “being like God” as “something to use for his own advantage” (Phil 2:6). Now if one wanted in the first century to understand what the divine was like, one could simply view the imperial statues in the city marketplace. Both artwork and public worship announced that being like a god entailed having a decided advantage and control over others. Yet, here Paul notes that Jesus did not succumb to that temptation to “be like God.” In contrast to that imperial option, Jesus “rid himself of such vain pretension” (Phil 2:7) and accepted his human limitation. Unlike the Homeric gods and goddesses who would appear human but rapidly retreat at the approach of death, Jesus’ solidarity with humanity went all the way into death.

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Paul then says that God recognized Jesus for this refusal to be other than human. Paul couches what God does in imperial terms:

God raised him higher than anyone and awarded him the title that is above all others, so that on hearing the name “Jesus,” every knee should bend, above the earth, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue declare “Jesus the Anointed is lord!” to the majestic honor of God, our great Benefactor. (Phil 2:9–11)

But is this language not precisely a continuation of the imperial logic? Has not Jesus become the Emperor? Is this not an intimation of what actually happens in full force in the fourth century when Emperor Theodosius declares Christianity the religion of the Empire? And those who see in the apotheosis of our American Founding Fathers a continuation of a victory thread running from Jesus to Washington, are they not correct?

It would seem so. The choice of words always entails promise and limitation. To use such imperial language draws on the social, political, and theological assumptions of the first century. It is almost automatic that one would lean in that direction. But there is a nagging note. To the declaration that Jesus “became trustfully obedient all the way to death” Paul appends the simple words, “even to death by crucifixion.”

Such a phrase is a game changer. To be crucified was not in the job description of the ancient hero or ruler. Rather, crucifixion meant a total social shaming. The victim was reduced to nothing. His memory, along with his body, was to be deleted from the social register. Not even his relatives and friends would want to enshrine this trauma. If one wants to understand the traumatic reality of ancient crucifixion just turn to the pages of James Allen’s Without Sanctuary. Both as a book and website Without Sanctuary displays the postcards that were produced to celebrate lynchings carried out in the Jim Crow era. Here you can see crowds “enjoying the view” of a human being tortured, castrated, burnt, and hung. These postcards documented white supremacy and served as a warning to those who would “get uppity.”

Now go back to the words of Paul “even to death by crucifixion.” If you catch the horror of what Jesus endured, then the subsequent declaration of “Anointed” and “lord” sounds odd. In fact, the title “lord” (kurios in Greek) conveys the meaning of “master.” Imagine that tortured one hanging from a tree before a gawking crowd. Call that nobody “master”! When you do that, you see that Paul was not simply supplying an imperial sing-a-long. He was anticipating what African Americans did to American music. They transformed it into jazz, turning the world topsy-turvy. Try replacing the transcendent Washington with an unarmed black youth shot dead by police. How long would the Capitol Rotunda stand?

Photo of Arthur Dewey

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.

Cover of the July and August 2018 issue of The Fourth R

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