New Identity in Christ 11/26/2017
Sojourn Sermon – Matthew 25:31-46 – November 26, 2017
For the past few years I’ve been a little obsessed with the performance artist Andy Kaufman. Is everyone familiar with Andy Kaufman? He’s often described as a comedian, but he resisted this notion. He called himself a “song and dance man,” claiming he had never told a joke. And if you look at his career, you might be able to see where he was coming from. It would be difficult to take his acts and point out the jokes. He once concluded a performance at Carnegie Hall by taking the entire audience out to milk and cookies.
In the early 80s he declared himself the Intergender Wrestling Champion of the World after challenging several women to wrestling matches. This stunt caught the attention of a professional wrestler named Jerry Lawler, who challenged Kaufman. Kaufman accepted, and he was seriously injured in this match hospital documents later confirmed. After months in a neck brace, Kaufman confronted Lawler on live TV while appearing Letterman. Lawler then slapped Kaufman in the face and Kaufman went on an explicit tirade, threatening to sue Lawler for assault. A decade later, after Kaufman’s death it was revealed that the entire stunt, from the wrestling match through to the confrontation on Letterman, had been an elaborate hoax. Only Kaufman and Lawler and Kaufman’s producer knew about it. Even David Letterman had been left out of the loop.
Kaufman cultivated a whole host of alternate personalities. His most famous was dubbed “Foreign Guy,” and this alternate personality eventually morphed into his iconic character Latka, which he played on the sitcom Taxi. None of Kaufman’s characters, however, took on as much of a life of their own as his character Tony Clifton did. Clifton was a rude and out spoken lounge singer who often opened for Kaufman. Clifton and Kaufman vehemently denied that they were the same person. Clifton was highly critical of Kaufman, saying that Kaufman was trying to ride his coat tails. At times Clifton would be played by Kaufman’s brother Michael or his agent Bob Zmuda, leading to serious questions about whether or not they were in fact the same person. Even when Clifton made cameos on Taxi, which Kaufman insisted would be stipulated in a clause in Kaufman’s contract, Clifton was paid as an independent actor.
Building on the work of Philip Auslander, gender and cultural theorist Brent Malin says, “By constantly putting on different personae, Andy Kaufman could never be pinned down to a single, fixed identity, and thus in habited a kind of fluid space.”
Even in his personal life, people who thought they knew Kaufman often had conflicting ideas of who he was. Some of his friend’s believed he was a vegetarian, others knew that we woke up every morning to a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Some friend’s believed he was an observant orthodox Jew. Marilu Henner recounts a time when she found him begging on the sidewalk. Because much of his career was focus on elaborate hoaxes and ruses, many believed that he faked his own death when he died of lung cancer in 1984. Some still do, egged on by the fact that Zmuda and Michael continued to perform as Tony Clifton.
There are a number of ideas about why Andy Kaufman might have committed himself to so many different and conflicting identities and personae. Some have suggested he was simply a pathological liar. Other say that he exhibited tendencies associated with people on the Autism spectrum, particularly Asperger’s Syndrome. Critical theorists, however, remember Kaufman as offering a searing critique of fixed identity, however intentional or unintentional it may have been, that was years before his time.
Since the latter half the 20th century, cultural and critical theorist have suggested that social norms and mores are the primary materials used in identity construction. Society and cultural ideals dictate what it means to carry specific identifiers. Cultural norms, therefore, dictate what it means to be male, female, black, white and so on. This means, according to postmodern critical theorists, that our identities aren’t fixed because they are socially and culturally situated. Instead, identity depends on a kind of performance. We are socialized to conform to social and cultural understandings of what it means to be black, white, male, female and so on. This is often referred to as identity performance.
If we play close attention to our language, we will notice that there are a number of clues embedded in our language about identity that point to identity as a kind of performance. For example, we discover in the etymology of the word “person” that it is derived from the Latin persona, which originally referred to the masks that actors wore in ancient theater. The word “role” as in “gender roles” or the “role” an actor would play corresponds to a notion of performance both in the literal notion, what one does in a theater production, and normative social and cultural norms that dictate the meaning of, say, gender in society.
These performances, or social and cultural norms that govern identity formation, have, historically, been structured around asymmetrical power relations and used to reinforce relationships by suggesting these performances are fixed in biology. We see this, for example, in gender and race performance, where the cultural and social norms that situate male, female, black, or white identities have been thought to more than merely cultural/social constructions, but rather represent something solid.
The majority of critical theorists have rejected this notion and have dedicated their work either to unveiling the ways in which cultures and power structure have sought to maintain these systems of identity performance in order to maintain social and cultural dominance or illuminating and praising the ways these identity performances have been resisted. Kaufman’s work, some have claimed, did just that. His ability to inhabit multiple, often conflicting, identities exposed a fluidity of identity, proving that identity isn’t so much about who you are but how other people, or more properly, how a culture understands you.
In his book, The Christian Imagination, Willie Jennings argues that Christianity has the breathtakingly powerful potential to reimagine social space, to foster membership, connection, belonging, and intimacy. He goes on to say, “Yet it is precisely the episodic character of this capacity among Christians that indicates something is deeply, painfully amiss.” In other words, this capacity to reimagine social space and ways that foster connection and belonging isn’t characteristic of the whole Christian story. There are moments, but they are single episodes. Jennings book attempts to describe that what has been amiss: that identity formation has, since the sixteenth century, been viewed through the universalizing white colonialist gaze and that we have yet to fully reckon with the colonial logic we’ve inherited. And his book focuses on the reality that the Church, rather than resisting these notions, has actually provided much of the framework for how the colonial project used identity formation to privilege some and disempower others.
This is something we’ve yet to escape. While the colonial project has changed in scope and in focus, much of the damage wrought on identity formation is still with us. We see this in the tendency of dominate cultures to universalize, to judge based on its own experience, and to deny that identities have anything to do with our social situation. In our own country, this rhetoric sounds like, if you work hard, follow the law your situation will improve whether your black, white, male female, whatever. But as Richard Dyer notes, “the claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of all humanity.” Such rhetoric fails to account for how identity formation is situated in a hierarchical system that privilege certain identities over others.
The earliest Christian’s saw Jesus as a problem for schemes of identity formation that privileged some and disempowered others. They knew that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection had serious implications for understanding identity. Paul observes in Galatians 3, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
See, the person of Jesus was terribly disruptive to identity. Not only was he an authoritative teacher and healer but he sought to be among the poor and the sinful. And he often said things that implied he was something more, that he had some sort of special connection to God that no other prophet before him had. And, after the resurrection, he turned out to be unbound by the structures of life and death. His great authority as the anointed Christ, Son of God, didn’t keep him from experiencing life as some of the world most reviled do, and so Paul says of him in Philippians 2, Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
This is the picture of Jesus we get in our text for today. This, the final section of Jesus’ final discourse in Matthew tells the story of a king, the Son of Man, as the texts refers to him, and this Son of Man has in his authority to judge between the wicked and the righteous, those who will inherit the kingdom and those who will depart from his presence into “the eternal fires prepared for the devil and his angels.”
This image of the Son of Man as King and having great authority is reminiscent of the imagery we find in the Daniel 7 passage we read earlier. There we see this great throne room, where the Ancient One is joined by a Son of Man who is given everlasting dominion.
These two scene are classic examples of what commonly referred to as Apocalyptic literature. This term apocalypse has been terribly misunderstood in our own day. We often think of it as referring to the end times or prophecies about what it to happen in the last days. But the Greek word apocalypse really means unveiling. Almost like the last scene of the Wizard of Oz, where the wizard is proven to be a man behind the curtain. Apocalypse is attempting to show its readers the behind the curtain. So the classically defining characteristic of apocalyptic literature are that it uses other wordily imagery to reveal or uncover how God is at work in the world.
And so we have these two scenes in Daniel and in Matthew, where these cosmic rulers are described as being among the angels and sitting on thrones of glory, and they are being depicted as being the true rulers of the cosmos. This kind of literature grew to be deeply important to the Jewish people because so often they found themselves under the feet of worldly, global powers and rule that depicted themselves as deified cosmic rulers. The Babylonians, or perhaps the Greek depending on how you date it, in Daniel and the Romans in Matthew. Apocalyptic literature, therefore, is subversive. It promotes the idea that the power that be aren’t really in power. It says to its readers that true power lay not with kings and princes, but with God and that God’s plans will ultimately be carried out in the universe.
Here in Matthew’s text, we see Jesus, the Son of Man, depicted as the one with ultimate authority, higher even than that authority of Rome. But this is where it gets tricky because just a few verses later the king, Jesus, is identified as being among the “least of these.” The Greek here is mikros, literality insignificant. Those who are hungry, or in prison, or are naked, or are strangers, those who are the most insignificant among you, I am among them. When they are hungry, I am too. When they are naked, I am too. When they are in prison, I am too. When they are strangers, I am too.
Here is an image of the true power in the universe, Jesus, the Son of Man coming on the clouds, siting on the throne of glory with the angels, judging between the nations. And yet in that same image, here are the least powerful in the universe. The mikros, the insignificants ones, and there is Jesus among them too. Jesus is simultaneously inhabiting multiple, contradictory identities. We realize in this text that when you pull back the curtain, hierarchically situated identity performance breaks down in perhaps the most dramatic way possible because each extreme identity on the spectrum of power is inhabited by the same person.
It doesn’t stop there, however. Biblical scholar Jeannine Brown notes that throughout Matthew, Jesus’ authority is offered to the disciples and his followers through his presence. “Thus,” she says, “just as Jesus has shared the disadvantages and marginalization of the least with them, so the least now aligned with his power and authority via his presence.” Like Jesus, the least of these inhabit multiple, contradictory identities. Those who lack power and authority, have it.
Of course, this kind of language is all over the NT. The last will be first, the first will be last. The crucified criminal is King of the universe. Gentiles become heirs to the promise of Abraham. And it is important to see this because the Christ event offers a serious challenge to the concept of a fixed identity. Not only are we offered a new identity in Christ, but we are challenged to see how social and cultural norms construct identity in ways that can be troublingly harmful to whole communities of people and that identity performance often plays out in tragic and violent ways. Taken to its extreme we see things like the events in Charlottesville. This is not to say that as Christians, we become color blind or anything like that. It is to say that as Christians we realize that identity is fluid and difficult to understand because it ultimately revolves around mysteries like incarnation and creation and a triune God, and that any attempt to situate identity around any other foci, like the universalizing normativity of the colonial project, are just lies.
So often we read this text as an admonition to be charitable, or hospitable, or really that the gospel is about acting in a certain way. There are elements of that in this text. But this text is ultimately an apocalypse. It is an invitation to reimagine social space, as Jennings put it. It is an invitation to see the world through the lens of the Christ event, where God took on flesh and dwelled among us. Too often we run the risk of being like fish in water, unaware of how power and systems of identity formation privilege some and disempower others, but we know from that old African American spiritual, “God’s going to trouble the water.”
This is why, I think, I am so drawn to Andy Kaufman. When we get too comfortable in who we are and who we think we are, we need someone who troubles the water.