Can I wear your clothes? (missions and alienation)

Portrait of Nicolas Trigault in Chinese Costume, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1617


The early Jesuit missionaries to China translated themselves into the native garb. As a religious order, they first wore buddhist robes, projecting an image as new, religious messengers. The first missionary, Michele Ruggieri (1543-1607) made the decision, saying, “Now the robes are being cut and soon we will be made into Chinese” (quoted in __Journey to the East__ by Liam Matthew Brockey, p. 33). The robes, however, were soon dropped, as the missionaries decided on a new image: as educated literati. The Buddhist monks were not as socially powerful as Ruggieri imagined; his first companion, Matteo Ricci, donned the outfit of a mandarin scholar (of Confucius), and even grew out his hair and beard so as to allay himself more closely with this educated and socially powerful class. When describing his new costume, Ricci declared that the robes were “very similar to what the Venetians use in Venice” (43).

The robes were habitable because familiar: the missionaries could see themselves in those clothes. The robes were habitable because the Chinese were habitable: soon we will be made into Chinese. Not so different. Literate. Educated. Hierarchically organized. A different experience from the Africans. Primitives. Without proper clothing, proper society, or proper religion. Not even the inverse, but the absence: a human void (quick, take the empty land!).

If I had time, I would love to investigate missionary fashion. Clothing as the marker of a habitable population. A people we think approximates us. Or is too far away. Whose outfits–or lack there of–suggest a human absence. The naked savage. Lacking civilization. A bad thing. Then a good thing. When people tired of civilization. The noble savage. We can now see ourselves in their naked bodies.

Our image of ourselves, standing in between. No encounter. We create the identities. Who do you say you are? No response. Or, every response, a translation. Who do I think you say you are? What? I can’t understand you. What language are you speaking? (I was told earlier this week, by an Iraqi refugee, that I would soon learn to speak refugee….)

There is no point lamenting our inability to have a direct encounter. We can never move beyond ourselves. We must be thrust out of the way. From outside. Someone must take our place. If they dare.

Salvation means alienation, and “salvation is of the Jews” (Jn. 4.22). And because people will not be alienated even for their own salvation, they roll away the alienation on to the Jew (Barth, CD I/2, 511).

Let us not lie to ourselves. Any “alienation” that comes easy is another form of donning chinese clothes. An easy move. I have already absorbed them. They can reflect me. I can see myself in them. They are habitable, so I will wear their clothes. No alienation, just absorption. In their clothes, I translate them. More so, I absorb them. Engulf them from within. I hypostasize their culture. It is I who hold up their lifeless clothes. It is I who animate. It is I who am….the Spirit.

Blasphemy. The dangerous edge of empathy, of seeing myself in others. A loving attack, all the more vicious because it is an empathy over which I am the master. The terms are under my control. I choose whose clothes I will wear.

No one will be alienated, not even for salvation. It is an offer we refuse, a gift we reject. But to refuse our own alienation, to reject salvation, is to…turn against the Jews. To roll off our alienation and place it on another, the Jews (how often “primitive” African religion was understood as a degraded form of Judaism…).

We cannot be saved “unless we are prepared to become Jews with the Jews.” Barth penned this in the 1930s. “By being hostile to Jewish blood, the world simply proves that it is the world: blind and deaf and stupid to the ways of God” (511). “In the Jew, the non-Jew has to recognize himself…and in the Jew he has to recognize Christ, the Messiah of Israel” (511). The one we rejected, the one on whom we rolled off our alienation, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Let us be clear: the one who comes to displace us is the one we want to kill. The one we do kill. But, by the grace of God, the one who lives again!

Christ’s flesh, a space of alienation. A wound. The stigmata–an opening of the flesh, a making of space. A way of becoming habitable by what is foreign.

In Jesus, we are brought out of the dialectic of habitation. No longer are you the one who threatens to occupy me, to cut open my flesh. Nor I to you. A space exists between us, which neither of us can occupy, or, more properly, a space which already occupies us both: a shared wound.

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

To live for the one who died and was raised for us. It is a call to alienation; to salvation.

It’s a call we know we will resist.

Not a matter of changing clothes then. Of entering “the other.” Of celebrating difference. The offer of alienation is a devastating offer. A gift of becoming ill at ease. It makes us hesitate. We no longer know where we stand. Or, more precisely, we finally see that where we stand (and who we are) is never something we can possess. We cannot speak the truth of who we are. Someone stands in our way, blocking our vision, halting our speech. It is either a terrifying assault. Or a gift of joy. This one is the end of ourselves–hallelujah!

In the end, the clothes don’t matter. You are never a space I can inhabit. Yet, we can never leave each other behind. We are bound to a space between us that neither of us can navigate. Which doesn’t mean it is impassible. For it is a space that has already been traversed. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. (It is only from here that we can move beyond Rilke, who wrote, “love consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other”).

Lord Jesus, help me love my neighbor, the stranger whom I despise (the samaritan!), the one who speaks to me of my own alienation, and who therefore, I want to reject. Help me see them as a reminder of your grace, as a testimony to your resurrection, and as a renewed invitation to live by your Spirit, with thanksgiving and joy.
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This entry was posted in barth, chidester, cixous, colonialism, identity, missions. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Can I wear your clothes? (missions and alienation)

  1. Silas says:

    WHY IS EVERYTHING ALWAYS ABOUT BARTH?

  2. BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT I AM PRIMARILY READING AND TRYING TO THINK THROUGH.

  3. (not everyone is a cool phd student who gets to read all day……zing!….or, expression of jealousy…..). more seriously, besides the real time limitations and the fact that i now own the whole dogmatics and would like to read them, i have found barth quite useful in helping me rethink the whole question of christian missions. if the holocaust does in fact have its roots in the colonial past (as h. arendt suggested), then barth's attempt to rethink theology in light of the failure of german protestantism can be seen as a way of forcing christian theologians to move out of position of cultural imperialism and hence beyond the legacy of colonial christianity. it's especially helpful, because he is writing a positive theology (a way forward) and not just a critique; and it is a damn thorough attempt to rethink christian theology.

  4. nikiguns says:

    Nick Barrett said…Because Barth is freaking awesome and mind-blowing…

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