“Subjectivity goes to the point of substitution for the Other…Subjectivity as such is initially hostage; it answers to the point of expiating for others.” E. Levinas
“Totality and Infinity pushes the respect for dissymmetry so far that it seems to us impossible, essentially impossible, that it could have been written by a woman.” J. Derrida
In this political climate, it is tempting to interpret Christianity along this Levinasian trajectory. To be a subject is to be held hostage by the other, to exist for them, even to the point of substitution and expiation. Our country’s panic over immigration and the unwanted border crossings is thus countered by pushing back: Christ’s body was rendered porous (nails in hands, spear in side) for our sake. As Christians, we are brought into his weakness, his vulnerability, his sacrificial opening of his life for the sake of others.
A little while ago I blogged on Bonhoeffer’s introductory remarks in his book Christ the Center. Bonhoeffer states that with the coming of Christ (the “counter logos”) “our being is invaded by a new being.” It’s a moment in the text that seems to open itself up to a Levinasian world: to be is to be invaded by the Other. Such an invasive (border crossing) theology has its allure but Derrida is correct to warn us of its danger. Such respect for a dissymmetry of power is perhaps only possible for a masculine writer, that is, for someone who does not have to associate the “invasion” of our being with rape. This respect is a moment where a political motivation to counter anti-immigrant sentiments and weaken an aggressive, militaristic mastery ends up reaffirming the very categories it contests. As Derrida points out, it is perhaps only a (white) man who could envision the overturning of totalitarianism (or colonialism or anti-immigrant nationalism) through a complete handing of oneself over to the other.
Bonhoeffer sees Christ moving us in a different direction: “If Jesus is the Christ, the Word of God, then I am not primarily called to do the things that does; I am met in his work as one who cannot possibly do the work he does” (38). Christ comes in weakness, as a slave, as one who exists in the handing of himself over to others, even to his enemies. He does so for our sake, not to open up for us a life lived as a hostage but to overturn the injustice and sin which seek to reduce our lives to being lived out–spent, as they say–for the sake of others. Christ comes as the sacrificial victim not to encourage us to (courageously, that is, powerfully!) move into victimhood but to liberate us from the systems that necessitate sacrificing victims.
Christ is sacrificed for us, which also means, in our place (Barth, CD IV/1 p. 281). The place of the victim has been occupied, and so we cannot stand there. It is the site at which God overturned the culture of rape, the culture of slavery, the culture of the capitalistic expenditure of some lives for the sake of others and all our lives for the sake of the system.
In opposition to our country’s fearful portrayal of undocumented immigration as “an invasion,” one ought not advocate for a life that is essentially held open to the trans-gression of the other. Instead, one ought to emphasize that Christ “invaded” our sinful world–our systems of (social) death–so as to liberate those whose lives are expended for the production of our country’s wealth and power. This emphasis on liberation does not despise vulnerability but guards it: it preserves vulnerability as intimacy by liberating it from domination.