10/18/2020 The Invisible Christ
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”
― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Earlier this past week I was at the post office, waiting in line to drop off some packages. Because of pandemic restrictions and the size of the post office, only one person was allowed to wait inside the building - the rest of the line extended outside of the post office and markers were placed on the ground to designate where people were supposed to stand. When I saw the individual in front of me move toward the clerk, I began to move toward the next marker. As I placed both my feet on the marker, I heard a voice behind me say, “Excuse me I was in line before you.” I was surprised, I didn’t notice the individual. I looked at them, and it seemed that the individual was waiting inside because they were carrying quite a few packages and it was hot outside. I responded, “I apologize I did not see you there.” I began to walk outside when they said, “Black people are often treated as invisible.”
As I stood in line outside, those words kept echoing in my mind, “Black people are often treated as invisible.” The words cut deep and stirred something inside me. They cut deep because I felt that I had done something wrong and that I knew that those words were indeed true. I wanted to justify my mistake in not seeing the individual, but trying to justify it would take away from the truth of their words. “Black people are often treated as invisible.”
I am reminded of a book that I read in middle school, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. It is a story about a black man struggling to articulate his own identity in the midst of a racist American society. Throughout the story, the various components, communities, and individuals of society impose their own ideas of who he is as a black man - they restrict his complexity and his ability to be and define himself. This black man in a racist American society was and is invisible. Racism still plagues American society today - not just overtly in the United State’s prison industrial complex but covertly in the hearts and minds of individuals. “We no longer have Jim Crow laws, but we still have Jim Crow hate.” You may have heard the argument that, “Racism no longer exists because we have had a Black president.” Sadly, this posture voids us to the injustices still prevalent in American society and what marginalized individuals still go through on a daily basis. It may be well-intended to make the argument that Black folk and other Persons of Color are more visible in society, but the argument collapses when the individual in turn makes the unequal systems of society invisible. Ultimately, a picture is painted in the minds of those that are privileged, which may be you and me - an image that says that there is no longer suffering or even worse that the suffering is there, but it is no longer my problem. Not only have we made individuals invisible but also the systems that marginalize those individuals and communities. “Black people are often treated as invisible.”
Have we ever been treated as invisible? This is not a question to place or find blame, but a question to remind ourselves of the pain invisibility creates and perpetuates. Maybe a more appropriate question for us today is, have we ever treated individuals as invisible? Said another way, have we let our preconceived notions, assumptions, and prejudices define other individuals and communities, putting them in a box and ultimately denying their identity and agency?
As I reflect on the stories of my faith, this theme of invisibility spans all the way to Jesus’ context. In our Bible Study last Sunday we explored the story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown, Nazareth.
Luke 4:24-30 (NRSV)
24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
In the passage Jesus was criticized and “rejected” by the people of his hometown because they did not like the idea that “God’s kingdom did not just apply to the people of Israel, or in this case, the people of Nazareth.” In other words, Jesus sought to expand the Gospel, one of healing and transformation beyond the borders of Israel (to Sidon and Syria) and into the margins (to the widows and lepers).
I would like to make the argument that in this narrative, Jesus was made invisible - to the point where they could not physically see him. At the end of the passage it says, “He passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
Jesus was defining his identity - an identity that centered inclusion, an identity that traversed borders, an identity that centered reconciliation and transformation. However, the people of Nazareth wanted to define Jesus as their own desires. In hearing Jesus’ message about peace and reconciliation, all they could hear was a message about their own peace and no one else’s. Furthermore it was a peace not achieved through reconciliation, but through retribution that they heard. In other words, and applied to our context today, we make the mistake of solely centering our ego and our Self, at the cost of others.
The Christ that people wanted, not all, was a Christ that would lead the people of Israel to conquer their enemies - in a violent sense, a posture that seeks vengeance. This is why Jesus’ own disciples were confused when Jesus spoke about his own death. This is why when we first hear the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem, we laugh that he enters on a donkey rather than a majestic horse. Some people in Jesus’ hometown, his disciples, and other followers have made Christ invisible. And I argue that we too have made Christ Invisible.
See what we have to understand is that Christ is all around us, in the people that we least expect, in the people that we deem our enemies, in the people that we consider “different,” in the people that we consider “sinners,” in the people we do not think about at all.
In the midst of this double pandemic of COVID and Racism, the pain of colored and indigenous folk is more visible now more than ever, or it was always visible, and we chose to make it invisible. The protests, the movements fighting for change, the people crying out are nothing new - we have simply closed our eyes, ears, and hearts. If we cannot see the struggle of others in this world, then we will not be able to see Jesus Christ. If we make the struggles of communities and individuals invisible, we make Jesus Christ invisible! And so to make Christ visible is to make sure those suffering are visible and their voices are amplified. To make Christ visible is to heed the words of the individual I came across at the post office, “Black people are often treated as invisible.”
As we go about our week, let us reflect on the moments of our own invisibility and the moments of making others invisible. And let us think about the ways we can actually “see” people in their fullness, their identity, their complexity - and in that make Christ visible.