“Facebook, Roadside Attractions and the Atonement” or “Vince on the Cross”

I was allowing myself to be distracted by Facebook one day, following friend’s links haphazardly to see what quizzes they’d scored 83% on or what pictures they took on their vacations. One link trail took me to a photo album of a friend from high school. No doubt it was the photo album title, “Holy Land USA” that drew my eye. I clicked through photos of Vince and his traveling companion at what was clearly an obscure, low budget and creepily earnest American roadside attraction depicting biblical locations such as Herod’s palace, along with awkward statuary and hillside messages from the gospels. It was an ironic kitsch-lover’s dream. I admired Vince’s bravery/whimsy for marching onto such strange territory. Personally, it would freak me out, or at least, I’d be afraid to be seen laughing at it…or taking it seriously.

But towards the end of the photo album, one image caught me off guard. Amidst the goofy images of hillside dioramas and “Holy Land” signage, was Vince—on a cross. His arms outstretched, head hanging calmly, sunlight casting a divine glow onto his shoulders: Vince pulled off a surprisingly skillful portrait of the crucified Christ.

Friends’ comments below the photo jokingly celebrated Vince’s irreverent boldness. One’s person’s comment, “Kinda amazing that you fit it so perfectly, eh?”, struck me as more truthful than they may have realized. Something about Vince on a cross felt truthful in a profound way. To consider both the US’s current “Roman Empire” status and the power exhibited by conservative Christian political and cultural leaders these days, its really not a far stretch of the imagination to see a young gay man on a cross, and think “Yep, he fits.”

Seeing Vince on the cross immediately made me think of the writings of James Alison, a theologian whose writing on the atonement has had a profound effect on me over the past year. In Undergoing God, he writes, “The ideal ambassador for Christ would be one who could put words to the experience of undergoing the place of shame and invite others to inhabit that space by showing that it is possible to inhabit it non-toxically.” As an openly gay man, Alison explores Christ’s crucifixion as a disarming event against violence and shame, more than a God-decreed sacrifice. He writes that Jesus:

“is also ‘victim’ in the modern, ethical sense, an entirely innocent person who was killed so as to assuage the wrath of people who needed a victim in order to keep their system going. And it was because he voluntarily chose to occupy this space of being a ‘victim’ in the modern sense that he brought to an end sacrifice. Indeed it is perfectly possible to say that his giving himself up to death wasn’t a sacrifice at all in the traditional sense of the word, but rather, by showing that at the root of what we call ‘sacrifice’ there is a simple, mendacious mechanism of murder, that is, by revealing that there is nothing holy at all in all our mechanisms for creating victims, [Jesus] brought the world of sacrifice to an end.”

By occupying the place of shame and ultimately, overcoming the mechanisms of shame and violence, Jesus revealed the absurdity of that system. It is this willingness to survive and overcome the place of shame that brings to mind both the beauty and frailty of this image of a young gay man on the cross. Instead of the typical loincloth and crown of thorns, the man on this cross wears sunglasses, a plastic band bracelet and designer jeans. Without forcing Vince to represent gay men everywhere, there is something humbling and awakening about his Christ-like posture there on a cross at a roadside attraction—humbling because it is indeed the very posture so many gay men have been forced into by our culture and largely, by the church. Humbling and awakening also when I think of the gay men in my life who have exemplified Christ’s love, strength and integrity in the face of rejection from families, internal doubt and cultural marginalization and stereotyping.

But I find hope in Alison’s understanding of Christ as the one who takes over the place of shame and violence so others no longer have to—that it is not God who required sacrifice, but us. Jesus walked into the space of our hate and showed us our folly. Alison says: “My thesis is that Christianity is a priestly religion that understands that it is God’s overcoming of our violence by substituting himself for the victim of our typical sacrifices that opens up our being able to enjoy the fullness of creation as if death were not.”

Both Christ on the cross and Vince on the cross are reminders to me of how foolishly I demand victims for my own violence and sacrifice others to cover my own shame, when ultimately, God would have me set down both violence and shame and choose instead to stand with Christ on behalf of those who’ve been forced into the place of shame and have suffered at the hands of violence. The cross should not be a symbol of sacrifice God required, but instead, a proclamation from God, saying, “No more”. Vince may remind us of those who “fit” on the cross, but it’s us, not God, who put him there. Will we say “No more”?

Posted on Tue, Jan 19th, 2010 at 11:52 pm
Filed under Art, Bravery, intertextuality, Quotes, theology.

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Comments: 3

  1. 1 | Maryann Shaw

    January 20th, 2010 at 2:53 am

    Shiza Minnelli, this did me in. I love whatever you write, but when you write theology it strikes me down and makes me think harder than I usually like to. If you don’t mind, I’m linking to this.

  2. 2 | katrina

    January 20th, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Friend…this post struck me hard and I’m still chewing on it. I hope we can talk about this very soon because there is much to be said and asked. Cross-country love to you!

  3. 3 | Kj

    January 21st, 2010 at 5:35 am

    my love right back to you friend. do you have daylight hours free for phone time, or just after 6ish EST?

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