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Politics of Scripture

Christ Is All and In All—Colossians 3:1-11

This text is not preaching erasure of difference under One Christ but reminding us that we are all interdependent. Our difference is always in relation, and not an ontological chasm.

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
5Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. 7These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.
8But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

As I read through the multiple passages from the lectionary for this week’s meditation, one particular verse struck me the most, Col 3:11, “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.” I want to concentrate on this single verse. Often, this verse is understood as negation of difference in favor of a single meta-identity in Christ. On the contrary, a closer look reveals that the text is not a denial of the reality of differences but an affirmation of radical alterity of human beings, who are interdependent on each other. 

Given my complex identities as a “Christian” and an “Immigrant Woman of Color,” I am compelled to focus on this particular passage for a number of reasons. We live in a world where differences are construed as rivalries, and in which the criteria of what constitutes a worthy human being continue to be informed by the hegemonic construction of identities. Under this regime, the plight of marginalized people does not receive the ethical seriousness with which we address the plight of those who happen to fall under dominant categories of identity. Thus, our moral compass is not shaken after writing off marginalized people as excess to the depths of the ocean and cages of borders. This predicament makes me want to listen to the wisdom within the text to help negotiate our existential condition, marked by different identities. 

The text preaches to the Colossians that if anyone is grasped by Christ—in that renewed state—neither national nor ethnic nor cultural nor ceremonial nor social nor class identities are adequate to define who we are. In other words, the text is asserting that social markers do not capture the essence of being a human.

It seems to me that the text is critical of the colonial notion of fixity in identity. I think this concern needs to be taken seriously because history testifies that one of the serious consequences of fixed identity is the claim of totalizing knowledge of the other, which reduces persons to labels within a closed-system. 

The text is critiquing such dehumanizing views and challenging us to understand that a human being is beyond social markers, that you are excess or that I am beyond. It is refusing to reduce human beings to constructions of discourse: to skin color or sex or gender or economic status or national identity. This text helps us to refuse to objectify and appropriate, and it asserts that the social categories do not exhaust human beings and social categories definitely should not decide the value of a human being. To me, this is gospel and I say, Amen!

However, my skeptical antenna is immediately activated. It is one thing to say that we cannot enclose human beings within a system but very different to say social markers do not matter. Saying we are all united in One Christ because “Christ is all and in all” creates an illusion of difference as mere distinct qualities among equals, whereas in  reality many, especially the marginalized communities, are wounded by the sharp edges of differences. This privilege of Oneness over multiplicity or sameness over difference or purity over pollution collude with empire, which subsumes “the Other,” and masks empire’s norms, values, and interests.

So, is this passage simply an instance of yet another moment of Christian colonial hegemony? Not necessarily. There can be an alternative reading. The statement “Christ is all and in all” asserts the theme of divine Infinity. Theologian Gregory of Nyssa helps us to understand that the theme “divine infinity” is a confession of the divine that pervades all and is limited by no boundary. If the divine is circumscribed by something, then one has to consider that what encompasses the divine is much larger than God, which automatically cancels the meaning of the word God.[1] Therefore, to be God is to be boundless, Infinite.

This assertion Christ is infinite prompts a number of theological consequences, including the following two. Divine infinity reclaims the element of mystery in divine life. Against the tyranny of certainty, it asserts God is beyond our creaturely knowledge, our affirmation and negation and God is beyond human constructions. Every theological confession is a tentative statement. 

Capturing the intricate relation between colonial strategies of objectification and control over others and an objectifying vision of God, theologian Mayra Rivera writes that “the claim to know the mind of God is considered the foundation of the claim to know and rule over the subjected Other.”[2] In this vein, by emphasizing the Otherness of Christ, the text calls us to recognize the radical alterity of human beings. At best, knowledge of human beings means recognizing that our-self is mystery to ourselves and to each other. Our being comes from Christ and is Christ, and at the same time Christ utterly exceeds us. 

Secondly, “Christ is all and in all” presents a paradoxical view of the infinite divine “polluted” by the intimacy of multiplicity and not a Changeless Pure One. This affirmation of relationality culminates in an absolute immanence that nonetheless preserves the difference between God and creatures and among creatures. The truth of relationality does not violate the mystery of divine. Rather, the difference between God and creatures and among creatures are understood not as separations with solid and fixed wall but differences in relationship with porous borders. This text is not preaching erasure of difference under One Christ but reminding us that we are all interdependent. Our difference is always in relation, and not an ontological chasm. 

The coupling of mystery and relationality in our understanding of “Christ is all and in all” begins to unsettle the annihilating force of totalizing knowledge. Against the reductive view of human beings as categories, the text challenges a humility to recognize our finite knowing, that there is always something that eludes us and we can never fix an essence of human beings. 

Nevertheless, this conviction of radical alterity is not simply an act of epistemic realization of finitude but an act that generates crucial ethical relation, one that can resist social apathy towards people other than our skin color or nationality or gender or sex or sexuality or class. It is an ethical relation that can resist any manifestation of supremacy or bogus universalism. This is an ethical relation that will never write off some human beings as excess to the depths of the ocean and cages of borders.

[1] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses (New York: Paulist, 1978), 45-46.

[2] Mayra Rivera, The Touch of Transcendence: A Postcolonial Theology of God (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 10.

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