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Politics of Scripture

Contested Signs

The son of Man, the son of God gives us a sign that, once more, he is not only at odds with but opposed to the structures that administer (a certain kind of) life and death.

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew, then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say: ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

John 12:20-33, NRSV

A while ago I came across a story on NPR about hiking—how people use all kinds of gadgets to guide them when they’re outdoors—phones, watches, GPS trackers, etc. though if people are a little more old school, of course, probably the way to go is a compass and map. There’s other ways to figure out where to go, markings on trees to indicate different trails, sometimes there are actual signs, names of hiking trails and routes, and sometimes you see remnants of footprints on something that looks like a well-worn trail (though deer tracks/trails are deceptive). There are also piles of rocks called cairns along certain trails but though they have been around for a while, they are a source of contestation. For some, they are a nuisance and unhelpful, while for others they serve as clear markers for where to proceed and that others have journeyed this ways before—keep going.     

Signs matter in John’s gospel—often called the Book of Signs, named for seven major events: among them are miracles, healings and feedings. They are indicators of his divine sonship and therefore, his authority and sharing in God’s sovereignty, and be a witness, a testimony of Jesus’ power as well as be what we witness to in the world. To the witnessing community, whether in the gospel or the readership, signs are meant to affirm and encourage: keep going.

In the text this week, Jesus has entered Jerusalem with his disciples. Now, this triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a far less monumental event than the version told by the Synoptic Gospels because in John’s gospel, Jerusalem has been present from the very beginning of this Gospel. Entering Jerusalem at this time is connected to Jesus’ last sign, the raising of Lazarus. The crowd who witnessed the sign continues to speak out and bear witness, and there is a crowd of people who have come from near and far who have heard of the sign who want to meet Jesus:  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” said the Greeks to the disciples. The story of the final sign, the miracle of resurrecting Lazarus, has traveled far and wide, and so even the Greeks have arrived hoping not only for a sign of Jesus but to see Jesus himself. 

The Gospel of John employs a high Christology emphasizing the divinity of Jesus the Christ, and yet here, we get a glimmering of the humanity and vulnerability of Jesus, the son of Man. There is a sense of conflict and struggle within Jesus—he explains how it is necessary for the grain seed to be buried in the ground in order for it to bear fruit even as he voices the trouble in his soul. The smells of Lazarus’ grave are still in his nostrils mixed in with the perfume rubbed onto his feet from Mary. He knows the path he is on, and “the kind of death he was to die.” The signs he has offered the world perhaps are ones that guide him as well as the gathered community around him as he continues on the path to Golgotha.   

It strikes me that we have signs in the world today, sometimes clear and helpful, and sometimes troubling. On February 25, 2024, Aaron Bushnell, a 25-year-old serviceman of the United States Air Force, set himself on fire outside the front gate of the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C. Immediately prior to the live-streamed act, Bushnell said that he was protesting against “what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers” and declared that he “will no longer be complicit in genocide,” after which he doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself on fire. As he burned, Bushnell repeatedly shouted “Free Palestine!” He later succumbed to his wounds and died in the hospital. 

Much of the media has highlighted the possibility of mental illness. Writes, Shadi Hamid of the Washington Post: “Michael Starr of the Jerusalem Post attributed the suicide protest to a ‘state of hysteria,’ while journalist Mark Joseph Stern patronizingly intoned that ‘people suffering mental illness deserve empathy and respect, but it is wildly irresponsible to praise them for using a political justification to take their own life.’ Mental illness was assumed without evidence.” The pathologizing of Bushnell because his performance was not only illegible (“why would one take their life?”) and inexplicable (“why would an active duty serviceman take their life for some distant conflict?”) is a reminder of the biopolitical structures in which the state operates and how it shapes its ongoing preoccupation with the administration of life itself. The governance of populations depends on the diminishment of these kinds of actions in order to maintain a supremacist vision of what is deemed legitimate life, and therefore, sacrifice. Bushnell’s life “made sense,” but the state will deem his death as the sign of something irrational. 

What then is the sign, or the meaning of Jesus’ death and sacrifice? John’s witness gives us a different way into Jesus’ life. Take, for example, the clearing of the temple, and a prophecy: “turn this temple to rubble and in three days I will raise it.” This happens immediately after Jesus’ first sign, the wedding at Cana. In contrast, the synoptic gospels place the temple scene after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the final public act whereby the authorities make the decision to arrest and kill Jesus. 

As Karoline Lewis notes again for us: “Moving Jerusalem to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry also situates conflict at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. As it should. As soon as we are comfortable or complacent with God moving into the neighborhood, we ignore the radical, unbelievable claim of the Word made flesh.” Jesus’ presence in the world is a sign of contestation with the status quo of our systems so much so that the final miracle or sign of raising Lazarus will serve as the impetus for Jesus’ arrest. To bring someone back from the dead will elicit the desire to kill Jesus. Why? This power is a threat to the biopolitical apparatus of those in power—the ability and will to raise to life in spite of death, or in Bushnell’s case, the capacity and will to take a (liveable, serviceable) life. A serviceman giving his life in the trenches of war? A noble sacrifice. But a serviceman, “knowing the kind of death he was to die,” protesting by his life as a sign that something is deeply wrong with the status quo, the maintenance of the power of “the ruling class,” as Bushnell called it? A wasted life. 

Jesus came to contest these categories that determine both liveable life and grievable death. The son of Man, the son of God gives us a sign that, once more, he is not only at odds with but opposed to the structures that administer (a certain kind of) life and death. He will raise Lazarus to life as a sign of the kind of alternative and radical life that would turn the pillars of existence to rubble even as he prepares for his own death. And so, in preparation for his death, he is anointed by Mary, and then with his disciples he enters Jerusalem to the cries of Hosanna. He carries with him the sign and promise of eternal life and not simply for himself, a select few, but for all. The Greeks were there, too, but the message will go beyond them. In John 12:19, the Pharisees say in exasperation, “Look! The whole world went to him!” For John, Jesus’ mission is indeed this in-gathering of the world, and it will come about not only through signs but through his bodily death and resurrection.    

What kind of life does Jesus proffer in the gospel of John? We know it’s the kind of life that doesn’t neatly fit into our categories of life, but even more ungovernable, undefinable, and unmanageable is how life should proceed, how it should end, and what it should mean. The signs are strange, but there is a sign of the possibility of something more, something else, something otherwise (to pick up on Ashon Crawley’s use of the word) even if it doesn’t immediately make sense. For the next several chapters before his death, Jesus will spend time with his disciples, teaching them and telling them more about this life, and reminding them that through it all he is with them. At “this hour,” these signs tell us especially when we need it most: keep going.

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