The Politics of Incarnation—John 1:1-18 (John Allen)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

To those familiar with a Western account of the incarnation, Native American frameworks can provide illuminating and challenging alternative perspectives. Within such perspectives, rather than the grand cosmic flow of history, it can be our more immediate spatiality that comes to the fore.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

The Word became flesh and lived among us, but it did not take Christians too long to get wordy about Jesus. In the first hundred years after Jesus’death, Christians battled over what words would precisely describe the divinity of Jesus, his relation to the Trinity. The more scientific impulses of our nature sought to take the great mystery of the incarnation and place it into an understandable framework. Jesus, the man of Nazareth, became in the early Christian imagination one who shared God’s very essence, or substance. Unless of course you were one of those who thought that Jesus shared a similar substance to God, or perhaps that the whole business of substances was an inappropriate way to discuss such a transcendent God.

These debates were carried out throughout early Christian history, and they were carried out by brilliant and faithful disciples who were seeking to make sense of the miraculous and mysterious story of Jesus Christ for their time. They also tended to emphasize in their thought scripture that offered clues as to how Jesus and God were to be understood in relation to one another and in relation to human history.

The prologue to John has long been seen to indicate that Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem, was somehow the embodiment of a person of the Trinity, who existed co-eternally with God. This is a vision of the mechanics of the incarnation that concerns itself primarily with the question of history and time. Prevailing Christian theologies have persisted with this emphasis on history and time. Christians today imagine human history divided into Old and New Covenants. We anticipate Christ’s coming again in the future. We hope that the world is progressing ever closer to God’s kingdom and perhaps we suspect that it is first plunging towards some apocalyptic end.

In his book God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, Vine Deloria notes that, whether liberal or conservative, American political ideology uses “the idea of history as a thesis by which they validate their ideas.”[1] All familiar western political ideologies judge themselves and each other as history unfolds. They seek schemas that appear to aid in the progression of history.

Deloria notes that in contrast, Native people have tended to consider the world from a spatial viewpoint. Accordingly the practice of seeking religious truth was one of “continuous process of adjustment to the natural surroundings and not a specific message valid for all times and places.”[2] In such a way of seeing the world, any sense of time and history becomes subordinated to the present experience of the community in their place.

This is a challenging framework for western minds to contort themselves into, but I suspect that if we could begin even to glimpse such a vision of the world the incarnation would begin to feel different. Now Jesus has not come to interrupt history and set it on a new course that will unfold under God’s careful and attentive presence. Instead, God came to live in Galilee. The Word became flesh and lived among us.

This portrait of God and Jesus in the prologue to John offers a grand cosmic vision of an unfolding history. But they also state that God’s intention is to become like the stuff of this world and live in specific moments in our world, in our communities, in our lives. The challenge that I hear to contemporary Christians in this vision of the incarnation is to talk a little less and let their words take on some flesh and skin and live in the world.

God’s incarnational intention is that God’s story gets lived out in recognizable ways in the world. Not only over some grand cosmic saga, but also in the way we engage the specific broken places in our communities and even in the forgettable interactions we have with our neighbors.

God’s incarnational intention is that God’s presence becomes unmistakable in our midst because the faithful have put their bodies, and not just their language, into effect for what they believe to be true.

God’s incarnational intention is that the faithful enact our hope in liturgy and protest. That we embody God’s justice and love in the world, not just by speaking it, but by living it out. Not through testing philosophical edicts against the long arc of history, but by showing up in the world we have, as the people we are, to make God into flesh once again.


[1] Vine Deloria, God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1973), 61.
[2] Deloria, God Is Red, 66.

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