by Jonathan LeMaster-Smith

In the weeks leading up to Easter, we think often of the cross. The lectionary is designed to do this. To prepare and point toward the event of the cross. Thinking about the purpose of the cross, I consider what salvation might mean for a 2014 world facing the continuation of a “progress” still littered with systemic racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, a global-colonial-consumer capitalism that assigns every possible body and space with an exchange value.

Often, the Christian response to this sort of value is to state that the action of the cross allows for us to become revalued in the eyes of God (ie. forgiven of sin, free from bondage, ransomed, etc.) in order to continue to be with God for eternity. However, the revaluing of persons, for the most part, still creates an exchange value which appears to often mimic that of the external capitalist world “I am of value because Jesus is of value, thus, others like me are of value,” or “I get to go to heaven because I am a Christian.” This revaluing simply reinscribes on God a series of exchange values and recreates a Christian-Capitalism that is possibly more dangerous because it directly names God in assigning value and worth.

Jean-Luc Nancy (Source: hssr.mmu.ac.uk)
Jean-Luc Nancy (Source: hssr.mmu.ac.uk)

Instead, I turn to the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, a contemporary post-Christian philosopher. Nancy wants salvation to not be about escape from this world or creating new systems of exchange. Instead, he writes:

In the dissipation of nether-and hinterworlds, with their misty shroudings, lies the secret of salvation. Salvation saves us from other worlds: it restores to the world, it restores us to the world, and it sets (us) into the world anew, as new. It sets (us) into the world, according to the novelty and experience that is not of this world because it is that of value; the values of this world are measured, that is, evaluated, by the necessities and the interests of this world. But he [or she] who does not let himself [or herself] be measured by that evaluation, he who has for himself the experience of value–he withdraws from the world in the very midst of the world.[1]

While this appears to sound, some ways, isolationist, as a proponent of community over individual, Nancy is pointing toward something different. Salvation becomes not salvation from this world, but salvation within this world. It disrupts the way we value the world and ourselves, relying more on experience of God, neighbor, and other, as opposed to value of God, neighbor, and other.

Of course, one might ask what this means or how it occurs. Nancy works this out by providing a definition of sinner: “The sinner is less one who breaks the Law than one who deflects toward him or herself that which was oriented toward God.”[2] From there, he explains his understanding of salvation:

It is not in the least a question of the expiation of a misdeed, but of redemption or salvation, and salvation cannot come from the self itself, but from its opening. Salvation comes from the self as its opening, and as such it comes to it as the grace of its Creator. Now, what does God do through salvation? Through salvation, God remits to man the debt he incurred in sinning, a debt that is none other than the debt of the self itself. What man appropriated, for which he is in debt to God, is the self that has turned in upon itself. It must be returned to God and not to itself. Sin is an indebtedness of existence as such.[3]

Nancy expresses salvation as a dis-enclosure of the self, almost a kenotic outpouring à la Philippians. This dis-enclosure opens us up, toward God and other in a way that does not seek to consume, appropriate, or value them, but to experience and relate with them as separate from self and not appropriable by self.

What this might mean for ministry is a change in how we teach and preach the Christian message. We tell people they are children of God, allowing them to revalue themselves and reinscribing value on themselves and the world creating a new exchange value. Perhaps, instead, we disrupt value. We preach a message of a dangerous openness to God and other that pours ourselves out. This teaching would create a Christianity less obsessed with value and exchange and more in line with a self-deconstructing Christianity that calls for the death of the god of metaphysical valuation and the resurrection which is an opening to others. Perhaps a rolling away of the stone of self enclosure. This looks like a Christian faith that reaches past self in dramatic way to create new possibilities not through value but through creation. This new creation is both liberating and damaging as it both frees persons from the valuation of the world, but requires a self exposure and evacuation of value through the experience, relationship, perhaps even touching of other bodies. A touching, that requires the touching of lepers, demons, and the dead. I close with Nancy:

“The opening of the world in the world…breaks up the presence of the value of God, breaks up the sense of salvation as an escape from the world, erases inscribed upon a heaven, erases heaven itself, and leaves the world intact and touched by a strange gaping that is grace and wound at the same time.”[4]

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JonathanJonathan LeMaster-Smith is a United Methodist layperson and PhD student in Christian Education and Congregational Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.  His work focuses on rural working class Christian formation, with other interests in Wesleyan Theology and Post-Christian Thought. He is married to Rev. Shannon LeMaster-Smith and has two dogs, Biscuit and Jupiter. You can follow him on Twitter @jmendle08 and read his blog Grace and Wound.

[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity I. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008) Kindle Location (KL) 1679.

[2] Ibid. KL 3246

[3] Ibid. KL 3256

[4] Ibid. KL 1670