Thursday, April 12, 2012

She is nailed to the cross.

Totus Christus (The Whole Christ), by Matthew Milliner

In his meditations the Stations of the Cross, the controversial twentieth-century saint Jose Maria Escrivá wrote the following: "Don't just read the Passion of Our Lord… to read is to recall something that happened in the past; to live it is to find oneself present at an event that is happening here and now, to be someone taking part in those scenes." There is, of course, nothing controversial about this statement.  What is controversial is leaving Christ safe in the mists of history and not permitting him to occupy our present. 

This is the impulse behind countless art historical depictions of Christ's suffering, paintings such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Procession to Calvary, where the Lord blends in among Bruegel's contemporaries alongside sixteenth century torture devices.  For us, Breugel's work may seem "historic," summoning us to safe stylistic observations.  But for Breugel's contemporaries, as the recent film makes clear, the painting was screamingly current.  This too, it seems, is the impulse behind Greg's stations, where the Passion becomes so immediate as to be woven into his very family and into the lives of contemporary victims of torture in the Chicago area that generated his work.

All that, I hope, is rather obvious.  What is more problematic – perhaps even "controversial" – is Greg's choice to include, in two of his most powerful photographs, a woman as Christ.  Greg even went so far as to write, "She is nailed to the cross" beneath the station.  The photographs remind us of Edwina Sandys 1975 Christa, which – in the artist's words – "simply reminded viewers that women as well as men are called upon to share the suffering of Christ."  In the same way, Greg's female Christ is not courting controversy or attempting to shock.  Greg does not believe the Christ was literally female, any more than he believes his wife Karen is actually the Virgin Mary.  Instead, Greg's stations "simply" remind us (if only it were so simple!) that the suffering of women, perhaps most especially the suffering of rape so delicately alluded to in one of Greg's photographs, Jesus is stripped naked, is also the suffering of Christ – a thought that, we can hope, might summon the hesitation of some future assailant.

Artists who (unlike Greg) toy around with religious imagery hoping to instigate protest have unfortunately made it more difficult for us to notice the kind of sincerity on offer here.  But I'd like to go so far that we have no choice but to grasp what Greg is suggesting, and not because of recent theological developments (though they can help), as much as because of the historic, orthodox core of Christian faith.  Most of us are familiar with the passages where Christ speaks with and ministers to women. But in a less familiar passage, Acts 8, Christ specifically identifies himself with women.  Saul, Luke tells us, "dragged off men and women and committed them to prison" (8:3).  That is not a gender inclusive translation.  The Greek goes out of its way to say "and women."  One chapter later comes the famous words of Christ, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me" (9:3)?

The body of Christ, which sits on the right hand of the Father, is, and remains, a circumcised Jewish male.  But Christ (the head) also intimately identifies with the church (his body).  Theologians refer to this as the totus Christus (the whole Christ), which necessarily incorporates all of us united to him in faith – perhaps especially, as Luke seems to suggest, victims of torture.  So is Greg's show heretical?  The question is best answered by another, namely Paul's, addressed to all believers, male and female: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ" (I Cor. 6:15)?
Procession to Calvary, Peter Bruegel the Elder, 1526

Christa, Edwina Sandys, 1975
Christa (detail), Edwina Sandys, 1975

He is nailed to the cross.

Jesus is stripped naked.

He falls the third time.

Powerless Power by Larycia Hawkins

All Power becomes powerless
Powerless in a donkey stall in deference to His destiny
Powerless on a donkey, in character for prophetic political theater
Powerless to take the cup away in obeisance of the will of Thine
Powerless to speak the truth to power in deference to the plan of I AM 
Powerless to lash out against violence in submission to the Prophets
Powerless to forsake forsakenness in accomplishment of It Is Finished
Powerlessness contingent—transformed to power in the Cross
 Powerlessly forsaken in death, yet
All Power transforms death to life 
All Power empowers the powerless—women and children, poor and prostitutes, widows and aliens, prisoners and pariahs, depressed and disabled 
All Power declares that unless we become powerless, we fail to understand Him and we have no part in Him
All Power bids that we come powerless and empty-handed to a peculiar feast of faith where eating His body and drinking His blood are neither crazy nor cannibalistic acts, but rather, the reality that defines all other reality
All Power subsumes everything in this radical feast of His perfect body and declares all good by His righteous blood
All Power declares that power is perfected in weakness—which He redefines, ironically, as strength
All Power ushers in a peaceable kingdom where
Powerlessness is power

Friday, March 23, 2012

He is condemned to death.

Leah Post

Not a specific portrait of the stations, but they in general find me uneasy and here's why- 
The subjectivity and non-accountibility of human emotion inspire me to disregard sentiment as non-essential. In fact, I search for believable excuses to skirt around accepting it as a valuable offering from anyone. Emotion comes with no guarantee of balance, no requisite intention to better its listener, and it rarely cleans up after itself. 

I like to think about Jesus Christ. I like to think he is tidy. I imagine he feels as I do that most feelings muddy drinking waters. As long as I don't look Jesus in the eye, or see his posture, or absorb his mannerisms, I can maintain my half-human concept of him. 

But these portraits don't allow me to make the rules around good humanity. If I refrain from entering into the goop of moods, I'm the one left in the cold. I don't get to have Jesus, or maybe I'm the numb part of the body.

Tonight I identify most with Pilate. The look on his face says what I want to say, "You're all a fine mess. I won't leave it be on my skin."
- Leah Samuelson

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Via Dolorosa, or Stations of the Cross

I just finished my stations of the cross.  They took longer than I thought; there's a lot to think about.  As an experiment, I invited a few people: a writer, a political scientist, a minister, an art historian, a poet to add to this blog.  There may be others.  As we approach Easter and Good Friday, I'll be posting at least one new picture daily.  Perhaps one or more of them may comment from time to time.
The final group of pictures can be found here:  Below the poster, designed by Jeremy Botts, is the statement that goes with the show.  It may change a little.
The Good Friday Liturgy will include projections of the photographs and new work by Jeremy Botts.  There will be musicians performing as well.  Details of the show and Good Friday Liturgy:
The Way of The Cross, Artist's Statement
Your image of God creates you. 
Your image of God, your de facto, operative image of God, lives in a symbiotic relationship with your soul and creates what you become. Loving people, forgiving people have always encountered a loving and forgiving God. Cynical people are cynical about the very possibility of a coherent loving center to the universe. So why wouldn’t they become cynical themselves? 
When you encounter a truly sacred text, the first questions are not: Did this literally happen just as it says? How can I be saved? What is the right thing for me to do? What is the dogmatic pronouncement here? Does my church agree with this? Who is right and who is wrong here? These are largely ego questions, I am afraid. They are questions that try to secure your position, not questions that make you go on a spiritual path of faith and trust. They constrict you, whereas the purpose of the Sacred is to expand you. I know they are the first ones that come to our mind because that is where we live, inside of our ego, and these are the questions we were also trained to ask (unfortunately!).
I would, however, offer you and invite you to ponder another question. Simply having read the text, ask: What is God doing here? Then ask yourself: What does this say about who God is? Then, what does it say about how I can also meet this same God?
My image of God creates me. -Richard Rohr
I hate to start with a negative.  But I don’t trust Mel Gibson as an artist.  When I watch his films, I feel worked over, especially by the violence that he inflects everything with.  Sometimes I think the pleasure one receives from a Mel Gibson film is like the pleasure one might feel when inflicting torture.  He seems to enjoy the violence too much.  I knew intuitively when The Passion came out that I didn’t want to see it.  I didn’t want to have a sensationalized, sadomasochist portrayal of Jesus’ execution shape my imagination of the central event of history.  Jesus’ crucifixion is the event I commit my life to.  In my best moments, it orders my life.  While Hollywood manages to define a lot, there are some aspects of my imagination that I protect. The crucifixion isn’t entertainment to me.  There are those who foist images from The Passion on me, in spite of my efforts to avoid them.  But I have managed to keep most of the film at arm’s length.
I read from disparate sources, many of them musicians who routinely perform Bach’s music, that everything Bach wrote was about the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, whether he designated it secular or sacred.  I’m frequently moved by Bach’s music; his Christian devotion might explain some of that.  Yet, I never feel manipulated or forced to see it just his way.  The comparison with Gibson may be less than ideal, the two are separated by hundreds of years and visual images are inherently different from musical ones.  I’ll leave it with a simple contrast: one way is a shared journey that enables the listener to make their own meaning.  Another is a forced vision that insists on its authority and authenticity, that drowns out everything else by its sheer spectacle and volume, and that allows for little silence and contemplation.  I hope the ideas that surround my approach to the images here are quiet and that they leave the viewer space to draw her own conclusions.  
Most of these are simply portraits.  The characters are all of us at one time or another.  We all work to crucify Jesus sometimes.  We inflict pain on others in spite of our desire for justice; we live in an oppressive system.  There are times that we stand on the road to Calvary and watch with sadness and compassion as an innocent person suffers.  And there are times when we suffer.
I was asked, more than a year ago, to consider making photographs about the Stations of the Cross.  My experience with the Stations has been primarily as a Lenten liturgy.  At the same time I started considering this project, my students and I began working on projects with refugees and torture survivors living in the Chicago area.  Most of them were from Africa; there are others from Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.   I didn’t expect it when we started, but the stories and the general ethos of those in our midst wounded by war, political upheaval, and unspoken violence shaped my approach to the photographs.  There are those whose lives are transformed by suffering, I knew that abstractly.  When I engaged collaboratively with torture survivors, many of my assumptions about photography in particular, and about art in general were turned upside down.  My ongoing journey with the Cross was influenced as well.  
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”
The other thing I need to say is that I am a white male.  I grew up in white suburbia.  I initially settled in New York City in the 1980‘s during the AIDS epidemic.  I studied Photography there during the onset of post modernism in a graduate program actively engaged in the critique and realignment of contemporary culture.  I was the only male in a class of radical feminists.  I witnessed first hand the pain of exclusion in both the academy and the church.
More recently, my wife Karen and I built our family through adoption.  We are a mixed race family.  That is normal to us.  We notice poignantly how Jesus and his followers became white people in American culture.  It is difficult sometimes to be excluded from the assumed images and language of the church that is overwhelmingly white in suburbia.  Especially when Jesus wasn’t that way.  He went out of his way to include women, the marginalized, the outcast, and those who were racially different.  My understanding of fatherhood is shaped by Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father.  If the Old Testament is about blood, the New Testament is about adoption and that is the way of Jesus.  So I sought to imagine a Way of the Cross that includes my family.  These pictures are dedicated to them.
- Greg Halvorsen Schreck