I have been reflecting on the implications of our typical images of Jesus, which have been highly influenced by Western European conceptions. Curtiss DeYoung has helpfully offered us a look at the consequences of absolutizing a white Jesus. Curtiss writes about the issue of culture, but, perhaps ethnicity isn't the only issue to be considered. Indeed, I have been challenged by a reader to consider the danger of absolutizing the maleness of Jesus.
I think it's important to start with history and the particularity of the incarnation. As DeYoung writes:
Jesus entered history in the first century as an Afro-Asiatic Jewish male from Galilee. He came into the world at a time when ethnic tensions were simmering just below the surface and communities were isolated from each other. Jesus of Nazareth came with a prophetic word, calling for a just society based on individuals and institutions reconciling themselves with God and each other. (Coming Together in the 21st Century, p. 72).
DeYoung points out the importance of an inclusive vision of Jesus, but for us to understand this fully, we need to recognize that the all-inclusive God includes women as well as males. There is historical particularity at work here, but the person and message of Jesus surely transcends this particularity.
As I wrestle with this question I'm in the process of reading Ron Allen's new book on preaching and postmodernism -- Preaching and the Other (Chalice, 2009). I will write more shortly on the book, but the chapter I'm currently reading speaks of deconstruction and preaching. In postmodern analysis deconstruction uncovers the power dynamics present in society and in texts. So, when we're dealing with matters of ethnicity and gender we're dealing with matters of power.
Dealing specifically with gender, he writes:
With respect to matters of gender, a preacher needs to cast an insightful eye. Texts are sometimes quite direct in enforcing the power of males, as when the writer of Colossians says succinctly, "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord" (Col. 3:18). The passage presumes a social hierarchy assumed inmost of the records that survive from antiquity that placed males at the top followed by women and then children. Assuming this social pyramid, the elevation of men sometimes occurs more subtly. For example, the us of the designation "Father" for God invokes this hierarchy and hence, male privilege. Furthermore, the superior social status of the male is sometimes indicated by the absence of women from important positions of leadership. For example, women are not included in the twelve apostles. (Allen, p. 59).
Although he doesn't deal specifically with the gender of Jesus, he reminds us that we must be careful in how we use gender in our interpretations -- thus, don't absolutize the gender of Jesus! Thus, just because the historical Jesus was male or the Apostles were male, does not mean that this is the divinely chosen pattern for church leadership.
Finally, if God is beyond gender, and if Jesus incarnates this God, then can we absolutize Jesus' maleness? Or, to put it another way, how inclusive are we willing our Jesus to be?
Note -- the picture is of a statue of the female Christ crucified at Emmanuel College, Toronto (picture taken in August 2009).