28 September 2023

The Asianness of Jesus (and why it matters)

Recently I wrote this post on Facebook.
Jesus was not American.
Jesus was not European.
Jesus was an Asian who was raised in Africa.
This struck me as being simply a bald statement of historical and geographical fact, unassailable from the standpoint of simple empiricism. Bethlehem, where our Lord Christ was born (Luke 2:1-20), is a town in the West Bank of Palestine, which is on the continent of Asia. And the town where our Lord Christ was raised by the Theotokos in exile, al-Maṭariyya, is just outside of Cairo in the mainland of Egypt (Matthew 2:13-23), which is on the continent of Africa. And the importance of this fact to me seemed to be obvious, simply by reference to the logic of the Incarnation. God had a flesh-and-blood body. God therefore had a mother, a birthplace, a homeland, a biological family, a career—and all of those things should be revered as such.

For example: we know that Jesus was a practising Palestinian Jew of the Second Temple. He was descended from the tribe of Judah through His maternal grandfather Joachim, and from the tribe of Levi through His maternal grandmother Anna (according to the Protoevangelium of James). We know that Jesus spoke a Northwest Semitic language as His mother tongue (Matthew 5:22; Matthew 27:46; Mark 5:41; Mark 7:34; Mark 15:34). In terms of language, the closest modern-day kin to Jesus are the neo-Aramaic-speaking Syrians who live in Ma’lûlâ, Syria. We know that He learned Hebrew as a second language: otherwise He would not be able to read and discuss Scripture (Luke 4:16). And He also very likely learned Greek, the common tongue in His region of the Roman Empire, as a third—which is how He would have conversed with Pilate (John 18). We know that Jesus is identified as a Galilean (Matthew 4:12). We know all of this from Holy Scripture.

However, this was apparently a bit too much for some of my commenters, some of whom baldly asked, ‘So what?’; while another replied a bit more waggishly by pointing out that in those days, Asia referred only to Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and Africa only to the Roman province of Africa (which is now in Libya and Tunisia). To the last point—fair enough. But the former question is one which I think deserves a bit of unpacking.

As inheritors of Western Christendom, there is a prevailing attitude that Jesus is ‘ours’ by default. Not only is this attitude untrue, but it was also never true. Jesus is not our inheritance by way of civilisational legacy or cultural osmosis. Rather, Jesus becomes our inheritance when we become His, when we join Him in the Eucharist, and through the prayers and disciplines of His Church. Thus, when I say that ‘Jesus is not European’ and ‘not American’, my purpose is not to belittle Europeans. We know that Jesus had among His followers those whom we would now consider European and white, such as the Roman centurion in Matthew 8 and Luke 7. Likewise Jesus had among His followers those whom we would now consider to be black Africans, such as St Simon of Cyrene in Mark 15 and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.

Another reason I point this out has to do with modern geopolitics. Jesus Christ lived His life on the ragged periphery of the Roman Empire. The Jordan River marked in a very real sense the liminal division between West and East in the Hebrew imagination: it was the Schengen Line of His time, and His Baptism was very much so an act of religiously-imbued (think: Exodus) civil disobedience to Rome. The Roman Empire and its logic were pagan. Judaism was very much so a minority religion and as often as not a persecuted one within the Empire. The fact that Christ appeared as an Aramaic-speaking Mizrahi Jew, that is to say as a West Asian, at that moment in history, is significant. He became Incarnate in a contested region between two huge world empires: one need only look at maps of Rome and Persia all throughout this period to see what I mean. And He was wrongly condemned and crucified as an enemy of one of those empires.

Just as it was the job of Christians in the first century to peaceably resist the evils of the Roman Empire, so too it is the job of Christians in our day to resist the current Atlanticist, Euro-American Empire, which is ideologically post-Christian and in many senses sub-pagan in terms of our retrograde rejection of metaphysics and higher culture, not to mention our false pretences to being the arbiter of universality and universal values.

Note that Jesus never appeals to what the Parthians do at any point in His ministry. In no case, therefore, should our resistance to our empire be conditioned by or referred to what is done by the Russians or by the Chinese. The Russians worship God and God will care for them. And the Chinese are yet in the process of rediscovering God after a long period of state-enforced atheism. Rather, it is for the evils of our own culture and our own civilisation, which we shall be called to account at the Last Judgement. And make no mistake that, collectively, we in the West will have some ‘splaining to do.

But, as one particularly astute commenter observed,
I suspect if you’re getting pushback, it’s from folks who see the “Jesus wasn’t white” line used by people who then try to shove Christ into their own particular postmodern identity politics or to peddle particular partisan liberal political positions. When Christ asks either the “Western chauvinists” or the liberal identity politics advocates “Who do you say I am?”, he’s bound to get the wrong answer either way.
This is quite true, and a necessary corrective to what I originally wrote. And, as I responded to him, as often as not nowadays those two groups (Western chauvinists and id-pol liberals) tend to overlap significantly. The significance of the Asianness of Christ is lost, every bit as much on those who would uphold a highly-specific, deracinated, bourgeois boba liberal understanding of ‘Asian’, as on those who refuse to acknowledge Jesus as anything but a white Anglo-American, whether of a liberal or a conservative cultural posture. Making Jesus a champion of ‘woke’ racial shame in the name of equity, is every bit as spurious and idolatrous as making Him a champion of gun rights.

When I speak of Christ as Asian, I speak in the mode of St Ilya Fondaminsky, when he spoke of Christianity as the ‘response of the awakened East’ to the ersatz universalism of the Hellenic West: a response which ‘tore apart’, even ‘to shreds’, the world order of that time. Even if it’s not entirely right to cast our Saviour as the bringer of a spiritually multipolar world (Christ Himself became the pole), still it’s not entirely wrong either. Rather than swearing fealty to the singular self-sufficient ‘universal’, to the man-god in Rome, the early Christians swore fealty rather to the God-man Who was crucified and Who rose from the dead: to a particular (and only because particular, truly universal) Who was both One and Plural as the Holy Trinity.