The Invisible Jesus

"Were you there when the crucified my Lord?" is a very different spiritual for African Americans than it is for whites largely because black America can relate to the experience. The lynching tree--whatever form it takes in our society--is so much like the cross of Jesus that African Americans feel the pain of it in a very real way.

So says Prof. James H. Cone in the Winter 2007 issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. I brought up the idea in my English class last week as we discussed Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Jesus is crucified for the same reason blacks have been--are--lynched: he is invisible to his audience, his nearest and dearest who don't understand who he is. Their perception of him is informed by a set of expectations, personal despair, and a misreading of scripture that causes them to miss out on Jesus altogether. Thus, the message to love one another goes to the wall; Jesus is a trouble-maker and little more; indeed, if he were more he might jump on a horse and lead us into battle.

Invisible Man explores that duality between the perception of a person and his actual identity in the character of a black man who is unknown to everyone, including himself. He is caught up in a world seething with expectations and starving for meaning, and he wonders if he can subvert it by doing as his grandfather said and yes the white domination system to death or stand outside it.

Ultimately he learns you can't actually win the game by playing it. To transcend the grief and brutality of an overwhelmingly cruel world that insists on its blindness, you must step out of time and create your own new world.

On the level of simple social interaction, this sort of thing amounts to dealing with snobs, egomaniacs, bullies. Things change if you kick the situation up the stairs, though. When you're one of a group perceived to be simple, stupid, or in some other way less-than, it's Jim Crow, Naziism apartheid....It gets ugly when it becomes systemic and therefore socially acceptable, and ultimately politically necessary to the continuation of the collective identity, even if that identity is as unreal as the perceived you.

Invisible Man is about breaking free of others' perceptions and reimagining a new world into being. But how? The Invisible Man says you have to step into your opponent's sense of time if you want to overtake him. You've got to learn his moves, move with him, and then turn it all upside down. You've got to be a thinking, speaking person of action. To step into someone's time is to step into their perceptions of themselves, their history and their place in it, and what they want right now. It's to abandon perceptions, assumptions, illusions and go head to head with reality. In that way you get to Truth.

The Invisible Man is a Christ figure in a tattered world of people whose eyes cannot see, whose ears cannot hear, who have no direction. He is as invisible as Jesus was to his disciples, who did not understand the idea of a suffering messiah and thus slept through his agony in the garden, ran away from his crucifixion, and expressed disappointment that he was not the messiah who would redeem Israel. He wasn't who they thought he was, which is to say who they wanted him to be.

They missed out on what could have been a very good time, indeed. They never laid eyes on him until he was an invisible man and they were walking the road, recouping and regrouping and learning to tell the Truth from the lies in their own eyes. Oh it makes me tremble, tremble....Were you there?


  1. Anonymous4:43 PM

    "To transcend the grief and brutality of an overwhelmingly cruel world that insists on its blindness, you must step out of time and create your own new world."

    Sometimes there seems no way to get away. Other times, it's way too easy.

    The important thing is to stay grounded in something, or someone, I think, so in finding your own new world, you don't go bonkers.

    It's through Jesus we are reminded of good, of love, of the wonder of life...and death.

    This is a wonderful Easter season post.

  2. To be loved enough that we can still return even after we've become ungrounded--and bonkers--is the miracle of unconditional love. Thanks for your thought.


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