Saturday, 14 March 2015

Naked Subversions: Christ and Serpent

“Every eye will see him, even those who pierced him” (Rev. 1:7), this is a triumphant call, an invitation for the gaze, which will pierce the other as well. Gazing at the body of the other is one of the mechanics of domination and subjection of the other,[1] whereas in the book of Revelation as well in the pinnacle of salvation history (Golgotha), gazing becomes means of victory, salvation and subversion of all powers of domination. How does Christian salvation through cross, which is the gazing of body, become an explosive act of subversion, thereby, defeating the dominant system.

Friedrich Nietzsche remarked “The crucified Christ is the most sublime of all symbols – even at present.” One could add subversion to the sublimity of the symbol. Gospel of John exposes us to the strange subversiveness of the symbol. Christ discusses the symbolism of the salvation as a gaze, for which, the OT event of serpent in the wilderness is invoked. To Nicodemus he says, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). The symbol of the serpent and the gaze of it, effects upon the victim, salvation (Num 21:8-9). Why choose the symbol of a serpent to allude to Christ and his salvation, becomes a troubling question. This symbol if not considered subversive then the danger falling into ophism[2] becomes immanent. The act of gazing at the serpent as the act of gazing onto the body of crucified Christ needs to be understood subversive in all its sublimity.

Why does that symbol become subversive? It could be said that it was serpent in the garden of bliss subjected humans in order to gaze at their nakedness, this act of deception and power by the serpent, in order to dominate and gaze into the nakedness. This gazing of the nakedness symbolizes humiliating powerlessness and subjection. This act of humiliating and subjecting the bodies of the powerless by the powerful is perpetuated through many forms throughout history by the dominant and the powerful. Within this, the gaze of the powerful upon the powerless and humiliated body has to be reversed or has to be subverted wherein, the very gaze becomes humiliating defeat for the powerful and the nudity becomes an explosive symbol of victory by subverting the domination.

In order to understand this reversal of the gaze and nudity as explosive subversions we could look at Bathsheba and Samson. David, the “powerful” king gazes upon the naked body of Bathsheba[3] (2Sam 11:2), this gaze humiliates and dehumanizes Bathsheba as a person, to a commodity, which the powerful David could acquire by mere domination. Bathsheba becomes the nude victim of the gaze and become subjected to the domination. However, the story does end in triumphal note wherein the nude victim overtakes the king and the kingdom (1King 1:28-31). The same fate would befall the Philistines when in arrogant victory call for Samson to “entertain” (Judges 16: 23-31). The gaze upon blind Samson by the dominant in their galleries would be collapsed by this blind judge, and forever would bring those gazing from above to the floor and crushing death. Within these two instances the victims were able to subvert their dominant masters but still remained within the system. However, with Christ the subversion is all the more sublime and severe would crush the head of the serpent forever.

The urge to crush the serpent’s head by the defeated and humiliated bodies were given to them as a curse to the serpent, “he will strike your head” (Gen 3:15). Thereby Christ symbolizes his death on the cross as the lifting up of the serpent on the wilderness. The subversion of the bronze serpent in the wilderness is: the one who is bitten by these “poisonous” serpents will be saved from death if they were able to see the death of the serpent on the pole. Here the subversion works at its purest; the death is made death and has to be believed to be dead by the one who is dying thereby delivering oneself from the death of that certain death. In the same way, Christ wishes to symbolize his death on the cross as the gaze reversed on those who gaze, where the one who is gazes is the one who hangs on the cross, just as the serpent on the pole. This powerful subversion is possible only through the exchange of the symbols; the dominant gaze becomes its own object of gaze. Christ the humiliated body has to become the serpent of the dominant gaze. At the cross the gaze and the one who gaze are forever transfixed upon itself in an endless self-gazing humiliation of the dominant. The liberation comes from the “belief” that the one who is object of gaze (the Christ) is actually the one who wishes to gaze (the serpent), only when this is understood the nude body of Christ becomes liberative symbol against the humiliation of the dominant gazers. 

It is in this way the nude protests all around the world are a highly subversive practice, which is at once repulsive to the dominant, because the secret gaze is made public and is nullified of its power to humiliate. Nude protests are not a novelty; Isaiah the prophet becomes a symbol through prophesying in his naked body (Isa 20:3). Moreover, it could be said Jesus himself seem to advocate it as a subversive practice as a non-violent violence.[4] For instance, “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well,” (Mt 5:40) this action would leave the one sued totally naked in front of the one who sues thereby forcing the one who sues to gaze upon the naked body of the sued in the public thereby not shaming oneself, but shaming the other, the powerful, by reducing him to the gaze, forcefully. Here violence of the dominant through the mechanics of humiliating bodies is subverted on the dominant themselves by going nude publicly depriving the powerful of their power to humiliate through subjection.

It is here the invitation of the book of Revelation becomes starkly clear as voice of victory, because all those who gazed upon will be seen themselves in humiliation because of the deprivation of their power to humiliate. The serpent once gazed on the nudity, wherein the nudity became an act of subjection towards the powerless to humiliate them through shame and guilt. It is through the cross of Christ that the serpent is crushed on its head, or blinded, which doubly deprives it of its power to neither humiliate nor gaze on the naked body, which is the nakedness of itself, the public display of them: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col 2:15).

[3] For a very good analysis of Rembrandt’s painting of Bathsheba in terms of body, domination and humiliation, see, Hélène Cixous, Stigmata: Escaping texts, Routledge classics (London: Routledge, 2005).
[4] See Walter Wink for the analysis of Jesus’ teaching of non-violent violence or as he terms “third way,” in Walter Wink, Jesus and nonviolence: A third way, Facets (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003). For excerpts see,