“Almost invariably, moral authority seems to be encased in a frail body — perhaps because it takes years and decades, and risk and injury, to amass.”
In her essay “The Threat of Moral Authority,” Masha Gessen discusses the phenomenon of powerful people picking on people with frail bodies. She begins by recounting a moment in 1989 in Moscow when Mikhail Gorbachev silenced a bespectacled, grandfatherly statesman named Andrei Sakharov who had won the Nobel Peace Prize fourteen years earlier. She gives the example of John Lewis, targeted by the then-president-elect for not attending his inauguration, and described as “all talk, talk, talk, no action or results,” as if the scars he bears — to this day — on his head aren’t witnesses to state-sanctioned brutality. From these accounts, Gessen lays out in detail how “moral authority seems to be encased in a frail body,” an idea that runs counter to conventional wisdom about power, authority, and strength.
Frail bodies play a major role — whether we notice them or not — in biblical narratives. It is Sarah’s frail body that gives birth to Isaac, the bleeding woman’s frail body that pursues Jesus for healing, and Paul’s frail body that travels the Roman Empire and surrounding territories sharing the message of a person with a frail body: Jesus of Nazareth.
Philip, an early Christian evangelist, finds an Ethiopian eunuch reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah on his chariot ride home from a religious pilgrimage in Jerusalem. When the eunuch comes across the passage that speaks of the subject being “oppressed, afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” He grills Philip, asking, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” The passage became personal for the eunuch because of his status as an observant, sexually-other Jew of African descent, an outsider to the Temple due to Deuteronomical restrictions on castrated men entering the assembly of the lord. “This is what happened to me,” the eunuch seems to say. The frail body described in Isaiah is his own.
Philip, on the other hand, argues that the frail body Isaiah describes belongs to Jesus. Because, for Philip, one can’t help but make the connection between Isaiah’s mysterious and oppressed figure and Jesus’ trial and state-sponsored execution. Philip most likely recalled the way Jesus was silently paraded before Pilate like a sheep before its shearers and how Jesus’ body was mangled on the cross, suffering unjustly because of reckless imperial power. For Philip, Jesus is a frail, marginalized body that was a sign of the fragility of a bloodthirsty empire.
The moral authority of frail people like Jesus and John Lewis stokes the embers of fear that if people like them seize power, they will treat the powerful the way the powerful treated them, surveil the powerful the way the powerful surveilled them, ridicule the powerful the way the powerful ridiculed them, and bully the powerful the way the powerful bullied them.
If Masha Gessen’s assertion that moral authority is encased in a frail body is accurate, then the crucifixion of Jesus is a potent testament to this. The powers that be saw in Jesus and his fledgling movement the potential for revolution, the ability to mobilize and organize others to stage insurrection. And thus, he had to be put to death. Insecure people and institutions with unrestrained power often weaponize power, unleashing brutality of all sorts on society’s most vulnerable populations.
The surprise of the Easter season — which lasts until June 4 — is not that God raised someone but who God raised: a poor, itinerant Jew in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. And if God chooses to vindicate and liberate a poor Palestinian Jew from the shackles of death, who in our day is God preparing to set free? Who in our day is awaiting God’s jarring vindication?
The Paschal Mystery — Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection — is a telling insight into how a frail and vulnerable body plays an indisputable role in the liberation of the whole cosmos. Jesus’ being born to an impoverished family in occupied territory, being executed by his occupiers, and being raised in defiance of every expectation of defeat. But this comes with a caveat: Jesus’ frailty and vulnerability remain even in resurrection. The one who was wounded by imperial aggression retains the scars of crucifixion. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” said St. Thomas, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Jesus authenticates his resurrection through showing his apostles the physical signs of his suffering. And that is the threat of moral authority people like Jesus pose: a firsthand experience with imperial brutality and a willingness to talk about it. “This is what happened to me” may be one of the most singularly powerful lines a person can utter. The scars on John Lewis’ head expose the brutality of the Jim Crow South and our nation’s ongoing legacy of white supremacy. The scars on Andrei Sakharov’s heart expose the brutality of the Soviet Union’s sustained campaign to destroy his reputation as a result of his dissent.
The scars in Jesus’ hands, feet, and side expose the brutality of the Roman Empire and every other empire that seeks to crush the most vulnerable through social, political, or economic degradation. The baptized community of Jesus is most whole when, instead of mocking the frailty and vulnerability of others, we embrace them. The body of Christ is frail. It is scarred. It is flawed and beautiful and this is good news.
The task of this era is to be more open about the unique ways in which we’ve all been wounded by sexism, homophobia, racism, ableism, and other theological barriers to flourishing. We are invited to voice a bold “No” to every force and practice that would diminish our unique and collective resemblance to God. “No” to impulses that lead to isolationism, Islamophobia, and irrational fear. “No” to the mocking of disabled reporters and persons. “No” to laws and policies that target and brutalize lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. This “No” emerges from the same soil in which we find God’s “Yes” in Christ. The “Yes” that sees people as beloved creatures, not lifeless cogs in the wheels of unrestrained capitalism and militarism. The “Yes” of God that dignifies Jesus’ trauma on the cross and our traumas in everyday life through courageous remembrance, not cowardly erasure. And that is the threat of moral authority: that the frail yet risen body of Jesus is a living antagonization of the powers that be.
Every time a survivor of oppression of any kind says “This is what happened to me,” new portals of possibility fling open, drawing ever closer the liberation of society’s most vulnerable populations. That people have survived and lived to tell the horrors of abusive relationships, communities, and regimes is a witness to human resilience and a sign of resurrection.