Jesus and Appalachia in Process
Appalachians have long pondered the question, “what sort of being must this one be, who has death behind him?” (ECT 193). Who was and who is the figure of Jesus the Christ? The resultant christological formulations that I have witnessed are a dynamic interplay - the Jesus who loved and the Jesus who died and, in dying, overcame death. It is corporeal, it is bodily, it is pain and love and suffering and hope. Appalachians are a diverse group, and growing more diverse every day; they know what it is to exist on the margins of society, of empire. M. Shawn Copeland’s conception of “a place of racial and cultural mixture, a frontier region that buffered the 'crossroad of empire,’” speaks to West Virginia, to Tennessee, to Georgia, just as much as to Galilee (Copeland 59).
Appalachians know well the meaning of the words, “can anything good come out of Nazareth" (Jn 1:46)? They know the insistence of the world of placing this concept upon mountain folk: can anything good come from the hills and hollows, from the coal mines, from the ‘hillbillies’? Jesus, then, is one like us. One who knows the suffering that empire inscribes on bodies; that marginality imprints on self-worth and the will to carry on. It is in Jesus we see a paradigm for what we are as humans. We then see that force of love be executed as a criminal, as a rebel, and in a moment of creative wonder, we know that body is not made silent by the powers that destroy, that seek to hold a boot to the necks of those who dissent. Mountain churches, on the whole, reject the centrality of most of the historical creedal formulations (they show the birth and the death, forgetting the life in-between) -- the Spirit moves, the community knows, the individual experiences who Jesus was and is and will be in the lives of the people.
As Catherine Keller writes of Jesus, “[he taught] inseparability as our own ultimate condition” (OM 144). This is what Appalachians celebrate. That even in those moments of utter devastation, of hopelessness in the face of chaos, in those moments when we “begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us,’” (Lk 23:30) we know that Jesus as the Christ radically transforms our creative potential and our hope in the present moment and into the future and, in this, that Jesus is present, and dynamic, and impossibly enmeshed in the life and struggles of the community of mountain churches and towns. The baseliea tou theou, the kin-dom, the commonwealth of God, is wrought out through struggle and love, the improvisation and failure ever closer into the full reality of God.
Appalachians attention to the embodiment of Jesus opens them towards a conception of Christ as one who understood and acted in accordance with God’s aims to a higher degree than any other human, but in a way that we all are attuned to; he was a super-paradigm for the creative force of God that is present and open to all of us at every moment of our lives. Perhaps then, this Jesus is not really so different from us at all, in degree perhaps, but not really in kind, and this is precisely why he is so important. His humanity and his special understanding of the will of that which he named abba, Father, is a means by which we are all transformed, by which we all are made new, by which we all can look beyond the veil of death and poverty and pain into the power that exists in love and community and relation in every moment and person and animal, every thicket of trees, every bramble of thorns and every mountain stream, that we encounter.