The killing of Jordan Neely is an apocalyptic event; it reveals something about our cultural moment that is at once illuminating and deeply unsettling.
On May 1, Neely was killed on the New York City subway by a fellow passenger. Neely, who was experiencing homelessness, was reportedly yelling about being “fed up and hungry” before Daniel Penny, a Marine veteran, put Neely in a chokehold for several minutes, killing him.
What immediately strikes me about this incident is the utter pointlessness of the whole thing. It is nothing short of a disaster that this man — this bearer of the image of God — was killed in this way and for this reason, as though showing signs of mental distress in public deserves the death penalty. Neely’s death deserves our cries of lament — and justice.
But this event opens onto additional grotesque realities that are hard to face. I am, of course, speaking about the quotidian forms of violence people experiencing homelessness face in this country, all the while being demonized and scapegoated by those in power. Really, the fact that people experience homelessness at all, while others “build houses of hewn stone,” betrays a spiritual sickness that rests at the heart of this society.
These scandals remain. And yet I am most troubled by what lies behind the inclination to subdue Neely in the first place. I do not mean the particular chokehold used or who administered it. I mean how Neely was seen in this moment.
“Once such people are identified, they are either forced into a state of ‘order’ or eliminated.”
What chills me about this story — and the spate of stories about people being shot for stepping on another’s property or ringing the wrong doorbell — is that it reveals an inclination to see certain people as avatars of disorder. And once such people are identified, they are either forced into a state of “order” or eliminated.
The desire to impose order on those perceived to be disordered also can be expressed through more subtle means like, for instance, when expressions of discontent are dismissed because they are said “the wrong way” or in the wrong tone of voice. In both cases, certain people are more prone to being labeled “disorderly” before they ever say a word and are thus more likely to attract such “ordering” attention.
This is precisely because such people’s very presence deviates from what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls “the normate,” the socially constructed notion of what “ideal” people look like, sound like, act like. Certain people — people of color, people who appear to be poor, people who are visibly disabled, people who present as queer — are thus more susceptible to the disciplinary measures intent on maintaining the ordered normate. Even so, anyone can attract the ordered gaze if one deviates from the normate — and no one fulfills this norm all the time or for all time.
This ought not be so.
There is no denying that deep strains within Christianity can reinforce this desire to bring order to the world, or even just to impose order on one’s body through disciplined diet and exercise. The desire to impose a normative vision onto reality, come what may, betrays what Catherine Keller has called tehomophobia — the fear of chaos. Such a desire is alluring because it allows one to narrate oneself as a hero, bringing goodness and order to an otherwise chaotic world.
But there are problems with this vision. Not only is the vision of the normate hopelessly arbitrary, and not only is it impossible to live into without contradiction; it is also theologically insufficient, at least on my reading of Christianity.
“I remain a Christian because I believe heaven seeks harmony.”
Indeed, I am a Christian in part because I reject a reading of the tradition that would assume God wishes to impose order onto all bodies, negating difference such that heaven “drowns all music but its own.” I remain a Christian because I believe heaven seeks harmony.
An alternative stance toward “disorder” drawn from Christian theological resources would approach our condition slightly differently than would those who seek to march into the world and bring order with them.
It would recognize that God created all that is and called it good, blessing us all in our variety rather than creating a world that is a singular, homogenous mass.
It would recognize with Stanley Cavell that variety, like finitude, is not a sin — although denying it certainly is.
It would recognize that the Spirit of God in Acts does not negate difference but enables a kind of mutual communication with and celebration of one another.
It would recognize that the movement of the Spirit is itself wild — a Spirit, after all, which blows where it chooses.
“The reflexive impulse to first label certain people as disordered and then to eliminate them is not going away anytime soon.”
Perhaps most of all, it would recognize that amidst the irreducibly distinct portraits of Jesus we find in the New Testament, we do not find someone who easily fits the vision of the normate in his day. One finds a crucified, penetrated Messiah whose willingness to submit to death — even death on a cross — brings salvation to the world. It is in this life, Christians confess, that one sees the fullness of God and fullness of humanity on display — upsetting and subverting what is so often considered beautiful and orderly.
Whatever one thinks of these theological fragments, it remains true that we are in desperate need of imaginative resources that would enable people to respond to “disorder,” either real or perceived, in ways other than either coercion or elimination. At the very least, one would hope those claiming the disorderly and crucified Jesus as Lord would not be so easily taken in by narratives about what to label “disordered” and scripts about how to respond to people so labeled.
The wild spasms of violence we are witnessing in this country are awful; the death of Jordan Neely is awful. I fear such instances will only increase in the days ahead, as the reflexive impulse to first label certain people as disordered and then to eliminate them is not going away anytime soon.
And perhaps most troubling of all, this desire is fertile soil for more organized forms of political violence that would seek to impose order upon a world that is perceived to be out of control.
Ryan Andrew Newson serves as assistant professor of theology and ethics at Campbell University. He is the author of Cut in Stone: Confederate Monuments and Theological Disruption, and the forthcoming The End of Civility: Christ and Prophetic Division.
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