by Dr. Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt ’04, Assistant Professor of Art
In 2007, the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo made a literal crack in an art museum floor. But this was not a little crack. It was a meandering, 548-foot-long crack that began as a hairline fracture and then grew to about a foot at its widest point. And it wasn’t in just any museum. This was the Tate Modern, home of Britain’s national collection of modern and contemporary art. And she was paid to do it. For several years, the Tate Modern commissioned artists to make work specifically for Turbine Hall, a huge, 6-story-tall room. But when Salcedo was given the chance to fill the space, she chose instead to divide it.
The reaction was mixed. Thousands of people came to see it. Many, yes, cracked jokes. Others, like the woman who was on her phone and looking for friends, tripped. The New York Times reported one tourist stating, “Art is dangerous sometimes.” And indeed, Salcedo’s crack was dangerous in at least two ways. It was a threat to people who weren’t paying attention, and it was a threat to people who preferred to not think about ruptures in their own lives and systems.
“Art is dangerous sometimes.”
I do not like dangerous things. I am not a naturally bold person. I would consider fear to be one of my besetting sins, though I didn’t really realize this until I was a student at Covenant College. I was afraid that my theology was wrong, afraid to disappoint people, afraid I’d never get a job or get married or have children or have a fulfilling life.
During my years at Covenant, the Holy Spirit repeatedly confronted me with this sin of fear. My schedule was populated with classes that were uniquely equipped to make me squirm. I took Twentieth-Century History with Dr. Follett. And it undid me. Really, how was the twentieth century so bad everywhere and how had I not really absorbed this before?! And then I took Critical Theory from Dr. Wildeman and Art and Criticism from Prof. Jeff Morton and found myself grappling with new ideas that seemed so powerful but also threatening to my cozy sense of self. I was afraid.
I was afraid that these unfamiliar ideas actually made too much sense to me. I was afraid that recognizing gross sins of our collective past meant that I couldn’t be proud of my present identity. I was afraid that acknowledging the suffering in the Belgian Congo would make my own personal suffering inconsequential. And how could I reconcile a God who was supposedly loving and sovereign with these histories of pervasive oppression and exploitation? I was afraid that if I couldn’t account for this seeming contradiction, then God would have to disappear altogether.
It felt, in a lot of ways, like a great crack rippling through me—an unstoppable rupture.
Doris Salcedo titled her crack Shibboleth, a reference to Judges 12 where the Gileadites sifted out their enemies by asking them to say the word “shibboleth,” which sounded different in different dialects. Saying “sibboleth” became a death sentence. The term has since come to mean a custom, phrase, or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group. It is an exclusionary tool. Salcedo cracked open the floor in an effort to make visible the hidden ways in which we police our boundaries—the impossible tests that we give to others in order to maintain our own comfort or sense of security.
“A request for present help is bound up in a truthful accounting of a communal past.”
Something akin to this happened in me as a college student. The fault lines had always been there, but now they were pushed up to the surface until the chasm could no longer be ignored. And yet, because God is kind and faithful, this fracture would become the site of learning and healing.
A few years later, I went to graduate school to get my doctorate in art history. There, I discovered a litany of ways that God’s image had been abused and denied in images, even aesthetically pleasing ones. But there was also so much beauty to discover, so many instances of image bearers making things that helped others see the world in exciting, dignifying ways.
While working through this tension, I began to take notice of how the people of Israel narrated their history. How do we look back rightly? Throughout Deuteronomy, for example, the people are constantly reminded of their deliverance from slavery. In 1 Samuel, Samuel marks the site of God’s mercy with an Ebenezer, a stone that served as a physical reminder of God showing up and interceding in a visible, tangible way.
But there is another aspect of Israel’s history telling, and that involves marking their failures. The flip side of an Ebenezer is a place name like Marah, where the water was bitter, or Meribah, where the people tested the Lord.
Psalm 106 brings these practices together in a strange and wonderful unity. The psalmist recounts in excruciating detail the many times that the people of Israel forgot God, despised Him, murmured, rebelled, and yoked themselves to idols. Read it out loud. It takes a painfully long time to get through thirty-seven verses of failure. And yet. The psalm’s penultimate stanza is a recounting of historical grace: “For their sake He remembered His covenant, and relented according to the abundance of His steadfast love.” The psalm then concludes with a petition and a blessing: “Save us, O Lord!” and “Praise the Lord!” A request for present help is bound up in a truthful accounting of a communal past.
Faithfully telling history demands that we recall both the moments of triumph and the moments of abject failure. The psalmist is not ashamed to recount his community’s shortcomings. Should we call him unpatriotic? Cynical? Ungrateful? No, it is precisely through detailing their failures that he finds the certainty of God’s grace. God and God’s actions become the crux of this historical narration.
Furthermore, this kind of history-telling provides a context for our present, individual suffering. Throughout Psalm 106 the psalmist uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” referring to the people of Israel in the past. But, the recitation of history is actually preceded by a personal pronoun: “Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people; help me when you save them.”
“Faithfully telling history demands that we recall both the moments of triumph and the moments of abject failure.”
A strange thing happened in that gallery in London in 2007. Visitors began to inspect Doris Salcedo’s crack. They paced up and down its length over and over again. They got down on their hands and knees and pressed their cheeks to the floor to peek into the fissure. Some stuck their heads into the gap. Emboldened, perhaps, by recognizing the crack as an artwork—rather than a geological threat—people contorted their bodies, trying to understand the nature of the rupture, this Shibboleth.
Faithfulness also demands that we look around. Jesus, of course, is our model in this. Jesus invites encounters with those who do not pass cultural tests of acceptance. When a woman creeps into a room full of men, uninvited, and begins to wash Jesus’s feet with her tears, she breaks every social taboo and every rule of order that the Pharisees had known. But Jesus calls her actions beautiful and lifts her up as a model. He sees her at the margins, and He centers her, despite how uncomfortable she makes everyone else at the table.
And it is Jesus who is grieved by the suffering of those whom He knows personally, but also of those who are strangers. In the midst of His own humiliation in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ remains aware of others. He knows the agony that awaits Him, and yet He sees Malchus, a slave, whose ear has been sliced off by an impetuous Simon Peter. Peter, who failed to look back or to look around, disfigures another man’s body. “Enough of this,” Jesus says, and He reaches out and heals the slave who has no recourse to justice on his own.
“Faithfulness also demands that we look around. Jesus, of course, is our model in this. Jesus invites encounters with those who do not pass cultural tests of acceptance.”
When Jesus recognizes Malchus’s suffering, does it diminish the reality of His own pain? Of course not! Sometimes we believe that dignity is a pie to be divvied up among us. We worry that if we grant dignity to one group’s suffering or accounting of history then there is necessarily less available for us. But this is foolish. We make God small when the reverse should be the case. For, after all, if Jesus is coming back to make all the sad things untrue, then the more sad things we know, the bigger Jesus must be to undo them. The cracks are already there. Calling out the brokenness does not diminish Jesus’s power. It magnifies it.
But sometimes the admonition of Galatians 6 or the call to lament feels utterly impossible. How can we bear one another’s burdens without being crushed ourselves? Many of us—too many—have endured deep personal suffering.
We have lost the ones who loved us best, our bodies have given out, we have been violated by those we trust, and darkness has at times been suffocating. How can we really care—not just post Facebook statuses about—gun violence, racism, immigration, sexuality, abortion, Syria, human trafficking, the opioid crisis, and still function? Jesus offers a tenable path in Matthew 11.
“Come to me,” He says, “all of you who are burdened and weighed down…my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” It is not our performance of lament, our virtue-signaling or wokeness that eases the weight of darkness. It is Jesus. Jesus, necessarily bigger, stronger, reconciling all things to Himself, on earth and in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.
We know the end of the story. Creation, fall, redemption, consummation. And because we have this hope, we can be unafraid to poke our heads into the cracks that appear, to get onto our hands and knees and to see the fault lines of sin that run through our hearts, our relationships, our histories, and our systems. We do this not because we are cynical or to distract from the gospel or because we refuse to forgive and forget.
No, we do it because we are unafraid.
If you go to the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern now, you might notice something. The crack is gone, but there is still a scar on the floor. It’s faded, polished away by thousands of visitors in the intervening years, but it is still there: a rupture that has been restored.
A scar also remains on the hands and side of our Savior in glory. The actual embodiment of forgiveness carries a wound. His resurrected body bears the mark of His love for you. And that perfect love drives out fear. So, do not fear the fractures. Let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save. He will rejoice over you with gladness. He will quiet you by His love. He will exult over you with loud singing.
This piece is adapted from Dr. Weichbrodt’s 2018 commencement address.
The photo in this article was shot by Loz Pycock and is licensed under CC BY 4.0/Edited and cropped from original. Our use of Loz Pycock’s photo does not in any way suggest that he endorses View magazine.