The Gentle Resurrection

Luke’s first Resurrection narrative is the quietest of all four Gospels. Matthew is easily the loudest with an earthquake announcing the event. That’s our idea of Easter! Mark is puzzling and a bit of a cliffhanger with the women running away from the tomb out of fright. That’s still a pretty intense reaction. John is almost as quiet with the women finding the tomb empty before Jesus appears to Mary, but Luke is quieter still. The women are puzzled by the empty tomb and the announcement of the two men in dazzling clothes. They do tell the disciples but the disciples don’t believe them, not just because they are women but because the news is too unbelievable. The narrative ends with Peter looking into the empty tomb, amazed, but scratching his head.

There is an air of suspended reality about all this. Much of it has to do with the shock of grief over the death of a loved one. In the shock of grief, nothing seems real, least of all the absence of the loved one. It’s like the person is there and not there. This isn’t what we think Easter is all about but I would argue that this is the most realistic entry into this stupendous event. We are used to thinking of earth-shaking events as–well–events that shake up the world. But these sorts of events don’t really change the world as they are the same old acts of competition and violence and force that have been with us since Cain killed Abel. If the Resurrection were such an earth-shaking event, it would actually have kept the world going in the same old rut of retaliatory violence. That the Resurrection is so low-key, especially in Luke’s version, shows us that the Resurrection does indeed embody a radical act of non-violence, giving us all the space we need, century after century, the discern why it was “necessary” that Jesus be handed over to sinners, crucified and then rise from the dead. The necessity for the death was, of course, a human necessity as Caiaphas affirmed. (Jn. 11: 15) The Resurrection, though, is God’s necessity. It was necessary that God raise Jesus to give us an undying life-giving presence for all time. But this presence needed to be totally without violence, i..e. without force of any kind, just as Jesus’ death had to result from renouncing all violence in the face of evil. Not even the earthquake in Matthew forced Jesus’ resurrected life on anybody.

St. Paul writes about being baptized into Christ’s death before rising with him. (Rom. 6: 3) The initial phase of disorientation described by Luke is very much a feeling of death as the world the disciples had been living in had also been rendered unreal, even if the imperial order continued unabated as it always had done. There is a lot more to dying to the old self than giving up our own personal sins. More than that, we need to die to the culture of violence we are immersed in so as to enter the life-giving nonviolence of the resurrected life. Since there is nothing earthshaking about it, nothing to make headlines, it may not seem like much, but to the contrary, embracing the forgiving life is indeed everything.

We may think that nothing has changed when we read about the virulent racism in our own country and around the world. Even worse is the horrific act of violence in Ukraine, which makes headlines, but is really only a repeat of what Rome was doing in Jesus’ time. But something has changed over the centuries. We now have oppressed people throughout the world arising in non-violent protest, including Martin Luther King Jr and William Barber II. We have a world-wide protest against the invasion of Ukraine and many countries doing what they can to help their stricken neighbor. These are all signs of the Resurrection in the midst of the horror and death that Jesus suffered on the Cross. The Resurrection, though, isn’t just about events on a large scale. It is also about small events of love and concern for the well-being of others day after day with the people right next to us—our neighbors.

How About a Jubilee?

After celebrating the Baptism of Jesus and the Wedding at Cana with its Eucharistic overtones, Luke’s lectionary cycle takes us to visions of the Body of Christ as community, what Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday we celebrated this week, called “the Beloved Community. This theme is most appropriate for the octave for Christian unity.

The reading from Nehemiah 8 gives us a glimpse of the initiation of the body of worship that became the synagogue. Ezra reads the Law (the Torah) and includes explanation, which is the heart of synagogue worship to this day. Nehemiah and Ezra conclude with these comforting words: “This day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh. 8: 10) Unfortunately these two leaders also thought that social cohesion required the expulsion of all wives who are not sufficiently “pure” to be part of this emerging Jewish community, a recurring problem of creating unity through division.

In his first Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul counters the exclusionary behavior in this church with his famous analogy of the human body with the Church as the Body of Christ. This analogy gives us a powerful vision of unity in diversity with each part interacting with all the others. If one part of the body hurts, all parts hurt. This analogy also reminds of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words: “Nobody is free until we are all free.” The implication is that if we try to exert our “freedom” by expelling others, we are not free.

The Gospel reading from Luke portrays the opening of Jesus’ teaching ministry. As the forerunner John the Baptist quoted Isaiah’s words about Israel’s return from the Babylonian exile as God’s preparing a way for the people to return over rough country made smooth, Jesus began by quoting Isaiah’s words about what a settled people should do: Have a jubilee. The Jubilee was designed to make high economic mountains and low valleys more level; to give everybody a new start by cancelling crippling debts. This really was good news for the poor who particularly needed another start. But there is more: Isaiah also envisioned freeing captives and giving sight to the blind. Could it be that economic injustice makes all of us blind to what is really going on? In any case, Jesus is broadening the scope of the Jubilee to apply to everything we can do to strengthen community. To return to Paul’s analogy of the Church as Christ’s Body: it is as if some parts of the body swelled and caused other parts to shrink. Maybe the swollen parts thought that was a good deal, but the reality is that the whole body, not least the swollen parts, is sick when that happens. Economic issues are unmistakable in Luke but a Jubilee is about and for everybody. So how do all of us participate in the Jubilee? What about problems of exclusion? Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a society where the exclusionary practices of race would no longer tear the nation and the churches apart. More important, King sought to achieve this end through reconciliation rather than through adversarial approaches. Isaiah had also proclaimed the freeing of captives. Besides re-evaluating our prison system, we should reflect on how we imprison each other and most of all ourselves in resentment and vengefulness.

The only words of Jesus that Luke quotes are: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk. 4: 21) This is particularly startling. According to Leviticus, a Jubilee happened every seven years with a super Jubilee every seventy years. A Jubilee was something to look forward to, but Jesus is telling us to celebrate the Jubilee NOW. Not next week or tomorrow, but NOW. That puts all of us on the hot seat right now and calls us to consider what we can do NOW to participate in the Jubilee. Since Jesus’ quoting Isaiah is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, it stands to reason that the rest of the Gospel shows us ways to live the Jubilee. That is, Luke’s Gospel is a Jubilee Gospel. The famous Lukan parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son give us powerful examples of what Jubilee looks like.

I will close with an example from a presentation by the black theologian Julia Robinson Moore in North Carolina whom I heard a few months ago. She said that a white parish with many descendants of slave owners offered an apology to her black congregation for their enslavement of the forebears of her congregation. This may not seem like much given the enormity of slavery’s cruelty, but Julia said the apology was both significant and meaningful for her and her congregation. Their acceptance of the apology is another act of Jubilee. Even if we start small, we can hope for an increase of sixty, eighty and a hundredfold.

NOTE: AN organization dedicated to relief of medical debt has just come to my attention. St. John’s, Midland, MI is currently running a campaign for debt relief in this area. https://ripmedicaldebt.org/

Unjust Judges and Widows

crosswButterfliesThe introduction to the Parable of the Unjust Judge tells us that we should keep on praying and never give up. At the end of the parable, Jesus tells us that we should keep on praying even when our prayers go unanswered for so long that we think we are praying to one who does not care and perhaps is not even just.

It happens that in life, nagging and nagging is often the only way to get justice, or what we think is justice. There are some people who are eager to help and will hop to a request as soon as it is spoken, but many people are rather slow to do what is asked of them, and many people have vested interests in denying pleas for justice. These are the people who have more power than others and they usually use that power to take advantage of those who are weaker. Do the people with power take an initiative in renouncing their power for the benefit of others? Do people with power renounce it when politely requested to do so? We all know that doesn’t happen very often. Even in the top-down case of Czar Alexander II freeing the serfs in Russia, the class structure in Russia didn’t change very much.

Most of us instinctively identify with the widow who is trying to get justice. As widows, we expect that God’s granting of justice involves God strong-arming the unjust judges of the world until all of us widows get our rights. But that is not what happened with Jesus. Far from dismantling the unjust rule of the Romans, Jesus himself was condemned to death by the unjust judges among the Jewish leaders, the Roman governor, and the rest of us in the crowd. As the culmination of the persecuted prophets, Jesus reveals God to be the widow who is pleading with us, for justice.

That is. we are the unjust judges. Even people with little power overall tend to be unjust judges over those (such as children) who have even less power. This portrait of humanity raises the question as to whether it is God who delays justice. If humans act unjustly and delay justice to the point that injustice is a longstanding epidemic, then God could have been working overtime since the dawn of civilization and still have no hope of keeping up with the injustice.

Jesus as the crucified widow who died at our hands, the unjust judges, is not what we were looking for when we thought of ourselves as widows. But that is what we got. Not only that, but we also got the resurrected widow who still pleads for justice without ceasing. As the resurrected widow, Jesus has offered us, the unjust judges, forgiveness and the offer to enter into the kingship of Jesus. The parable suggests that we enter as importunate widows who plead with forgiveness and love for the unjust judges as some of our greatest leaders have done, leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu. But we also enter the kingship of Heaven as repentant unjust judges. In the parable, the Unjust Judge only relents because he is more miserable from being hassled by the widow than he is with any power he might lose by giving her justice. But at least the Unjust Judge finally does the right thing, even if his motives are as selfish as those of the Dishonest Steward in the earlier parable. (Lk. 16: 10–13) Maybe if we start to do the right thing, however grudgingly, we might find that doing the right thing, of granting justice to those weaker than we, isn’t so bad after all. Maybe giving justice can become a habit.

What does this parable teach us about prayer? It surely teaches us to pray constantly like the importunate widow, and to thirst for justice, as the Sermon on the Mount would have us do. However, we are not praying to a strong man who will manhandle the bad guys for us. (We would be among those so manhandled in that case.) We are praying with God the Crucified and Risen Widow who offers us freedom from our own injustice so that we can spread justice to others with a burning desire.

Selling Postcards of the Cross

crucifix1“They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown.”

White boys like me mostly didn’t know what Bob Dylan was singing about when “Desolation Row” first came out on “Highway 61 Revisited.” James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree tells us it was about lynching. Lynching was a public spectacle where people took pictures and made postcards out of them.

Cone goes on to argue that the lynching tree was a series of grisly re-enactments of the crucifixion of Jesus. He also demonstrates on how very difficult it has been and still is for Americans to see this truth. Reinhold Niebuhr, arguably the greatest American theologian was, in spite of his social concerns, blind to this reality. Even black people have had trouble seeing this connection, though Cone shows how some black women, especially Ida B. Wells articulated it powerfully. He contrasts Niebuhr and all white liberals with Martin Luther King, Jr. who put his life on the line.

The dynamics of lynching as analyzed by Cone provide powerful confirmation of the theory of collective violence of René Girard. (See my article Violence and the Kingdom of God.) Girard argues that perpetrators instinctively fail to see what they are going. Cone shows us this truth in a powerful manner.

Dylan goes on to sing that “the circus is in town” and then catalogs Western Civilization turned topsy-turvy, suggesting that lynching does this, thanks to the “blind commissioner.”

Cone is right about whites’ blindness to this truth, but Dylan did write “The Ballad of Emmett Tell” in 1963, telling the story in stark terms, though without any Christian reference except to complains that the human race has fallen “down so god-awful low.” Then there is Mark Twain who wrote “The United States of Lyncherdom,” calling lynching for what it was and clearly discussing the human mimesis just as Girard was to do half a century later.

Cone’s book is written calmly, even gently. There is no mincing of words, yet the words are somehow full of forgiveness. The forgiveness in Cone’s words, the forgiveness proclaimed by Jesus, should be enough to undermine our trust in ourselves and our ability to see what we are doing. We must repent not only of lynching, but of our collective hatred of enemies today.