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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Resurrection and Resistance—John 20:1-18 (John Allen)

The resurrection does not erase suffering: it teaches us to live in a world torn by injustice. It gives us hope that God is present in the ugliest violence of human life, and that God engages human history to create meaning on the other side of tragedy and injustice.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to lookinto the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew,‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The crucifixion of Jesus was not a unique event. Crosses are erected even today, in communities around the world and in the very souls of marginalized persons. The cross looms over history as a reminder of the reality of violence. It recalls many systems that seek to deprive persons of life and dignity. It reminds humanity of the violent structures that repeatedly bolster themselves against any perceived threat. To proclaim that God is present in Jesus’life and death is to proclaim that God’s presence permeates human existence, through its triumphs and defeats, in ecstasy as well as in agony.

Yet the story of God’s hope for humanity culminates with death’s dramatic defeat. With the empty tomb. With a love that conquers even death. Jesus’story would not be told today if his earliest followers had not had some sense that his death would not mark the end of their movement. Christ’s resurrection confounds the wise, rather than allowing the violence of the powerful to scatter the weak. This love beyond the power of death is the truth of Jesus’life. Soelle argues that more than life after death “Jesus believed above all in a life before death.”[1] He lived in a way that bore witness to the transcendence of his vision. Calling Christ risen, Christians proclaim that the vision survived the visionary, that God continues to resist the absurdity of violence.

This meaning of the resurrection is derivative of the experience of the cross. The tragedy of innocent suffering is the force behind the meaning of resurrection. Jesus’resurrection cannot be divorced from his death; it is significant precisely because it is a divine response to human violence. The resurrection symbolizes divine intention for life to survive beyond violent interruptions. It is a mistake to say that Jesus’ death was a good thing. It must be understood as a tragedy. But, it is faithful to rejoice at God’s insistence that this tragedy would not shut holy love out of the world.

In August of 1955 Emmett Till, a fourteen year old black boy, was brutally murdered by a lynch mob in Mississippi. In an act of ultimate bravery, Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral for her son. For three days, the boy’s brutalized body was on display. Photographs circulated around the world. Mamie Till sought to “expose white brutality and black faith”saying, “Lord you gave your son to remedy a condition, but who knows, but what the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching … Darling you have not died in vain, your life has been sacrificed for something.”[2] Mamie Till articulated the heart of Christology. In no way could she be heard to have willed or desired the death of her son: she merely yearned for his suffering to be rendered meaningful in a mad world. Mamie Till’s prayer was for her son’s resurrection in the form of a movement to resist the sort of violence that robbed him of his life.

No resurrection erases the tragedy of the cross. Nothing erases violence. Rebecca Brock intones precisely the hope we can have on the other side of tragedy: contact with our own grief. “Grief,”Brock believes, “might enable us, the survivors, to act in the world with determination and compassion.”[3] Instead of seeking the resurrection as a balm to soothe Christians from the true gravity of the cross, Brock invites us to understand how coming into contact with grief is the work of the resurrection. “Church people use religion to cover over their pain.”Instead, Brock insists on a Christology that draws people into contact with their own pain and the pain of others, for the sake of feeling the grief that inspires resistance, that stimulates one to live for the sake of the abused and victimized, to struggle for liberation. The power of God is that presence that gets us through abuse and violence, it saves us to live on, to heal, and to work for justice.

To this end, resistance is the work of resurrection. When grief at the violence and injustice that consume the world can be truly felt, the image of Jesus’resurrection then draws humans toward seeking ways of mirroring the divine impulse toward life. Remembrance leads to resistance; “apart from the consciousness of the vanquished and the remembrance of the victims, the cry of rebellion cannot arise.”[4] The political action of the people arises from the experience of eyes set squarely on the cross. Soelle calls this our passion.[5] When contact with the crucified world draws us to resist violence, this is the work of the resurrection. We do not then live merely in hope that someday we too may share in the reward of a resurrected Christ and be swept out of the world of woe. Instead we find symbolized in the resurrection of Jesus a model for resisting the insistence of violence on its own totality. In short, we proclaim, “another world is possible”and we are forging it through our resistance.

Christians are called to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ in a world where death is a reality, and not shy from encompassing death into our theology. But undeserved and unjust violence reveal more about the world than they do about God. The death of Jesus shows how the world responds to a life with love held at the center; it shows how fiercely and completely the world rejects such love. Through our insistence on vindicating love, we claim the last word is God’s and the last word is life. By moving away from the glorious interpretations of the cross that persist in classical Christian theology and instead focusing our gaze on the suffering and death that punctuates history, Christians may finally uncover the radical nature of God’s acting in Jesus. Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker tell of the possibility that emerges beyond loss and death. Jesus was killed but his followers somehow continued to feel his presence in their midst, indeed they even experienced him in their everyday life, as a gardener or a stranger on the road. They “discovered that death was not the end. Mourning brought them to a moment that came as a surprise, as unexpected grace.”[6]

The memory of Jesus lives with his followers, it can live with Christians even today. The memory connects us with Jesus’legacy, it allows us to “refuse to acquiesce to the legacy of violence.”[7] The resurrection is not something that happened years ago in a Judean garden, resurrection is action taken now. Christ is risen when Christians refuse to surrender to violence, Christ is risen when the suffering feel the divine presence with them, Christ is risen when we hold fast to our own humanity and the humanity of others in the face of the violence that denies human blessedness. The resurrection does not erase suffering: it teaches us to live in a world torn by injustice. It gives us hope that God is present in the ugliest violence of human life, and that God engages human history to create meaning on the other side of tragedy and injustice.

[1] Dorothee Soelle, Essential Writings, Dianne L. Oliver ed. (Markyknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 130. Emphasis added.
[2]Mamie Till, in James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011),67.
[3] Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and The Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 90.
[4] Dorothee Soelle, Suffering, Everett R. Kalin trans. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), 125.
[5] Soelle, Suffering, 125.
[6] Brock and Parker, 249.
[7] Brock and Parker, 249.

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