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Monday, May 15, 2017

Rising from the Dead 1: Why Have You Abandoned Me?

(T)hey did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. (Jn. 20:9)

Well, they're not the only ones, are they? 


These are a few of things that were swirling around my head this year through Holy Week and the beginning of the Easter season. As usual, they're not necessarily original thoughts with me at all, just things that struck me with renewed vigor from previous years, or new ways of seeing old things. Some of them come from articles, or conversations, or even homilies. Because we spent eight weeks this year studying the problem of God's (apparent) violence in the Bible with Dominic Crossan in a video series made available through Living the Questions, some of the issues that Crossan perennially surfaces in his work were especially vivid for me. And of course, the importance of the Emmaus story and other stories of the passion and resurrection of Christ have renewed spiritual power for me because of James Alison's course Jesus, The Forgiving Victim, which we also completed recently with a couple of dozen people in the parish after engaging with it for two years.


But those are just lenses through with these stories are filtered again, new ways of seeing old truths, and my sharing my own insights will necessarily be affected by them like they are about everything else I've learned through the years. So here we go:


1. Why have you abandoned me? In an internet essay for HuffPost called "The Communal Crucifixion of Jesus," John Dominic Crossan explores the connections between the gospel accounts' use of Jewish psalm and prophetic texts and the way they were heard and preached in the early church. What he has done is turned the jewel of hermeneutics on the passion narrative a little bit, and rather than seeing the sayings as fulfillment of prophecies about the specific death of Jesus of Nazareth, he posits that the use of the quotations was to clarify and expand the meaning of the death of Jesus by associating it with the fate of the people of Israel. From their earliest communal memories of slavery in Egypt and Babylonian captivity through their more recent experience of the violence and cruelties suffered under the Greek, Hasmonean, and Roman occupations, the authors of the gospels united their narratives by reference to texts like the servant canticles of Isaiah and the psalms of lament, especially Psalm 22 and Psalm 31. More about this later, when I discuss some thoughts about the Emmaus narrative and the "law and the prophets" role in the apostolic kerygma before and after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Crucifixion, condemnation of the innocent, torture, and random violence were the daily bread of the Jews, especially in the years from 4 BCE (around the time Jesus was born) until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Given the thousands of crucifixions of "enemies of Caesar" who were part of various uprisings during that period, I imagine most Jews of Judea and Galilee must have had first hand experience of the brutality of Rome. Their situation was desperate. And yet, the "good news" that the apostles and evangelists were risking their own lives to preach was that Jesus, victim of Rome's iron-fisted "justice" system and the collaboration of conflicting interests within Judaism, was not dead but alive, rescued from death by God as some had begun to believe since the time of the Wisdom literature, a couple of centuries. Out of an unswerving faith in God's justice, a new strand of hope for a resurrection of the dead, in this world, arose. If God is just, how could the young martyrs who had stood against Antiochus Epiphanes and other tyrants who desecrated the temple be lost forever in their youth? Surely a just God would not abandon them to death! From such faith rose the apocalypse of Daniel, in which God would clean up the violent mess of the world. Such passages like this in chapter 12, for instance:

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake;
Some to everlasting life, others to reproach and everlasting disgrace.
But those with insight shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament,
And those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever...
...as well as passages like the familiar text from Wisdom (chapter 3), read so often at funerals, 
The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
For if to others, indeed, they seem punished,
yet is their hope full of immortality;
Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.
As gold in the furnace, he proved them,
and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.
In the time of their judgment they shall shine
and dart about as sparks through stubble;
They shall judge nations and rule over peoples,
and the LORD shall be their King forever.

We rarely, I think, appreciate what a break this kind of tradition was from other strains of Judaism, which continued in the tradition of the Sadducees who "did not believe in the resurrection." But the pharisaic tradition continued to explore resurrection as a necessary correlation to God's justice, and Jesus was part of the tradition. After his death and resurrection, the church struggled with what the resurrection means for those "left behind," what its meaning is for the earth and its people. Is resurrection about another world, an afterlife? Not in this view, at least, not entirely. It certainly appears that the emphasis both in the preaching of Jesus and that of the church is that it is this world that is created and loved by God, and this world which is to be transformed into God's new heavens and new earth. Those who have suffered the fate of Jesus at the hands of powers that rely on cruelty and violence to gather their way, those who are abandoned, humiliated, tortured, whose flesh is pierced, who are spat upon, degraded, and buried among the forgotten, like Jesus, they will rise again, borne up by the power of a God who is full of life and who has nothing to do with death. The gospel message, then, is "Change the world with love. There is nothing to fear."

We goyim—gentiles cannot fully comprehend the tribal unity of Judaism in the time around the life of Jesus. Connections between family, extended family, and nation were tight; people were able to survive because they were not alone. And there was no distinction between tribe, nation, and faith. Jewish self-identity was rooted not in political history but in their sacred stories and scriptures. The authors of the gospels, some possibly Jewish themselves, converts to Judaism, or "God-fearers," Jewish sympathizers who took to preaching of the apostles about Jesus, knew this, and experienced in the betrayal, torture, and death of Jesus the brutality suffered by their nation at the hands of invading powers forever. They reverenced these connections, the suffering of innocent people beloved by God, by framing the passion narratives in with words and phrases borrowed from scripture and loaded with resonance from their own story. They would do the same with the resurrection narrative. The same psalm (118) that is quoted for the entry into Jerusalem ("Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!") is quoted for the betrayal and death of Jesus (the "stone that the builders rejected") and for his resurrection ("has become the cornerstone. This is God's doing! This is the day the Lord has made!")



Thus for the kerygma of the Apostles and the evangelists, the death and resurrection of Jesus spells the end of a world ruled by violence and despair. God had personally entered into the place of death and shame, and returned a verdict of "Innocent" with the resurrection of Jesus. But the Victim of the crime is the same in life and resurrection: no retribution, no more victimization. The preaching and life of Jesus suggests a new world order of mutual care, healing, and loving resolution of communal problems. The old order would crumble around the tables of Christians who would refuse to participate in the business-as-usual of Caesar's world. God asserts "peace through justice," the world counter-asserts "peace through victory by violence." Now as then, the transformation of earth depends upon the resolve of Christians to believe in life and sharing goods in an economy of divine abundance, or accommodation of an economy of scarcity and fear, driven by an ethic of "might makes right" and survival of the fittest.

The passion narratives, rich with allusions to the suffering of Israel throughout its history, and considered against the rich backdrop of the preaching of the early apostolic community in Acts and the letters of St. Paul, give us a way of hearing this story in our own day. Sanitized from the suffering of most of the world, in many ways ignorant of the depth of human suffering, we may not be able to fathom the humiliation of public execution, the sadistic tearing of flesh, torture devised to prolong the sufferer's agony. But we can still hear the message of the "forgiving victim" who offered a path for transformation of the world in the Sermon on the Mount, in his life of healing and breaking down barriers between people, and in his faith in a God who is head of the household of the world, who wants a loving family, and who desires "mercy and not sacrifice." With his disciples, we can still wonder through this Easter season at the empty tomb, and listen for stories of peoples' encounter with him, risen, conversing about how it might be better to surrender to death than to kill, because "the souls of the just are in the hands of God," and even this:
Because of his affliction
he shall see the light in fullness of days;
through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
and their guilt he shall bear.
Who'd have thought that even possible?

Summary: Somehow, resurrection is for everyone, it happens in this world, and it happens because God is life and God is just.