Jesus was raised from the dead. That's the blunt claim of Christianity. Either the disciples lied to us, or were deluded. Either Jesus who claimed he would be raised was raised, or he was deluded. Why would you base your life upon, and entrust your life to, something that was based in a lie or delusion?
We can call ourselves Christian and say there was no resurrection, but every time I do this, I seem to end up in a lesser life, a sad heroism in the face of futility and inevitable death. In this place I say death altogether to quickly and easily, just as Christians say resurrection too easily. Death means complete annihilation. The species and the planet will die, eventually, and perhaps sooner rather than later. Death means that I and you and everything anyone has ever done becomes... nothing. I don't have the heroism to live despite the fact that it all comes to nothing— all of it and everything.
Yet neither, when I am honest about it, can my mind accept the physical resurrection of Jesus. I met my neighbour in Rundle Mall one day— he had died a few weeks before. My whole world began to tilt sideways in incomprehension and terror. After a few seconds I realised it was one of those extraordinary 'almost-twins' we sometimes meet. But the real thing? My rational mind cannot accept that such a thing can be.
But the church asks me to stand and proclaim, "He is risen!" How can I come to a place where I can do that with integrity?
I remember we went to a one day match between Australia and New Zealand. The ground was packed, the weather was glorious, and colleagues we met there had brought with them, as a treat, as something truly Australian for her, an exchange student from Switzerland. But she sat with us, mystified and then completely bored, reading a book. When we all stood— thousands of people— to applaud someone who'd made their fifty, she looked at us with complete incomprehension, clearly concluding Australians were crazy, and went back to her book.
Cricket is something like resurrection. Outside of its context and culture, resurrection is incomprehensible, and even crazy. It's a made up idea which seems to deny the reality of life, which is death. Even within the church it can feel unreal and disconnected from everyday life. How does it become real and vital? I think this is a gift, often only glimpsed for short times, outside of which we live in faith... remembering. We cannot make the assurance of this thing which is not seen happen. We can only live in ways which tend to open us to, rather than insulate us from, the deeper reality in which resurrection is not crazy, but makes sense. And the way to begin is to know our context and culture.
Our culture begins with the perception of chaos. People have concluded that there are gods, capricious beings which are often hostile to us. Humans are often an afterthought to serve the Gods, and certainly secondary. They are expendable; the catastrophic floods of the Euphrates were sometimes understood as the god's annoyance at humans.
Evil precedes good. The gods themselves are violent.... Marduk subdues Tiamat through violence, and though he kills Tiamat, chaos incessantly reasserts itself, and is kept at bay only by repeated battles and by the repetition of the Babylonian New Year’s festival where the heavenly combat myth is ritually re-enacted. (Walter Wink quoted at One Man's Web)
[And] it seems the gods complained they had too much work to do. So Marduk created human beings to "free the gods from menial labour" (Sarna The Meaning of Genesis pp1-4) and made the first human being from the blood of Tiamat's second husband, Kingu. We are born of violence in the Enuma Elish. We are born for servitude in the Enuma Elish. (Ibid)
People from the Southern Kingdom of Israel were taken into exile by the Babylonian Empire, and there, instead of becoming assimilated, many of them persisted in their own understanding of reality, and developed it even further. They refined and edited their own ancient traditions into a rebuttal of the culture of Babylon. In Genesis, God stands alone over the chaos, and brings it into submission. Human beings are not an afterthought of gods who need someone to feed them; they are at the centre of creation. And the creation is good. God saw what God had made and it was good. The world is not a place of chaos at all. (See here, for an exposition of the contrast between the theologies of Israel and Babylon.)
The Torah concludes with Israel entering the Promised Land and being given another promise:
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30)
This is the foundation of the Deuteronomic view of the world, a reciprocal relationship— a covenant— with a dependable and faithful God, but a covenant which is dependent on our good behaviour. It remains a strongly held view within Christian culture, as Bob Dylan's lyrics show:
But if you do right to me, baby,
I'll do right to you, too.
Ya got to do unto others
like you'd have them, like you'd have them, do unto you.
As the Babylonians also knew, there is a presence beyond us; we are not alone. But Israel knew also that we are loved and protected: "When Israel was a child, I loved him..." (Hosea 11:1) Psalm 91 says
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
4 he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
The problem, of course, is that it is observably not true. Faithful people are killed. The only answer to this is to engage in a judgmental condemnatory hypothesis that somewhere, their faith was lacking; they were not properly obedient. And added to all this is the problem that very often the unrighteous seem to flourish. Deuteronomic theology implies a 'meritorious' reality which closer observation shows us does not exist.
Nonetheless, at its best, the Deuteronomic understanding of God has met the divine presence and responded. It has felt a love and justice and faithfulness which contradicts the cynicism and hopelessness of the chaotic theologies it has left behind. And it longs and hopes for more, for something better in life.
The problem is that we humans too easily fall into the keeping of rules. We know this is true:
I was born in chains but I was taken out of Egypt
I was bound to a burden, but the burden it was raised
Oh Lord I can no longer keep this secret
Blessed is the name, the name be praised.
But we do this:
But there were chains
So I hastened to behave
There were chains
So I loved you like a slave
We keep rules rather than live in the freedom God gives us. In a Deuteronomic culture, despite however many times Torah reminds us of widows and orphans, we emphasise the cult, the right kind of sacrifice, the placement of pews, the proper wearing of clothes, local moral shibboleths. We see attendance at worship during this present plague more important than the safety of God's people, and dress it up as 'faithfulness.' With our most crass articulation of this mindset we arrive at Prosperity Theology, the understanding that God will financially reward those who are faithful to the rules. And even if we avoid the most excess versions of this theology, many of us still expect that being a 'good Christian' will have its temporal rewards in good health, and more modest success, and general providence.
The great insight which our history receives, which God brings us more clearly than the insights of th Deuteronomists, is that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. (Matthew 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6)
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings. (Hosea 6:6)
6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6)
The true offerings to God are justice, kindness and humility; that is, walking the way of God. Humility is not some kind of pious putting ourselves down as we so often imagine it. Humility is to live without a constant eye to our own self-interest by being just and kind. Such offerings are far more important than the niceties of liturgy or the timing of church, or the manufacture of a self-effacing persona. Or, indeed, the faithful living of a moral life to a certain standard, for that too is covered by the word sacrifice; it is too often an attempt to be 'the right sort of person' rather than attempt to be just and kind.
It is, of course, possible to read the prophets through a Deuteronomic filter; that is, we expect that God will reward us for our faithfulness in being just and compassionate rather than our doing church according to some tradition which claims to be more right than other traditions. We then make our compassion and justice into a sacrifice of self interest and forget Jesus' saying,
10So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” (Luke 17:10)
Yet we still die. We feel the Presence. We know the Love. We trust the faithfulness of God, we are kind and just as we are able, but something is missing. We too often do not live long in the land. Indeed, justice and kindness, and faithfulness often make us more vulnerable to the injustices of the world. In terms of what can happen to us, living according to the prophets can seem a step backwards, especially since radical justice of the sort espoused by Micah and Amos and Hosea is profoundly counter cultural. And this is before we even consider the questions raised by arbitrary tragedy.
In the timeline of our faith history, we now come to the time of the Maccabees, where the attempt to be faithful— whether according to the prophets or according to Deuteronomy— was costing life at an enormous rate, and there seemed to be no justice in what God was allowing Israel to suffer at the hands of the Seleucids. It was then that Israel began, a couple of hundred years before Jesus, to intuit that God had something bigger in mind. That perhaps, at the end of things, God would bring about new creation of some kind, where the faithful and just would be raised from the dead and live life more fully. There would be justice at last.
There was an explosion of literature at this time, born in the suffering of Israel, including the Book of Daniel and the Books of the Maccabees. (We call it intertestamental literature.) The hope of resurrection developed in a time of horror and terror, forged in a holocaust. There was a burgeoning of hopes and hypotheses about how 'resurrection justice' might be, so that by the time of Jesus, resurrection was a common hope, although as the gospels note, not everyone thought it would happen. (cf Mark 12:8)
Jesus came preaching an extension of the prophetic message of justice. He preached and lived an all-inclusive compassion. He identified himself as the Son of Man, a term known in Daniel and Ezekiel, and was seen by his disciples as the longed for Messiah. And he added an incomprehensible twist:
He was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. (Mark 9:31-2)
To understand this, we need to understand that it is not only Deuteronomic theology which still infects the church and the world. Still present in his time, and now, is the theology of Babylon. Walter Wink called this theology "one of the oldest continually enacted myths in the world."
The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence... [it] is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has even known. Furthermore, its orientation toward evil is one into which virtually all modern children (boys especially) are socialised in the process of maturation. Children select this mythic structure because they have already been led, by culturally reinforced cues and role models, to resonate with its simplistic view of reality. Its presence everywhere is not the result of a conspiracy of Babylonian priests secretly buying up the mass media with Iraqi oil money, but a function of values endlessly reinforced by the Domination System. By making violence pleasurable, fascinating, and entertaining, the Powers are able to delude people into compliance with a system that is cheating them of their very lives.
This Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today.
Much of our religious activity is simply this myth wrapped in a charade of discipleship which, in the end, is a perversion of Jesus' life and teaching. And as with our devotion to Deuteronomic / Prosperity Theology, we are often almost incapable of seeing it to be so. We have faith in, for we are enculturated in and by, the tribal and national god-language developed to benefit our place, rather than being faithful to and being formed by the life of Jesus.
Jesus' going to Jerusalem, knowing he was going to his death, can be seen as a statement that violence, even violence unto death, does not have the last word. His resurrection is the statement that death does not win, death does not control, and that death, in the end, is simply our misapprehension, our Swiss completely non-cricketing awareness about what death is. It is the misidentification of our biological embeddedness with what Jesus called zōēn aiōnion, or eternal life.
God is so alive and exuberant that he (sic) has nothing to do with death or the social order, and ... his creative energy has other purposes, such that it is a light matter to die rather than to cross those purposes... [Jesus] empowers us to live as if death were not, confident that death is only the circumscription which is proper to being created contingently, and that being created contingently with our participation will last for ever thanks to the goodness of the One whose project it is... (James Alison On Being Liked pp55,59)
In his returning to the disciples (and to us) without vengeance, but saying "Do not be afraid," and "Peace be with you," Jesus models for us the way to live without violence, despite the threat of death. We can begin to live this and begin to experience the small moments of resurrection which come as our creation to full humanity continues.
Resurrection [is] not merely... a final sorting of accounts... part of a moralistic vision of things, but ... something that is present, and able to be lived in the here and now. (Ibid pp56)
So all this is the story undergirding my life. It is the lens through which I make sense of justice and injustice, of violence, of meaning and absurdity, and of the inevitability of death. It is a story which ends in resurrection, and it is to resurrection that the imponderables, and the horrors of life, eventually come.
And on Easter morning, as we cry "Christ is risen" and the reply comes, "He is risen indeed," we are challenged by the truth of our story. The bald claim of resurrection is placed before us in full sunlight, demanding our reply. And all the cynicism of Babylon, and every idolatry since, seeks to dissuade us from truly comprehending what is before us.
So in the second part of this reflection I tell my story again, at a personal level, as I quail before the blunt claim of the risen Christ.
One early dusk, Steve and I cautiously approached the big roundabout in the centre of Elizabeth. He gave way, as he was meant to do, and I began to ride on through. He let out the clutch and drove over the top of me. I lay on the bitumen for those moments where you wonder if you are still alive, moved limbs cautiously, one at a time, and eventually sat up as people gathered around me. We were three hundred metres from the regional police command, so we tossed the wreckage of my bike in the back of his 4WD ute, and went to report the accident. I was as high as a kite on adrenalin, glad to be alive, and couldn't stop talking. As we sat waiting, I told him he was lucky it was me he'd run over. I was a minister which meant I had to forgive him. He didn't smile, so I tried again, "In fact, when you go home you can say to your Missus, 'Guess what, honey? I bumped into the local priest today.'" Still no smile, and slowly, I recognised it would be better to shut up.
After all the paperwork, he took me the last few hundred metres home, and arranged to come back when I had an quote from the bike shop for the repair of my bike. Then I heard his side of the story. At 15, he'd been dinking his girlfriend home in the dusk, and they'd been hit by a car. It hadn't ended half so well.
This does not feel like a world of love, or justice, or providence. This feels like blind luck. Why was I barely scratched and she— he could not quite tell me what had happened.
As a younger bloke, I'd been trying to tell my minister that faithful prayer really worked— if you really believed. Look at how her mother's prayers had brought Hansi safe home from the war, I had triumphantly concluded. Nairn, in his incredible patience with me, asked, "What about all the other mothers who prayed every day, and their Hansis did not come home?" This doesn't look like providence or protection. It looks like chance, silence, and powerlessness in the face of evil.
And so on... It's not that these are massive stories of horror. It is their very banality and ordinary nature, their absolute familiarity to anyone who cares to look, which questions the reality of resurrection and the reality of the Christian hope for a completed Creation.
Does resurrection right all the horror in the end? Is horrific arbitrary suffering somehow justified by the claim that things will be made right? Well... right for the righteous, anyway. Much of the tradition seems to think that only people like themselves will be brought to a resurrection life.
Resurrection still feels to me like pie in the sky, wish fulfilment, and magic thinking. I'm not sure I like the kind of God who apparently creates 'glory' via a road of untold evil and suffering.
There is one aspect of the culture of resurrection which I have not given enough attention. Resurrection arrives among those who suffer. It is not an answer for those who, like me, are privileged and comfortable. Resurrection judges me, for I have my own present salvation insulating me from the realities of life. While that is the case, I suspect resurrection will always feel somewhat empty, for I have no need. My recognition of my contingency will always have something theoretical about it.
In her song, Where you been, Carrie Newcomer introduces Jesus coming to those who are suffering with an extraordinary description of Palm Sunday, and what it means.
He was driving in to Chicago in a borrowed El Camino,
On a haze-less day in springtime I think the Cinco De Mayo
Maybe it was St Paddy's or the Gay Pride parade,
But I've never seen nobody light up the street that way
In all our loss and longing someone comes speaking and living a new Way— a Camino, or Pilgrim Way. This Way lifts our hopes and ignites our longings. Jesus' entire ministry was one long Palm Sunday, a pilgrim Way into the city of life, and an alternative to all the other parades which seek our attention and allegiance.
His way is not what we might call propositional. It was something to be entered into. It was an invitation. He did not say, "Believe this and keep these rules and you will live long and safe in the land." He invited people to join the journey, to embark upon a Way that could take you anywhere, and might just kill you. It was a "whoever seeks to save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake and the gospel will save it" kind of journey. A journey to find life in all that injustice and blind luck of our existence which suggests the early Babylonians were nowhere as naïve as they might seem to our 'enlightened' and privileged secularism. It was a journey to find life that transcends the consumerism of our world that proves to be without depth when life goes wrong and tragedy strikes, and when death closes in on us.
In the same way that Newcomer expands and condenses the Palm Sunday story, she unpacks and encapsulates the Sermon on the Mount.
Blessed are the good hearted, the poets and the dreamers
And all of us crazy holy hungry ones
who still believe in something better...
The "crazy holy hungry ones" are those who are on the Way and seeking a still more excellent way. (1 Cor 12:31) That Way is faith, hope, and love.
Faith is to believe. It is to say that in what Jesus says, and in what the Scriptures say about him, there is real content; contingent, culturally embedded, limited because he was (and we are) human, but real. It corresponds to something of God's reality. But this belief, this faith, is more than either a cautious acceptance which is carefully hedged and qualified, and it is also more than a univocal pronouncement which claims the 'simple literal truth' of the disciples' witness to the resurrection. And far more than the militant pronouncements which "protest too much." Belief is about trust, and perhaps those 'over-the-top' affirmations of belief in a physical resurrection are the beginning of such a trust; a kind of "nailing our colours to the mast," as it were. But trust is much more than this. To merely proclaim resurrection is to walk the edges of a Deuteronomic faith and seek reward for doing something good by God. Real faith-trust is to love, to risk, even when there seems no sign of reward, and when death is more likely.
And real faith-trust is to hope. When my memory replays Newcomer's song the crazy holy hungry ones often hope for something better, and in other replays, they long for something better. There is a connection here: hope trusts and longs for the fulfilling of life; why else would it hope. It longs for the resurrection of the dead, for the removal of death's arbitrary injustice, and for a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1) even as it cannot imagine how such things could be. It hopes and longs and trusts that the reports of resurrection were indeed the "first fruits" of those who have died. (1 Cor 15:20) But, in the end, faith can only be hope in things not seen, sometimes a conviction and an assurance, (Hebrews 11:1) and sometimes, only a fragile longing.
Paul suggests that what drives the more excellent Camino and navigates our way amongst all the parades which wish us to join them, is love. Love needs trust and hope to endure; there is a reason he names the three together in 1 Corinthians 13, but love also has its own force, it is the primary thing. It is something a little beyond, or outside us. Love is a kind of conversion, a learned behaviour. And it is also something graced, something given to us. Love (agape) transcends survival of the fittest; it transcends the biological evolutionary imperative of survival at any cost. It sheds self-interest, and begins to journey beyond tribe, nation, and species. Love is foolish, a crazy side alley off the highways of common sense.
Love is also a baptism into reality. It is antidote and rescue from the life of shallow pretence, and from the endless parading of distraction which leaves us empty and despairing in moments of quiet inaction. It is the contradiction of the myth of redemptive violence. In all its cost, in the midst of the fear of whatever we are called to do in this pandemic, love says, "What you are doing is real. It counts. It is worthwhile. It is creating you."
Love pulls me into things I don't want to do, and I find then that I can do them. Love has me doing things I didn't know I could do. I find myself in places I did not expect and suddenly I have done something I did not imagine possible, things that were in some sense... not me. Things which were the opposite of who I am... or was... but they come through me. "What just happened," I ask. The Way proves to have its own strange momentum. It provides glimpses of death shorn of its power, even though sometimes only in retrospect. And there are moments when I think, "Yes... resurrection— whatever, or however, it proves to be— resurrection is real. There is something here. The world is not nothing in the end.
Andrew Prior (Easter 2020)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!