April 20, 2009

Resurrection and Torture

by Debra Dean Murphy
Luke 24:36b-48
(Third Sunday of Easter)

"Torture may be considered a kind of perverse liturgy, for in torture the body of the victim is the ritual site where the state's power is manifested in its most awesome form." - William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist

The government memos released last week, detailing acts of torture carried out by C.I.A. operatives in the Bush administration, make for interesting reading in light of the gospel narratives' about Jesus' post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. That human bodies matter is a central truth of the Easter proclamation.

But this is less than obvious in an age when Christians more often associate Easter's meaning with "the immortality of the soul" than with "the resurrection of the body." When we spiritualize Easter—when we imagine disembodied souls reuniting with loved ones in heaven—we miss this point about bodies and we also, as Tom Wright has observed, “cut the nerve of the social, cultural and political critique.”

Resurrection is about the undoing of death and of all our death-dealing ways. But if our deepest Easter metaphors have mostly to do with butterflies, we will miss this. The undoing of death that Easter accomplishes creates a people who do not flinch from the tortured body of Jesus, but who also know that the marks of violence carried in his broken body are now signs by which we claim resurrection as a counter politics to state-sponsored violence that denies the dignity of any human body anywhere.

We know this most fully in the Eucharist. When we consume Christ’s broken body we become it. We enact a politics—a way of being in the world—rooted in witness, in suffering. Eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table become acts of resistance against any false power that would diminish the humanity of other eating and drinking bodies.

Where torture as liturgy is a kind of “scripting of bodies into a drama of fear” (Cavanaugh), the liturgy of the Table is the creation of a body which lives by hope and loves by a power not of its own making.

When Jesus stands among the disciples and declares peace to them (Luke 24:36b), he gives voice to what his resurrection has already accomplished: the end of violence and the undoing of death. And when he goes on to talk about flesh and bones, hands and feet, and to eat a piece of broiled fish, we see how we can never again talk about resurrection apart from bodies—our own; the violated bodies of torture victims; Jesus’ raised body; and his body, the church—sign, servant, and foretaste of the peace he has made possible.

And we give thanks that we “are witnesses of these things” (24:48).


April 06, 2009

World Out of Balance

by Brian Volck
“’Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead.’ The Misfit continued, ‘and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance.’” (Flannery O’Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find")

I don’t understand Easter. I think I stand on firm theological ground saying this. Mysteries are necessarily beyond comprehension, a scandal and embarrassment in a scientific age. It’s far more satisfying to make of mystery a problem to be solved. In “mystery” novels, for instance, a criminal death is explained, ending (generally) with the restoration of justice and order, or at least the order we’ve come to expect in this world, from the things we rely on. Mercy and transformation, which might throw everything off balance, must wait for another day.

Attempts to smooth over the mystery of the Three Days have intellectual and emotional appeal. Liberal Protestantism and the Jesus Seminar restore balance by spiritualizing Easter. “Jesus rose in the disciples’ hearts,” we’re reassured, though his corpse, like any other, rots in the tomb. Orderly minds reject a God who breaks the rules.

Gnosticism (in both paleo- and neo- forms) and Islam keep Jesus (Isa in the Quran) and death at a safe distance. Balance is restored by having him merely appear to die or by finding a lookalike to take the fall for him. Furthermore – and even more decisively – the messiness of Incarnation is done away with, leaving Divinity unstained by impermanent matter.

Many conventional Christians habitually stress one aspect of the passion, death and resurrection (usually the last) to the near exclusion of the remainder. “Yeah, he died,” we say, “but, being God, he knew he’d triumph in the end, which is what happened – and pretty quickly, too – so we can all get on with enjoying our normal lives.”

New Testament accounts, however, refuse such comforts. Jesus knows full well the cost of his revelatory and saving mission. He offends too many to live. With scientific precision, the Imperial authorities torture, humiliate and kill him, understandably taking the Galilean peasant for a petty insurrectionist, a threat to public order. It’s for law and order matters just like this that Pilate’s in town for the holidays.

While the four gospel passion accounts vary in detail and tone (Mark’s isolated and troubled Jesus contrasts with John’s serene king, for example), the physicality and horror of crucifixion is inescapably emphasized. Jesus is beaten, scourged, nailed, and pierced. He bleeds, stumbles, speaks, thirsts, and wails. If this Messiah is playacting, it’s one heck of a show, completely without Jewish precedent, and startlingly unlike pagan deicide myths.

And he dies. Like Marley’s death in “A Christmas Carol,” “There is no doubt whatever about that.” Mark’s Pilate confirms the rumor with the centurion while John’s Pilate reassures himself through more efficient means. There’s no need to break his legs so he suffocates on the cross from his own weight. Friends come, take down the dead body and lay the God of the Living’s corpse in a, specific, identifiable tomb.

There it lies on the Sabbath, the day God rested: “the Word,” in Alan Lewis’ phrase, “Incarnate and Interred.” Other accounts (1 Peter 3:19-20 and 4:6; Eph 4:8-10; and perhaps Acts 2:27, 31) tell of Christ preaching to the dead, the “harrowing of hell” (“harrow” means to pillage or plunder; it also names a tool used to turn up and smooth hard soil before planting). The Apostles’ Creed says, “he descended into hell,” and Orthodox Pascha icons typically portray Christ leading Adam, Eve and all the righteous to freedom through the trampled gates of hell. God Incarnate upsets the entire cosmos, assuming even the most alienated extremity of our humanity in order to redeem it.

On Sunday, the tomb is found empty (“He is not here.”), not a proof of the resurrection so much as a necessary gesture towards it (“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”), a push into an encounter with the truly risen Lord. If Mark’s gospel truly ends with 16:8, the rest really is left to us to discover. John and the others, however, manifest the tangible reality of resurrection. The Risen Jesus speaks, breathes, eats, and tells friends to touch his wounds, His resurrected body at once radiant and torn.

One thing’s painfully clear: none of the disciples expected or even imagined the resurrection. Nothing in their experience prepared them for a world so out of balance, so beyond the familiar. An encounter with the empty tomb and Risen Lord disrupts everything: one’s reading of Torah and the prophets, the way one lives under Imperial occupation, whom one eats and associates with, the way in which one worships and praises God, and so on. The gospels themselves narrate Jesus’ earthly life re-imaged through the lens of the Three Days. Absolutely everything is reassessed. Justice and mercy kiss, order dissolves into transformation, and mystery invites us to explore its bottomless depths.

This account of the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord sets Christians apart, not by making them more special, more deserving or even, perhaps, closer to God than others. It does so by inviting us into this unique story, to pick up our own cross, follow Him, and be transformed through obedience to the Father and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

How will you consent to Easter’s unbalancing transformation of your life? Of our shared life in Christ?


April 02, 2009

Spoilin’ for a Fight

by Joel Shuman
Mark 11:1-11 (John 12:12-16); Psalm 118 (Palm Sunday/Liturgy of the Palms)

In her wonderful autobiography An American Childhood, Annie Dillard fondly recalls her Sunday School days in her parents’ mainline Protestant church. She notes of her introduction to the Bible, “The Bible’s was an unlikely, movie-set world alongside our world. Light-shot and translucent in the pallid Sunday-school watercolors on the walls, stormy and opaque in the dense and staggering texts they read us placidly, week after week, this world interleaved our waking world like a dream.”

Although my first memories of church are of a one-room frame building at the foot of a West Virginia hollow a mile from the house where I grew up, Dillard’s narrative resonates with me. For the longest time the way I read the stories of Jesus, including his final, “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem, was shaped, if not determined, by the Sunday-School images of my childhood and early adolescence; Jesus was a kind, quiet, and exceedingly humble man who rode into town on a colt – perhaps so as not to appear too intrusive. He loved children and animals, and almost everyone loved him. But he was grossly misunderstood and ended up being crucified by some bad men who felt threatened by him.

I was twenty-one and a good six months into my first “serious” attempt at Christian discipleship before it occurred to me that there might be more to Jesus than the teachers and preachers of my childhood let on. One afternoon I saw footage on the news of a Mennonite man, younger than I was, who was on trial in Federal Court for refusing to register for the draft. He was immovable, and he attributed his position to Jesus.

Hearing that young man speak that afternoon summarily disassembled whatever theological assumptions I had managed to cobble together to that point. I started learning to read the Bible in a completely different way, and I met a whole different Jesus, whom I am still trying to understand.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem that afternoon on the back of a colt, he was, quite literally, looking for trouble. At a time when Jerusalem was full of Jewish pilgrims and Roman soldiers, when political tensions and the potential for a popular uprising were both swollen by circumstance, Jesus enacted messianic prophecy, proclaiming to anyone who cared to hear that God’s messiah was entering the city. The people who threw down their cloaks and the branches from nearby trees understood and became part of the unfolding drama, chanting the Psalm (118) that says “Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success! / Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD.”

We know the rest of the story. We know Jesus spent the week in the Temple courts, agitating and teaching, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom and inviting all hearers to participate in that kingdom by following him. We know he got the fight he was looking for. And we know things did not go well for him.

It is always tempting at this point to rush headlong toward the resurrection, to say “Yes, Jesus was arrested and beaten and eventually killed, but God raised him from the dead and it’s all OK.” And of course, our haste is understandable. The cross is not exactly a pleasant thing to contemplate. But Jesus challenges us to wait a minute, to take time to consider the days leading to his arrest and crucifixion. He reminds us that his death was no accident, but rather something provoked by his faithful embodiment of the Gospel. He reminds us that the Kingdom entered history not only in his resurrection, but also as he remained faithful even as he was arrested and lied about and beaten and crucified. He invites us this week to join him as he enters Jerusalem, preparing once again to empty himself, and in so doing making present the peaceable Kingdom of God.