I want to make it very clear that I do believe that Jesus was the Divine Son of God, but I’m a little concerned that institutional Christianity has made the sideshow into the main stage. At my CLC meeting this week, our leader began with an understanding of the Resurrection that I’ve heard countless times: “This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for,” he said, “Without the Resurrection, our faith is a sham.” I get it, but I’m done picking up what he’s putting down. Throughout the whole meeting we talked about the Resurrection, and I couldn’t come up with even one thought to share.
I spent this Lent meditating on Christ’s ministry. Jesus’ last Passover Supper captivated me, and after immersing myself in Jesus’ execution by those who feared that his movement would overthrow Imperial Roman authorities, the Resurrection fell a little flat. My problem was that while my understanding of Jesus’ life and death has greatly evolved, my understanding of his rising had not.
It’s hard for me to read the entire story of Jesus’ ministry from beginning to end, and then read about Jesus being raised from the dead and go, “Oh! Now I get it!” Just like the multitudes that had been following Christ throughout his ministry before his death, when I imagine myself into the Gospel stories I’m convinced of who Jesus is long before Good Friday.
He didn’t wait until after he rose to ask people to walk on water. Before he died we sold all of our things, gave everything to the poor, and followed him. We healed the sick with him, and went out two-by-two. Clearly, we already believed. Surely some of his followers died during the course of his ministry, and did so fully believing that he was the savior, without witnessing the “ending” of the story. Somehow, I don’t think they missed the point, though. In fact, overemphasizing the Resurrection detriments our understanding of what God really wants from us.
God certainly deemed the Resurrection necessary, but claiming we understand how or why exactly makes up part of what I call the institutional Church’s “God Box”—when we impose our beliefs of what divinity is on the One who truly is divine to “prove” to ourselves that he is indeed God—we put God in a box. Explaining the necessity of the Resurrection reminds me of the institutional Church’s insistence that Jesus was “begotten, not made.” It seems to be true, but it’s baloney to claim any human being could even understand what this really means, and it’s somewhat beside the whole point of Christianity.
When I encounter the Bible or Church teaching, I usually try to figure out “the point” (comes from following a guy who speaks in parables, I guess). Things like “begotten, not made” or “Resurrection as proof” don’t seem to have much of a point to a group of people trying to figure out how to treat each other, but they go a long way towards cementing the Church hierarchy’s claims of having a superior knowledge of divinity, which is the basis of the Vatican’s authority over the way we Catholics live.
Overemphasizing the Resurrection takes away from the Gospels’ overarching themes, which envision a new Heaven on Earth that is already at hand, and clue us in on what it takes to be called God’s friends. Even if the Resurrection is the centerpiece of our theology, it’s got to be the center of something or it loses its context. A cornucopia only makes sense in the middle of a table filled with good food and surrounded by good people.
Worshiping the Resurrected Jesus for his own sake is like being a Metallica fan. The authoritative and powerful say that the Resurrected Jesus, like Metallica, is awfully special and serious and somber, and there’s a lot of places we should put our money to prove how much we like them, but at the end of the day there’s really nothing there that’s deeply good and life-giving. Metallica Jesus leaves us worshiping a nit-picky God, always a stickler for the rules, in spite of our own instincts and innate judgment about what is good. At the end of the day, people buy Metallica CDs and T-shirts and concert tickets, but I don’t know that anybody actually likes them. (I think there are a lot of similarities between Metallica’s lawsuit against Napster and the Church hierarchy’s backlash against Vatican II.)
Think about it: if I’m going to worship a god just because of the power he demonstrates by raising himself from the dead, doesn’t it make more sense to worship the Roman Emperor, who managed to kill this god in the first place, even though this god often promised, at least implicitly, to overthrow Rome? Why listen to Metallica at all when Dave Mathews Band has more consecutive #1 albums? Metallica Jesus isn’t the Jesus of the Gospels. Gospel Jesus is a lot more like Thin Lizzy.
Back to the matter at hand: I definitely believe the Resurrection happened, but I think we worry too much about the mechanics of it and its theological implications. The original Gospel of Mark ends abruptly in Chapter 16, somewhere around Verse 8, cramming the Resurrection story into about two paragraphs. It happened, the women told us so, then Jesus did too, and that’s that—now back to work. I think Jesus was divine, and I think the Resurrection happened, but I’m not convinced that one was the point of the other.
Someone else in my CLC meeting brought up how Jesus treated the Resurrection almost like a prank. He would show up briefly and then disappear again, or he would prevent his disciples from recognizing him. When my friend first said this, early in the meeting, I was almost offended at how lightly this guy was taking the whole lynchpin of our religion. By the end of the meeting I realized he was exactly right! This was the point!
By reading the entire story of Jesus over the last forty-plus days I began to get a sense of the historical Jesus’ personality, and I get the impression that he had an ironic humor that packed a political punch. Turn the other cheek. Give Caesar what is Caesar’s. If a soldier makes you carry his pack for one mile, carry it two miles. Kill them with kindness, basically, and the mustard seed will overtake the garden. Imagine that Stephen Colbert was put to death because of his political and spiritual message. Now imagine that he secretly harbored superhuman powers, even after his death. You start to understand the punchline of the Resurrection.
Jesus started a political movement that demonstrated God’s power by dramatically changing how we think about power. Jesus was crucified at Passover. In the shadow of Rome’s domination, the Jews were celebrating God freeing them from slavery in Egypt by killing all of Egypt’s firstborn sons. That was definitely a show of God’s power, but God’s people just kept getting enslaved again and again, right up to Jesus’ day. Yet when the Empire killed God’s firstborn son, humanity was finally freed from the slavery of sin. That’s definitely Jesus twisting up the way we think about power and oppression and liberation.
By the end of the CLC meeting, I was rethinking the Resurrection as the work of a God who definitely thinks about things a little differently than humans do, and it started to make sense. After the execution of their charismatic leader, you would expect the Jesus Movement to go underground, go into mourning, or go out of existence altogether—but then the Resurrected Jesus revealed himself and within 50 days they were having their biggest get-together yet. When they should have been mourning the dead, they were celebrating in public! What a slap in the face to the death-dealing power of Rome!
The Resurrection happened, but the only thing I’m sure of is that it proved Christianity is all about Life, and Life is a cause for celebration. Births and birthdays, baptisms, weddings, anniversaries, and for oppressed people even deaths give us cause to celebrate life (if you don’t believe that last part, you haven’t been to a New Orleans jazz funeral or an Irish wake). Just by celebrating the fact that they were fully alive, the earliest Christians were committing treason against an empire that wanted them to die, either spiritually or physically. Jesus being raised from the dead gave Christians a chance to party with a purpose—even death couldn’t hold this movement down!
Oppressed people and their movements have a long history of celebrating in the face of adversity and death. Black folks held in slavery in the US and Caribbean created entirely new forms of dance and music to carry coded messages of freedom. From Cinco de Mayo to a block party in the ghetto to Pride Parade, partying is a great way to reject imperial culture, which always ends in death. So, I propose that we Church really celebrate this Easter season, and continue to celebrate Christ’s love out loud every day. We’ll know it’s working when they try to kill us.
In the mean time, I’ll offer anybody who’s read this far a drink on me when we meet at CTA Conference in Milwaukee this November 5-7 (really).
Bill Przylucki is a community organizer in Westside Los Angeles. He is a former Jesuit Volunteer and a graduate of Boston College. He believes that you gotta pray like only God can do it, and act like only you can do it.