Allen V. Harris
This past Christmas I wrote about how I believe some of the fundamental theological themes of Christianity have been commandeered by especially forceful streams of thought throughout history that have overshadowed, at best, and attempted to eradicate, at worst, other ways of thinking. In particular I believe that atonement and incarnation have been railroaded into singular lines of thinking that have forced to the thinnest of margins other equally valid ways of understanding and living into these faithful and life-giving theological principles. For my discussion of the atonement of Christmas, please go online here: http://www.cccadisciples.org/capitalfaith/atonementofchristmas
But on this Easter Sunday of 2017, I wanted to try my hand at the other major Christian holiday of Easter and the equally important doctrine of incarnation. The dominant paradigm that has been handed down to us in which to interpret the events of Holy Week and Easter have been that of a bloody atonement, a gut-wrenching confession of how our human sinfulness nailed Jesus to the cross, and the almost otherworldly, if not downright inhuman, resurrection of Jesus in all its glorious detachment. And, as I wrote in December, while there is certainly scriptural justification and ample theological treatises for some of this, I do not believe such an interpretation does justice to the wholeness of scripture nor to the complete nature of who Jesus was and Christ is.
At the Good Friday service just the other night in which I worshipped at Michigan Park Christian Church in Washington, DC (1) I was reminded by several of the preachers that the events of Holy Week were time and time again a recognition of the inextricably interconnected nature of the divine and the human in Christ, the transcendent and the immanent. From the moment Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem on a colt along the dusty back roads, to his anger in the temple, his being anointed with tears and oil in Bethany, his use of bread and wine in the upper room, his agony in the garden, his stumbling while carrying the cross, to his plaintive cry to God from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we see a completely human savior.
And today, on the Day of Resurrection, we stand in a great tradition of theologians who have steadfastly demanded that Jesus was resurrected in bodily form, that this was no ghostly apparition or spiritualized vision, but the very body of Jesus raised from death to life.
Why is it, then, that we traditionally use the season of Lent and the spiritual journey of Holy Week for self-flagellation and what I would call a profound dis-embodiment of our own selves? So much of the doctrine that is most commonly associated with Lent and Easter, atonement, seems hell-bent on making each and every one of us feel miserable about our bodies and how God is made manifest in them? (It is for an entirely other blog post to talk about how this disembodiment has been laser focused on women and LGBTQ persons.)
Do we sin? For the love of God, yes! But did my personal sin drive the spikes into Jesus wrists? No, I cry out faithfully and forcefully! NO! We are part of the fabric of life that has choices – much like God has choices – that were granted to us when God sent us out into the world from the cocoon-like paradise of Eden. (See Rabbi Harold Kushner’s brilliant recasting of the Adam & Eve story in his book “How Good Do We Have To Be: A New Understanding Of Guilt And Forgiveness” – 2) And we do make some pretty bad choices… as well as some pretty good ones, too. We can do some pretty horrible things to one another as individuals working alone. But when we act poorly together with others there is a kind of hellish symbiosis that happens that makes us participate in evil thoughts and actions which are exponentially more horrible than any single person can do. This is what I believe scripture is referring to when it speaks of “principalities and powers.”
So if we sin, individually and collectively, then why not just leave the argument be that this sin is what caused Jesus to be betrayed, crucified, and left dead in a tomb as is the prevailing understanding of what we commemorate happening this past week? Well, in my humble estimation, to continue to do so is to do grave injustice (and I use that pun intentionally) to the primary theological meaning of this week: INCARNATION.
Part of what needs to happen in order to reclaim the incarnational aspects of Easter is to first acknowledge the horrific history of anti-Semitism which erroneously lays the blame for the death of Jesus on the backs of our Jewish sisters and brothers. Any hint of this perspective is reckless endangerment of our neighbors and of our own selves, in addition to being a complete misinterpretation of the text. Because the religious leaders of that day happened to be Jewish is utterly beside the point: religious leaders of every day, place, and culture have the propensity to collude with forces of evil and make scapegoats of the vulnerable and the disenfranchised. We need look no further than our own era and the rampant forces of racism, xenophobia, , homo- and transphobia to see this diversionary horror in action! And any preacher or teacher who, throughout the history of Christianity, has sidestepped their own complicity with evil by pointing her or his finger at our Jewish neighbors has condemned themselves to hell.
Another necessary step to reclaiming the incarnational nature of Easter is to do what John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg propose in their book “The Last Week: What The Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days In Jerusalem.” They help us see in a theologically strong, exegetically accurate, and culturally aware manner that the many forces of that time and place in history are what prompted Jesus’ words and deeds of that week, most especially the colossal presence of the Roman Empire and its monstrous policies and practices that made the lives of the common people, particularly the Jews, profoundly miserable and utterly unbearable. If exposition of the texts during Holy Week does not spend a significant amount of time exposing the forces of empire and domination, it has failed God and humanity.
So, if we have done our work of somehow containing the culture-induced need for self-flagellation, purging ourselves entirely of our anti-Semitism, and enlightening ourselves to the treacherous power of empire, then we can truly begin to reclaim the incarnation of the resurrection. The journey of Jesus Christ through Holy Week, climaxing in his stepping from the tomb fully embodied AND fully sacred, demands of us to accept more completely that God did not come into the world to condemn the world – our bodies included – but in order to save the world through God’s very body in Jesus the Christ. Resurrection is the ultimate act of incarnation – the Body Of Christ becoming the living Body Of God for all times, all places, all peoples.
May this be our Easter proclamation!
(2) How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness, by Harold S. Kushner, 1997 http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/133804.How_Good_Do_We_Have_to_Be_A_New_Understanding_of_Guilt_and_Forgiveness