Rev. Allen V. Harris
Holy Week has become a very different experience for me in recent years. It’s not just the fact that as a Regional Minister it is one of the lightest scheduled weeks of my ministry (pastors, rightfully so, desire to be in their parishes on important holidays). The week between Palm Sunday and Easter, inclusive of both, feels different for me primarily because I have grown deeper in my understanding of the larger systems of our lives and how they shaped what happened to Jesus and, therefore, what happens to us today.
There are two of these deeper understandings of Holy Week that arise in my heart and my mind that, while vastly different from each other in nature, are nonetheless interconnected and palpably powerful for me in my current ministry. One has to do with the reasons why Jesus was executed and the other involves what the Church must do in order to have new life. Both, while seemingly unlike each other, require the faithful to not simply acknowledge systemic injustice but understand and engage in seeking justice in profound new ways. Both demand that we let go of the purely individualistic and oftentimes passionately held view of Holy Week as affecting us personally and allowing its meaning to broaden into the purpose and future of our communities and the world around us.
Powers And Principalities
For most of Christianity, the entire season of Lent, and Holy Week, in particular, stirs our souls and calls us to a time of individual self-reflection and private confession. The focus for most of Christian history and theology has been on the sinful nature of humanity, i.e. “my sins,” and how that sinfulness ultimately drove Jesus to the cross and required his death.
Upon that cross of Jesus
my eyes at times can see
the very dying form of One
who suffered there for me;
and from my smitten heart with tears
two wonders I confess -
the wonders of redeeming love
and my unworthiness. (1)
In a previous blog post, “The Incarnation Of Resurrection,” I take issue with that being the primary, sometimes only, understanding of the Passion Of Christ. Here I simply want to make the case that we ought to consider at least as much the reality that what happened to Jesus was directly a violent response by those in power – both political as well as religious leaders – to who Jesus was, what he did, and what he said.
John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg propose in their book “The Last Week: What The Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days In Jerusalem” that the entire final week of Jesus’ life was a delicate dance between this renegade prophet preacher and the religious and political leaders of his day (2). They make the case that from the moment Jesus entered Jerusalem he was doing things and saying things that confronted the Roman governmental authorities and those Jewish leaders who colluded with Rome for both their own safety and their own comfort, which ultimately led to his arrest, torture, and death.
What I have taken from my own reading of scripture, guided by Crossan and Borg’s work, is that the person that Jesus was and what he represented to the oppressed and hungering masses of people of his day was so genuinely self-empowered and independent of the principalities and powers of the world that it unnerved and threatened those whose livelihood depended upon having power over the masses. In calling people to a radical dependence upon God alone, and a loving interdependence with their neighbors, Jesus provided the spiritual framework that freed the people from the tyranny of those in power over and above them. This is God work at its best.
Naturally, once people understand deep in their souls they are truly free, they will begin to question the systems around themselves that keep them in bondage. This profound awareness scared the powers that be so much that they felt they could only act out in violence, and so they orchestrated Jesus’ execution. The history of African Americans enslaved in our country, whether during slavery itself or during Jim Crow or The War On Drugs, is a commanding and poignant case-in-point. For us to keep Holy Week only personal is to do a grave injustice (pun intended) to those who are in bondage and captivity to sin by systems beyond their own personal capacities.
Thus I believe with every fiber of my being that if we genuinely immersed ourselves in the drama of Holy Week we would be transformed/reformed as social justice activists and recommitted to Jesus’ very own “mission statement” which he proclaimed at the beginning of his ministry as he quoted the prophet Isaiah:
‘‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’”(Luke 4:18-19)
There are several events in our nation, especially in the Capital Area Region, coming up that you can be a part of to help address systemic issues of racism and injustice. See below for details.*
Letting Go Of Our Church
Now what I’m going to say might seem a stretch to connect with the above point, but I believe the two ideas are integrally connected. When we truly engage in the spiritual practices of Lent and immerse ourselves in the passion of Holy Week and see the systemic nature of what happened, we can authentically begin to reimagine a new more sustainable future for the Church (big “C” intended). If we cling less and less to the purely personal and individualistic understandings of our faith which have been prevalent in the theology most promulgated in the last one hundred years (at least), then we may have a chance to allow the larger community of people to reshape and receive what the Church has to offer for a new generation.
What I am putting forth here is that it is the same privatization of theology which maintains that the death of Jesus is only a result of my personal sin that is keeping the Church hostage to our (mostly) unexamined need to maintain the church as a place of comfort and familiarity for me and those I hold closest. Once we are freed to see Jesus’ words, deeds, and very being as a direct confrontation of the multiplicity of injustices by the powers and principalities of the world and a liberation of the whole people of God, we can begin to see the nature and purpose of the Church less and less as the place where my private spirituality is nurtured and reinforced and more and more as a space (within and beyond the walls of any building) where WE AND OTHERS are invited, inspired, healed, equipped, discipled, commissioned, and sent forth “into all the world” to live the gospel and make disciples.
As long as we primarily understand Jesus as my savior we will work fiercely (and, in my humble opinion, misguidedly) to keep the Church as a place for my spiritual care and comfort. This is when I hear good and faithful church folk express things that indicate their primary goal is for the church to survive just long enough for their funeral to take place in the sanctuary. But the more and more we comprehend the systemic and universal implications of Jesus we will more and more work for the liberation of all people, and thus our own liberation, too! The church (buildings, governance, traditions, liturgies, spoken and unspoken creeds) as we know it does not need to survive for the Church of Jesus Christ to survive. This should be more freeing than frightening!
The song by Casting Crowns about living out Jesus’ life to those around us comes to my mind:
But if we are the body
Why aren't His arms reaching?
Why aren't His hands healing?
Why aren't His words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren't His feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way?
There is a way, there is a way (3)
If I can be so bold to say, and this awareness grows and grows the longer I serve as a Regional Minister, our salvation as individual followers of Jesus Christ and the “salvation,” if you will, of the Church depends upon our ability to shift our focus from our individual salvation to the liberation, empowerment, and sustainability of all people. This shift necessitates understanding and confronting the systems of injustice and moving the loci of the worshipping community beyond our own comfort, familiarity, and even experience.
May this Holy Week be an opportunity for all of us to face up to the difficult realities of life. The forces that killed Jesus are larger than our own personal sins and will require us to think, strategize, and act systemically and passionately for the liberation (salvation) of all people. But the same force that raised Jesus from the dead will also raise the Church (Christ’s Body On Earth) to new and ever more powerful life if we allow that new life to be for everyone, and not just for us.
May it be so!
Allen V. Harris
(1) “Beneath The Cross Of Jesus I Fain Would Take My Stand,” Author: Elizabeth C. Clephane (1868) Found online at Hymnary.org https://hymnary.org/text/beneath_the_cross_of_jesus_i_fain_would
(2) The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem, by Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan https://www.harpercollins.com/9780060872601/the-last-week
*Upcoming Social Justice Events:
April 3 - 5, 2018: ACT Now: Unite to End Racism (Washington, DC): www.rally2endracism.org
April 4, 2018: MLK50 (Memphis, TN): http://mlk50.civilrightsmuseum.org
April 20 - 23, 2018: Ecumenical Advocacy Days (Northern VA and DC): www.advocacydays.org
May 13 - June 21, 2018: 40 Days of Major Events by the Poor People’s Campaign: National Call for Moral Revival (in DC and across the nation): https://poorpeoplescampaign.org. [More information will be available soon]
ALSO: Please visit the websites of three church-wide justice advocacy ministries hosted by the Capital Area:
Disciples Center for Public Witness: www.disciplescenter.org
Ecumenical Poverty Initiative: www.faithendpoverty.org
Refugee and Immigration Ministries: www.disciplesRIM.org