A Defiant Easter

The resurrection is God’s response to the crucifixions then and now.  It is a brave-love God saying, “Not so fast, Roman Empire! You think you are all powerful? You think you can destroy what was created here? You think you can silence, coerce, torture, and literally destroy the bodies of those who would challenge you? I have the last word here. Those people you are crucifying? They are mine! I am the one who gives life through them, and my love, the love that they are professing and embracing, is more powerful than anything you will ever be! So go ahead, you keep filling those tombs with their bodies and I will empty them all!”

 

This sermon was offered to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019.

Today, all over the world, Christian churches are packed to the gills. The parking lots are full. Choirs are singing jubilant anthems!   Everyone is wearing spring colors! There are roasts slowly baking in the oven so they finish just as everyone gets home. It is a day of celebration and renewal.

And we Unitarian Universalists often have a difficult time knowing what to do with Easter. Despite the fact that, for the first 450 years of our existence, we identified primarily as Christian, we struggle with Easter.

We struggle for two reasons:  as a people committed to reason, many of us don’t want to be asked to believe in anything that demands we suspend our thinking minds. There’s a pretty big miracle that happens at Easter, and many of us have experienced a form of Christianity that demanded that we believe in the resurrection as a litmus test for our faithfulness.

We may also struggle because of the doctrine that is so often used to shape Easter, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. It’s the “Jesus died for your sins theology.” I would hazard a guess that for many of us who left Christian churches to become Unitarian Universalist, this doctrine may have been part of why we left. Who wants to worship a blood-thirsty God who needed a part of himself to die a horrible death for us to be reconciled to him?

So these two things – an awkwardness with the resurrection, and frustration at the doctrine of substitutionary atonement are two reasons that some UU congregations just ignore Easter or water it down into a nice little celebration of bunnies, daffodils, egg hunts and the return of spring. And while I completely understand this, many of us have been very wounded by Christianity and are fearful when anything that looks like it gets close, I would say that we have lost something in the way we have run. We lost a connection to our history, and we also lost track of what was happening in Christianity after many of us left. Some of us are locked into a rigid almost fundamentalist belief about what Christianity is and what it expects of its followers. We say that we are an open minded religious tradition, that we welcome people with diverse beliefs, but the truth is that Christians in our tradition, and 10% of Unitarian Universalists identify as Christian, often experience a continuous stream of prejudice and judgment in our congregational life. UU Christians experience a disconnect between who we say we are and how some of us live our values of hospitality, generosity and open mindedness.

So I’m resurrecting Easter this morning to reacquaint ourselves with a celebration, anchored in our own history and theology, that doesn’t need either a literal resurrection or a cruel death to mean something. In fact these are the most uncreative aspects of Easter, and in the cast of substitutionary atonement, the most dangerous.   Many progressive Christians left it behind years ago. What Easter is, is one more magnificently creative human attempt to claim new life in the face of utter bleakness and the organized systemic cruelty that can emanate from human society.

What we see in the different approaches to Easter is a struggle between a religion of Empire and a religion of liberation. When I say religion of empire, I mean a religion that is used as a tool of the powerful and the wealthy to oppress the poor and the powerless and to justify the status quo. What many of us experienced in Easter is rooted in the religion of Empire and it feeds into the very systemic violence that Jesus was all about resisting and dismantling. Substitutionary atonement is a betrayal of Easter because it justifies violence as sacred, violence as cleansing, violence as restoring what has been broken, and violence as redemptive. This is what religion as empire looks like.

So this morning I want to spend some time reimagining Easter through the lens of liberation theology, which has sought to restore Easter to its roots of radical love and resistance. Liberation theology has something to offer us, whether we are Christian or not. We are in a time in our faith tradition and in our nation where we are going through a house cleaning, exploring how we are complicit in systems of oppression (often despite our best intentions), and how we are co-opted into systems that betray our desire for beloved community and a covenantal relationship with all of life.

So liberation theology. What’s that about? Liberation theology emerged in Catholic Latin America in the 1970s among the poor and it was championed by a Roman Catholic Priest, Father Gutierrez. Liberation theology was a synthesis of Christian theology and Marxist socio-economic analysis, meaning that it focused on a social concern for the poor and their political liberation. The basic principle of Liberation Theology is that God has a preferential option for the poor, that God takes the side of the powerless.

Now I know that some of us don’t believe in God or a higher power so I would invite us to envision God as a character in a story, and like all characters, they receive the projections of human beings in order to become useful and empowering to the human heart and mind. For those of us who are convicted of the presence of a higher power, we know that it is a mystery shrouded in human attempts to be in relationship to it, so we are responsible for what we project onto the higher power we believe in.

There were growing numbers of ordinary people in Central America who were done with their church being an arm of the powerful and they were determined to take their faith back. So this God upon whom they projected their deepest love and desires was on their side and Jesus was his manifestation, who came to offer the oppressed a set of teachings and resources to find dignity, to recover a sense of hope and love, to believe in themselves, and to survive against overwhelming odds. This Jesus, the Jesus they could follow, was persistently a thorn in the side of Empire, often through civil disobedience.

To give you an example. The four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are filled with stories of Jesus healing people. Today it’s easy to dismiss these miracles as wishful figments of the imagination, but in Jesus’ time, with no scientific understanding of illness, disease was something that stained you morally and could only be cured by turning the favor of God towards you. In this time of Roman occupation, the only legal way you could seek healing was by going to the Temple, paying a lot of money, and having the priest pray for you and sacrifice an animal for you on the altar. But remember, the Temple priests were collaborators with the Romans, and those fees you paid, most went straight to Rome.  What this meant is that your only legal access to health care funneled money to those who oppressed you.

Where else do we see this kind of health care system?

So what did Jesus do? He publicly healed on the streets, in defiance of the law, in defiance of the Temple priests, and to add insult to injury, he accepted no payment for his services. And even worse, he taught his disciples how to heal. And what did he say every time he healed someone? “Your faith has healed you.” He didn’t say, “I healed you, with my great powers as the Son of God!” He was teaching people how to find their own power. And in the process, he was growing a resistance movement that was literally redirecting money away from the coffers of the Temple and Rome by keeping it in the pockets of ordinary people. Who needed the priests when their own faith could heal them? His final act of resistance, the one that landed him on the cross, was marching into the Temple and overthrowing the money tables.

Liberation theologians looked at Jesus’ ministry as a model for how to shape their own resistance against oppressive governments, some of which were funded by the United States. Is it any wonder that the Catholic Church declared liberation theology a heresy and threatened to excommunicate anyone promoting it?  Is it any wonder that the religious right, which has allied itself with America as Empire, also condemned it?

So how does liberation theology look at the crucifixion and the resurrection? Gone is the idea that God needed Jesus to suffer, that humanity was so depraved that only a gruesome sacrifice could save us. Just as God’s heart opened to the suffering of the Jewish people under Egypt, just his heart opened up to their suffering under Rome, now it opened to the suffering of all people in oppressive political systems. The crucifixion was not God’s answer to the suffering; it was the Empire’s answer to holding on to power.   The crucifixion was supposed to get rid of Jesus and to terrify those who followed him back into submission and silence. His ministry of empowerment would be destroyed, the status quo would remain unchallenged once again, and money would flow back into the coffers of the Temple and Rome.   The crucifixion had nothing to do with a blood-thirsty God and everything to do with a blood- thirsty empire.

The resurrection is God’s response to the crucifixions then and now.  It is a brave-love God saying, “Not so fast, Roman Empire! You think you are all powerful? You think you can destroy what was created here? You think you can silence, coerce, torture, and literally destroy the bodies of those who would challenge you? I have the last word here. Those people you are crucifying? They are mine! I am the one who gives life through them, and my love, the love that they are professing and embracing, is more powerful than anything you will ever be! So go ahead, you keep filling those tombs with their bodies and I will empty them all!”

For many oppressed people, this spoke to their lives and their struggle. It said that no matter how bad things got, how many losses, how many defeats, they were not alone. Ultimately, justice would prevail and they would find freedom.

Liberation theology was brought to the United States and took root first in the Black church, with theologians like James Cohn, who saw the crucifixion in the lynching tree and the criminal justice system. We have American Latino/Latina/LatinX communities who experience the crucifixion in the immigration system and in detention centers and in a border wall. Among Indigeneous people the crucifixion happened in residential schools and now happens in pipelines and in sky-high suicide and addiction rates.   In the face of genocide, terror and state sponsored violence, the fact that they have not succumbed, that they still live and fight, this is the ongoing resurrection.

The Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter are a manifestation of the ongoing resurrection. The Sanctuary Movement is the resurrection. Standing Rock and the Water Protectors are the resurrection. And in response, the water cannons came out, the riot police came out, the tear gas came out, and the  Mueller report did not exonerate but did not convict, but nothing can stop the resurrection. It may seem to go underground, it may have to find a new form, new people, new ways of organizing, but you can’t stop it.

So how has this impacted us as Unitarian Universalists, with our amazing diversity of spiritualities, with our profound respect for reason, with our unceasing love for this planet, with our understanding that all of life is intertwined, and with our hope that love always wins?

Honestly, it’s been a mixed bag. Unitarian Universalist theologian and minister Paul Rasor, who wrote Faith Without Certainty, says that we are pulled in two directions – by a liberal theology that puts the individual at the center, and a liberation theology that places our collective well being at the center. The challenge for us is that historically, our religious tradition, especially the Unitarian side, emerged from the economic and political elite. Some of us had a lot of status quo empire power and some of us still do.  This is in the DNA of Unitarian Universalism.

But there has been this hunger, always, for a way to love more bravely, especially as Unitarian Universalists from historically marginalized communities call for a deeper embrace of reconciliation and justice making. For the last several decades, we have witnessed the development of a more nuanced way of being that asks us to welcome the same kind of power analysis that you see in liberation theology.

For instance, what if we used Easter as a roadmap to see ourselves in every character of the story? We are the Romans and we are the priests. We are the disciples and we are the ones in the crowd clamoring for healing. We are the ones who take the 30 pieces of silver.  We are the ones who stand underneath the cross and watch the one we love die. We are the ones who go to the tomb and find it empty.  We are the ones who don’t believe the women.  We are the ones who ask to touch the wound of the one who has died  We are all messily striving for resurrection, seeking reassurance that love will prevail in our hearts, in our relationships, in our communities, and in this broken country. We try to raise our kids to love and live generosity, to be responsible, and we make mistakes doing it. We try to love our families and we aren’t always successful. We try to side with love and end up siding with empire.  Then, we then try again.

What I find most compelling about Jesus’ return is that he adjusted how he showed himself to his disciples.  I wonder if he was trying different approaches to see what stuck. For the women, they just needed an empty tomb and an angel. The disciples on the road to Emmaus needed conversation and time. Thomas needed to touch him.  By the time of Pentecost, the disciples found him in their own words.

I wonder if that’s how it works with us, that this all powerful brave love that we try to understand and trust and channel, that we barely know how to name, this brave love is so creative, so persistent and so stubborn that it keeps working on us, seeing what sticks. When that love does break through, in those moments when we finally get it, we become the resurrection.  All the ways that we have died to love come back to us and the tomb will be empty.

Maybe that’s how it works.

May you and yours have a blessed Easter.

 

 

 

 

Sources

Reza Aslan. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels really teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem.

James Cohn. The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Paul Rasor.  Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century.

Rev. Christine Robinson “A Tennebrae Easter Service.” Celebrating Easter and Spring. Eds. Seaburg and Harris.

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About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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