Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Resurrection is a Cop-Out

Here's a practice I'm not going to miss at all: the flowering cross.

They come out on Easter, and I have wondered for years if the idea came from a florist. The sentimentality behind it is understandable: Easter is the celebration of the Resurrection, and it just happens to fall in early spring, so let's buy a bunch of cut flowers and decorate the cross with them! It's a popular custom, and typically the cameras come out after the service so people can take pictures of themselves in their Easter best, posing with the beautiful flowering cross.

And I hate it.

I always have. From the very beginning, I believed the cross should symbolize one thing: the death of Jesus. It actually does this best when there's a bloody corpse hanging from it, as can be found in many a Catholic church. But that imagery is deemed ghoulish by many, and probably properly so. It also teeters toward idolatry, which is why the Puritans removed it from Anglican churches, as have many Protestants throughout the world. In its place, you're more likely to see a bare cross, which itself is open to misinterpretation. I've heard some say "We worship with an empty cross because of the Resurrection"--as if Jesus was resurrected right off the cross.

The story, as told in the Gospels, is that Jesus was entombed for somewhere between 36 and 48 hours, a period considered three days because it includes two sunsets, and that when his followers went to the tomb to tend to his body, it was empty. There are conflicting versions of how he was experienced to be alive again, but they're all in agreement on this: he was definitely dead when he was taken down off the cross, and he stayed dead long enough for the resurrection to be more than just waking up from a long nap.

To me, the flowering cross always represented the tendency of people to want to skip the gory bits, to leap from the adulation of Palm Sunday to the triumph of Easter without experiencing any of the grief and despair of Holy Week. As a pastor, I rejected it: the cross, I insisted, was a torture device, a tool for capital punishment, and it succeeded in its work, putting to death a dangerous Jew who made the Roman authorities nervous--as if they needed any excuse to crucify a Jew. The point was that the death of Jesus was essential to the good news. As some of my Black preacher colleagues liked to put it, "No cross, no crown." And that's how I preached it myself for years.

When I left ministry, I continued insisting on the importance of Jesus' death to the gospel message. The reason, for me, was fundamental: I needed to believe in resurrection. I had experienced far too many little deaths over the years, and I needed to know there was life beyond death. It didn't have to be a literal resurrection, by the way, just a sense that every winter is followed by a spring, that given time, any defeat will give way to new life.

That message has worked for me. I've had more personal resurrections than I can count. I could also call them rebirths. I'm in the midst of several of them right now, as my teaching career emerges from the shadows of budget reductions that clouded it for four years, and my relationships with my partner, her children, and my own grown children continue to evolve into new stages.

But here's where it is again a good thing that I am no longer in ministry: I've outgrown the (capital R) Resurrection. I don't believe Jesus was literally raised from the dead. In fact, I find myself finally on the side of Leonard Bernstein who, in his Mass, and more particularly the Credo, criticized the doctrine of the Resurrection as a colossal copout. "You had a choice...to die and then become a god again."

And there it is: the Resurrection is the deus ex machina that renders the crucifixion null and void, especially if, as the Gospels insist, Jesus knew he would rise again. If a hero knows death is not the final word, it loses much of its significance.

Consider the "cliffhangers" of main character deaths in TV dramas, and particularly in Star Trek. When Kirk died toward the end of "Amok Time," we knew he'd be back. He was the star of the show, after all. So it was no surprise that McCoy had spiked the blood doping compound he gave Kirk so he could survive the thin air of Vulcan with a powerful sedative that made him appear to be dead, only to have him return to life. Similarly, when, in the most recent Star Trek movie, Kirk dies while repairing the warp drive to save the Enterprise, we know it's not the end. Without Kirk, there is no Star Trek. There will be some last minute solution to his apparent demise, and sure enough, there is. The stakes are just not that high.

Contrast these instances with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and other programs that have come from the mind of Joss Whedon. Whedon kills characters with abandon, and once they're gone, they rarely come back. Or think of Game of Thrones, in which central characters are killed, really killed, to the horror of an audience that expects them to go on. It took me reading the novels to accept that a character who died toward the end of season one really would not be coming back. That these deaths really were permanent made the storyline more tragic, more powerful, and the death more significant--and more meaningful.

The myth of the resurrected demigod predates Christianity by centuries, and there were plenty of other dead-resurrected gods floating about in first century religions as the Resurrection doctrine came together, so it's not as if Christians had to make theirs up out of whole cloth. What sets Christianity apart from all those other reborn god religions is that it survived--thanks in large part to imperial edict, as Constantine proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

So what about the copout of resurrection? Does Christianity really need a resurrected Christ in order to carry on?

The Apostle Paul certainly thought so: " If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins....  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19) That's strong stuff: no resurrection means Christians really are fools, chasing after an illusion, putting their hope in something that just doesn't exist, pitiful wretches whose lives mean nothing.

Thinking about the many Christians I've known, I have to acknowledge that there are a substantial number of them who are in exactly that boat, placing their hope in a Pie in the Sky afterlife, looking to it alone to sustain them through their dreary existence in this world. I think it's important to note that Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus are in the same boat, looking forward to some sort of reward in the afterlife (or their next life) to make up for whatever misery they're experiencing in this life. The Resurrected Christ does more than symbolize that reward; he makes it happen.

And this, finally, is where I part ways with the belief that is at the very heart of Christianity. I understand why the early church felt the need to believe not just in resurrection, but in The Resurrection. I understand why human beings throughout time have felt the need to believe that death is not the final word. I understand why mythology, drama, literature have all needed both to kill and to resurrect heroes and gods. Where I draw the line is this: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile."

That's a harsh thing to say, Paul. Too harsh. Especially when I compare it with these other words of yours: "...Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person...But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." (Romans 5:7-8) The death of Jesus has world-shattering significance without the Resurrection. In fact, I would argue it makes Jesus himself far more of a hero. When there is no escape hatch, no parachute, no fire exit, no cavalry coming over the hill, no sense that God will pluck him from the cross, his death is both more tragic and more heroic. To die for anyone, with no chance for redemption, is a great thing. To die for sinners goes beyond greatness.

And as for the afterlife: while I was yet a minister, in fact, while I was yet a seminarian, I let go of my need for a literal heaven. I learned that the pearly gates, the harp-strumming angels, the very idea of a paradise for dead saints was something grafted onto Christianity from Greek mythology, that there was in fact almost nothing in the Bible to back it up, and I was okay with that. I could be agnostic about what comes after death. I'd rather go on living, but I just don't know, and I don't thing anyone can know, whether there is any kind of existence beyond the grave.

Accepting that means embracing something else that I picked up in seminary. I saw a film about Buddhism, and watched as a Buddhist abbot walked a gravel path, barefoot, slowly, sensuously, experiencing every step. To live, to breathe, to feel and smell and see and hear and taste and think and remember and speculate and know and create--all of this is something to be embraced. Yes, it hurts. Yes, we will lose things. We will be defeated. We will lose friends and family members and partners. Some will walk away, some will hate us, and in the end, all of them will die. We will suffer many little deaths over the course of our lives. But all of it, every last experience, from the most agonizing to the most sublime, is life, and we are here to savor it, shape it, remember it, tell of it, and finally to release it. All of that can be, should be exquisite.

I don't need a resurrection to eternal life to have paradise. My Eden is right here, right now. Whether or not your believe in an afterlife, your present life will be all the better for embracing it and loving it for the wondrous gift that it is.

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