I went to a supermarket to buy an Easter card. I found some with crosses and empty tombs but the majority featured bunnies, cute fuzzy chicks and spring flowers. Then I went to the bakery to pick up some desserts for Easter dinner, and what I found there were frosted Easter bunnies, and in the next aisle were bunnies made from chocolate.
The theme seemed to be “springtime means new life.” Indeed, springtime does mean new life. The days are getting longer, the temperature is warming up, the earth is thawing out, crocuses are poking out of the soil, the robins are back and victims of Seasonal Affective Disorder are beginning to recover. All of nature, we humans included, seems to be coming back to life.
Here’s what seems to be happening. Our culture took the story of one person rising from the dead, combined it with nature myths like the Greek story of Persephone and generalized the combination into a new optimistic myth of progress. It’s all good. Everything will be alright. Everyone is going to heaven.
The problem with nature myths is that although life conquers death in the spring, death defeats life in the fall, so that what we are left with is a circular model of existence instead of a linear one. In other words, take your place on the great Mandela and accept your fate, because there can be no spiritual or existential goal to strive for, except to accept reality with as much equanimity as possible.
As far as the generalization that everyone will experience life after death goes, that myth is not supported by observing nature nor is it confirmed by The Story, the one told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Everyone is free to believe that, of course, but it is not true to the The Story.
What’s more, not only are those nature and universalist myths not true, they are also not empowering for the long haul.
Let me tell you about my visit to Selma last month. When Pres. Obama mounted the stage, the roar from the estimated 70,000 people attending—95% of whom were black—almost shook the earth beneath our feet. It felt like the throng could have burst out singing those lines from Lift Every Voice and Sing:
yet with a steady beat,
have not our weary feet,
come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
I tried to imagine how Congressman John Lewis felt as he stood on that stage, a short distance from where he was tear gassed and beaten 50 years ago, when the election of an African American president felt like a fantasy if not a nightmare to most Americans.
For Rep. Lewis, standing at the approach to the Edmund Pettus Bridge must have felt, among other things, like a vindication of the tactic of nonviolent protest used by Gandhi in India and adopted by Dr. King in this country. That’s what the tears in Jesse Jackson’s eyes meant while he stood in Grant Park six years ago.
My sense—that of a member of a 5% minority that day who had never felt the “chast’ning rod,
felt in the day that hope unborn had died—was that most people there held no illusions that they were living in the promised land, that America had become a post-racial society, that “it’s all good.” Many were wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” or “I can’t breathe” or “Hands Up.”
What they were rejoicing in was not the coming of heaven to earth but that the way of aggressive and at the same time non-violent action had been vindicated.
That’s what the Easter stories in the Bible are about. They are certainly not nature myths. Neither are they promises that every dying will be transformed to rising in this lifetime or that everyone will cross over to the Promised Land in the next. What they are is a confirmation that the Jesus Way—in the long run—is the most powerful, transformative way to address the brokenness in ourselves, in our society and in our relationship with God.
The gospels report that people loved Jesus when he was doing miracles. They came out in droves to be healed and fed. But then, when following him meant being drawn out of their comfort zones and faced with the prospect of suffering and dying because the “Master” confronted abusive authorities and told rich people to give their money to the poor and commanded his followers to turn the other cheek and called disciples away from their families and jobs—when they saw that a cross lay in the future, for him and for them, they abandoned him in droves.
And what the Resurrection Stories are insisting is that way—the way Jesus lived—is not the road to defeat and failure, but the most powerful, life changing way we humans can live. It’s not a proclamation that “it’s all good” or that “everything will turn out fine in the end, i.e. this side of the grave.”
James Weldon Johnson, I think, captures the “temperament” of the Easter stories in the gospels in the last stanza of “Lift Every Voice.”
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
thou who has by thy might,
led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee,
least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.
Shadowed beneath thy hand,
may we forever stand,
true to our God,
True to our native land.
In my church’s communion liturgy, even though references to Jesus’ suffering and death are made, towards the beginning of the service we sing, “This is the feast of victory for our God.” To many people who are “drunk with the wine of the world” such statements are counterintuitive foolishness.
I can’t provide proof positive or a guarantee that if you follow this way, all of your deaths will be followed by resurrections. Then again, this nonviolent, out of your comfort zone, committed and at times suffering approach to changing one’s self and the world is not completely without validation in our own memory.
That’s why so many who march to this Other Drummer can sing with conviction,
sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.