Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “crucifixion

The Shadows of Easter

Let us pray: In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.

 

Easter is beautiful. The warmth of the vigil fire; the light of the flames blending into the dawn sky. The light of the breaking dawn shining through stained glass windows. The flowers, their scent mingling with the scent of incense. The fragrance of warm bread–risen bread!–ascending with our prayers. Easter is beautiful. But it rests on an ugly foundation.

The glory of the triumph of Easter can make it easy to move past the oppressive systems and institutions that ensnared and extra-judicially executed Jesus, those which survived his death, and endure in the aftermath of his resurrection, still taking lives, still placing the tortured pierced bodies of daughters and sons in the arms of their mothers. After all, crucifixion continued after Jesus’s death, perhaps the next day, week, or month. Crucifixion continued after his resurrection. James Cone tells us that crucifixion continued in the lynching trees of the American south and in the north, including right here in Texas. Black Lives Matter activists keep telling us that crucifixion continues whether bullets or nails pierce the bodies of the crucified. And our trans siblings are crying out in their crucifixions, often at the hands of those they trusted to love them, all too often fathers and brothers. I know its Eastertide, but the world is still crucifying and crucified. After all we are singing our alleluias under armed guard in a sanctuary in which bullets as well as blossoms can be found. We are singing these alleluias while bombs are dropping on Syria, devastated by slaughter that has left half a million dead yet the doors of this so-called Christian nation under God are shut to all but eleven refugees.

I’m thinking about the Shadows of Easter this morning. The Church is built on more than the rock that is Christ. (Sorry Peter, you are not the rock.) The faults and failings of the world in which the Church was founded are also part and parcel of the Church and always have been. Cultural and institutional biases were incorporated into the Church from its founding, along with a general human predilection to do the wrong thing at any given time. I’m from a tradition that describes the Church as an “ark of safety.” Well, the ark was filled with shitstuff. And some of that stuff is in the Church.

Don’t miss that we have so many accounts of the resurrection in part because Jesus chose women as the apostles to the apostles but the pervasive sexism of the age would not accept women as witnesses, evangelists, and apostles in spite of what was already scripture at that time saying that women’s words and witness are enough for God: We’ve got a gospel that says women saw the resurrection and told the story; that’s preaching the gospel. We’ve got gospels that say that women saw the resurrection and went to get a man so he could preach the gospel. We’ve got a gospel in which men compete with each other to get there first–but still after the women–and eventually Jesus has to do a supernatural break-in to get them, the men, to get out and preach the gospel. And yet and still, in 2018 we had launch a major campaign to get men and women to “believe women” when we tell you the ways we’ve been harassed and harmed in every space in our world, including in the Church. And still some folk are asking, what does he have to say about it? He says he didn’t do it. I believe him.

There are systems which rank and categorize people and their worth that have been with us since the one person blamed the other person for eating a food he put into his own mouth. Outside of the sacred stories, people figured out how to dominate one another through brute strength, by withholding resources, and wielding of social power as soon as there were enough of them to divide into groups. Power takes many forms. One of those forms is the power to tell the version of the story that will become the Authorized Version. That is what our scriptures are: The Authorized Version of God’s story through particular perspectives.

In the Acts lesson (Acts 3:12-19 below) a number of different kinds of power come together to tell the story of Easter that is beautiful and glorious, and also shadowed by some of the ugliness it has spawned, ugliness that is still with us. It takes place in the aftermath of Peter’s miraculous healing of a man at the gate on the temple grounds. When confronted with the amazement of the people in response to the miracle he performed, Peter, perhaps still reeling from guilt over betraying and abandoning Jesus yet seeing the undeniable power of God working through his own unfaithful self, remembers his own denials and projects all of his emotional stuff onto the people who are his own Jewish people: You handed Jesus over to death. You rejected him. You killed him. You killed the author of Life. All the while what I think he was really saying was: I handed Jesus over to death. I rejected him. I killed him. I killed the author of Life

Peter’s language along with the Gospel of John that we read on Good Friday detailing Jesus’ encounters with the police which were nothing less than brutal, and a few other passages, form the basis of what has come to be called the “teaching of contempt” towards Jews and Judaism, literally blaming them for Jesus’s crucifixion at the hands of Roman soldiers under the power and authority of the Roman government, a power Jewish leaders didn’t have and a power that the eagle of Rome would not use to resolve what was for them a petty religious dispute. Instead, Rome executed Jesus as an insurrectionist, as a threat to the throne, and to the empire.

But the teaching of contempt blames Jews for the death of Christ. And that teaching from pulpits and podiums in congregations and classrooms has led to the murder of Jews by Christians, sometimes with the blessing of the Church. From the First Crusade in which Jews in Jerusalem were burned alive in synagogues to the Third Crusade in which Jews in England were given the choice of death or baptism and those who did not commit suicide were murdered. To Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic rages instructing to Christians to “First set fire to their schools and synagogues…This is to be done in honor of our Lord…Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed…Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings…be taken from them…Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb…” From Martin Luther to the Holocaust which was perpetrated “by Christian hands in Christian lands,” (Johanna van Wijk Bos)[1]with pastors, theologians, biblical scholars and, everyday Christians lending their religious and moral authority to that genocide which we recalled this past week on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, an Orthodox Jew who is also a New Testament professor, calls for us to do better with our theology and preaching, because anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism are counter to the “good news” of Jesus.”[2]

Easter, the glorious celebration of the glorious resurrection is overshadowed by anti-Semitism in our time as well, lest we forget the Nazi-saluting torch-bearing white supremacists who identify as Christian shouting “You will not replace us” and in some cases “Jew will not replace us.” Our celebrations of the resurrection are tainted by what we do in Christ’s name and in Christ’s Church, what we permit to be done in Christ’s name and in Christ’s Church, what we are silent about in the face of Christ, and what we deny in the face of Christ like Peter.

The whole of the Christian year stretches towards this moment when we reach back to acclaim the power of God over death manifest in the resurrected life of Jesus. The passion and pageantry of the eight days from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday enable us to mystically live in these ancient holy moments across time. And at the same time we are very much present in a world that is anything but resurrected.

This is the world in which we celebrate Easter. We dare not look away from the ugliness that stains its petals or turn our backs to its looming shadows, for Jesus bids us take up our cross on a way that leads through Shadow-Valley Death, even in Eastertide. Taking up the cross of the wrongfully convicted Jesus means not allowing the words of life in the gospel to be twisted into words of death for his Jewish kin. It means teaching and learning that the language of “Jews” in the New Testament is used by Jews to other Jews with whom they are wrestling with what it means to be a Jew when some Jews believed in Jesus and some Jews did not. It would take Jewish Christians hundreds of years to sort themselves out or be sorted out. We need to understand that these were internal Jewish conversations and we who are not Jews might just need to see ourselves out.

In Acts 3, Peter calls his Jewish community to repentance and I think the text also calls we who are Christians without Jewish roots to repent. It calls some of us to repent for bad theology, bad exegesis, and bad preaching. It calls all of us to repent for using the scriptures to subordinate and dominate others, to conquer and colonize, for failing to rise above hatred and bias even when it can be found in the text; it calls us to repent for our silences and turning away from the shadows. We as Church are called to repent for the ways in which we have used the scriptures violently against folk denying them liberty, denying them access to the sacraments, sometimes denying them their very lives. The Church needs to repent for its own white supremacy and anti-Semitism, past and present, its silencing of voices–women’s voices, gay voices, trans voices, and non-white voices–when they say what it doesn’t want to hear, or is tired of hearing.

To repent is to do more than to apologize, though apologies are good. Repentance begins with confession and involves a complete turning away from the transgression. In some cases, repentance involves restoration, not just of the soul of the transgressor, but of the one violated. You can’t repent for stealing and hold onto the stolen property. Sometimes repentance involves reparations. Sometimes there is no reparation that can be paid, but that is not the call of the transgressor.

The beauty of Easter is rooted in the ugliness of crucifixion, an entirely legal process that is also wholly immoral. It is still the case that what is legal is not necessarily, ethical, moral, or right. We are called to be on the side of the crucified, not the empire that crucifies. That is the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is also life and love. It is easy to find the broken places in our world and those that deal death. Where are the resurrection spaces? Where do we look to see that death does not, in fact, have the last word? And what is our work in bridging the gap between death and life?

Jesus rose in the realm of death and decay, his resurrected body still bearing the marks of the crucifixion on his body. The broken man in Acts found new life in his own body. The disciples in the gospel (Luke 24:36-48) encountered the resurrection in their grief. It is here in this broken world that we encounter the power of the resurrection. It is in the power of that first glorious resurrection that we have power to heal what is broken in our Church, in our world, and in ourselves. And that is good news. Amen.

 

Acts 3:12 When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? 13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14 But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16 And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

17   “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18 In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. 19 Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out…

 

 

[1]Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice, xviii.

[2]The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, 110.


Crucifixion and Sexual Violence

On this Good Friday as on many before, I consider anew the full range of torture and humiliation to which Jesus of Nazareth was subjected, physical and sexual. The latter is so traumatizing for the Church that we have covered it up – literally – covering Jesus’ genitals on our crucifixes. But the Romans (and others) who used crucifixion as more than a form of execution, as a form of state-sponsored terrorism – really lynching – to control subject populations were not inclined to respect the human or religious dignity, culture or customs of their targets.

The mocking, taunting, forced stripping of Jesus was a sexual assault. He was, as so many of us are – women and men, children and adult – vulnerable to those who used physical force against him in whatever way they chose. Those who rush to say but he wasn’t raped, or at least he wasn’t raped miss the point. (And we don’t know that he wasn’t. We can only say the Gospels do not say that he was. But would they?) The combination of various forms of sexualized violence and lethal violence are potent dehumanizing expressions of dominance as in ritual castrations combined with lynching in the American South – and North.

It is hard to think of Jesus that way. Hard to find images that preserve that historical perspective. (I couldn’t find any nudes that also portrayed him as a Semitic, Afro-Asiatic, man.) An internet search is not for the faint of heart. The sexualization of a bound man or woman is an obvious and a familiar trope in pornography. The association of Jesus with BDSM (bondage, discipline/domination, submission/sadomasochism) is horrifying (for me and for many others, but clearly not for all). The line between consensual sexual encounters and assault and sexualized murder is crystal clear for me. Crucifixion, like all forms of lynching, is depraved and should make us uncomfortable whatever our sexual pleasures.

The Church that has a hard time talking about sexual violence perpetrated against mere mortals has an understandably hard time thinking about the sexualized connotations of the crucifixion of the Son of God. The reason the Church has such a hard time thinking critically and talking about sexual violence is because it has a hard time thinking critically and talking about sex. The Church – and I really mean churches, congregations and denominations – has had and have a hard time talking honestly and publicly about good healthy sex and so they are unable to speak authoritatively about its antithesis and perversion, the use of sex as a weapon.

There is so much shame associated with sex for so many Christians and those who lead, teach and preach in Christian communities, and that shame is regularly heaped on women and gay or effeminate men. Yet the scandal – and it is scandalous – of the Incarnation is that God pulsed into this world between a woman’s thighs, in not only the spit and shit of a stable, but passed through her vagina, as Bro. Cornell West says located “between the orifices for urine and excrement.”

Jesus has been carefully shielded from female and male genitalia in the tradition ever since. The idea of Jesus being in either a heterosexual or homosexual relationships are both anathema for many Christians. Even the notion of Jesus’ own human sexual development  – erections and nocturnal emissions – is taboo. And what of his own actions? Could Jesus be fully human as a teenaged boy and man without ever fantasizing or masturbating? If he was truly unmarried in a culture that married teenagers off as soon as they went through puberty in lieu of birth control because there was no controlling those hormones, how did Jesus deal with his own, natural, healthy, God-given sexual desires?

Celibacy is a powerful, counter-cultural witness in our world and in the time of Jesus. And at its best it is a mature affirmation of a life fully dedicated to God (in Christian tradition), building families through love and spiritual kinship. Celibacy doesn’t make a person asexual. But sexual difference can make someone a target for sexual violence. The exposure of Jesus’ naked body on the cross was a particular shaming targeting a man who was not normatively, heteronormatively, coupled.

I always think of the beginning of Jesus’ (human) life as we memorialize its end because the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the beginning of the miraculous pregnancy that produced him regularly occurs during Holy Week as it did this year (on Monday, the day after Palm Sunday). Sometimes it falls on Good Friday.

Tradition says the Virgin’s conception of Jesus was absent sexual pleasure – and there are those who deny her a healthy sexual relationship with her own husband. The child of her body, the Blessed Ever Virgin Mary or Ever Blessed Virgin Mary – is it her blessedness or her virginity that is perpetual? – depends on where in the Protestant /Catholic divide you fall. (Here I am a Protestant.) Yeshua ben Miryam l’Natzeret, Jesus, Mary’s child of Nazareth is the Son of Woman as surely as he is the Son of God. Her humanity was his humanity in his birth and in his death. Jesus’ death was a parody of his birth, at his crucifixion he was as naked as the day he was born, and again covered in blood and water, but dead when his body was placed in his mother’s arms and his head laid on her long-empty breasts.