Easter and the Myth of Redemptive Suffering

empty tomb and easter

Herb Montgomery | April 15, 2021

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.

These are valid questions. How can we reconcile seeing the cross event as a salvific divine act without unintentionally inferring that God’s power to save is rooted in willingness to humiliate, physically denigrate, and violate someone’ body to save others?”

Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

Now it was the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came, early on while it was still dark, to the tomb and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Messiah out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple came and went to the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple ran ahead of Peter and reached the tomb first. And bending down to see, saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not enter. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb, and he saw the linen wrapping lying there. And the facecloth that had been on Jesus’s head, not lying with the linens wrappings but rolled up separately in another place. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, went in and saw and believed. Indeed they did not understand the scripture that it was necessary for Jesus to rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned once more to their homes.

Now Mary stood outside, facing the tomb, weeping. As she wept, she bent down to see in the tomb. Then she saw two angels in white sitting, one at thread and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. They said to her, “Woman, why do you weep?” She said to them, “Because they have taken my Savior, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why do you weep? For whom do you look?” Thinking that he was the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (Which means Teacher.) Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, because I have not yet ascend to the Father. Rather go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I and ascending to my Abba and you Abba, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Savior”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:1-18, translation by Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney; A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year W)

This week, we are reading the resurrection narrative found in the gospel of John. This is a combined resurrection narrative developed after the early Jesus movement, and I believe there is something we can glean from this version.

One thing that is common to all the gospel narratives is the presence of women at the tomb of Jesus. In John’s version, notice that Mary uses the word “we.” Women who had the courage to go to the tomb as soon as there was daylight after the Sabbath led to the first proclamation of the resurrection. Those who showed up first got to be the first ones to share the good news. John’s version of this story encourages me to speak out when men and institutions say women can’t posses equal authority or credentials to proclaim the gospel.

Each resurrection narrative also begins in sorrow, and as John tells the story, I can imagine Jesus saying Mary’s name tenderly. I love that she mistook Jesus for a gardener: the detail grounds this version of the story in the interconnectedness with our natural world that gardeners know firsthand. I also love how Mary had to be told to let go. Wouldn’t you have held on as she did if you had just witnessed the brutal murder of someone you cared so deeply for, and now saw him alive again, standing right in front of you?

This version of the story also tells us something about how diverse the early Jesus followers were. Some patriarchal groups eventually won the power struggle and they came to shape the Christian religion. But early on, there were more egalitarian communities of Jesus followers, some who valued Mary Magdalene as others would later value the Apostle John, the Apostle Peter, and the Apostle Paul.

John’s gospel represents the community that valued John, yet even here we can see signs of three early Jesus communities vying for credibility as the Christian church forms. Mary is first to proclaim the risen Jesus, but this version also adds Peter and John racing to the tomb. Peter is first to enter the tomb, but John is the first to arrive and believe. So all three of these early church figures and their communities are competing in this version, and we still have power struggles in the church today.

Every canonical version of the resurrection narrative drives home the importance of believing women when they speak. We can apply this practice in every area of our society today, both within our faith communities and in our larger society.

This coming weekend, most of Western Christianity will celebrate Easter. Perhaps we could deepen our practice of listening to women when they speak by listening to a few perspectives on the crucifixion-resurrection narrative at the heart of so contemporary Christianity.

The perspectives I’m about to share challenge traditional, familiar interpretations of this narrative and many of the atonement theories that have been born from them.

I’ll begin with a short, challenging example from feminist theologian Dr. Elizabeth Bettenhausen and her preface for the classic book, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse.

I want to offer a content warning here: this excerpt contains sexual violence in reimagining the cross event.

“Several years ago I asked a group of seminarians to choose New Testament stories about Jesus and rewrite them imagining that Jesus had been female. The following recreation of the passion story of Luke 22.54-65 was one womans knowing by heart.

They arrested the Christ woman and led her away to the Council for questioning. Some of her followers straggled along to find out what was to become of her. There were seven women and two men followers. (The men followers were there mainly to keep watch over their sisters.) Someone from among the crowd asked a question of a man follower, Havent I seen you with this woman? Who is she, and what is your relationship with her?He replied defensively, She is a prostitute, she has had many men. I have seen her with many!The men who were guarding the Christ [woman] slapped her around and made fun of her. They told her to use magic powers to stop them. They blindfolded her and each them in turn raped her and afterward jeered, Now, prophetess, who was in you? Which one of us? Tell us that!Thy continued to insult her. (Kandice Joyce)

After this story was read aloud, a silence surrounded the class and made us shiver. Ever since, I have wondered would women ever imagine forming a religion around the rape of a woman? Would we ever conjure gang-rape as a salvific event for other women? What sort of god would such an event reveal? (p. xi)

These are valid questions. How can we reconcile seeing the cross event as a salvific divine act without unintentionally inferring that God’s power to save is rooted in willingness to humiliate, physically denigrate, and violate someone’ body to save others?

This is just one reason I believe we must interpret the Jesus story and the crucifixion-resurrection event not in terms of how someone died, died for us, or was executed. It is a story about how the One who was murdered for social, political, and economic reasons by the state, was brought back to life. This is a story of how life conquers death, love conquers hate, sharing conquers greed, and life giving power conquers death dealing.

Last week I shared a little bit from womanist theologian Dr. Delores Williams last week. This week I’ll add Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas’s book Stand your ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. She offers some absolute gems about the cross beginning on page 178. As she quotes from Williams, “The cross . . . represents historical evil trying to defeat good.”

She then explains how life overcame death in the Jesus story:

Jesus takes on evil. He takes on and defeats . . . not granting the power of death any authority over him . . . he does not respond in kind, by adopting the methods of this power. The final triumph over the death of the cross is the resurrection of Jesus.

The resurrection is God’s definitive victory over the crucifying powers of evil.

The cross represents the power that denigrates human bodies, destroys life, and preys on the most vulnerable in society. As the cross is defeated, so too is that power.

The impressive factor is how it is defeated. It is defeated by life-giving rather than a life-negating force . . . That is, it is not the power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is a resurrecting power.

God’s power never expresses itself through humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life.

The force of God is a death-negating, life-affirming force.

Next, Dr. Douglas quotes Audre Lorde: “The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (Sister Outsider, p. 112)

Then she continues, “God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself.”

If indeed the power of life that God stands for is greater than the power of death, this must be manifest in the way God triumphs over death-dealing powers. The freedom of God that is life requires a liberation from the very weapons utilized by a culture of death. In other words, these weapons cannot become divine weapons . . . The culmination of this liberation is Jesus’ resurrection.

This exegesis resonates with me so deeply. Every fiber of my heart says amen! The Jesus story isn’t about a God who overcomes death by adding one more death, i.e. Jesus’ death. It’s the story of a God who overcame, reversed, and undid death by resurrecting the one the state sought to execute.

For me, this is powerful. This is a story that moves us to believe in love’s ability to win, even in the face of death, and to work toward that end.

We can work more effectively for a better iteration of our world when we believe that that better iteration is actually possible. Ultimately, I believe this was a 1st Century story told in 1st Century language that was intended to inspire early Jesus followers to do just that.

This story can still inspire Jesus followers today.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What does interpreting the Jesus story as a story where life overcomes death and love overcomes hate change for you? Share with your group

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Understanding and Sharing a Theology of the Cross with Children: Beyond Substitutionary Atonement

Here’s a conversation on talking to children about the violence of the cross during this holiday weekend that was recorded this spring. Grateful to my friends author and pastor Traci Smith of Elmhurst Presbyterian Church and author Daneen Akers of Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints for this conversation.

Listen at:

Understanding and Sharing a Theology of the Cross with Children: Beyond Substitutionary Atonement