Why Resurrection

Herb Montgomery | April 26, 2019

Photo Credit: Billy Pasco on Unsplash

“Even when it looks like nothing is ever going to change, and regardless of whether or not changes are ever made to the extent we desire, the mere presence of our voice makes things different than they would be had we not taken a stand, showed up, or spoken out.”


“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5-6)

Triumph Over Execution

Last weekend, the majority of Western Christians ritually celebrated Easter. This time of year, in the context of spring, many Christians pause to memorialize and celebrate the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Although early Christianity included risking a cross for standing with the social changes that the teaching of Jesus implied, early Christianity was about resurrection, not death. It was not about getting to an otherworldly heaven, and it was not about hell (hell isn’t even mentioned in the book of Acts once). Early Christianity wasn’t even about a cross. It was about resurrection:

“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:33, emphasis added)

“You crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2:22-24, emphasis added)

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” (Acts 2:32-33, emphasis added)

“You handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, but God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:12-16, emphasis added)

“Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4:10-11, emphasis added)

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30-32, emphasis added)

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10:36-43, emphasis added

“Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead . . . And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.” (Acts 13:35-38, emphasis added.)

The early message of the Christian community was not the individualized, privatized and personal message that Jesus had died for you. The message wasn’t even that Jesus had died. It was that this Jesus, whose popularity with and message of hope and change for the masses threatened the powers-that-be; this Jesus executed by those with the most to lose from changes in the status quo; this Jesus, a prophet of the poor from Galilee, God had raised back to life! He was alive!

We can only understand why it was such good news that this Jesus was resurrected if we understand how deeply his teachings had resonated with those who faced marginalization, exclusion, and exploitation in his society every day.

Jesus’ Teachings Are Salvific

This week, I want to amplify the work of Delores Williams as we seek to understand what people in Jesus’ own time found truly special about him. Williams is a womanist theologian who I believe has much to offer us today as we seek to follow Jesus in the most life-giving way in our context. She writes from her experience as a Black woman, yet the majority of her work is rooted in the history of Black women and Black families in the US, the Black Church’s oral tradition, and the Bible’s stories about women, especially marginalized and African women. 

“Black women are intelligent people living in a technological world where nuclear bombs, defilement of the earth, racism, sexism, dope and economic injustices attest to the presence and power of evil in the world. Perhaps not many people today can believe that evil and sin were overcome by Jesus’ death on the cross; that is, that Jesus took human sin upon himself and therefore saved humankind. Rather, it seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)

I agree with Williams here. Jesus being executed by imperial power for being a threat wasn’t what was special or salvific about him. What made him special was his kingdom teachings, his vision for what life can look like here on Earth for us as a community. He laid before us an alternative path that leads to life: not a life we somehow earn by following him, but a life that is the intrinsic result of the choices we make in how to relate to ourselves and others.

Williams unpacks further how the resurrection affirmed Jesus’ teachings:

“Matthew, Mark and Luke suggest that Jesus did not come to redeem humans by showing them God’s ‘love” manifested in the death of God’s innocent child on a cross erected by cruel, imperialistic, patriarchal power. Rather, the texts suggest that the spirit of God in Jesus came to show humans life— to show redemption through a perfect ministerial vision of righting relations between body (individual and community), mind (of humans and of tradition) and spirit. A female-male inclusive vision, Jesus’ ministry of righting relationships involved raising the dead (those separated from life and community), casting out demons (for example, ridding the mind of destructive forces prohibiting the flourishing of positive, peaceful life) and proclaiming the word of life that demanded the transformation of tradition so that life could be lived more abundantly . . . God’s gift to humans, through Jesus, was to invite them to participate in this ministerial vision (“whosoever will, let them come”) of righting relations. The response to this invitation by human principalities and powers was the horrible deed the cross represents— the evil of humankind trying to kill the ministerial vision of life in relation that Jesus brought to humanity. The resurrection does not depend upon the cross for life, for the cross only represents historical evil trying to defeat good. The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it. (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 130, emphasis mine.)

The Truth Within the Resurrection Story

Williams is describing the gospel message of the first half of Acts. The truth within the story of the resurrection was of Jesus’ vision for what human life could be.  This vision so captured the hearts of the oppressed in his time that it was victorious over the attempt to kill it. Jesus’ death interrupted his lifelong salvific work. He did not die so that we in the 21st Century can be individually and personally assured of going to heaven when we die. Jesus died because he stood up to the status quo in the 1st Century. 

And the resurrection is the overcoming of this interruption, this death. It’s the reversal of all that Jesus’ death meant. The resurrection reignites the flame of Jesus’ vision for human life that those in positions of power had attempted to extinguished with his execution. The truth within the story of the resurrection is the restoration of Jesus’ message. It is the picking-back-up of Jesus’ teachings from being trampled in the dust of death and them living on in the lives of those who choose to embrace the hope that another world was actually possible. The truth within the story of Jesus’ resurrection is of a God on the side of those Jesus also lived in solidarity with over and against the system, and not a God on the side of the system over and against those being exploited as is often the system’s narrative.

I remember years ago listening to an Easter presentation on Luke’s resurrection narrative by the late Marcus Borg. I loved the truth within this story which Borg reimagined for me that day. 

“The domination system tried to stop him. They tried to shut him up. But even a rich man’s tomb couldn’t hold him. ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!’ He’s still out there,” Borg said into the mic. “He’s still recruiting, ‘Come follow me.’”

Jesus’ Palm Sunday demonstration and Temple protest which followed labelled his movement as something that finally had to be dealt with. Within the week, Jesus was dead. Yet the resurrection transforms his death into an attempted set back and not a final silencing that makes Jesus a failure. The truth within the story of Jesus’ resurrection narrative is that systems of injustice don’t always win. The status quo doesn’t always have the last word. Justice is worth fighting for, even when the outcome looks bleak. Even when it looks like nothing is ever going to change, and regardless of whether or not changes are ever made to the extent we desire, the mere presence of our voice makes things different than they would be had we not taken a stand, showed up, or spoken out.

Joan Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker remind us again that the gospel is not about an execution but about a refusal to let go of life. 

“Jesus did not choose the cross. He chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures . . . Jesus chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat . . . It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering . . . To be a Christian means keeping faith with those who have heard and lived God’s call for justice, radical love, and liberation; who have challenged unjust systems both political and ecclesiastical; and who in that struggle have refused to be victims and have refused to cower under the threat of violence, suffering, and death. Fullness of life is attained in moments of decision for such faithfulness and integrity. When the threat of death is refused and the choice is made for justice, radical love, and liberation, the power of death is overthrown. Resurrection is radical courage. Resurrection means that death is overcome in those precise instances when human beings choose life, refusing the threat of death. Jesus climbed out of the grave in the Garden of Gethsemane when he refused to abandon his commitment to the truth even though his enemies threatened him with death. On Good Friday, the Resurrected One was Crucified.” (For God So Loved the World? in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.18-20, edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

This is why the truth within the story of the resurrection narratives of the gospels is still worth remembering, ritualizing, and celebrating. This is why the story still matters to me. Why resurrection? This is why.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5-6)

HeartGroup Application

This week, spend some time as a group sharing with one another: 

  1. How does the story of Jesus’ resurrection give you hope in the here and now, in our world today, and not simply for an afterlife?
  2. As a Jesus follower, how does the story of Jesus’ resurrection inform your work for justice in your own sphere of influence today?
  3. How did you as a group celebrate the story of Jesus’ resurrection this year?  What parts spoke to you? Share your experience with the group. 

Thanks for checking in with us this week. I’m so glad you did. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love and compassion. Keep taking action. Keep working toward distributive justice. 

I will be in Delaware next weekend speaking at a weekend event there. Therefore there won’t be a podcast episode or article published next weekend, but we’ll be back the following weekend after next.

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you in two weeks.

Response to a Town’s Rejection

by Herb Montgomery

“But into whatever town you enter and they do not take you in, on going out from that town‚ shake off the dust from your feet. I tell you: For Sodom it shall be more bearable on that day than for that town.” (Q 10:10-12)

Picture of dirty sandaled feetCompanion Texts:

Matthew 10:14-15: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

Luke 10:10-12: “But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.”

Our saying this week has a long history of anti-Semitism. Christians have used the phrase “shaking the dust from one’s feet” as a symbol of Jews rejecting Gentiles. But it is simplistic to say that Jews shook the dust off of their feet when leaving Gentile territories as a rejection of Gentiles and it is anti-Semitic to use it to justify rejecting Jews for their rejection of “Jesus as their Messiah.”

What is a better way to understand this ancient practice?

Shaking Dust from One’s Feet

If this was a practice of the first century Jewish people it would have most likely been a practice of those who followed the Pharisaical school of Shammai. The school of Shammai wanted to maintain the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles in an effort to preserve Jewish identity and culture when Hellenism was threatening their culture. I don’t believe that tribal distinctions are the healthiest way to preserve identity, nor do I subscribe to Shammai’s teachings on this, but I can’t fault the people of that era either. I get it. This was a people who were still recovering from their exile and dispersion throughout the region and trying desperately to hold on to their identity.

The Pharisaical school of Hillel, which many of Jesus’ teachings are more in harmony with, did not follow that strict distinction between Jew and Gentile. Instead, Hillel taught that every person, Jew or Gentile, was created in the image of God and worthy of respect and treatment according to the Golden Rule. (We covered this in much more detail earlier this year in The Golden Rule.)

Ultimately the Jewish people abandoned the school of Shammai in favor of Hillel’s more inclusive practices. Karen Armstrong writes about the people’s choice in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem:

“It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: ‘Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.’ Then said R. Johanan, ‘Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love and not sacrifice.’

“Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with ‘one body and one soul.’ When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he [sic] returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with ‘one voice and one melody.’ When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ was ‘the great principle of the Torah.’ To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: ‘Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.’ God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.”

(Armstrong, Karen; The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. Kindle Edition.)

Luke, the most Gentile of the synoptic gospels, colors Jesus’ instructions with the phrase “as a warning.” By rejecting the values and teachings that Jesus and Hillel sought to promote in Judaism, those in the school of Shammai who practiced shaking Gentile dust off their feet were headed toward the same fate that they claimed the Gentiles were headed toward. In their ethic of separation, alienation, and independence, they were actually aligning themselves more with the path of destruction then the Gentiles they wanted to be separate from.

Remember, Jesus’ community practiced interdependence, mutualism, and resource-sharing. The Jewish followers of Shammai rejected the path of interdependence for independence, isolationism, and exceptionalism, and so they shared with violent revolutionists a path that would ultimately lead to a devastating backlash from the Romans.

Shaking the dust off of one’s feet could not have indicated rejection of the Jews because Jesus was himself a Jew, not a Christian. Yet a Jewish Jesus would have felt burdened to communicate that there was no moral difference between those who rejected his values and those they claimed moral superiority to. Jesus makes this statement in Matthew’s gospel:

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even gentiles do that?” (Matthew 5:46-47, emphasis added.)

Shaking dust off of one’s feet was not an act of rejection, but an act of warning. It was a warning to those one genuinely cared about, was invested in, and saw as one’s own people. It was a sign of deep concern with the direction one’s own community was headed in.

Sodom’s Story: Not Finished.

Let’s close this with the 1st Century Jewish belief that Sodom’s story was not finished. Sodom still had a future, and I believe this is important.

First, let’s be clear on what we are talking about. The atrocity of Sodom, according the Hebrew scriptures was this:

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

Sodom had become so wealthy and isolationist that any immigrants to Sodom were rejected, even if fleeing there for safety, and subjected to physical violence or even sexual violence. The threat of sexual violence we read about in Genesis 19, rape of men and women, was a common war practice in the ancient world, used to emasculate, dehumanize, and humiliate enemies.*

As inhospitable and greedy as Sodom was, however, Ezekiel uses Sodom’s narrative as an indictment against his own people:

“As surely as I live, declares the [LORD], your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done.” (Ezekiel 16:48)

But then Ezekiel throws in a twist with the Sodom narrative. He envisions a river of life that one day flows out from Jerusalem (Ezekiel 47.1-2). And what this river of life does for Sodom is restorative, not destructive.

“He said to me, ‘This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. [In Ezekiel’s time, the Dead Sea was believed to be the region of ancient Sodom.] When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. People will fish along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea. But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.’” (Ezekiel 47.8-12, emphasis added.)

Ezekiel had previously said,

“However, I will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and of Samaria and her daughters, and your fortunes along with them, so that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you have done in giving them comfort. And your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to what they were before; and you and your daughters will return to what you were before.” (Ezekiel 16:53-55, emphasis added)

Because of how many Christians use the New Testament passages of Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2:6 today, it is important to understand that Ezekiel saw a positive ending to Sodom’s narrative. Many Christians today use Sodom’s narrative as an example of the future destruction of some categories of people and this belief influences them to practice a hopeless exclusion of whomever they deem unlike them. But Jesus, like Ezekiel, believed that the future of his own people could still be bright.

So in this week’s saying about shaking the dust off one’s feet, Jesus stands in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets: he evokes the narrative of Sodom and compares it to his own people’s future fate. Jesus shows deep concern for the society of his day and the unbearable retaliation Rome would inflict upon Jerusalem if his community continued on its current path. Jesus’ nonviolence and the resource-sharing principles would have placed the people on a radically different trajectory.

I believe that after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jewish people did, through the teachings of Hillel, partially transition to the path Jesus showed, and they made great strides in love, kindness, nonviolence, and radical inclusivity. Economically, Hillel’s and Jesus’ teachings were somewhat different, and I believe Jesus’ economic teachings were more in harmony with the Torah than Hillel’s. But Jesus’ radical resource sharing and ethics of nonviolence are both waiting for a present or future generation to choose.

Over the last three weeks, we’ve been looking at the interdependent elements of Jesus’ mission instructions. This week we’re beginning to transition into the next section of Jesus teachings. Just like this week’s saying, these next few sayings contain warnings for his generation if they didn’t abandon their path, if they didn’t choose the path he was presenting.

I can’t help but notice that history is cyclical. We in our society today may be being faced with the same choices that first generations of Christians were. With Jesus’ path of nonviolence and resource-sharing in mind, let’s take a moment to contemplate Jesus’ warning:

But into whatever town you enter and they do not take you in, on going out from that town‚ shake off the dust from your feet. I tell you: For Sodom it shall be more bearable on that day than for that town. (Q 10:10-12) 

HeartGroup Application

I want to introduce to you a friend of mine, Mark Van Steenwyk. If you haven’t read his books, they are well worth it and I recommend them highly. This last week, Mark posted this statement on social media:

“I hate coercion!” says the modern man. “Except for, perhaps, the many coercions of the past that have made me so prosperous.”

It is like the parable of the man who slays an entire neighborhood and takes their treasures. Afterwards, he declares himself a pacifist. When the relatives of those slain [come] to his door, angrily holding bats, he says: “You should be pacifists, like me!”

1.   In the context of this statement, discuss in your HeartGroup what it would look like for your group to lean more deeply into the nonviolence and resource-sharing that the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q taught.

2.   List three ways you believe the teachings of Jesus call you to embrace nonviolence in today’s society. Also list three ways you believe the teachings of Jesus call you to share resources and even participate in the reparations needed in our society today.

3.   Pick one action from each list to put into practice between this week and next.

We cannot continue today on our current trajectory without reaching a breaking point. As we are contemplating the changes we so deeply need, the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q and those whose experiences of life vary from one another can inform our choices to move toward a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us all.

It’s much easier to simply worship Jesus than to put into place the world-healing teachings he taught. But healing the world is what Jesus spent his life doing, and his story has called to those who would listen ever since saying, “follow me.”

Thanks for joining us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


*It’s part of the implicit misogyny of the original culture and contemporary Christian culture that the threatened rape of Lot’s daughters—human women—is almost always glossed over in favor of horror about the threat of rape against “male” angels, the different flesh of Jude.

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 6 of 9

Part 6 of 9

Woman, Here Is Your Son

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Wooden RosaryMeanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19:25-27)

This week we begin to move into John’s telling of the Jesus story.

John’s telling is unique among the four canonical gospels. John’s is the latest written, and his Jesus story shows high Christology (Jesus as fully Divine). Unlike other writers in the New Testament whose Christology is more ethically centered (Jesus is defined by what he did and taught), John’s Christology seeks to define who Jesus was ontologically and cosmologically. It it in John’s gospel that the idea of a divine Jesus is most fully developed among the four gospels.

Ever since I read Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, the parallels between Irenaeus and John’s gospel have lead me to believe John was seeking to tell the Jesus story in such a way as to intersect and inform what he felt was the threat of early first-century Gnosticism.

Many aspects of John’s gospel make more sense when we place them in this cultural context. Many regard Gnosticism as the first great Christian heresy. It took the focus of Jesus’ followers off of a renewed and restored earth to an escapist goal of attaining heaven instead. Scholars today see Gnosticism’s dualism between the body and the soul (body or nature is evil/soul is good; body or nature is mortal/soul is immortal) and Gnosticism’s abandonment of the body and the good world around us as evil to have caused a significant shift in the focus of historic Christianity. This shift, coupled with other influences, is why, to a large degree, some Christians today focus on post-mortem bliss rather than the liberation of the oppressed and healing of injustices in our present world. An example of this is how White Christians in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s were committed to “getting to heaven” while ignoring and even perpetrating a very “present hell” here on earth. Ida B. Wells once wrote, “Our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.” [1]

John’s method then needs to be understood. His intent was to show Jesus to be fully Divine (Holy, from above) and then show how integrated he was in humanity, his body, the earth, and the dirt. He also portrayed Jesus as genuinely human.

This is the controversy John refers to in 1 John 4:2, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” (Emphasis added.)

The Gnostics taught that for Jesus to have truly been Divine or Holy, he could not have genuinely possessed a physical body but only the appearance or “impression” of a body. Therefore to show Jesus as also fully human would have taken the focus of those affected by gnosticism off of their post-mortem bliss, and back onto the work of restoration and healing that we see so markedly evidenced in Jesus’ own life and work.

Reread John’s gospel and see how much John emphasizes Jesus’ body and Jesus’ genuine bodily functions. (We’ll look at this more next week when we look at John’s words of Jesus on the cross, “I thirst.”)

What John wants us to encounter first about Jesus’ experience on cross, unlike any other gospel author, is Jesus’ very human relationship with and concern for his mother. This is the humanity of Jesus that Gnostics would be confronted by and need to address.

Womanism and The Jesus Story

I also want to draw attention to a womanist reading of this passage in John this week.

In James Cone’s phenomenal book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone recounts the experiences of what it was like for African Americans during America’s post slavery era in relation to the lynching being carried out by White Christians.

Cone writes, “The fear of lynching was so deep and widespread that most blacks were too scared even to talk publicly about it. When they heard of a person being lynched in their vicinity, they often ran home, pulled down shades, and turned out lights—hoping the terror moment would pass without taking the lives of their relatives and friends.” [2]

Cone retells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father, who witnessed a lynching at a very young age. Daddy King states, “All I could do was to run on home, keep silent, never mentioning what I’d seen to anyone, until many, many years later, when I understood it better.” [3]

The parallels between the lynching of African Americans in America and the lynching of Jesus in the first century are astounding. [4] The horror of crucifixion by Rome and the nightmarish atrocity of lynching in America by White Christians served very similar purposes within their perspective cultures. Both were forms of terrorism used by the dominant system of the day.

The fact that John tells us there were those who didn’t “run home” when Jesus was lynched is a testament to the Jewish women John lists, a testament we come to understand and appreciate more deeply when seen through the lens of what Black women experienced in America’s lynching history. These women did not run home, as did most of the followers of Jesus, but stood by, not abandoning Jesus when the dominant system “strung him up.”

Black women should not be made invisible in America’s lynching history. They were not exempt to White Christian mob violence in America. Not only were Black women lynched as well, but those who were not, “not only suffered the loss of their sons, husbands, brothers, uncles, nephews, and cousins but also endured public insults and economic hardship as they tried to carry on, to take care of their fatherless children in a patriarchal and racist society in which whites could lynch them or their children with impunity, at the slightest whim or smallest infraction of the southern racial etiquette.” [5]

Jewish women belonged to a similarly patriarchal society. For Mary, the mother of Jesus, to lose Jesus, the specific male she was economically dependent on, to mob violence in her day also meant economic hardship and poverty as she would be left to try and carry on.

Yet John’s Jesus is no victim. John’s Jesus will leave behind no orphans [6], and as we also see here, no widows.

John’s Jesus looks down from the cross and, much to the dismay of the Gnostics of John’s time, the first thing Jesus attends to is the human, intimately familial relationship between himself and his mother.

Again, we get a window into the reality of the necessity of Jesus’ connecting his mother to a new son through womanist perspectives today.

What we also receive from looking at this narrative detail of the interchange between Jesus and Mary through the lens of womanist theology is the knowledge that we do not have to interpret

Jesus’ death as some sort of righteous surrogacy or surrogate suffering. Remember, the cross is not the salvific act, according to the book of Acts, as much as the resurrection is [7], for it is the resurrection that undoes and reverses everything accomplished by the lynching of Jesus by the dominant system. The death of Jesus was the temporary victory of the oppression and injustice that Jesus was confronting and resisting. Far from understanding Jesus’ death as the glorification and justification of innocent suffering, the death of Jesus was a travesty of justice. It was the unjust response of evil and oppression to the threat of Jesus as he sought to heal and liberate.

Jesus in John’s gospel is not a victim. Nor is he passive. Jesus is an activist whose advocacy for the marginalized and outcast resulted in suffering. Jesus’ death was the natural result of Jesus’ confrontation of the dominant system. And as followers of Jesus we, too, are to actively oppose evil rather than passively submit to it. Yes, Jesus taught nonviolence, but we are not to interpret this as Jesus’ teaching passivity. Jesus taught a nonviolent, direct confrontation of injustice, oppression, and violence as the means of changing the world around us.

Jacquelyn Grant in her book White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response rightly states, “The significance of Christ is not found in his maleness, but in his humanity,” [8] and the history of Black women today, “the oppressed of the oppressed,” can inform and educate our understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection in life- transforming, world-transforming, ways.

What we see in John’s interchange between Jesus and Jesus’ mother is Jesus’ humanity first and foremost. We see the cultural need for making sure his mother was provided for in a patriarchal society oppressive to women. We begin to understand Jesus’ death for what it is, not an act by which justice was satisfied but an act of inhumane injustice that was the result of Jesus’ confrontation with injustice. And last, we see Jesus’ death as that which the Divine Being of the Jesus story would reverse and undo. The dominant system does not have the last world in this narrative. The story does not end with a lynching but with a Divine Being standing in solidarity not simply with Jesus but with all who have been lynched (directly or indirectly) throughout history, whispering that this is not where our stories have to end. The climax of the Jesus story is that over and against those at whose hands Jesus was lynched, stands a Voice, calling the world, both oppressed and the oppressors, to a better way.

Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black body swinging in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree.
—“Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allen)

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 10:39)

Perhaps nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynching has receded from the nation’s collective historical memory.—W. Fitzhugh Brundage

HeartGroup Application

We are getting closer to when the western Christian world celebrates Easter with each passing week.

This week I want you to dedicate some time to contemplating what a difference it makes to see Jesus’ death not as the appeasement of an angry God so that those who have sinned can escape this world and be let into heaven, with the resurrection being a neat little affirmation of post- mortem bliss, but as the lynching that it was, a result of Jesus’ standing up to the injustice, oppression, and violence of the dominant system of his day. Try to see Jesus’ resurrection not as a tidy ending but as a Divine Being’s solidarity with all those who have been oppressed, violated, and affected by injustice throughout time, whispering to us that in this Jesus and the values he espoused and taught, a new world is coming. In fact, as a result of the resurrection, it has already arrived.

1. As an aid in helping you shift in your contemplation of Jesus’ death this week, I recommend you watch Billie Holiday’s performance of Strange Fruit. One free way to do this would be to simply go to YouTube here. Allow Billie to inform your understanding of the Jesus narrative as you overlay Jesus’ lynching on one of the most effective teaching moments in America’s recent history. Allow Billie’s performance to help you step back into and understand anew the death—and resurrection—of Jesus.

2. Journal what you discover.

3. Share what you discover with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

As Jesus followers, we subscribe to a narrative that does not end in the defeat of Jesus by the lynching mob. The narrative ends with Jesus’ God standing in solidarity with him in his confrontation of injustice, even to the undoing and reversing of their murderous actions. Jesus’ death is not his nonviolent protest to injustice. It was the fatal result of this nonviolent protest. The resurrection is Jesus’ God’s having the last word over the lynching mob. This should give us pause to reflect.

Our narrative is one of hope. Hope that injustice does not have the last word, ever. A new day has dawned. A light is shining from an empty tomb.

Keep living in love, loving like Jesus, until the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

One shared table, many voices, one new world.

I’m praying for your hearts to be enlarged and liberated as you move more deeply into the contemplation of Jesus’ death and resurrection and their implications for us today.

I love each of you deeply. I’ll see you next week.


 

1. Wells, Ida B. Crusade for Justice, pp. 154-55

2. Cone, James H. (2011-09-01). The Cross and the Lynching Tree (p. 15). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

3. Daddy King, p. 30.

4. Acts 5:30—The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree; Acts 10:39—They put him to death by hanging him on a tree. (Emphasis added.)

5. Cone, James H. (2011-09-01). The Cross and the Lynching Tree (pp. 122–123). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

6. John 14:18—“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”
7. Acts 13:32-33—And we bring you the gospel that what God promised to our ancestors God has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.

8. Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response