As a person with a very painful church history and a recent death I will forever grapple with – “Resurrection Sunday” is complicated.
The Evangelical Church I was raised in never really celebrated resurrection, instead they used Easter as a conversion opportunity – accosting the congregation with promotions and guilt trips for weeks beforehand about inviting the “unsaved” to church.
So it came as a surprise to me when I was college-aged and learned from a progressive Christian that Resurrection Sunday was the most important Christian holiday. I was fascinated and began reading up on it and immersing myself. About a year later I had the beautiful opportunity of attending an Easter Service at a progressive mainline church that followed the global church liturgical calendar.
There I was exposed to progressive Christian theologians for the first time who rightly spoke out that Resurrection Sunday should be less about theology or an alleged historical event, but rather about a lifestyle of bringing life into dead places in every way possible.
I learned about how in the ancient world resurrection wasn’t understood as just one person coming back to life, but rather about making life available for all people. I came to see the story of Jesus’ resurrection as a reminder of the possibility of our own and our responsibility to bring life to our own worlds.
I began to commemorate Easter each year by celebrating the idea of new life both physically and spiritually and committing to being an avenue through which that life could come. I grew comfortable “worrying less about what some people say they believe happened 2,000 years ago and more about if we are living as if resurrection still happens.” (Carl Gregg, 1)
I discovered and was inspired by theologians and activists like Saint Francis, Barbara Brown Taylor, Shane Claiborne and Megan McKenna.
Shane Claiborne greatly impacted me with his work through The Simple Way – an intentional living community in the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia. I read about their cooperative projects planting gardens in the concrete jungles for children who had easier access to guns than salads. They called it “practicing resurrection”.
Claiborne says: “When a kid pulls a carrot out of the ground for the first time it is magical. The more they see things that are alive, the more filled with wonder they become at the God who made all this wild and wonderful stuff like fireflies and butterflies, hummingbirds and earthworms – and you and me. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that there is a beautiful God when so much of what you see is ugly. It’s hard to believe in a God that is a lover of life when there is so much death and decay and abandonment. So we talk a lot these days about “practicing resurrection” — by making ugly things beautiful… and turning vacant lots into gardens… and loving people back to life. Not a bad encore after Easter here. After all, resurrection is something we get to do every day. Every day is Easter. We are resurrection people.” (2)
Tears came to my eyes when I first read Megan McKenna’s story: “Once in a parish mission when I was studying this scripture (Luke 7: 11-17) with a large group, someone called out harshly, ‘Have you ever brought someone back from the dead?’
“My response was ‘Yes.’ I went on to say, ‘Every time I bring hope into a situation, every time I bring joy that shatters despair, every time I forgive others and give them back dignity and the possibility of a future with me and others in the community, every time I listen to others and affirm them and their life, every time I speak the truth in public, every time I confront injustice — yes — I bring people back from the dead.’ ” (3)
Her words prompted reflection on all the ways I had been brought back from the dead – how being part of radically accepting Christian communities breathed life into the dark and dead places in my heart left there by abusive fundamentalist churches. How the people who believed in me when no one else did might have actually physically saved my life. I thought about the people who lent me money and provided me a place to live when I escaped my abusive marriage. I thought about the many others in my community with similar stories. We were dead people walking and living again and like babies, trying to get used to this strange new ability to move and jump and breathe and see and understand. It’s exhilarating and mind boggling and contagious and messy all at the same time.
For about seven years I was very passionate about resurrection being the center of my faith, and probably rightly so. I became keenly aware of the implications that resurrection had for justice in our communities, and that for resurrection to be possible, everyone had to have equal access to it – opportunities for education and housing and sustenance and meaningful work were the building blocks of resurrection without which it would come crumbing down. Resurrection wasn’t possible when some people were pushed to the margins because of their gender or racial identity. Resurrection didn’t exist where merely a verbal message of hope was preached to people on the verge of eviction or struggling to buy food or pay for medical bills. Resurrection was void without the liberation of us all.
I took seriously the words of Barbara Brown Taylor that “new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” (4) I saw it as my calling to move closer to the margins, to look into forgotten faces and be present in unpleasant places because that is where resurrection is born – and it isn’t possible without the deliverance of the most vulnerable and oppressed.
A few months after a harrowing escape from abuse and starting my life over from scratch, the upcoming Easter holiday felt more significant than ever. I wrote a progressive Easter liturgy and then used it to lead a reflective gathering with my friends and roommates in my overcrowded apartment I stayed in for six months following my divorce. The group of us came together to celebrate that death itself was dying, as is poetically described in Isaiah 25 saying God will “destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples” and “swallow up death forever”. We celebrated where each of us saw resurrection in our own lives and mourned where we were still waiting for it. We solemnly recognized that we still lived in a world that didn’t look much like resurrection and that we saw a lot of hell all around us. We acknowledged that the church wasn’t doing its job and that our calling was to bring heaven to earth, starting with us.
The next year I leaned fully into my tiny progressive church community that did life together more as a family than as a traditional church. During that time I co-founded an intentional living space with my neighbors-turned-friends in my downtown apartment complex. I dedicated most of my free time each week to organizing gatherings and neighborhood potlucks, tending to the community garden, and running programs we had set up for meal-sharing and car-sharing.
Before grief, I might have believed I had accomplished resurrection or that practicing it meant there could always be light found in the darkness, that any situation could be redeemed.
And then, only a month before Easter, my life came tumbling down. The person who mattered the most to me was snatched from this life in an instant. The person who had brought the most healing and resurrection to my own life, suddenly needed resurrection and didn’t get it. I could have given up anything else and still been okay as long as we had each other – but this, this was too much. After a number of years focused on reclaiming Resurrection from Evangelicals and making it a foundational part of my radical faith, this last year when Easter rolled around – I ignored it. I hated it. Resurrection didn’t happen for me or for the person I felt deserved it the most. What good is resurrection if it doesn’t, you know, resurrect somebody?
Before grief I would have expected to look for a silver lining in this terrible time: maybe the way people came together in the aftermath of the tragedy, or the growth I experienced surviving the unthinkable, my increased empathy and understanding. But no, Caleb’s life was not a problem, he didn’t have to die for good things to happen. There is no silver lining. Death is always irrevocably bad.
But maybe this is what makes resurrection so important.
Death is the greatest travesty and fighting death should be our most driving purpose.
Researching cures for cancer, that is resurrection work. Raising money for that research is resurrection work. Protesting wars is resurrection work, designing safer vehicles is resurrection work. Rebuilding after hurricanes, preserving history, passing environmentally clean legislation – those endeavors are resurrection work. Funding schools and hospitals and government assistance programs, that is resurrection work. Equity work is resurrection work – making sure that life is equally livable for everyone. Supporting the person who is suffering so much emotionally or physically that death actually seems like a better option – that is resurrection work.
Admittedly, my faith has evolved drastically in the fallout after Caleb’s death. My spirituality has shifted more and more toward mysticism and looks less recognizably Christian, although Christ and the ancient Christian tradition still inspire me. I believe in an afterlife – more now than I did before. I’ve had experiences I can’t ignore. But ironically, resurrection isn’t about life after death; resurrection is about protecting this one, and that’s something evangelicals get wrong. We can’t ignore the suffering of those around us and preach about a heaven far off for another place and time and say we are resurrection people. Resurrection people bring heaven to earth, because death is the ultimate atrocity.
As resurrection people our purpose is to “get in the way of death”, to stop it, to slow it down, to put up as many obstacles in front of death as possible. (Chris Gerhz, 5)
The death of hope, the death of opportunities, the death of relationships, innocence, equality, and certainly the death of our bodies – none of it is good and none of it is okay. That is why resurrection work is the most important work, and that is why life is sacred.
2 Shane Claiborne via HuffPost https://www.huffpost.com/entry/practicing-resurrection-t_b_1443621
3 Megan McKenna, from her book Not Counting Women and Children: Neglected Stories from the Bible
4 Barbara Brown Taylor, from her book Learning to Walk in the Dark
5 Christ Gerhz via his blog, The Pietist Schoolman https://pietistschoolman.com/2017/05/14/history-practice-resurrection/