Maybe it’s just me, but the resurrection seems to remain something of a stumbling block.
In some traditions the resurrection is heightened and isolated as a test of faith, with Christians being called to believe in the full alignment of this miraculous event with all modern disciplines of knowledge. Here the point ends up being that dead flesh was resuscitated. In other traditions the resurrection is understood to be made up entirely of literary metaphor; it is a moving image of life’s dramatic transformations. Here the point ends up being that there are images of the resurrection everywhere in life.
To put it a little crudely we might say that one is a material understanding while the other a spiritual one. My sense is that we are trying to domesticate and settle something in order to make it fit, to find its place so that we will not be caught off guard or overwhelmed by it.
If the resurrection is simply a matter of confessed belief, then it becomes a test which is able to weed out the faithful from the unfaithful. This model can reinforce unhealthy forms of authority and limit questioning.
If the resurrection is simply a metaphor, then it can become a little too slippery, a sort of empty aesthetic, a superficial image that we will believe only with sufficient literary, artistic, or musical skill. The resurrection can remain a metaphor whose meaning or impact is always deferred, always open to yet another interpretation or dispute. The resurrection is simply a nice thought.
Increasingly, what I find fascinating about the resurrection in scripture is that it is not a given. What I mean is that the resurrection is not consistently present across our texts like notions of holiness, or justice, which can be found on almost any given page.
For most of the Bible the understanding was simply that one died, and the dead, all of them, simply resided in the grave or Sheol. Maybe, if you were lucky, your bones would be gathered with the bones of your ancestors.
But we do find in the Old Testament a sort of workshopping of resurrection. Strange images crop up.
There is, for instance, a collection of Psalms attributed to the Children of Korah, which meditate on the seeming impossibility of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. But suddenly, small glimpses of something beyond belief emerge. Psalm 88 reads,
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do shadows rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave? Are your wonders known in the darkness?
Some suggest that the group described in these psalms is connected to the Korah who disobeyed Moses in the wilderness and as a result was swallowed up with those around him by the earth—by the grave. The text seems to come from a group carrying the shame of a past tragedy that can never be made right and yet cannot be let go. They work at the question of justice and forgiveness over and over so that they present every angle of it before God, until eventually they wonder if perhaps God can do something yet, even with the dead.
And so we find small, tentative affirmations of faith in what is possible even in the face of death.
Standing before the dry bones of a dead nation the Lord asks Ezekiel, “You, mortal, can these bones live?” Jonah, sunk at the bottom of the sea, in personal agony cries out,
The deep surrounded me,
Weeds wrapped around my head At the roots of the mountain
Out of the belly of the grave I cried.
And Daniel—written in the face of unrelenting and violent injustice where abusive powers seemingly face no consequences— reports a vision, which declares that injustice and violence must be held to account and that those who suffered should be redeemed. The book says that some will rise from the dust to their glory, some will rise to their shame and, in all this, the wise-those who led many in justice-will shine like the stars forever.
And so with Daniel and later apocalyptic literature we find that some things, if they are to happen at all, happen outside this life.
Resurrection emerges in the Old Testament as people have faith in the God who created them and who desired to save them, even when no hope could be seen. Again, I won’t offer any precise claims about what exactly the resurrection means, but we see its emergence and persistence as people wrestled with life, suffering, death, and faith.
In the book of Romans, Paul sees the resurrection as a sort of spiritual discipline by which we die to the world that we might then rise in Christ. Our life of faith, then, is also the workshop of the resurrection.
Modern examples of this resurrection logic abound. Orlando Patterson surveyed the global history and sociology of slavery and came to view it as a form of “social death.” In slavery, symbolic and material forces strip humans of those elements that allow us to recognize and treat someone as human.
Patterson begins his book with a simple epitaph from the escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass who wrote, “I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.” The resurrection is freedom from the prisons oppression creates.
I think of those dealing with addiction and the stigma associated with it, those with mental illness, or those suffering abuse.
With situations like these we may think of the women who prepared spices for Jesus’ body, and all those who offer small acts of care, who reduce harm, who reduce decay in situations which seem without hope. Manitoba Harm Reduction Network released a video recently that talks about their peer support workers. These are people who have lived experience with drug use who help others where they are at. The video powerfully overthrows the idea that some people have that providing safe ways of taking drugs is promoting drug use. It shares how these peer workers are trained in administering Naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. One person shared that nearly every peer he knows has saved someone’s life. Sometimes the work of resurrection is being able to offer, in whatever capacity, care and life to another.
I think of local Indigenous activists. I think, for instance, of the group which gathered around a sacred fire on the Manitoba Legislative grounds to honour those children taken to Residential schools who never returned. Another group still gathers at a small camp outside the Brady Landfill where the remains of yet another Indigenous woman, Linda Beardy, were found. This group gathers, refusing to give up on the lives of their sisters.
I think of all the things that can lead life to feel like death. We can have all we want and yet feel laden in chains. Whatever the cause, these experiences are real. Many of our lives become workshops of the resurrection.
As a Mennonite whose tradition has placed a high emphasis on peace, I am called to the workshop of resurrection. Violence is kept alive by the often very understandable desires for vengeance and protection. Frail and imperfect as we are, we must be willing to practice a life that seeks first a kingdom not of the world. This is not to escape the world, but to identify and reject how the world uses violence for its way of peace.
Jesus refused the powers of this world. He refused to use the world’s violence or to obey it. On Good Friday we saw that the world could not abide this refusal, and on Easter we celebrated that the world could not overcome it.
Practicing the resurrection includes fellowship, learning, and celebration. It includes solitude, suffering, and death. Faith does not ask that the faithful come in glory, but reminds us of the opposite.
The resurrection bars nothing and no one.
As Paul says to the Romans,
Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Even for those who are unable to enthusiastically celebrate the resurrection, there can be good reason to live into it.
We live into the resurrection for ourselves and others, whether we are in dark valleys or green pastures.
We live into the resurrection against economies and nations of greed.
We live into the resurrection for the communities decimated by this greed.
We live into the resurrection against violence. We live into the resurrection for peace.