By Will O’Brien, Alternative Seminary, Philadelphia, PA
At Easter services yesterday, our congregation celebrated the resurrection with the requisite Easter hymns. Though a few lesser known ones were thrown in the mix, we indulged in many of the great soul-stirring choruses: “Up from the grave he arose,…” “Christ Our Lord Is Risen Today,…”
On a personal aesthetic note, I don’t bear a lot of fondness for some of these old classics, and their theology occasionally rubs me the wrong way. But on this particular Easter Sunday, I was struck by how these hymns are almost without exception imbued with a brash and bold tone of triumphalism. We hailed the mighty and exalted king. In illustrious melody, we sang of glorious victory over foes (namely sin, death, and despair) vanquished and conquered.
Of course, there is a deep biblical tradition of praise and exultation, of joy and festivity at the great works of our loving, just, and saving God. And it has often been noted that the more progressive Christian communities are not very strong on the whole praise bit, having yielded that ground to more conservative church folk (owing, perhaps, to a hyper-intellectual and sometimes smug liberalism). Certainly the good news of Jesus’ resurrection would fit the bill as the most praise-worthy and exultant assertion of our faith. And for many people the hymns of triumph are a way of giving voice to powerful transformation in their broken lives, or asserting empowerment in situations of social marginalization.
But I was nonetheless unnerved by the militant triumphalism of our Easter anthems. Certainly, the biblical tradition has its own militant triumphalism of Almighty God, but it is usually the Sovereign’s power over the nations, thwarting the designs of arrogant humans. Unfortunately, as we are all too painfully aware, the early radical Jesus movement was subsumed into empire; in subsequent centuries (stretching into our own), the powers-that-be have proven themselves all too deft in commandeering biblical language to serve their own purposes; and the rhetoric of divine sovereignty has been put at the service of a very different kind of glory, might, and militancy. While Jesus’s resurrection conquered death and sin, many a pious czar, king, or president has taken that as a green light to do some conquering of their own.
Another part of my holiday observance was engaging with some companions in reflection on the gospel accounts of the resurrection. We noted that most of Jesus’ various appearances are very personal and intimate encounters: with Mary alone in the garden; with the two travelers on the road to Emmaus; with the small group in the upper room; with the disciples on the beach. Names are exchanged, sometimes food is shared. These moments are poignant, elusive.
The risen Christ’s appearances are, for the most part, stealthy. They are witnessed by a handful of humble and no-account peasants and working class folks. The resurrection happens largely under the radar — hardly the stuff of glory and power.
Which makes the later ecclesial triumphalism even more suspect. In the same ways that practically all of Jesus’ ministry stands as a counterpoint to the assumptions of social power and might, I am wondering in what ways the resurrection narratives are likewise meant to demonstrate God’s saving work outside the usual paradigms of power. (It was, after all, the machinations of typical worldly power that strung Jesus up….)
So, the question: What does it mean to be a resurrection people? Does it start with the small, humble experiences of relationship, community-building, and hospitality that mark the brief interval of the resurrected Jesus among his followers? Do we counter the empire’s claims of conquest and victory with small-scale, subversive acts of right human relationships? Does the resurrection, like the life and ministry of Jesus before it, call us to nonviolent servanthood as antidote to the Domination Systems of Caesar, Herod, and their agonizingly numerous ilk throughout the centuries?
Of course we believe God is triumphant. And of course, we should be moved to praise and exultation. But the nature of that triumph might defy our expectations, played by a sly God to a very different melody.