Death is All They’ve Got to Stand On

Screen Shot 2019-02-15 at 9.26.01 AMBy Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann (right)

*This is the 8th installation of a year-long series of posts from contributors all over North America each answering the question, “How would you define radical discipleship?” We will be posting responses regularly on Mondays during 2019.

If you would be my disciples… take up your cross and follow me.

I am so glad for this beloved mosaic, a series piecing together the shape of radical discipleship in our moment (plus the history we stand upon and with). The calls to the discipline of Jesus are here rooted in spirit, heart, earth, watershed, creaturehood, beauty, community and the stories of a Way incarnate.

For my part, I am thinking on Jesus and a certain without-which-not of radical discipleship: the risks summed up in the cross. There’s no way around them, only through. They are the consequences of confronting, openly or implicitly, the powers of this world system…praying for what the principalities have convinced us is impossible, speaking the Word unwelcome, enacting the No (and the Yes) of gospel nonviolence, embodying an earthly community, divine and fully human…such like.

The risks were so essential and definitive of discipleship, that the consequence was easily idolatrized and besought as an end in itself. In the early centuries, the active pursuit of martyrdom was declared a heresy.

Yet Jesus foresaw it for himself and schooled the disciples to expect no less (Matthew 10:37-39; 16:13-33; 17:22-23; 20:17-19; 20:22-2; Mark 8:31; 8:34-35; 9:31; 10:32-34; Luke 9:21-24; 9:44; 14:26-33; 18:31-33; John 8:1, 28; 9:27-29; 10:17-18; 11:7-16; 12:23-25; 13:33-5; 15:12-17; 15:18-20; 16:1-4; 16:32-33; 17:14-18; 19:25-27). As Daniel Berrigan, tutored in such costs, once put it, “If you’re going to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.” His brother Phil, another prisoner of conscience, put it more baldly: discipleship “is about where you put your ass.” During their trial at Catonsville for burning draft files as a liturgical protest again the war in Viet Nam, William Stringfellow spelled it out as well.

Remember, now, that the State has only one power it can use against human beings: death. The State can persecute you, prosecute you, imprison you, exile you, execute you. All of these mean the same thing. The State can consign you to death. The grace of Jesus Christ in this life is that death fails. There is nothing the State can do to you, or to me, which we need fear.

A budding thesaurus of synonyms for the cross.

To be sure, the risks and consequences play out differently in diverse moments and communities. James Cone recounts the connection between The Cross and the Lynching Tree[i], the quintessential “American” synonym. In Jim Crow U.S., the risk-taking could be so simple as walking with dignity in Black skin, seeking education, owning property, talking back, being in mixed company, or quietly building movement. By Cone’s lights, Martin Luther King, Jr. stared down the lynching tree and did so, he writes, to redeem the soul of America.

How, dear disciples, does Martin King bearing the cross and walking its way, redeem his times? Or we ours, for that matter? [ii]

Try this.

…By exposing the violence present and active. In the streets and in the structures. “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion, before it can be cured.[iii]

…By exposing the Power behind the powers, the violence of death in all its guises. Death is all they’ve got to stand on – and it fails. It is made a spectacle unto itself.

…By loving his enemies even as they take him down. He knew the threat from “some of our sick white brothers,[iv]” and held to non-violence as practice of the holy spirit, embodying before a nation which imagines itself Christian, the Sermon on the Mount and the passion of its preacher.

…By piercing the heart. I can say my own life turned on those April tears. What if in this grief, a whole history of suffering, like a great store of transformation, is waiting a release? Can a nation weep?

…By walking into Memphis and breaking down the walls of hostility between movements, between races and classes. Of the Poor Peoples Campaign being summoned then by Martin King, St. Paul might have urged: Consider your call to discipleship, brothers and sisters. Not many of you were rich by human standards, not many were powerful or of privileged birth. But God chose what is weak in the world to shame those in power, what is despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the way things are.

…By disarming the rulers and authorities. Since death is their only power, any disciple truly free to die, disarms them publicly. Possessed of that freedom one is thereby free as well to risk persecution or prosecution, exile or imprisonment, loss of career or repute, more. Dr. King lived in this freedom and spoke of such the night before his death, even commending it to that entire movement congregation.

Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.[v]

That freedom from the power of death, from its fear and bondage (the grace of Jesus Christ in this life) is practically the meaning of resurrection, and the basis of its ethic. No wonder the call to discipleship is always reiterated in the resurrection (Matt 28:7-10; 28: 18-19; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:5-9; 24:30-35; 24:45-49; John 20:17-18; 20:21-23; 21:4-8; 21:18-19; 21:20-22; Acts 1:8; 2:1-6, 12-13; 1 Corinthians 15:8-11). Leaving everything to follow and risking it all, turns out to be one with surprising joy. When Christ calls someone, they are bid to come and rise.


[i] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011)

[ii] I just reread a chapter on “Good Friday” and the cross in my own Seasons of Faith and Conscience (Wipf and Stock, 1991, 2008). I still like and commend it.

[iii] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” April 16, 1963.

[iv] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Sermon at Mason Temple, Memphis, TN,” April 3, 1968

[v] Ibid.

One thought on “Death is All They’ve Got to Stand On

  1. Pingback: Death Is Not The Worst Or What I didn’t have space for yesterday – Molleen Dupree-Dominguez

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