Sunday: The politics of resurrection

April 4, 2010

The most radical thing about the scene at the empty tomb and the two resurrection appearances that took place there (in Matthew and John) is that the first witnesses of the resurrection were women. This in a society in which women could not appear in court as witnesses. Typically, the men in the story don’t believe their testimony.

For a most thorough and enlightening discussion of women’s place among the earliest followers of Jesus, I highly recommend Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins.

In regard to gender relations, Jesus seems to have gone quite far in placing the last first. Over and over again, it is women who seem to really know who Jesus is, while the male disciples are consistently obtuse. One thinks of Martha’s anointing in John 12, the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair in Luke 7, and the little group who traveled with him and the twelve in the very early days, who provided them all with financial support (Luke 8:1-4).

In many cases, these women were doubly marginalized by some other condition, either poverty or spirit possession. Luke says these female ‘angel investors’ were “women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases.” See Stevan L. Davies’s Jesus the Healer for a fascinating discussion, building on the work of Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), of spirit possession as a strategy of survival for women in abusive family situations and how Jesus may have rescued Mary Magdalene and the others from such relationships.

The other significant political aspect of the crucifixion and resurrection is the collapse of whatever overtly political expectations Jesus may have had for the kingdom of God. We tend to take the subsequent spiritualization of the kingdom of God for granted, but it’s not clear that Jesus had no overtly political ambitions at all. The evangelists are at pains to put a spiritualizing spin on Jesus’ claims for the kingdom during the trial, but the gospels were written a generation later, after a disastrous war with Rome, under active if sporadic imperial and local persecution. You were simply conforming to reality when you were yourself put on trial if you claimed that you only sought a spiritual kingdom.

But if Jesus was not concerned with the actual overthrow of Roman rule and the replacement of the empire’s puppets in Jerusalem, and with making the first last and the last first, what was the little apocalyptic sermon in Mark 13 and the other gospels all about? Why stage these provocative demonstrations at the city gate and inside the temple precincts? Why prophecy the utter destruction of the temple? Why buy two swords?

I believe it all hinges on what Jesus was praying for in Gethsemane. When we read “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me”, we tend to think Jesus saw the torture and death that awaited him and felt fear; but what if the Father had answered with a ‘yes’? So Jesus isn’t tortured and crucified. But what happens instead? What was Jesus really praying for?

We’ll return to this question in some afterthoughts later this week. The fact is that the answer was no. And with Jesus’ death, his hopes for some other outcome died, as well. Whatever political dimension that outcome might have had foundered and the disciples were left to figure out: what now? That took them awhile.

They did not even recognize right away that the dream they had been pursuing and the figure who had led them were still alive. Several of the first witnesses of the resurrection do not even recognize Jesus when they see him. People like Mary, who had been his intimate for years, look straight at him and do not recognize him. Two fellows travel on the road to Emmaus for hours discussing the fateful events that have just taken place with the very man himself and don’t recognize him until they sit down to eat. What’s with that? Another thing we’ll discuss in the afterthoughts.

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