Tag Archives: Easter

Paying Attention

4 Apr

This is for my White friends and acquaintances who I still see talking about #JesusChristSuperstarLive but who aren’t talking about the role race played in the show.

I don’t normally watch the “Live TV” events that occasionally happen because I find them pretty awkward, but I will confess I was excited about NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar. It is a musical that I love and the cast looked fantastic. I figured we would give it a try.

The opening was amazing, but when Mary (played exquisitely by Sara Bareilles) began her iconic Everything’s Alrightmy focus shifted and I realized that I wasn’t just watching a new staging of an award-winning musical; I was watching a commentary on black/white relations in the United States: Mary, a White woman, was pleading with Judas and Jesus (played by two Black men who knew things were escalating towards disaster) to calm down and not take things so seriously. “Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to problems that upset you, oh. Don’t you know, everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine.”

White friends – Did you notice this? Did you notice that it was a White woman who was telling these Black men to calm down. How often do we White people get uncomfortable at Black rage? How often do wetone police? And here it was, starkly presented, right here before 9.4 million viewers, most of whom were probably white.

We’ve seen before how flipping the racial narrative on a cast can give new understanding to an old story. Hamilton, anyone? If we want to become allies, the first steps are to educate ourselves and to pay attention.  #JesusChristSuperstarLive can give us a lens into our own commitment level to confronting racism and white supremacy, especially in the context of systemic oppression via police brutality, militarism and the prison/torture industrial complex.  Here are eight other ways that I caught (and I know I didn’t catch it all) that race played an essential role in the production:

1) Having a Black Jesus.  I don’t know about how other white people grew up, but Jesus was never ever black in the traditions of my experience. At best, and I mean at very best, he was a bit brown. But even that was unusual.White people seem to get upset when Jesus is portrayed as anything other than White. I would link to site after site trying to argue that fact, but I don’t want to push traffic that way. Look it up yourselves: many White people can’t handle that Jesus was not White. But he wasn’t. Having a Black Jesus is an important corrective to the dominant narrative. Especially as we will see below.  Seeing someone who looks like you on tv, in books, in advertising, in the toys children play with – this sort of representation is crucially important. We know this. From the chatter I’ve seen on facebook from Black friends, having a Black Jesus was absolutely a game-changer.

2) Having a Black Judas. Now, Judas has been portrayed as black before. In fact, Judas (played by Carl Anderson) was one of only a few black characters in the 1973 movie Jesus Christ Superstar. What was new here in #JesusChristSuperstarLive was the dynamic between a Black Judas and a Black Jesus. In the song Heaven on Their Minds, Judas sings “Listen, Jesus, do you care for your race? Don’t you see we must keep in our place? We are occupied! Have you forgotten how put down we are?” These lyrics take on a totally different meaning when Judas is singing to another Black man. We are reminded of the distinction Chris Hayes introduced many of us to in his book A Colony in a Nation, which highlights many of the ways that Black communities and Black men in particular are treated as if they were unruly colonists who must be controlled and managed by those in power.

(The fact that the part of Judas was played by Brandon Victor Dixon, who gave the Hamilton cast speech when VP Mike Pence attended & who did a Wakanda salute at the end, just added to the awesomeness.)

3) Notice how both Herod and Pilate are White. The men making the decisions, the men with the power, are White. Just like 7 in 10 senior executives and just like the vast majority of our elected national representatives in the House and Senate. Yeah, Pilate may be tortured about his decision, but he also caved under pressure. How many of us white people have done something similar? Maybe we have cringed silently and not spoken up when we we were in a situation with a work colleague spouting racist ideas. Maybe we strive towards being colorblind and don’t even realize how we are unwittingly contributing to racism.

4) So now you might be saying, “But Caiaphas was black!” And that is true -Norm Lewis was amazing in the role. But Caiaphas, as a Pharisee, didn’t have the power to have Jesus arrested on his own, did he? He just made the recommendation to Pilate (a White guy), who had the actual power. Having the Pharisees all be people of color invoked classic Uncle Tom imagery of a Black man who sells out his race in order to get a little power – just like the slave drivers who would beat their own for whatever scraps the white slave master would throw his way. Dynamics of divide and conquer and starvation economics where there isn’t enough power so we grab what we can are both at work in this dynamic. I’m reading Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood right now and the passages on the creation of apartheid are stunning to me in that this was a system that was intentionally created to turn the black Africans against one another by giving different groups different sets of rights. How else do you control a population 4 times as large as your own? It is a stunningly effective strategy for mass oppression.

5) Let’s go to Mary again. This time, singing I Don’t Know How to Love Him when she asks in the chorus “Should I bring him down, should I scream and shout? Should I speak of love, let my feelings out?” – How many of us White people are in that situation? We are trying to be allies, but we don’t really know what to do. Do we join the with the anger? Do we fight back with love? What does it really mean to be a White ally to Black people in the United States in 2018? It can get complicated and confusing. But unfortunately, our confusion and our fear of making a mistake often leads us to wring our hands and offer vague comfort from afar.


Steps to Ask Yourself Before Calling the Police

6) When the police show up in Gethsemane, Judas kisses Jesus and they embrace, and the police try to pull Jesus away. Judas has suddenly realized how this is not going the way he expected, and he holds on to Jesus and tries to pull him away from the police. Judas learned the hard way: if you call the police on a Black man, prepare for it escalating. White people, in particular but not exclusively, who think the police are benevolent forces of law and order often have a difficult time realizing that a call to the police about something innocuous like vandalism might result in the murder of an innocent Black man with a cell-phone in his backyard. In case you are wondering, there are some excellent online resources for trying to determine whether you should call the police.

7) After Jesus is taken away and Peter has betrayed him, Mary comes to comfort Peter – to offer him forgiveness. Both of them are non-black. While they are both rightfully upset, they turn and walk away. They have the privilege to be able to sit with each other, comforting one another, while Judas and Jesus are both tortured (Judas internally) and die. How often do we, as White allies, return to our bubbles to lick our wounds? What would it be like if Mary and Peter had gone to Judas and included him in their circle of grief? Instead, far too often, we retreat instead of laying our lives down on the line for the beloved community that we crave. What would it look like if we didn’t let each other off the hook quite so easily?

8) This last one is about what you didn’t see rather than what you did. Rather than invoke the imagery of a slave receiving a whipping by having Black Jesus flogged, the creative choice was made (brilliantly, in my opinion) to instead have different members of the community beat Jesus. Yes, it showed up as whip-marks on his back, but in this case, it is Jesus’s own extended community that turned on him. How often and in how many ways do we turn on the Black men in our community? Eric Garner shouldn’t have been selling cigarettes. Tamir Rice shouldn’t have been playing with a toy gun. Stephon Clark shouldn’t have..what? Been in his grandmother’s backyard with a cell phone? We blame the Black victim – sometimes because we are trying to make sense of a situation that makes no reasonable sense and other times to try to protect ourselves from a world of violence that feels out of our control. But the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. As White people, we have power and we need to use it to end systems of oppression like our prison industrial system, policing system, and work for solutions like felon voting rights. Can you imagine what our country might look like if 2.3 million Black men weren’t incarcerated? If 1 in 8 of them weren’t disenfranchised from voting?

So there you have it. Here are just 9 (including the first Mary example) creative decisions, brilliantly made, that expose a mainstream audience to the epidemic of violence against Black men. And I know I missed quite a few.

I had no idea when turning it on that this new production of Jesus Christ Superstar would be an allegory for what it means to be a Black man in the United States in 2018. #JesusChristSuperstarLive used an old story to offer a new challenge to those of us who wish to be White allies: Pay attention, and then go educate ourselves on how systemic racism and white supremacy culture are alive in the United States today, so that we might be a part of the solution.

an angry God.

27 Mar

Easter Sermon delivered March 27, 2016
First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY


So, let’s say that I am at your house. We are sitting down, talking, drinking some tea. We are talking about something and I am getting passionate. I tend to gesticulate quite a bit when I speak passionately, so my arms are flying all over the place, and I knock over your favorite lamp, which shatters. Of course, I am apologetic! And so now you have two options: you can either demand that I make restitution and pay you back for the lamp, or you can decide to forgive and forget.

Forgiveness has been our theme this month, and as Linette shared, we have looked at it from a variety of angles: forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, and what forgiveness could look like when practiced in public schools. And so we come to Easter. Among other things, in the Christian tradition Easter is about forgiveness and reconciliation with God. It is about atonement – that is, how to put right the relationship between God and humanity when humanity has sinned, has fallen short. There are many different atonement theologies that look at how the life and death of Jesus allows or assists us becoming reconciled, at one, with God. Some atonement theologies deal with original sin – the idea that from the time of Adam and Eve humans have carried with us the stain of their actions. Some atonement theologies deal more with individuals and their relationship with God. Some understand Jesus as a model for an at-one-ment with God, while others believe that his blood and his suffering were necessary for salvation.

It is one of these latter atonement theologies that I want to address today, and from which the lamp metaphor comes. It is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or PSA. After I break your lamp, if you decide to forgive and forget, then PSA says you end up paying a cost: either you do without the lamp, or you have to buy a new one.

Now, imagine that you are God. And I have not broken a lamp, but I have sinned. PSA says that just as you as a lamp owner had to pay a cost if you decided to forgive and forget, then God, too has to pay a cost if God decides to forgive and forget our sins.

A demonstration of how seriously this is taken by some churches...

A demonstration of how seriously this is taken by some churches…

In the lamp-scenario, I would probably offer you the money to buy a new lamp. But according to PSA, as sinners, we “are not capable of making a sufficient payment to rectify our sin problem because our righteous deeds are filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). Since we are not capable of making a sufficient restitution payment, the only one left to do this is God.”i And not only that, but the only restitution God will take is not money, but death. Someone has to die.

PSA sees humankind as unworthy and our natures as inherently sinful. Our sinful natures keep God from allowing us into heaven when we die, and doom us to an eternity of suffering in hell. Salvation can only come from some form of restitution. It says that God can’t break God’s own law, since God is just, and so God took our sinful debts, piled them high on Jesus, and had him killed instead of us. And so the law is satisfied, our debt is repayed, and we are forgiven.

This theology looks at the cross, at Easter, in purely legal terms. “You and I are the criminal, God is the blood-thirsty judge and executioner, and Jesus becomes the one who steps in between us and lets the angry judge beat and kill him in our place. Having killed an innocent person, this judge is somehow satisfied and a little less angry, so he sets friends of the innocent dead man free…”ii

I know a number of us came to Unitarian Universalism in direct reaction to our horror at this merciless, angry theology. Many former-Christians have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, when the water is tainted with PSA. But believe it or not, PSA is actually a relatively new theology of atonement, and it is not what the Christians originally believed. And our history as both Universalists and Unitarians demonstrates that we have been in opposition to this faulty theology since the very beginning.

The PSA theory began to emerge approximately 1000 years ago. Before this time, Christians didn’t focus on the death of Jesus at all. In researching their book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker found that images of the crucifixion did not even appear in churches until the tenth century. Instead, the early church focused on “how Jesus’s teachings and the practices of the early church affirmed life in this world as the place of salvation. Within their church communities, Christians in the first millennium sought to help life flourish in the face of imperial power, violence, and death.”iii

It was in the 16th century, in the Reformed Church, led by John Calvin that PSA really blossomed. Reformers found that the atonement theologies of the time stressed a merciful God rather than a just God. And so it is not surprising that PSA has legalistic overtones. “This idea is also called the ‘satisfaction’ theory because it asserts that’s God’s righteous requirement for justice was satisfied by Jesus’ death.iv Calvin even claimed that it was “necessary for Jesus to suffer through a judicial process and to be condemned as a criminal (even though the process was flawed and Pilate washed his hands of the condemnation).”v

Today, PSA is the dominant atonement theology for Evangelicals. Al Mohler, of Southern Baptist Seminary up the road, has emphasized the significance of PSA for galvanizing “the Conservative Resurgence that took place within the Southern Baptist Convention in the last quarter of the twentieth century.”vi Mohler tells the story of how, when he attended the seminary in 1980, his “first early morning class was with Frank Stagg on the Gospel of Matthew. Professor Stagg repeatedly and emphatically rejected what he called ‘bloody cross religion.’ He vociferously denied the necessity of the cross, insisting that ‘God did not have to arrange a killing at Calvary in order to forgive sin.'” Mohler disagreed, and now Southern Baptists are known for their belief in PSA.

Outside of the Southern Baptist Convention, one can see PSA’s influence woven in to the weft and weave of our country. Benjamin L. Corey is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. Writing for Sojourners in 2014, he said:

“For 500 years we have focused our understanding of God and God’s justice as the need for punishment instead of the need for reconciliation, and this has led to a broken framework in our country in regards to justice. When we allow this broken framework to influence the application of justice (as we have) we see criminal acts in terms of “need to punish as justice” instead of “need to restore as justice” …Yes, there are many criminal acts that require a person to be removed from society for their protection and for ours, but this theological framework has caused us to view “justice served” when a person receives what we feel is an appropriate sentence instead of seeing “justice served” when both the offender and the offended (even if that’s just society in general) have had their lives reconciled…

Justice becomes punishment, not healing and restoration.

And so, our prisons are overflowing. Why? Because our theological framework has told us that justice can only be satisfied when someone has been properly and fully punished, instead of telling us that justice is most fully satisfied when a life has been restored .”vii

Brock and Parker agree, and they are astonished how, in retrospect, they never questioned the centrality of this theological framework to contemporary Christianity. They write “The doctrine of substitutionary atonement uses Jesus’s death as the supreme model of self-sacrificing love, placing victims of violence in harm’s way and absolving perpetrators of their responsibility for unethical behavior.”

Theologian and activist Brian McLaren see’s the influence of PSA in our demonization of people who don’t agree with us. He writes that his “special concern with the theory comes up in relation to our attitude towards ‘the other’ – people of other faiths. If God’s default mode is ‘against’ all in hostility, then those who identify with this vision of God will find it too easy to justify a similar attitude towards ‘the other.’ ”viii

And if you believe in an angry God, how far of a leap is it to follow an angry man? Indeed, a powerful, angry man might seem God-like. Cognitive scientist and author George Lakoff found the theological connections between Strict Father Figure conservatives and Nurturing Parent liberals years ago. In a recent article examining why Evangelicals are drawn to Trump, Lakoff writes:

Those whites who have a strict father personal worldview and who are religious tend toward Evangelical Christianity, since God, in Evangelical Christianity, is the Ultimate Strict Father: You follow His commandments and you go to heaven; you defy His commandments and you burn in hell for all eternity. If you are a sinner and want to go to heaven, you can be ‘born again” by declaring your fealty by choosing His son, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior.<ix

White evangelicals are drawn to someone who represents a strict father-figure identity, and who does that more than Trump? He is authoritarian, he says the things they wish they could say, he operates in moral absolutes – there is no grey area. Something is right, or it is wrong. There are winners, and there are losers. Losers, and wrong-doers, must be punished. Strictly. In fact, because PSA removes all mercy from God, “sin must be paid for, even if an innocent person must die. It can never be simply forgiven.”x So it is not a far leap to see how those with a penal-substitution view of atonement could be drawn to an angry, hate-filled, authoritarian rhetoric.

But PSA is not the only or final way to understand the Easter story. Far, far from it. Remember, as Brock and Parker found, the early Christian church focused on creating paradise, here on earth. It wasn’t for 1000 years that PSA evolved.

An earlier atonement theory is called moral influence view, and this is one in which both the Universalists and the Unitarians have their roots. “The moral influence view of the atonement holds that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity. This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus, the Christian movement he founded, and the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection. It is one of the oldest views of the atonement in Christian theology and a prevalent view for most of Christian history.”

In the 16 century, as PSA was being developed by John Calvin and the Reform tradition, Fausto Sozzini, an Italian theologian, was advocating instead for a moral influence view of atonement. Socinianism, as Sozzini’s theology was called, was an early form of Unitarianism.

Sozzini wrote a pamphlet supporting a moral influence view of atonement that came into controversy with PSA because the two systems have very, very different criteria and definitions of salvation and judgment. PSA says that the blood of the cross saves us from an eternity of suffering in Hell while Socinians rejected the concept of original sin, rejected the concept of Hell, said that Jesus was fully human, and that his sacrifice serves to inspire us to abandon our sins.

Fast forward a few hundred years and, we find that “as a result of these conflicts, a strong division has remained since the Reformation between liberal Protestants (who typically adopt a moral influence view) and conservative Protestants (who typically adopt a penal substitutionary view).”

One of those liberal preachers who had a strong moral influence view of the atonement was Hosea Ballou. Ballou was raised in a the Reform tradition, in a Baptist home that was very Calvinist. But he could not reconcile his “belief in a loving, all-powerful God with the idea of eternal punishment for most of humanity.”xi And so he searched through the Bible, and ended up at the concept of universal salvation.

In 1805, Ballou published his Treatise on Atonement, which outlined his beliefs on atonement and universal salvation. In celebrating the 200th anniversary of this pamphlet, Charles Howe wrote in the UU World:

Orthodoxy [that is, the set of doctrines approved by the Church] considered humanity’s punishment for its infinite sin as separation from an angry God. Ballou, by contrast, saw [people] struggling to turn toward moral good and away from the sins that separated them from a loving God.

Orthodoxy required Christ to take on the burden of humanity’s sin by being sacrificed on the cross, thereby atoning for sin and making it possible for an appeased God to be reconciled with humanity.

Ballou, on the other hand, contended that Christ’s death released a great spirit of love into the world, making [people] who were receptive to this spirit better able to atone for their own sins and be reconciled with God.

This is so different from what we normally hear about the resurrection, isn’t it? The idea that in that final act of forgiveness on the cross, Jesus’s death released a great spirit of Love…??? Howe continues…

Thus Ballou argued that the orthodox had things backward: It was humanity that needed to be reconciled to God, not God to humanity. Moreover, this atoning spirit of love was available not only to Christians, but to all people, irrespective of “names…denominations, people, or kingdoms.” In no case would anyone be sent to eternal punishment by a loving God. No sin was that great; salvation was universal.xii

Ballou detested PSA and the concept of eternal suffering. It was repugnant to him. In his Treatise, he wrote “A false education has riveted the error in the minds of thousands, that God’s law required endless misery to be inflicted on the sinner.” Instead, Ballou saw God as a nurturing parent, who loves us unconditionally.

And again, you can hear Lakoff’s theory about the difference between conservatism and liberalism. Ballou was firmly in the nurturing parent view, even 200 years go. In his Treatise, he wrote “There is nothing in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, that can do away sin, but love; and we have reason to be thankful that love is stronger than death, that many waters cannot quench it, nor the floods drown it; that it hath power to remove the moral maladies of [humankind], and to make us free from the law of sin and death, to reconcile us to God, and to wash us pure in the…life, of the everlasting covenant.” We see a modern interpretation of Ballou’s theology in our affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Today, the divide between those who believe in PSA and those who take a moral influence view of the atonement could not be more strained, or more obvious. Liberal theologians ask, “how can justice and mercy be achieved through an act of injustice? If God is just, how can an innocent person be punished?” We ask this of theologians, and we ask this of our court system.

Others point out that the problem with PSA is that it is based on a faulty premise that sin needs to be punished, that God “cannot just sovereignly decide to forgive us, he also has to punish sin.” xiii Once this premise is dismissed, PSA makes no sense logically.

Additionally, going back to the metaphor of the loss of a lamp, if one believes that God is infinite, one assumes God could just write off the loss. If God is infinite, then “infinity minus five million billion trillion is still infinity. In the words of St Therese of Lisieux, even the worst sin in the world is like a drop of water in the burning pyre of God’s love.”endnotes

These days, as much as we still seem to love the themes of peace, love, and hospitality embodied in the Christmas story, Unitarian Universalists have a mixed relationship with the Easter story. We love the idea of hope and rebirth. We connect it to Spring, and renewal. We like the bunnies, and egg hunts. But talk about the cross and watch us squirm. I think the reason why is because the metaphor and magic of Easter have been lost to penal substitutionary atonement. PSA has become, in some ways, the loudest, if not the dominant, view of atonement. And so we want to make sure that we are not celebrating THAT view of this important, culture-shaping, story.

Our own history provides an antidote to the toxicity of penal substitutionary atonement and it’s angry God. And it is an antidote that the world desperately needs. Like the early church, in the face of imperial power, violence and death, we believe that salvation is something for this world, for this life, here and now. As inheritors of a tradition of a moral influence view of atonement, we understand Easter to be inspirational rather than a form of punishment. That Jesus’ final act of forgiveness of the imperfections of humanity is something we can aspire to for ourselves and for others. And as our early forbears taught, we know that the divine, by whatever name we call the numinous, mysterious wonder of the universe, is love – the very spirit of life itself. May we share this saving message, broadly, with a world so in need of it, and in this way love the hell out of the world and love one another out of hell.Blessed Be!



i. https://carm.org/is-the-substitutionary-atonement-doctrine-immoral

ii. https://sojo.net/articles/how-poor-theology-cross-created-americas-broken-justice-system#sthash.deJFTKcQ.dpuf

iii. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/early-christians-emphasized-paradise-not-crucifixion

iv. http://www.christian-history.org/substitutionary-atonement.html

v. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_substitution

vi. http://www.albertmohler.com/2013/08/12/the-wrath-of-god-was-satisfied-substitutionary-atonement-and-the-conservative-resurgence-in-the-southern-baptist-convention/

vii. https://sojo.net/articles/how-poor-theology-cross-created-americas-broken-justice-system

viii. http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/q-r-penal-substitutionary-atonem.html

ix. http://georgelakoff.com/2016/03/02/why-trump/

x. http://www.christian-history.org/substitutionary-atonement.html

xi. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/ballou-manifesto

xii. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/ballou-manifesto

xiii. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/11/thoughts-against-penal-substitutionary-atonement/

xiv. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/11/thoughts-against-penal-substitutionary-atonement/

a feminist take on Easter.

5 Apr


We probably all have at least one childhood memory where something happened that just didn’t fit with the world as we knew it. One such time for me was when I was in Sunday School, probably about 11 or 12 years old, and we were going around the table sharing how we wanted to serve God when we grew up. The boys pretty much all said they wanted to be pastors. The girls talked about teaching Sunday School. I was last, but I knew exactly what I was going to say. “I want to be a pastor!” I boldly declared. The Sunday School teacher, a woman with long brown hair, patted me gently on the shoulder and, with a sad smile, said “Honey, God doesn’t call women to be pastors. You can teach Sunday School, though.” And then we went on with whatever was left of the lesson. I don’t remember the topic at all – I do remember thinking that what she had told me made no sense whatsoever. My parents were telling me I could do or be anything I wanted. Free to be You and Me, right? Why would God put such a desire in my heart and then not allow me to fulfill it? It made no sense. (I must confess, when I am visiting my home town, I often have an urge to show show up at this church and say “Ha! Proved YOU wrong, didn’t I?”)

This congregation is not an outlier. There is a whole strain of Christianity in which women are told to be submissive to their husbands, who are to be the head of the household. Entire books from women, even, about how submitting to their husband provides them with more freedom than they would have otherwise, trying to explain how such submission does not make them less worthy than their husbands.

There are two primary places in the Bible that defenders of this belief system go to when trying to establish their authority: Genesis, and the writings of the apostle Paul. Holding all snark and commentary aside for a moment, here are some of their reasons:
Looking at Genesis, they say that man was created first, so therefore he is more important. Or they say that since Eve is the only creature not made from dust, but from Adam’s rib, this makes her inferior. They say that Adam has dominion over the creation that he named, and he named Eve so therefore has dominion over her as well. Or they point out that God never tells Eve not to eat from the forbidden tree – he tells Adam, so therefore Eve is not worthy of being spoken to by God. And it goes on, and on.

For a book written 3000 to 5000 years ago, Genesis has a large amount of influence on how our society models itself today. (Here in Kentucky, we only have to look at the popularity of the Creation Museum to know that!) It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that women actually do have the same number of ribs as men – I had learned in Sunday School that we have one less, which, when you think about it, makes NO sense at all since it would have been Adam who had one fewer ribs. Someone might have a completely different interpretation on some of these verse, but that is besides the point for these folks, who believe their interpretation is the only possible correct one.

The writings attributed to the apostle Paul are slight more contemporary, having been written close to the turn of the eras. In these letters, or epistles, Paul is writing to the new, struggling churches throughout the ancient kingdom to provide them with support, to give them direction, and to make corrections in how they are doing or interpreting things. It is from these letters that we get such gems as “For indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.” (1 Corinthians 11:9)

Or “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet, for it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.” (1 Timothy 2:12-13 – not technically written by Paul but written in his name and style)

Or “As in all the churches of the holy one, women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate even as the law says. If they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:33-35) Who knows what women are to do if they want to learn something and they are single or married to another woman!

Those who cherry pick such verses have a tendency of taking them totally out of context, and dismiss the places where Paul refers to women who were obviously holding leadership positions, such as Phoebe, Prisca, Mary and Junia. And cherry pickers often neglect to understand that Paul’s views reflect those of his time, and that if he were writing today it would probably be very different. In ancient Greece, women had very few rights. They were supposed to be submissive. In the Rome of Jesus’s time, women could be citizens but could not vote or hold office.

“Okay,” you might be saying, “I hear you, but we don’t believe all this. So what does it have to do with us?”

As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that people of all genders are equal, but even today, in the society in which we live, women are consistently and constantly not considered as worthy or as worthwhile as men. One does not have to look very far to find continuing evidence of the bias:

  • Women continue to earn only $0.78 on the dollar that men earn – even less than that for women of color.
  • Women are earning the majority of undergraduate and graduate degrees, while at the same time, women make up the majority of the poor in America.
  • There are 15 states that never ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, which means women technically don’t have equal rights under our Constitution.
  • Women fill more than half of the jobs in the U.S. economy but constitute fewer than 12% of working physicists and engineers, and that number is actually dropping as women are tired of the bias and prejudice they bump up against in these careers, such as the recent GamerGate controversy.

Of course it is not just science and technology in which women suffer from bias. South Carolina State Senator Katrina Shealy is the only woman in the 46-member chamber. When one of her colleagues made a crack (at a domestic violence event!) about how women should be “at home baking cookies” or “barefoot and pregnant,” not serving in the state legislature, she asked him where he “got off” in making making such remarks. “Well, you know God created man first,” her colleague replied. “Then he took the rib out of man to make woman. And you know, a rib is a lesser cut of meat.”

We may dismiss this state senator as one of the “bad eggs”*, but there are a lot of “bad eggs” out there that perpetuate the idea that women are “less than.” One only need search for “Women’s Rights Quotes Politicians” for an overwhelming example of men in power who share this worldview.

Though their quotes are more public than that of the average Joe, these men are products of their society. A society where men and boys are more likely to be called upon in a classroom. A society where men get more space in print and online journalism. A society where men are retweeted more than women on Twitter.

Then there is the interruption phenomenon. Women get interrupted more than men, and when men interrupt women, it is often to assert power. Sometimes, in the course of regular conversation, we interrupt the person we are talking with in order to be encouraging about what they’re saying. But a 1998 study showed men interrupt women frequently to assert dominance, and it happens even more often in mixed groups.**

We saw this recently on a panel discussion at the South by Southwest festival, where Google chairman Eric Schmidt continuously interrupted his former colleague, Megan Smith, who is now U.S. Chief Technology Officer. Toward the session’s end, an audience member’s question pointed to Schmidt’s tendency to interrupt and talk over Smith – and the question came from Google’s own Judith Williams, head of their Unconscious Bias program. She did her job that day, didn’t she?

Phenomena like this have given rise to the concept of “mansplaining”, wherein a man explains something to a woman, condescendingly and patronizingly, without regard to the possibility that the she might actually know more than the he does about the subject. Mansplaining exists because it is consistently reinforced to us that men’s words are more important than women’s. Going back to the story of Senator Shealy, she reports that her colleague seems to think that this is an ongoing joke between them. He has tried to mansplain away her feelings, saying that “We are just joking around”, despite the fact that she has repeatedly asked him to stop such derogatory comments.

Our society has internalized the inferiority of women based on a narrow interpretation of the Bible. But just as the Bible can be used to justify this mistreatment of women, so can we find ways to use the biblical stories to counter such mistreatment – and we can do it without cherry-picking individual verses that suit our perspective.

As we heard in the Moment for All ages, women in general, and Mary Magdalen in particular, had a powerful role to play in the Easter story. It is in this story, and in following the actions and words of Jesus, that we can find a counter to the verses used to justify the oppression of women.

All four of the gospels mention that Mary was present at the death of Jesus. She had been close to him in life – indeed was one of his disciples – and she remained faithful to him in death, staying by him. The gospel account in Matthew even goes so far as to say that the male disciples deserted Jesus and fled in fear for their lives. But Mary and the the women remained, standing as near as they dared, to the spot where the soldiers were carrying out the brutal execution.

When Jesus’s body was taken down from the cross, it was getting late on Friday. The Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday at sundown, and there are strict rules against touching a dead body on the sabbath. Mary witnessed that Jesus’s body was sealed inside the tomb, and she and the other women left to gather and prepar the spices they would need for a proper burial after the Sabbath.

Once the Sabbath was over, on Sunday morning, Mary went to the tomb and found that Jesus’ body was no longer there. She was the first to witness the empty tomb. Gazing upon it, Mary had a vision where an angel came to her and she understood that Jesus was no longer dead. When she went to tell the others apostles, the story says she saw and heard Jesus himself – she became the first person to witness his resurrection! I sincerely doubt Jesus would have appeared to someone whom he considered inferior. It is with good reason that teachers in the early Christian church called Mary ‘Apostle to the Apostles’, because in Greek “apostellein” means to “go and tell”, which is what Jesus told her to do. Mary has been one of the most revered figures in Christian history.

And yet. And yet in in his letter to the Corinthians where he recounts Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul does not include Mary or any of the other women at the tomb among the witnesses to the Resurrection. According to Paul’s story, Jesus appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve male disciples, then to 500 people, then to James, then to all the apostles. Mary Magdalen is not mentioned at all. Paul was writing to Greeks in Corinth, and sadly his letter reflects the culture of the Greeks, who viewed the testimony of women as unreliable. Perhaps we could consider Paul an early mansplainer!

Feminist JesusAs opposed to Paul, and many of those over time who have continued to use his words to justify the subjugation of women, I think Jesus would be wearing a “This is what a feminist looks like!” t-shirt, because the way that he treated women, in his life, death, and through the story of his resurrection, was revolutionary. Jesus, unlike the men of his generation and culture, taught that women were equal to men in the sight of God. Women could receive God’s forgiveness and grace. Women could be full participants in the kingdom of God. He also had women among his personal followers and closest confidants – Jesus offered full discipleship to women. These were revolutionary ideas at the time – many of his contemporaries, including his disciples, were shocked.

One can cherry pick verses from the Bible to justify just about any form of oppression – from slavery, to the subjugation of women, to oppression based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But the message to those who would follow Jesus is clear: women are not at all inferior to men, and, indeed, can be trusted to carry the most important news out into the world. What better counterpoint is there to those who would preach the submission of women than to ask: What would Jesus do? The Easter story makes it quite clear.

* Yes, bad Easter pun. Sorry, couldn’t resist!

** Two men shared with me separately after the service that they considered “humorously” interrupting me at this point, ala Kanye West. I am grateful they didn’t, but it would have just proven my point quite effectively, wouldn’t it have?

a new time.

20 Apr

A New Time
An Easter Sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered April 20, 2014 at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY

I spoke extemporaneously today at First Unitarian, so I don’t have any manuscript to put up here. I am in the process of getting permission of some of the folks who shared their stories – when/if I do, I will post the audio. There was some powerful sharing going on, so be sure to check back.  Here is an approximation of what I said.


We Unitarian Universalists have a complicated relationship with Easter.  Often, we prefer to talk about Spring instead.  We say it is becuause we no longer believe in the literal truth of the resurrection (if we ever did), but the truth is that many Christians don’t believe that anymore either.

But if the story were just about one man, and what he did and what happened to him, that would not be nearly as compelling as understanding it as a myth – becuase a myth means it is something each of us can relate to.

Joseph Campbell says a myth is a story told almost exclusively  through symbols, that it addresses our human questions of: Where did we come from? What has meaning in life? How shall we live knowing we will die?

When we look at the story of Jesus, particularly the Easter story, as a myth in this way, it becomes something we can all relate to.

Jesus was teaching stuff that the people in power didn’t like.  And this made them angry.  Stuff about how God is love, and that we are each God’s instruments to create paradise here on earth through, in part, loving one another.  And so Jesus had to die – you don’t get to challenge the status quo and live.  And so he died. But he could not stay dead – then his message would stay dead.  In order for this story to live on forever, Jesus had to rise from the dead.  Any by doing so, the story is cemented forever in history.

This story is a powerful one. It is one that has a before, and an after . Before Jesus, After his Death.  In this way, it was a pivotal moment in our Western Culture – not unlike the invention of the printing press, or how assembly lines brought in the Age of Industry.  Or, maybe, even like September 11, 2001.  We are probably still too close to it to know, but for many of us, we know where we were on that day.

And we have other pivotal moments in our lives – things that we define as a “before” and an “after” – things that changed us, that shifted how life was for us.  Events that ushered in a new time in our lives.  Perhaps we didn’t know it when it was happening, but when we look back we see it that way.

It may be something like the birth of a child. I know for me, the birth of my first child shifted everything – suddenly my heart was out here, in my hands, not safe and protected inside my ribs. That shifted how I did everything. But it could also the be death of a loved one, or an event that happened in our lives.

I invite you now to think about these pivotable moments in your own lives, those times when everything shifted.  And as you feel comfortable, I invite you to share them…

And people shared.  Beautifully.  Powerfully.  Soulfully.  As they shared, I made more connections with the story of Easter

  • loved ones featured prominently in many of the stories, much like how Jesus had gathered his disciples to him before his death;
  • that there was also darkness, sorrow, and pain in these pivotal moment – that Easter would not occur without Good Friday
  • that there is often a time of not knowing, of confusion – and the story of Easter would not be the same if Jesus had just immediately come back Friday night and said “Hi, here I am!”

We ended the sharing with the powerful story of a young woman who was raped, and who was now working to not be a victim, but a survivor.  And we talked about how love can conquer even death.

We each have our own resurrection stories – pivotal moments in our lives that we end up with a before, and an after.

May Easter be a reminder that even when things seem bleak, hope is there – hope that a new life will emerge,  hope that how things are now is not how things will always be, hope that new times can bring a new way of being in the world. May it be so. Blessed be.

Easter: a back story.

31 Mar

Easter: The Back Story
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on March 31, 2013.

Listen to the sermon here.

Holy Week, as celebrated by Christians around the world, honors the last week of Jesus’ life. Because our country is steeped in Christian culture, and because it is part of our heritage as Unitarian Universalists, it behooves us to be familiar with the story. One version goes like this: On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem while crowds of people covered the streets ahead of him with their cloaks and with palm branches. Monday was not the best – he visited the Temple and got furious at the money-changers that had set up shop there. Jesus lost his temper and chased them out of the Temple. After that, Jesus spent Tuesday and probably Wednesday preaching in and around Jerusalem.

On Thursday, things started to shift. Jesus ate a last meal with his disciples. It is during this meal that Jesus famously broke bread and drank wine, asking his disciples to do all this in his memory in the future. After the supper, Jesus and his disciples went to Gethsemane to pray. The disciple Judas had previously made arrangements with the Temple Guard to identify Jesus to them. While in Gethsemane, Judas came up to Jesus and kissed Jesus on the cheek. Jesus was then arrested by the Temple guard and taken to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court.

The men who held Jesus mocked him and beat him. On Friday morning, things went downhill at break-neck speed. The Sanhedrin took Jesus before Pilate at the Roman Court. Pilate asked Jesus, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered and said to him, “It is as you say.” The priests went on to accuse Jesus of many things while Pilate mostly seemed confused.

Pilate had a tradition of releasing one prisoner during this time. He asked the crowd if they would like him to release Jesus. The crowd insisted that Pilate release a murder named Barabbas rather than release Jesus. The crowd got more and more stirred up and insisted that Pilate should crucify Jesus. Pilate conceeded to the crowd.

The soldiers took Jesus and they stripped him and put a robe on him. They twisted a crown of thorns on his head and mocked him. Then they spat on him, took the robe off and led Jesus away. A man named Simon carried the cross for Jesus, as he was by this time to weak to carry it himself.

Then the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross. Over his head was written: KING OF THE JEWS.

Other criminals were being crucified at this same time. One of them said to Jesus: “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.” Another took a different tact: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said to this one, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

In the afternoon, the sun darkened, the ground rumbled and the veil of the temple was torn in two. Jesus cried out to God, and then he died.

Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate allowed it. When Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his new tomb and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb and departed.

Saturday was a day of mourning.

On Sunday, Mary Magdalene and possibly some other women went to see the tomb. There was a great earthquake and an angel descended from heaven. The angel rolled back the stone from the tomb and sat on it. He said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he is risen, as he said….And go quickly and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead, and indeed he is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.”

The women raced off, and ran into Jesus on the way. They cried with joy. That evening, Jesus stood in the presence of his disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and his side which had been pierced with the sword. Jesus spoke with the disciples for some amount of time, and then ascended into Heaven.


That is the most common Easter story, with some changes here and there. For instance, the specific words Jesus cried out when he died depends on which Gospel you are reading:

  • The author of the Gospel of Mark has Jesus cry out words from the 22nd Psalm: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!”
  • The author of the Gospel of Luke has Jesus say “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit”
  • The author of the Gospel of John reports that Jesus says “It is finished.”

There are other differences as well. The story I just told comes from the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel of Mark shares that the women were at the tomb in order to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. They were wondering how they were going to get into the tomb, when they saw that the stone had already been rolled away. The angel was waiting for them in the tomb. Again, Jesus appeared to the women first, but the male apostles didn’t believe them until Jesus appeared to them as well. The Gospel of Luke follows Mark, except that there were two angels, and they appeared to the women just outside the tomb.

The Gospel of John doesn’t mention any angels at first. Mary Magdalene appeared at the tomb, saw that it was empty, and rushed to tell the others. When they all ran to the tomb to check it out, the angel appeared and told them not to fear. Jesus then appeared to Mary Magdalene, but she did not recognize him at first.

For some modern day readers, these different versions can cause us trouble. We argue: If these books are supposed to be claiming to have been eyewitness accounts, shouldn’t they agree? Unitarian Universalist Minister John Buehrens, in his book “Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals” points out that this was not necessarily the case in the ancient world. Then, the standard was that the more stories there were, even if they disagreed, the more likely the basic story was to be believed – in this case, the basic story about Jesus’s physical resurrection.

The New Testament as it is today, contains 4 different books that give stories of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Though the Gospel of Matthew is the first in the table of contents, if we put the Gospels in chronological order scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark is first. Mark was written to an international audience of Jews and Greeks, closest to the time of Jesus’s life – only about 30 years after his death. Next chronologically are Matthew and Luke – both of these were written 10-20 years after Mark and use Mark as a source. Matthew was written primarily to a Jewish audience, and Luke to a primarily Greek audience. These three are called the synoptic Gospels – they share many of the same stories.

The Gospel of John is more literary and less journalistic in tone. It is the newest of the Gospels included in the New Testament, written in the early 100s to an international audience of Christians who were struggling to figure out who they were in the world.

These four Gospels are the canonical Gospels. This means that they were authorized by the ancient church leaders. By the end of the 2nd century, well before the Council of Nicea in 325, almost all of the 27 documents in the New Testament canon had already gained widespread acceptance by church leaders, especially these four Gospels. It is not that there weren’t other Gospels floating around: there were! But those other Gospels told a different story, and church leaders wanted to make it clear that folks knew that the other Gospels were NOT acceptable. Particularly the Gnostic Gospels.

Gnosticism takes its name from the Greek “gnosis” meaning “insight” or “enlightenment.” Gnostics claim a special relational or experiential knowledge of God or of the divine or spiritual nature within us that other people are not aware of. It is a philosophical and religious movement (still alive today) that actually started before Christian times – there is speculation that it may have started in the Jewish community at Alexandria and was later picked up by some nearby very early Christian groups. By the beginning of the second century, Gnostic Christianity was one of the three main branches of the Church.

But by the end of the 2nd century, Gnosticism was deemed heretical and suppressed. It was so thoroughly suppressed that early 20th century scholars had very little primary source material about it. But with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi books in December 1945 changed that. Not to be confused with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi books were found by farmers in an sealed earthenware jar containing thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices. The mother of the farmers is said to have burned one of the books and parts of a second has heretical, but twelve books and other loose pages remain. These books date back to the 2nd century and are almost entirely Gnostic texts that are believed to have been hidden by monks when the possession of such banned writings was declared a heretical offense.

The books found in Nag Hammadi that have caused the biggest fuss that are very much not in the approved cannon are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

The Gospel of Thomas does not include a narrative of Jesus’s life, but is rather a discourse between Jesus and his students. The sayings of Jesus found in this Gospel discuss that salvation is available immediately, internally, right at this moment, no matter what the status of your body or the world around you. This Gospel centers on the pursuit and experience of Gnosis, and the availability of such enlightenment to all. Saying 24 has Jesus declare: “There is a light within a person of light and it shines on the whole world.” My favorite from the Gospel of Thomas is saying 2, which takes a more accepted saying of Jesus and, to my mind, deepens it. Saying 2 is “Seek and do not stop seeking until you find. When you find, you will be troubled. When you are troubled, you will marvel and rule over all.” This Gospel presents Jesus as a spiritual guide whose words, when properly understood, will provide eternal life.

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is a dialogue between Jesus and Mary and some of Jesus’s other apostles. In this Gospel, Mary holds a special role of leader among Jesus’ students. She is closest to him and understands him best. She comforts the other students when Jesus leaves, saying “Don’t cry or break into despair or doubt. His grace will go with you and protect you, and let us praise the greatness of his work for he prepared us and made us truly human.” Like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary focuses on salvation as a mystical, internal realization that is accessible to anyone who understands.

Even more recently than Nag Hammadi was the discovery of the Gospel of Judas, which takes what we thought we knew about the relationship between Jesus and Judas and turns it utterly 180 degrees. This Gospel was discovered in Egypt in 1970 but kept secret. For 36 years, it passed from hand to hand, through theft and intrigue, until National Geographic restored and published it. In this Gospel, Judas is a hero, Jesus’ confidant to the end. Jesus tells Judas that his is the most important of roles, for Judas is to “turn the mortal body of Jesus over to the authorities for crucifixion, after which the real Jesus, the spiritual Jesus, will return to the light of the divine above.” In his Restored New Testament, Willis Barnstone writes that Judas is a “tragic figure who must obey the master and ‘betray’; him in order for himself to find salvation and for Jesus’s earthly mission to be realized.” Note: after the service, someone reminded me that this is not at all unlike the role of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter stories, who you think is a villian but turns out to be the bravest of the brave…Great connection!

Like the other two Gnostic Gospels, resurrection is a spiritual event rather than a physical one. This is one of the main differences between Gnostic Christianity and the other mainline versions of the time. Gnostics believed that our human bodies hold us back and are base and animal. This attitude was carried into the Christian church, but the Gnostics took it even further. They believed they would be saved from their corporeal existence through relational and experiential spiritual knowledge. From a Gnostic perspective Judas was helping to save Jesus by releasing him from his physical existence so that his spirit could be freed.

There were other differences between Gnostic Christianity and the established church as well. For instance, the Gnostics tolerated different faith groups outside of their tradition and absorbed various groups within it. Much like modern day Unitarian Universalism, with our UU Pagans and UU Christians and UU Buddhists and UU Atheists and so much more, there were Gnostic Christians, Gnostic Jews, Egyptian Gnostics, and more.

Also, following in similar footsteps to Jesus, the Gnostics did not discriminate against women. Anyone could be enlightened by special knowledge from the divine and could lead worship. In this way Gnostic Christians reflected the earliest days of Christianity. The letters in the New Testament that were actually written by the Apostle Paul (the oldest documents in the New Testament canon) had this egalitarianism. This stands in stark contrast to later letters which claimed to have been written by Paul but actually were not.

Finally, in contrast to the direction the church leaders were heading, those filled with gnosis had no need of authority from priests, bishops or anyone else when it came to enlightenment: their own experience or secret knowledge from Jesus or from God or from the Divine, was enough. By the second century, church leaders were already entrenched in hierarchy and did not like this at all. And they were (rightly) afraid that if people read these documents on their own, they might come to conclusions the church leaders did not support.

So what does Gnosticism have to do with Easter’s back story? A back story gives a character (historical or fictional) a fuller history. It humanizes a controversial figure and gives us a different way of looking at what we might always have accepted as “the one right way” of understanding a situation.

A good example can be found in the Star Wars series. Episodes 4-6, released between 1977 and 1983, gave us a particular story about Darth Vader. Between 1999 and 2005, episodes 1-3 gave us a fuller view of how Darth Vader came to be. They humanized him. However, there are things about episodes 1-3 that many fans reject. We pick and choose what makes sense to us, and toss out what doesn’t work.

I think the same is true about the story of Jesus. The ancient church leaders chose Gospels for their canon that presented a particular story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. But this was not the only story. The Gnostic Christians of the 2nd century already were viewing Jesus’s resurrection as a spiritual event rather than a physical one. Elaine Pagels (the Ware Lecturer in 2005), in her book The Gnostic Gospels writes “Some gnostics called the literal view of the resurrection the ‘faith of fools.’ The resurrection, they insisted, was not a unique event of the past: instead, it symbolized how Christ’s presence could be experienced in the present.”

Gnosticism and the gnostic Gospels give Jesus’s death and resurrection a totally different perspective than the one many of us are most familiar with. They provide layers of meaning and interpretation to a story that, for most of us, has been presented in one way only; a story that may resonate with us in some places and may seem totally foreign in others. Who Jesus was, what he said, and what his death and resurrection were about varies based on which Gospel you read. And who knows how many other Gospels there may be out there, waiting to be discovered. How wonderful! So be it. Blessed be.

coming back to life.

24 Apr

Coming Back to Life – an Easter Sermon

Delivered at First Unitarian Church on April 24, 2011

Listen to part one and part two of this service.

We can piece together the details of the crucifixion from the various gospels of the New Testament even though they don’t entirely agree with one another. They tell us that Jesus was brought to the “Place of a Skull” to be crucified and a man named Simon carried the cross for him. Jesus was crucified with two thieves, with the charge of claiming to be “King of the Jews.” The gathered crowd mocked Jesus, and the soldiers divided his clothes. When Jesus died, he called out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!” or, variably “It is finished.” A soldier pierced Jesus’s side with a sword after his death, before the body was removed from the cross. Joseph of Arimathea requested the body from Pilate, which Joseph then placed in a new garden tomb.

Of course, the story does not end with the death of Jesus. As it was foretold, Jesus was resurrected after three days.

As is the case with the crucifixion, the gospels give various accounts of the resurrection.

The gospel of Matthew claims that Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” went to see the tomb, and there was a great earthquake. An angel came, rolled the stone back, sat on it, and told them that Jesus was not there. He showed them the empty tomb and sent them to spread the news. But before they had gotten very far, Jesus appeared to them.

The gospel of Mark shares that the women were at the tomb in order to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. They were wondering how they were going to get into the tomb, when they saw that the stone had already been rolled away. The angel was waiting for them in the tomb. Again, Jesus appeared to the women first, but the male apostles didn’t believe them until Jesus appeared to them as well.

The gospel of Luke follows Mark, except that there were two angels, and they appeared to the women just outside the tomb.

The gospel of John doesn’t mention any angels at first. Mary Magdalene appeared at the tomb, saw that it was empty, and rushed to tell the others. When they all ran to the tomb to check it out, the angel appeared and told them not to fear. Jesus then appeared to Mary Magdalene, but she did not recognize him at first.

The gospels also describe various appearances that Jesus made over the course of 40 days after his resurrection. There was an appearance to the apostles in an upper room, where Thomas did not believe it was actually Jesus until Thomas was invited to put his finger into the holes in Jesus’ hands and side. Jesus also appeared on the Road to Emmaus, where again, he was not recognized by his apostles until well into the appearance. The resurrected Jesus also appeared beside the Sea of Galilee to encourage Peter to serve his followers. His final appearance was when he ascended into heaven.

This is the story as it is told in the various Christian Scriptures. And yet there are many aspects to the story that remain unaddressed. For instance – what was it like for Jesus to awaken from the dead? Was he in the tomb? What were those first moments of realization like? How did he decide to proceed, once he realized his situation? What was it like for him, having returned from the dead?

These questions remain unanswered in all the scriptures. And yet I believe that these questions address some of the core aspects of the resurrection that are applicable to us today. What might the experience of Jesus’s coming back to life have to teach us today?

Understanding, for me, comes from a variety of different places. In these questions about the particular experience of Jesus coming back to life, I find insight in a different savior story – a more contemporary story – the story of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as told through storyteller Joss Whedon. I believe that when we look at the question of the experience of Jesus in his resurrection, and compare it alongside the experience of Buffy, we can learn some important things about what it means to metaphorically come back to life.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Prophecy of the Slayer states, “Into every generation a Slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their numbers. She is the Slayer.” Buffy Summers, of Sunnydale, is the slayer for our generation, and she saves the world time after time again. So often that it becomes a richly exploited cliché.

In the finale for the fifth season, Buffy commits the ultimate sacrifice necessary to save the world by offering her life in the place of anothers, and she dies. Her body is buried in a traditional grave.

The start of the next season presents a sad state of the world. Unlike Jesus, Buffy has been gone for a while – It has been five months since she died. Life has gone on for the residents of Sunnydale. Just as the apostles began to fall apart at the death of Jesus, so too do Buffys friends, the Scoobies, fall apart as they try to continue Buffy’s mission. They need their leader, their guiding star, the one with the super-powers who held them together. Demons are overrunning Sunnydale after the death of the slayer, and the world is falling apart. So they do some magic to bring her back to life, thinking that she will appear before them, magically unharmed, the way they remember her. But the spell is interrupted and so they don’t think it has worked. They are forlorn.

Meanwhile, a very confused Buffy awakens in her body, in the casket, in the ground. There is no angel to roll away the stone to let her out, but then, the gospels disagreed on this anyway. Buffy awakens in the dark, scared and suffocating. Thanks to her special powers, she is able to claw her way out of the grave. She wanders around the town that has been taken over by demons, confused and scared, like a wild animal.

When she appears to her friends, Buffy is not the same. Again, echoing the resurrection of Jesus, only one of the Scoobies, her dearest friend Willow, recognizes her. Buffy returns to the scene of her death and Willow is afraid for her. Will she try to sacrifice herself once again? But Buffy does not and memories of her life return to her as she stands there, confused and bewildered.

Returning to the world of the living, Buffy now has to face both the mythical and the mundane realities of being alive – there are bills that have not been paid, her beloved mentor has left town, and things have fallen apart in her absence – not to mention the demons taking over the town.
Once again, it is Buffy’s responsibility to set things right. It is a heavy burden. But Buffy has a secret, and the secret must come out – as they usually do. The secret is that she was in heaven before she was brought back. “There was no pain, no fear nor doubt, till they took me out.” Her friends, she says, took her out of heaven, and brought her back to a world filled with pain and suffering, and they expected her to save them, and the world, once again. I bet she wished she could ascend back into heaven, the way Jesus had, after only forty days.

So what might the Buffy story teach us about Jesus’ experience of coming back to life, and what might both these stories have to teach us today?

First, this is not the story of rebirth. Rebirth implies something cyclical in nature – the flowers returning after the cold of winter. Though there are many parallels between the story of Jesus and the god of neo-paganism, whose lifecycle is represented in the wheel of the year, on this point they are very different: the neo-pagan god is reborn as an infant, to start a new life from scratch, whereas when Jesus dies, he returns as an adult in a very unnatural manner. People around him have certain expectations, and he can’t just start over. Metaphorically, the story of Jesus is not the story of rebirth we may experience upon retirement, or in a new relationship, or upon finding our vocation. Resurrection comes after a death. We die to our old life, and yet when we come back, we still have our old life hanging over us. We may have been in the land of the dead for a short time, or a long time. The longer we have been gone, perhaps, the more difficulty we have coming back, as the mundane realities demand our attention. Coming back to life is not clean and neat, but messy, and confusing. Possibly even overwhelming.

Second, I think we can know that coming back to life is not easy. It took magic to bring Buffy back, and then she had to claw her way out, confused. The gospels disagree on what happened with Jesus. But at some point, the stone in front of the tomb is rolled back, and Jesus is not there. Where is he? How did he emerge from the tomb? Is he struggling to remember who he is? Wondering why he came back? Like Buffy, did he return to the scene of his death, puzzled?

This is what we do when we come back to life: we look back at what it was that killed us. We return again and again to that painful place even as we are trying to climb out of it. Whether dealing with the death of a loved one, awakening from depression, emerging from some other trauma, we don’t just magically get up one day and are all better, as much as we may wish it were so. While there might be angels to help us – usually in the form of beloved family and friends – the best they can do is support us in our process, they can’t do it for us. Coming back to life is a struggle – and sometimes we have to claw our way out. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by excruciating day.

The third thing we know about coming back to life is that it is painful. In the novel Beloved, by Toni Morrison, Sethe is pregnant, a slave, and is running away from Sweet Home. She collapses on the side of the road, more than half dead. When all hope is about lost, she receives unexpected aid from a poor white girl named Amy. Amy helps Sethe to a lean-to and massages her damaged feet, telling Sethe to endure the pain because “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” Think about it: whenever we have an injury, the healing process is irritating at best, painful at worst.

Return to the story of Jesus again, for a moment. He had had a crown of thorns crushed onto his head, he had been nailed to a cross through his hands and feet. A sword had been thrust into his side. And when he came back, these wounds weren’t magically healed! His apostles were able to put their hands into them, to feel them. The wounds were not even scarred over. Though the gospels don’t talk about this part, imagine what it might have felt like to Jesus, to have his friends touch his wounds in this way. It had to hurt.

Buffy was ripped out of heaven and returned to a world filled with suffering and pain. It was too much for her, so even though she was alive physically, she shut down emotionally. She wanted, desperately, to live, to feel the fiery passion of life, but the fire just froze her – she looked into it and saw darkness. She was dead inside. It was not until she allowed herself to begin to feel the pain – to talk about and process her experience with her friends – that she began to come back to life emotionally. Coming back to life is a painful process, and it hurts.

Finally, when we come back to life, we are not the same person we were before we died. Addicts in recovery know that they have to change who they were, all their habits. Emerging from the initial grief of the death of a loved one, we are changed by the process. Someone who suffers a major health crisis may come back with a different lifestyle, and maybe even physical changes that make them unrecognizable.

Only Willow recognizes Buffy when she comes back initially, but Buffy’s coming back process is long, and it means that her personality is virtually unrecognizable for an entire season of the show. She struggles as she tries to find her new self, her new place in the world. Jesus is also not recognized – in two of the different narratives. And though he appears to his apostles multiple times, he is not described as hanging out with them anymore. He is different – set apart.

We come back as different people – stronger, perhaps, but not always. Often confused as we try to find our new place in life. Sometimes, we come back with an awareness of the sacredness of life, but not always. When Buffy finally embraced the pain, she began to heal and found deep strength and compassion in her role as the slayer. Jesus, in his appearances, seemed more convinced about his own role in God’s story – he spoke less in parables and more in concrete urgencies. When we make it, when we survive the coming back to life process, we are not the same people we were when we died. We may have different priorities, different habits, a different understanding and experience of the meaning of life and our place in it.

This is what the story of Easter can teach us as we imagine the experience of the resurrection through Jesus’s perspective: That there is a difference between coming back to life and rebirth; That coming back to life is not easy; That it is an excruciatingly painful process; and that it changes us. In at least these ways, this timeless story has something to teach us all, even today.

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