An Easter Evening Reflection: Ethics as Easter—or the Virtuous Zombie
David R. Weiss
March 27, 2016
“Just remember folks, the Easter bunny and his evil candy are pagan idols not to be worshiped by the true believers. Then again, neither should a zombie. Trust in experience, not myth.” –Ben Zamora-Weiss
I don’t believe there was an empty tomb on Easter morning. At least not in a physical sense. I suspect that Jesus’ body, having been first brutalized and then crucified, (perhaps) wrapped in clean linen and placed in a garden tomb, eventually found its way back into the dust from whence it came.
Which is why Easter’s hallelujah hoopla often sits as uneasily on my lips as I sit uneasily in the pew during Easter worship. Now mark my words: I continue to identify with the Christian tradition, to draw strength, inspiration, wisdom from its teachings and tales. (Although I feel a greater kinship with Jesus—that ancient prophet-mystic-healer-teacher—than I do with the dogmatic orthodoxy that developed in his wake … and, I’m pretty sure, against his wishes.)
When I saw my son’s playfully serious Facebook post, I added my own little rejoinder: “But he’s a virtuous zombie.” Which is (sort of) how I feel. Let me explain.
TLDR version: Jesus died. Decomposed. End of story. Except not. After days, weeks, months of grief, Jesus’ followers decide to honor his memory by carrying on his teachings in their community. And … BOOM! Well, maybe b o o m. By actually applying Jesus’ teachings they precipitate such new, incredible, authentic human community that Jesus truly seems “undead”—so much in their midst that how else to speak of it except to say, “He’s here, he’s alive!”? Long story short: eventually this experience took on narrative form as resurrection. A powerful metaphor (or, as Ben says, though in a disapproving tone, “myth”). Our big mistake is that on Easter we worship the metaphor rather than incarnate the ethics. The point is to be “infected” by the virtuous zombie.
Long version: thirteen paragraphs and a conclusion. (Remember which blog you’re reading. Some people would call this piece full-blown heresy. I prefer to think of it as a perfect example of why I call my blog “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”)
1. I see Jesus as a real historical person who was a mystic (in his experiential sense of oneness with God/Universe), a prophet (in calling on his people to change their attitudes and behaviors—their ethics), a sage (a skilled teacher of his vision of renewed community), and a healer (however you explain it—and I don’t think you need to suspend the laws of nature to do so—Jesus, like others in history, could channel extraordinary healing power). His ministry was NOT focused on calling others to worship him. Rather his teachings and healings, even the manner of his meals, were aimed at announcing God’s unconditional regard for “the least of these”—thereby inviting us to take God’s perspective as our own by practicing deep, risky and relentless compassion toward others.
2. Jesus’ ministry was sufficiently vibrant that it came to pose a real threat to both Jewish and Roman power structures. Because both of these societies/cultures (like virtually every society/culture) were built on a hierarchy of privileges and biases, of in-groups and outcasts. And Jesus’ model of community fundamentally challenged that.
3. His death, in which both Jewish and Roman leaders were complicit, was NOT—I repeat, was NOT IN ANY WAY—a sacrifice for sin. It was the unmistakable consequence of the threat he posed to the status quo. It was a political elimination by the most brutal means possible.
4. Sidenote: that the church came to (mis)understand his death as a sacrifice is a misstep that can be explained historically, biblically, theologically, anthropologically, etc.—but it remains nonetheless a devastating and inexcusable misstep because it empties the arc of Jesus’ life of its true redemptive power.
5. It seems likely that Jesus (not unlike Martin Luther King, Jr.) anticipated his death—after all, he, at least, understood the threat he posed to the prevailing powers. Despite this, his followers (like most followers) could not see beyond their imagined messianic success for Jesus. The gospels are clear on this: Jesus realized—to the week—when the shit was going to hit the fan . . . and the disciples and the rest of his followers were mostly oblivious to this right through the Last Supper.
6. So, when the arrest, trial, flogging, beating, crucifixion, and death all happen it knocks the wind (if you prefer, think Wind, capital W—Spirit, faith, hope) right out of Jesus’ followers. They’re devastated. Grief-stricken. Traumatized. At a loss for words. Again, if you prefer, think Word, capital W: at a loss for Word.
7. Aimless, for days, weeks, months maybe, the circle of Jesus’ followers frays at the edges, wondering what do we now? (In John’s gospel we might have an echo of a recollection that those who used to be fishermen went back to fishing.) In any event, “Easter” did not happen on a chronically calendared third day. Their grief and confusion and despair and trauma—like most life-numbing emotions—persisted far past that mythical third-day morning.
8. BUT—and all the best that Christianity has offered humanity hinges on this “but”—one day (weeks or months after the crucifixion . . . long after the body has decomposed), someone … Mary Magdalene? Peter? John? . . . someone says, “Ah, Jesus, I miss you so much. How I long for the days when you showed us how to be God’s kin-dom!” And in that moment of silent holy anguished longing, that person decides the best way to preserve and honor the memory of the man they loved is to recreate in some small meager way the community he had invited them to imagine. THAT MOMENT is the first glimmer of the dawning Easter morning. And it surely did NOT happen on the third day after his death—but the fact that it surely DID happen (which is more/less historically verifiable by the mere existence of the church, warts and all) matters much more than the timing.
9. Jesus’ teaching about compassion (my shorthand for the whole of Jesus’ message and ministry—and my absolute bedrock core conviction about the fundamental nature of reality itself) presented a genuine cosmic truth, so when his followers choose to put it into practice they release energy not unlike a moral nuclear fusion reaction. Far from a meager attempt, because they manage to tap into the energy that courses through the cosmos itself, their earliest echo of Jesus’ own ministry is phenomenally vibrant. As Luke tells us in the Book of Acts, each gave according to their means and each received according to their needs. As I put it above, they precipitate a new, incredible, authentic human community. Yes, there was plenty of discord, too (human habit, at both the personal and social level is notoriously messed up), but the power they tap into is nonetheless so vivid that Jesus seems “undead”—so much “undead” and in their midst, that how else can they speak of it except to say, “He’s here, he’s alive!”? And so begins the metaphor of resurrection: words grasping after a reality too deep for words but begging nevertheless to be spoken. “He is here. In this way of being community, he is alive and here among us!”
10. The earliest gospel, Mark, is written around 70 CE, at least 30-35 years after the crucifixion, and in Mark’s gospel there is not yet a narrative of resurrection, only an empty tomb. Whatever exact language the earliest followers of Jesus used to name the experience of phenomenal power that their communal ethics unleashed, by the time Mark wrote, they had only reached the point of declaring that despite being crucified, Jesus was not dead. They knew that, because they lived that truth. To borrow Ben’s Facebook wording, they “trusted experience,” and their experience was that whatever happened to Jesus’ body (and they likely presumed it had just decomposed), he was not dead.
11. By the time that Matthew, Luke, and John assemble their respective gospel accounts (some 15-30 years after Mark) the empty tomb gives way to a “zombie” tale: Jesus is not only undead, he’s walking around. In the rich and fluid imaginative world of the first century this type of narration is myth in its best sense: the embodiment of deep truth in narrative. It is no lie, unless you press this truth too far in the direction of fact. In the pre-critical but myth-savvy minds of the early Jesus’ movement, I suspect no one was concerned about the “facts” of resurrection. Not because they didn’t care, but because in their experience, which is what they really cared about, resurrection was self-evidently true. It was (and is) profoundly true: “Jesus is alive and here among us, actively shaping the gracious character of our community.” But to force this truth into a factual claim (as we are wont to do) about the supposed re-vivified molecular character of Jesus’ body reduces it to a “myth” of the cynical sort referenced in Ben’s Facebook post.
12. WORSE, by reducing the metaphor of resurrection to medical miracle we entirely miss its power. We tease our minds to the point of distraction. Could it really be? Back from the dead?! How marvelous! And before we know we’ve lost all interest in the real miracle: that a community of people actually chose to honor Jesus by incarnating in their own lives the ethics of compassion—and discovering that when they did this, they unleashed in their midst a power so transformative that the only metaphor they knew that could do it justice was resurrection.
13. Hence my suffocating discomfort on most Easter mornings. We could be clamoring (in our best ritual, prayer, and song) about the ethical renewal of our lives—about unleashing the resurrection power of compassion right here in our midst and right now in our day to meet the challenges of racism, inequality, homophobia, climate change, transphobia, sexism, terrorism, etc. Because that’s what resurrection is for. But instead we stack Easter lilies everywhere, play our brass and organ like there’s no tomorrow, sing Hallelujah! in our loudest voices, and say “Happy Easter!” to celebrate a medical miracle that never happened . . . and because we put all our energy into worshipping the metaphor rather than incarnating the ethics, we all too rarely actually get “infected” by the virtuous zombie—leaving Ben’s criticism spot on. (And this is one time I’d rather he not be correct.)
Well, I can hear you right now. You’re thinking, “OMG, so whenever you talk about ‘resurrection’ you don’t really mean it at all—you don’t even believe it’s real!” Um, NO. I do believe it’s real. But it’s about the ethics that enliven our bodies. It has nothing to do with what happened to Jesus’ body after he died. Of that, I’m quite certain.
And because I take resurrection so seriously, I worry it’s the rest of you, shouting Hallelujah! over a metaphor as though it’s “real,” that have missed the miracle. More than anything today (and for all of our yesterdays, really) we need to tap into the compassion of Jesus’ life, not the misconstrued sacrifice of his death. Resurrection sits on this side of grave. It begins with us. Or not at all. If we could put that at the center of our Easter worship, I’d be a lot more comfortable. And until we do, as restless as I am, I suspect it’s worse for Jesus. He’s stuck—turning over—in his grave.
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David R. Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2013; www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”