Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Resurrection Sunday

I have never liked the term “Easter” for the Christian celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Easter refers to the pagan goddess, “Ishtar.”  This is where we get Easter bunnies and eggs: symbols of fertility and new life in Spring. Celebrating “Easter” is celebrating “the circle of life,” of rebirth after winter. It’s the original Earth Day.

Now, I have nothing against celebrating Earth Day. I am a big environmentalist and a proponent of Western Christianity recovering its ecological roots.  Properly understood, Christianity is far more ecologically radical than Wicca or other “earth religions.”  This has been disguised because of Western Christianity’s captivity to the Powers of Empire and Consumerism.

But Resurrection Sunday isn’t about any of that.  I BARELY tolerate “Santa.” I have no tolerance for Easter Bunnie intrusions into the celebration, not of rebirth after winter, but of LIFE AFTER DEATH. Jesus was DEAD (not swooned on the cross) and God RAISED HIM UP.

I believe in the BODILY resurrection of Jesus–more than just a physical resuscitation, but not LESS THAN that–nothing ridiculous  like a “spiritual resurrection.” [On advice from a friendly critic, I am removing the judgmental language.  But Christianity grew out of Judaism and in that context “spiritual resurrection” was a contradiction in terms.  No First Century Jew would have used the term “resurrection” for anything non-somatic. “Spiritual resurrection” is a belief that grows out of Western post-Enlightenment skepticism,  building on the Greek body-soul dualism imported into early Christianity from Hellenistic philosophy.]  I don’t believe that souls exist apart from bodies (Greek rather than biblical anthropology), nor anything stupid  Gnostic like “the immortality of the soul.” ONLY GOD is immortal. The Christian hope is for resurrection. And our hope, as Paul says in I Co. 15, is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus.

Resurrection Sunday means that we worship a Risen, Living Savior.  It means that empires of death do not have the last word.  It means that God VINDICATES Jesus’ nonviolent way. Rome, the temple elites of 1st C. Judaism, and all the Powers of Death only THOUGHT they were victorious in crucifying Jesus. They failed. The cross reveals the violence of the system, of all of us, but strips it naked of any victory because of the empty tomb and the proclamation, “He is not here; He is risen!”

This is the power behind all Christian movements for justice or liberation. As Gustavo Gutierrez replied to a liberal theologian from the U.S. trying to water down his robust theology, “In Latin America, we need a God who can raise Jesus from the dead.”

I admit that it is easier to joyfully sing resurrection songs on some days than others. We live in a world where “what’d dead stays that way.” We live in a world where evil, and cynicism, and corruption, and greed triumph. Where peace efforts are shattered by those who profit from war. Where the marginalized are silenced. Where women and children are violently exploited. Where the creation itself is raped and plundered for the almighty dollar.  Where political leaders waffle, or backtrack, or weasel,–or betray.  Where loved ones betray us with a kiss.

But that is also the biblical world.  That is also the destructive, numbing, faith-destroying, virtue-corrupting world that the first Christians knew. In such a world, against all expectation, God said NO to all that. And more. God, in raising Jesus Christ the Son, said YES to life, peace, salvation, love!  God’s unarmed, nonviolent, unilateral initiative in Jesus, disarms us and liberates us from chains of sin and oppression for lives of free service to God and others.

In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu,

“Love is stronger than hate; Light is stronger than Darkness; Life is stronger than Death!”

The tomb is empty. He is not there. God has raised him from the dead. He goes before us to the Galilee and we disciples, we faithless deserters and betrayers, can meet him there to renew our discipleship in transformed lives for the healing of the world. Amen.

April 12, 2009 - Posted by | Christian calendar, Easter, resurrection, theology


  1. Wonderful post, Michael! Amen.

    Comment by Jadon | April 12, 2009

  2. nothing “ridiculous” like spiritual resurrection, nothing “stupid” like immortality of the soul? I’m surprised you mock what others believe. I have no authority to judge but I always thought of new life in Spring being an appropriate date partner to Jesus rising (although it’s Autumn here).

    Happy Easter Michael.

    Comment by steph | April 12, 2009

  3. Steph, I am tolerant of other faiths, but I tend to react strongly to views, however widespread, that seem to me to undercut or water down Christianity from within–whether they come from “conservative” or “liberal” directions. Sibling arguments tend to be fiercer than disagreements between strangers, no? 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 12, 2009

  4. Now you see I see that as a contradiction. Other faiths have people who believe in spiritual resurrection or immortality of the soul, and effectively other Christians who might interpret Christianity differently from you, also have another ‘faith’.

    We all believe in different things and some of us just don’t know (but are pretty sure they will never know) and I don’t see the point of accusing others of being stupid or ridiculous. But you all do – well all the western religions do anyway.

    BTW I think I’m becoming more atheistic but not quite because I’ll never know. I find the concept of God more and more difficult to understand with the state of war and things, not to mention the creation of animals whose sole survival depends on the slaughter and often torture of other animals. Is that a God of love? Why did he bother. I’m not really an atheist but I get a bit cross with all the conflict between faiths.

    Comment by steph | April 12, 2009

  5. Amen!

    Comment by Daniel | April 12, 2009

  6. Excellent post Michael. I know that original “easter” usage but in my own mind, have made the ResurrectionSunday/Easter connection long ago so I don’t have quite the same reaction. But that is secondary to your strong and helpful statements about what we DO celebrate on this day (on all days)…a real Resurrection. Borg & Crossan led a conference at our church (along with Chittister). She was the best, by far, but I found both of them engaging, particularly Crossan. But at the end of the day, and they do try hard, I cannot embrace their definitions of Resurrection, though they do speak well of the social/political implications. But it is still an almost exclusively rational response to an event that was anything but….

    Comment by austinokie | April 13, 2009

  7. Michael,

    I agree with so much of what you’ve said in this and the other posts about “The Last Week”. I also love that you’ve noted the problem with Greek substance dualism and a literal “soul” that could somehow exist outside a body. However, I’m not sure what it is you are offering in place of that. Exactly what is it that you suspect would be “alive” after death? All of the decaying flesh of our brains will have made their way into the bodies of other plants, insects and then animals. Are those atoms gathered back up to form another physical body? If it is not a “soul” and it is not the same physical neurons (which I’m sure you agree are long gone), what is it that would be “you” or “me”? I’d prefer to accept science’s view on this. There doesn’t seem to be any “life after death” in any of the traditional ancient ways of understanding that concept.

    You are 100% right to conclude that Paul and many other 1st century Jews had that ancient view of physical resurrection, but are you really suggesting we adopt their 1st century worldview? Do you adopt Paul’s opinion on other scientific issues? How about nuclear fission? How about cosmology or the age of the earth? If we could somehow find out what Paul thought about the age of the earth, should we adopt that? You’re logic here sounds much like the kind of logic that built the creation museum. You seem to be saying, “well, if Paul (or another author of ancient scripture) had this understanding of the universe or biology, then we must adopt it and keep it for all time”. You seem to be taking the Ken Ham approach of “I don’t care what science says, it’s in the bible, so it had to have literally happened”.

    Then you proceeded with wonderful symbolic language (light, dark, vindication, justice, chains of sin and oppression). I applaud that language. I also hope you realize that language fits perfectly well with a non-literal (maybe even fictional) resurrection. I’d side with Borg and Crossan on this when they say:

    “Believe what you want about if the tomb was empty. Now let’s talk about what the story means.”

    On the deeper symbolic meanings, I think we fully agree!

    Comment by Mike L. | April 16, 2009

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