TWO THOUSAND years have sanitized Easter for most people. Jesus is alive, we sing each spring, and now let’s get on with lilies and chocolates and bunnies and think about what his resurrection means for us — namely, that we get to go to heaven when we die, and perhaps more important, a lot of other people don’t.
A more careful look at the Gospels, however, might offer a much less sentimental, much more startling picture of the original Easter message, which was decidedly not, “Jesus is alive, and here’s what that means for the next world.” Rather, the true lesson was: “Jesus is alive, and here’s what that means for this one.”
The central claim of Easter — and indeed, of Christianity — has always been that the rejected, tortured, crucified, dead, and then resurrected Jesus is somehow Lord of the entire earth. If that doesn’t sound particularly scandalous today, imagine you’re hearing it for the first time while living in the Roman Empire. As many New Testament scholars argue, hearing “Jesus is Lord” in the first century might sound suspiciously like a bold rejection of the standard Roman creed at the time: “Caesar is Lord.” (There is a lot of discussion about this, but even a quick glance of the Gospels and Acts shows that the texts contain instances of anti-imperial rhetoric.)
What’s radical about Easter, then, is not that Christians claim a dead man rose from the dead. What’s radical is what that means — specifically, what it meant for Rome, and, by implication, what it means for all kingdoms everywhere, including the ones we live in. Jesus’ resurrection marked the end of Caesar’s way of doing things. It established a new kingdom in which enemies are loved, the marginalized are given primacy of place, and the poor are blessed. In this kingdom, hierarchies are subverted, concentrated power is decentralized, and prodigal children are welcomed home. Black lives matter here, as do queer lives and the lives of undocumented aliens within our borders — “Remember the stranger in your midst” is a common refrain in this kingdom.
Of course, speaking about Jesus in such a political way is not without its dangers. Many with political agendas are guilty of branding their particular ideologies with the name of Jesus, both on the right and left. But there’s no denying that, at least in recent US history, conservatives have been ready to marry God and government. As a result, Christianity has come to be associated less with policies aimed at helping the poor — and more with those that often serve to keep them down. The tragic irony, of course, is that, as the Gospel of Luke teaches, Jesus’ ministry is inaugurated with the announcement that the Spirit of the Lord compels him to preach good news to the poor.
Though the name of God is sometimes invoked to justify war and greed and the oppression of already marginalized persons, the broken body of Jesus seems rather like a prophetic protest against those values. Philosopher John Caputo discusses this irony in his 2007 book, “What Would Jesus Deconstruct?” — a play on the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” that many conservatives have plastered onto their cars, T-shirts, bracelets, etc.
The gospels, Caputo writes, invite us to imagine a new way of life where the poetics of Jesus’ kingdom are transformed into political structures:
“What would it be like if there really were a politics of the bodies of flesh that proliferate in the New Testament, a politics of mercy and compassion, of lifting up the weakest and most defenseless people at home, a politics of welcoming the stranger and of loving one’s enemies abroad? What would it be like if there were a politics of and for the children, who are the future; a politics not of sovereignty, of top-down power, but a politics that builds from the bottom up, where ta me onta [lit. “the nothings”] enjoy pride of place and a special privilege?”
Caputo then asks this frightening question: “Would [this politics] not be in almost every respect the opposite of the politics that presently passes itself off under the name of Jesus?”
ONE LOOK at current events across the globe today, and Caputo’s imaginings may be easily dismissed. How can Americans simply turn the other cheek to our warring enemies? How can anyone expect the government to make sure each child is looked after? And working to eliminate poverty? Wasn’t Jesus talking about spiritual poverty? That’s a private matter, not a public one. Those kinds of policies just aren’t practical in 2015.
Of course they aren’t. They weren’t practical in Jesus’ day, either. That’s one of the reasons Jesus was killed. He was, to use Caputo’s word, mad. How else do you explain his teachings? Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Do good to them who use you. Do not retaliate. Look after your neighbor. The meek will inherit the earth.
But the madness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man, as Paul reminds us, just like God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. And it’s the kingdom of this God — who, contrary to what anyone expected, is weak, mad, and disruptive — that Jesus is both announcing and installing.
“If I, with the finger of God, cast out demons among you, then the Kingdom of God has come near to you,” says Jesus, and his Jewish hearers might have understood the scandalous reference. Scandalous because in this brief line, Jesus seems to be identifying himself with the same God who heard the cry of oppressed Israel and took it upon himself to liberate them from Egypt. As the Book of Exodus recounts, when Pharaoh refuses Moses’ request to let the Hebrews go, a battle of miracles quickly ensues. Though Pharaoh’s magicians try to imitate the wonders that Moses ascribes to God, they don’t succeed. “This is the finger of God,” they explain to Pharaoh, which creates wonders, which liberates God’s people from the empires that enslave them. The finger of God, they reluctantly acknowledge, is mightier than the strongest arm of any world leader.
In reinterpreting this passage around his life and ministry, Jesus is giving us a glimpse into what he thought of himself (who but God alone works wonders by the finger of God?) as well as into what he thought about his kingdom: that, though it’s ultimate fulfillment will be in the future, look around you — it’s already here. As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright explains, for Jesus, God’s kingdom “wasn’t just an aspiration; it was an accomplishment.” Jesus was convinced that his life and preaching and miracles were bringing about the kingdom his followers had longed for.
Only, Jesus’ kingdom of peace and love looked much different than the one that Jews at the time hoped the Messiah would establish. One of Jesus’ more cryptic sayings is found in Matthew’s Gospel. After a strange discussion of kingdom, Jesus compares his audience to children sitting in the marketplace singing to each other, “We played the flute for you, but you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” Jesus, he hears them say, you are not the Messiah we expected. To which he responds: I will not dance when you tell me to dance. I will not cry when you tell me to cry. I will not be the Messiah you tell me to be. I am here to show you a different sort of dance, a different way; follow me, and build my father’s kingdom, which looks very different than the ones you cling to.
This is the prophetic memory of Jesus that rushes toward us today. What would Jesus do if he showed up today, say, in Washington, D.C.? Would he turn a blind eye to racial injustices in Ferguson and elsewhere? Would he lobby to ensure that entire swaths of our population continue to feel as if they don’t belong in their cities, in their religious congregations, in their local bakeries? Would he, interested as he is in the physical bodies of all he encounters, enact policies that bar people from the health care they desperately need?
At the same time, can we really be sure that Jesus would protest with Wall Street Occupiers, railing against the one percent? This is the same Jesus who, as Luke recounts, tells his followers that if just one of their sheep wanders away from the fold, they are to leave the 99 and go after the one percent. And can we be equally sure that this Jesus, who has no patience for greed, would spend all of his energy condemning the wealthy? This is the same Jesus, after all, who is rumored to be the friend of tax collectors.
This is why it won’t do merely to begin with a political ideology and brand it with Jesus’ memory. The memory of Jesus is disruptive to all kingdoms, to all earthly powers, without respect to any specific political affiliation or agenda.
What we can imagine that Jesus would probably do — indeed what he definitely did do, is to suddenly, without warning, announce that his new kingdom is breaking in upon all of us, has broken in upon us, and that this kingdom is almost the exact reversal of what any of us thought kingdoms were supposed to be. This new king will not tolerate oppression and systemic poverty, nor he will excuse violence directed at those in power. He has no patience for any dirges or dances. He is here about his father’s business.
THE BELLS of Easter Sunday, comforting though they may be, are actually a call to war, albeit a nonviolent kind of war; a call to rise up, to act up, to announce to the powers and principalities that rule our nations that their power has an expiration date, that their rule is a sham, that their kingdom has been undone by the one who undoes death.
The rebuttal here has always been: Open your eyes. This kingdom you’re talking about — where the last are first, where the outsiders are preferred — is not here. There is war. There is evil. There is death and rape and racism and unemployment and sex trafficking. There is a brutally agonizing world here and now, and to pretend otherwise is either naive or morally bankrupt.
But Easter doesn’t deny these things. After all, even the resurrected body of Jesus contains crucifixion scars, which are Jesus’ eternal reminder that he was murdered by the very people he came to save. What Easter teaches is this: Even in the midst of the kingdom you’re living in, it’s possible to actually pledge loyalty to a different one. By feeding the hungry, forgiving your enemies, and providing shelter for the homeless, you can actually choose to live in the kingdom Jesus established.
Hope, then, is not a spiritual thing, or a reflective exercise; it’s decidedly physical. If you believe Jesus was raised from the dead, the obligation that Jesus puts upon you is to meet people’s physical needs. “Do not abandon yourselves to despair,” said Pope John Paul II. “We are the Easter people, and alleluia is our song.”
This alleluia is both a praise and protest. The world is made new, alleluia, and all lives matter. Creation is transformed, alleluia, and therefore let us embrace the strangers in our midst. The tomb is empty, alleluia, now let us work to heal the hurt of all those who have been discriminated against, made to feel like second-class citizens. In God’s kingdom, after all, there is only one class of citizen, because all have inherited the same birthright from their heavenly father.
Two thousand years later, the promise of Easter has not lost its power. The risen Jesus, then as now, invites us to live in this world as if it is somehow a different world.
Because, alleluia, it is.
Brandon Ambrosino covers culture and religion for Vox.com.