But why might resurrection be such a problem? Apart from the total confusion of present and long-term future which resurrection involved for the Jew, and the untidy blurring of boundaries between worlds for the Greek, there is another factor. When the dead did appear in vision or dream in the ancient world, it was often to denounce their killers; and the ancient empires specialized in mass slaughter. What would it have meant to a Roman to be told not only that the dead could return but that the ‘firstborn from the dead’, the first fruits of the harvest, was one who had been among the victims of the empire’s legal system? Ancient empires grew and survived by assuming that enormous quantities of human lives were expendable and unimportant; those who fell victim to the system simply disappeared. But what if they didn’t?
– Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Easter Sermon, 2004
(This is Neil.) Once again, I’d like to wish Todd and anyone who might chance upon this post a very blessed Easter. I would like to continue to meditate on the Resurrection with the 2006 Common Ground Lecture by the Boston College theologian Roberto S. Goizueta. This beautiful lecture helps us grasp why the Resurrection, as Archbishop Williams said a few years ago, might “be such a problem” – why there is an “unmistakable element in the resurrection stories in the gospels that speaks of terror and amazement.”
Professor Goizueta reminds us that Christ’s risen body still manifested the wounds of crucifixion. This might seem to pose interesting theological questions about the nature and continuity of the resurrected body. But Goizueta wishes us to confront a different, perhaps even more immediate, question. What might it mean for the apostles to encounter the man whom they have abandoned, betrayed and denied? The wounds on Jesus’ hands and feet present sheer and incontrovertible evidence that the apostles left Jesus to suffer alone at the hour of his greatest need – they are signs of abandonment. It is no surprise that the apostles are startled and terrified at his return (Lk 24: 37).
But Jesus has not appeared to bitterly denounce his betrayers. He speaks first and says, “Peace be with you.” He then invites the apostles to see his hands and feet to recognize what they had done. This, Professor Goizueta says, is in the context of reconciliation, not bloody vengeance. The apostles accept the offer and eat with Jesus. They are transformed by this encounter, now “witnesses” who will soon be “clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24:48-49). Professor Goizueta writes:
In his passion, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ thus incarnates, lives out, and makes historical the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus here becomes the prodigal father who, though having been abandoned, rushes out to welcome home his wayward son before the son even has a chance to say “I’m sorry.” That story, too, ends with a meal, a celebration. True reconciliation, true community, is made possible only when the demands of justice are transformed by an extravagant, gratuitous love that, still bearing the wounds of betrayal, pardons without counting the cost. It is thus the victim who makes possible the reconciled community.
This brings us to the preferential option for the poor. Goizueta writes, “Jesus Christ reveals the privileged position of the innocent victim as the mediator of God’s extravagant, unexpected mercy.” This is not because the poor are without sin, invariably holy, but because of their location. Because of this position, Jesus can extend through them the “forgiveness that transforms the logic of justice, the logic of suum cuique (‘to each what is due him or her’).” The poor can participate in God’s reconciling work in history by refusing to denounce their own betrayers. Through them, Jesus can instead transform what might seem to be inevitable and unending antagonism into the forgiveness that leads to the solidarity of oppressed and oppressors once more eating baked fish together.
This forgiveness does not lead to the violent destruction of the oppressor. Nor is it an act of masochism on the part of the poor, who must “forgive and forget” in denial of their wounds, or are brusquely told to “get on with their lives.” Forgiveness calls for the conversion of oppressors into a new solidarity. Goizueta quotes the Dominican theologian Christian Duquoc, “Forgiveness may be gratuitous, but it is not arbitrary; it calls for a change of attitude on the part of the offender or sinner, who enters into a new relationship with the person who forgives. This goes by the name of conversion.”
But this forgiveness of what we might call the “crucified people” has to come first before oppressors, like the apostles, are converted. It must be as gratuitous as Jesus’ original “Peace be with you,” of which it is but an echo. “It is thus the victim who makes possible the reconciled community.” The Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino (who has been in the news for other matters) very beautifully writes,
It is the acceptance that is forgiveness that adequately and wholly discloses the fact that I am a sinner and gives me the strength to acknowledge myself as such and change radically. The conversion demanded so radically by Jesus is preceded by the offer of God’s love. It is not conversion that requires God to accept the sinner; rather, just contrariwise, it is God’s acceptance that makes conversion possible.
We should take care to avoid a few mistakes. We should never glorify suffering, which is evil. The solidarity created by the victims’ forgiveness is meant to be a sign of the eschatological wiping away of every tear, the final end to suffering. Second, we should remember that the poor never actually take the place of Christ. The easiest way to remind ourselves of this is to recall that the victim in a particular relationship is always the victimizer in another. As James Alison writes, “We have only one self-giving victim, whose self-giving was quite outside any contamination of human violence or exploitation. The rest of us are all involved with that violence.” Nobody can stand pure and spotless against “sinners,” except the Christ who offers peace to us all.
Third, we should not set the “privileged position of the victim” against the institutional church. This might seem to be a protective maneuver meant to excuse hierarchical complacency. It is not. We must not turn away from the mediation of God’s mercy through victims. We must instead look at it as an essential reminder of the very identity of the church. Most of us can explain the four “notes” of the church: one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic. But Professor Goizueta quotes the Protestant theologian Douglas John Hall:
The earliest and most prominent manner of discerning the true church and distinguishing it from false claims to Christian identity was to observe the nature and extent of the suffering experienced by a community of faith. Why? Because, of course, as Paul makes clear . . . if you claim to be a disciple of the crucified one you must expect to participate in his sufferings; . . . you will have to become a community of the cross.
Victims cannot be set against the church as some sort of alternative, because the church must always already be participating in the sufferings of Christ in the “crucified peoples.” This is a theme that we can commonly find in Lutheran or Anabaptist theology, but it is hardly foreign to our Catholic theology. The late Cardinal Kung of China, who himself spent decades in prison, made this clear in a 1991 sermon that included the following example:
Once, when Pope Pius XII received a group of seminarians in audience, he asked them how many special signs distinguished the true Church of God. They answered immediately without further thinking, “It is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” The Pope said, “There is still a fifth sign.” The seminarians did not know how to answer. The Pope said, “Persecution.” So, if the Church enjoyed peace all the time without any persecution, it would be very abnormal. It would be a reason for us to worry and examine ourselves lest anything was going wrong.
So, in conclusion, perhaps one thing that we can and should learn from meditating on Christ’s Resurrection is the place of the poor in salvation history. We believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. We see the wounds that remind us that his followers left him behind, signs that might terrify us. But we still hear him say, “Peace be with you.” These words have been echoed by other innocent victims who have forgiven their betrayers. Goizueta gives an example of a five-year old girl who forgave her assailant from a wheelchair. We can also think of the final line of the Last Testament of the murdered Trappist monk Christian de Chergé, addressed to his killer: And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both.
Through these words, may we be converted into solidarity with the lives that we once thought were expendable and unimportant. This isn’t easy, and, if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll begin to realize why the Resurrection can be “such a problem.”