Lazarus, Come Forth: How Jesus Confronts the Culture of Death and Invites Us into the New Life of Peace
by John Dear
I thought this was so brilliant, and it applies much more broadly than to the peace, nonviolence, and anti-nuclear movements as traditionally understood, so I took that out where it seemed limiting and brought in some other environmental, climate, and decolonial/anti-domination system examples.
All excerpts and references are from the kindle version.
The Gospels depict Jesus engaged in a mighty struggle against death. He came, he said, to give sight to the blind, freedom to the captive, liberation to the oppressed, good news to the poor—in each case calling people to the fullness of life and to victory over the powers of death and deadness. His was a life of boundless compassion, creative nonviolence, and universal love. As we know, in his struggle against the deathly empire of his time, he gave up his own life.
Yet we also know that he was raised. With an empty tomb, a cast-off shroud, he left us unmistakable signs that God had vindicated life. In this world of death and woe, he left us the promise that life yet holds a slight edge over death. There is a name for this triumph of life through loving nonviolence. We call it “resurrection.”
This vindication of life over the power of death is a central theme in all four Gospels. According to the three Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all probably written within the space of a decade shortly before or after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.—the critical climax of Jesus’ ministry comes when he turns from his healing and preaching ministry in Galilee and heads toward Jerusalem to confront the most violent institutions of his day. In Herod’s Temple he finds the chief sign and symbol of imperial, worldly, religious, and divine power, all rolled into one. There he chastens the opportunistic religious authorities in their collaboration with Rome. Driving the money-changers from the Temple, he makes a public spectacle of himself, rebuking the alliance of religion and imperial power in profiting from the poor in the name of God.
By the wisdom of his day, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem was imprudent. By stirring the vipers in their nest, he must have known the likely consequences. Nevertheless, undeterred, he upset the tables of the money-changers and scattered the Temple coins. Here was a powerful countersign, an act of what today we would call “nonviolent civil disobedience.” This nonviolent Jesus was neither passive nor afraid; he was provocative, daring, public, and revolutionary. And he would not tolerate injustice anywhere. This civil disobedience becomes the apex for the narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is clearly the climactic moment of Jesus’ life, for which he is immediately arrested and put to death by the empire.
The same story appears in the Gospel of John, an account written some thirty or forty years later. But John presents a far different order of events. He begins Jesus’ journey with the demonstration in the Temple and has Jesus refer right there, as the angry authorities surround him, to his impending resurrection. For the culmination of his story, John chooses instead a far different episode: the famous account of the raising of Lazarus.
The raising of Lazarus is not found in any other Gospel. Traditionally presented as a demonstration of Jesus’ friendship with the sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany and their brother Lazarus, it is a story that highlights his capacity for human grief and the power of faith and prayer. But I believe it signifies much more.
John’s persistent theme is this: the God of life calls all human beings out of the culture of death into the fullness of life. It is a bold new view of Jesus’ presence among us. Jesus, the God of life, non-violently confronts the power of death itself and calls humanity to live in the new life of resurrection, here and now. The Synoptics speak of resurrection as a future reality. John doesn’t dispute that view. But he adds something new.
For John, the promise of resurrection is also now. In theological parlance, he preaches a realized eschatology. That is to say: We can live today without fear of death. We are free to renounce it, free to confront it, free to undermine the culture built on it, free to enjoy the fullness of God’s life within us and among us. Resurrection in John’s account means the freedom to break the unanimity of our repeated and rabid rush toward all that is extractive, destructive and dominating – death-dealing in various forms…63
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John turns us toward his precious discovery: resurrection is here and now, for one and all. And if we are free to defy deathly institutions, we are now free to pour out our lives in service to death’s victims, to offer compassion, to secure justice, to inoculate the world against its destructive, exclusive/disregarding, and death-dealing ways, to beat swords into plowshares and study war no more. We are freed to live as if death has no dominion this side of life. It is an audacious thesis. But on this John bases the very life of the nonviolent, life-giving Jesus. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ very life bespeaks resurrection. Wherever he goes, his disarming presence leaves merciless death embarrassed and impotent. Threats and dicey situations abound, but Jesus faces them with fearlessness and truth. The downtrodden who cross his path feel better, more dignified, because here is one with not a trace of violence in him.
“Jesus,” Daniel Berrigan once said to me, “didn’t have a mean bone in his body.” His life, all said, was a life of perfect nonviolence—a life which in the end could not be contained by death. It was a risen life even before resurrection had ever occurred. And John, in his roundabout way, sets this thesis before us. We too are summoned out of the culture of death into Jesus’ generative ways. All of us are called to share the risen life here and now. In John’s Gospel we hear the invitation over and over: “Enter eternal life today. Do not do the works of death. I have come that you might have life and life to the full. Whoever believes in the God of life will have nothing to do with death. Live in the new freedom of love and peace!”97
Jesus calls Lazarus friend, but in this context, Lazarus is more than a friend of Jesus; according to theologian Monika Hellwig, Lazarus represents humanity. If this is true—and I submit that it is the key to the entire Gospel—then John has taken us into deep waters. The story of this raising is John’s way of dramatizing how Jesus has come to call everyone and every culture out of the tombs of death and destruction into new life.
That is why this story is the dramatic culmination of John’s Gospel. The proprietors of death—the Sadducees, the Herodians, the courtiers of Pilate, all who benefit from imperial occupation—all feel in Jesus’ message a personal threat, and so they plot his demise. Death is all they know. They cannot run their empire, live off the backs of the poor, if some are offering everyone free access to the table and those resisters do not fear death. So they plot to kill him. But Jesus persists. From now on, lovers of God are free of death and its metaphors. The ruling authorities have lost their power; the sting of death is gone. Our resurrection has begun. In confronting the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus confronts every culture of death throughout history, including our own.110
Here begins the abolition of ways that destroy, leave death in their wake, or dominate and leave others beside the road. Here marks the end of greed, poverty, executions, environmental destruction, and every injustice. And it falls to us, following the example of the nonviolent Jesus, to carry on the work of life until all is fulfilled. As his followers, we are summoned to continue his story, take up his campaign, engage the culture of death by insisting on the fullness of life for one and all. And so I offer this meditation on the raising of Lazarus as an invitation.119
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The implications are rich and broad, and they brim with exciting new social, economic, religious, and political consequences. Have no fear. All of us are summoned. If we do our part for the global grassroots movement for justice and peace, then a new day of peace is truly at hand. Everyone can have a new chance to live life to the full. May we hear the call, roll back the stone, and emerge.125
The sisters sent word to him, saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.”138
“Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.” When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away. And many of the Judeans had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother.144
He cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”168
But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we going to do?171
God so loved the world that God gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have the fullness of life…. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever disobeys the Son will not see life. —John 3:16, 36184
A few verses later, we came to Mark’s central theme: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” What does this mean? I asked in full teacherly mode. What is this “Kingdom of God?” A moment passed. They glanced at each other. Then one took a breath and turned my way. In his voice was something like pity, as if my ignorance disappointed him. “The Kingdom of God,” he said with an impatient look, “is life.”212
God’s reign offers fullness of life for everyone. Friend and foe, us and them, east and west, north and south. Love and peace and joy for one and all, here and now.220
Fullness of life is the reign of God—the Kingdom of God is life. Live it up!225
Few live such richness of spirit. Most find themselves stuck in this world and its kingdoms, stuck in our cultures of greed and violence, misery and death. Life is hard, life is a struggle. For many, life means only death.228
Many labor for little; many come to early and unjust deaths. And over us all hovers the specter of weapons, pollution and environmental destruction, a result of a few thousand rich people spawning an epidemic of corporate greed.231
Alas, this seems to be the way of the world—a kingdom altogether different from the Kingdom of God. Call it the kingdom of death, and how hard for our transfixed minds to concede its reign. There is in the nature of deathly powers something elusive. Hectic and threatening and adroit at covering their tracks, they ensnare and overwhelm us; they exhaust our mental capacities, feeble as they often are. In biblical parlance, they possess us.236
The big business of death seems eminently normal—even desirable. To those who would mindlessly grab, the business of death yields big returns. To the rest? Who cares about the billions of the nameless and the faceless? Life has gone awry. And questions keep coming up. How can millions starve and we not feel it? How can the nation gear up for yet another war, and we ask no pointed questions? How is it that the Cold War is long over, and we resign ourselves, still, to nuclear arsenals? How can we carry on when the earth itself suffers from our destructive policies? *ADD HERE* Reaching for a familiar metaphor, I offer something of an answer, an inconvenient truth: we as a people have made a social contract with death. We’ve made a bargain with the Devil—somewhat like this: let us be reasonably safe and prosperous and we’ll rock no boats, we’ll turn a blind eye toward the suffering of the poor and of creation. Buy us off; we’ll go quietly along. It is, we know, a hurtful bargain, for once we sign on, our inner light extinguishes. We plow through life thereafter in vagueness and darkness, in harness to our paycheck.243
Kingdom of God? What might that be, and who understands? Beyond a narrowly parochial sense, we haven’t a clue what “fullness of life” is.253
(Time of Christ, debt, peonage, landgrabbing) Top of Form
Many were just surviving and focused on survival, no margin for error. These indeed were violent, oppressive times. And when the peasant fell behind, the Herodian elite and priestly aristocracy were on hand with false solace. With a serpent’s grin, they offered…credit. Credit pending appraisal of the collateral. More often than not it was the peasant’s ancestral land. Now his land turned to sinking sand. Another withered crop, another lean year, and the peasant went hopelessly in arrears. The land, his only asset, was foreclosed and conveyed to the creditor. More fertile acreage to join to the creditor’s already handsome estate. Here was a predatory investment scheme by anybody’s measure, and it was open to rulers and priests. They robbed the peasants through credit and tithe and all manner of religious fees. Poverty, hunger, debt, and empire. Life was short. None of this was unusual—it was the typical arrangement. Wherever Rome went they relied on the local aristocracy to make the imperial machine run without friction. By no means for the convenience of the people, but for the avarice of Rome. And for their services the ruling class was amply rewarded, namely, allowed a portion of the spoils of Pax Romana—the so-called peace that comes with empire. A false peace, as Calgacus famously said: “They create a desolation and call it peace.” It was The Way Things Were. Injustice everywhere and enigmatic forces too complex to unravel. Just as in our own times we resign ourselves and flounder, so did people in Jesus’ times.260
But in John’s Gospel, Jesus takes center stage and with a word or a gesture lifts the people’s burden and shows them a way out of the no-win system. Put an end to injustice, withdraw cooperation with the empire,272
The kingdom of God is at hand. Begin eternal life right now, he says. It is God’s good pleasure to give it to you. Eternal life, even now, is the will of God.274
John the Evangelist penned a magnificent opus to life. The God of life entered the deathly world to lead all to the fullness of life. Fullness of life here and now.276
John’s central theme: “life, and life to the full.”278
What came to be through him was life, and the life was the light of the human race. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1–5)281
The prologue declares that our discipleship into this life makes us “children of God.” We are to enter the fullness of life and become children of the God of life. We are to renounce every trace of death, live in God’s reign in peace with all humanity. That’s what we were created for, that’s what we are called to. More, it’s the only way out of the empire of domination, control, and death.283
Jesus, however, reveals a God of life and calls us to a freedom we can scarcely imagine.291
As he helps them imagine, he imagines and names his nature and role. Who does he say he is? The Living Bread, Living Water, Light of the World, the Good Shepherd, the Resurrection, the Vine, the Way, the Truth, the Life. Quite a piece of literature, it features poetic self-imagery, obtuse characters, public crises, and mounting death threats—a turbulent tale characterizing God’s reign of life breaking into our deathly world.301
Jesus asked of him radical discipleship—a clean break from complicity. One can’t have it both ways. One can’t enter fullness of life and still cling to the trappings of imperial domination, and power.in his case, by belonging to the Sanhedrin. God’s purpose isn’t domination but life, eternal life now—the purpose behind the famous words Jesus speaks to the hapless Pharisee: “For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” In the cycle of domination, we perish. The Son shows us new life in a world without the downward spiral.358
Such new life requires that we withdraw from all imperial aspirations and the deadly methods such aspirations employ.362
Jesus wants to have that same spiritual/political conversation with each of us. He invites us all beyond our narrow self-understandings—that egocentric sense of ourselves based on ethnic, cultural, and national distinctions.373
Until these are transcended we cannot claim our true identities as sons and daughters of God. Until then, we can’t very well love those outside the “tribe.” Jesus calls us to a broader vision. He bids us to come alive and see everyone as a brother or sister, each one a child of God. And together live life to the full. But to take Jesus at his word requires that we turn our backs to the culture of death. And it requires us in turn to be receptive to new possibilities. 375
We’ll forsake the violence of whatever culture we find ourselves in. And likely we’ll run off to proclaim our new discovery. Exhilarated and hopeful we’ll understand ourselves more deeply, sense our calling and direction more clearly. Every other interest will pale in comparison, and we’ll want to drop everything.381 (The Pharisees and Sadducees are) the ones who know the law of Moses best, and they recall the ancient provision: anyone who witnesses an act of adultery will likewise be subject to death by stoning. Jesus has not only saved the woman; he saved them too! “Let the one without sin.…” Jesus knows us all too well. We’re all sinners. Not one of us has the integrity, the authority, to judge or condemn others, much less order their execution. The Gospel writer is telling us: the days of stoning, killing, executing—and bombing—are over. God’s fullness of life requires humility, humaneness, nonviolence, and compassion. Here Jesus grants amnesty to the woman condemned. But the meaning of the episode goes further than that. John is telling us: Jesus saves us globally from our being condemned to death, a sentence we are scarcely aware of, so accustomed we are to it.391
One Sabbath day in the Temple, Jesus walks by and sees “a man born blind from birth”—the word anthropos meaning not just a single “man” but also all of “humanity.”409 John takes us into deep water again. He places an allegory on our hands. He’s portraying the human moral condition: we are all of us blind from birth. When the visionary Jesus heals the blind man, he heals all of us from darkness into the light of vision that we might see one another and live in peace.
But Jesus’ healing is not without opposition. The authorities feel slighted and affronted and determine to discredit the man. He’s hauled before them for interrogation; after him, his parents. As for Jesus, they cast him in a disreputable light: he’s a fraud, a sinner. But the man presses back, saying a healer like that can come only from God—an act of insubordination that outrages them further. “And they drove him out.” Hearing of the man’s excommunication, Jesus looks for him on the outskirts of the Temple and there receives the man’s worship. There, outside the Temple, the two of them cast out, Jesus finally receives the faith he seeks—not from the dutiful religious but the excommunicated marginalized. In this unnamed character, we find a model, a disciple ready to suffer and die for his allegiance to the life-giving Jesus.
One thinks the story was meant to encourage the struggling Johannine agape community. But it crosses the millennia and strengthens us as well. Cultures of death may well reject us, but we need not fear. Put your faith in the God of life and all will be well. John’s four figures help us understand. With the stunning “I am” sayings, John takes us further into the meaning of Jesus’ life. “I am,” Jesus says, “the Bread of Life, the bread which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (6:33). It’s an image that alludes to the manna in the desert, which sustained the Israelites on the cusp of starvation. “Your ancestors ate it,” Jesus said, “but still they died.” Still they died—which means in John’s mystical style, they went the way of the Canaanites.
Like all peoples finally, the Israelites themselves took for themselves a king and forged a covenant with death. Which is to say, they succumbed to imperial aspirations. The Israelites achieved sweeping dominion. And with the administration of Solomon it crested. He consolidated power by dismantling the Mosaic tribes.
Territories were expropriated, tribute was exacted. Armories were built and artisans put to work turning out chariots for his standing army. He conscripted battalions of laborers, who under the lash erected marvels of architecture, including the Temple, adorned to enshroud the king in holy mists of elevation and honor—not unlike the ancient pharaoh. A bitter irony. But such is the accustomed way of empire. Its foundations are war and intrigue and, invariably, the backs of the poor. They ate the manna, said Jesus. And still they died. But then a distinction is made, a new gift offered. “This is the bread,” pointing to himself, “that comes down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Instead of subjugation, equality; instead of tyranny, mutuality; instead of the terrors of death, fullness of life. Jesus offers “a more excellent way.”
This bread, if we receive it, ends the famine of domination, greed, and violent power. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven…the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” A down-to-earth soteriology. Joining his substance to ours, so to speak, makes us nonviolent children of God. Then will the world resonate with sweet life, not the discord of death. The world will become a haven of life for all. Building this haven becomes Jesus’ project. He heals the son of an official, saying, “You may go, your son will live.” In Jerusalem he asks a man by the pool of Bethesda, a pool believed to heal, “Do you want to be well? Rise, take up your mat and walk.” He bears the gift of new life, starts in his own day the process of resurrection. Rise, he commands. Live, he says. “Just as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so also does the Son give life…411
He protects against forces of death, from any who would do harm. We are not to understand the allusion as suggesting heaven or as pointing to a numinous afterlife, but a place where the sheep might have “life to the full.” A place of plenty and self-determination. And not even a place, rather a mind-set, a courageous spirit, a heart for mutuality.
The pasture represents a life-affirming understanding of God. In God’s name, we are free now to refuse to submit to cultural limits on our humanity. We’re free to conspire to cast off our enforced mind-sets and enjoy one another in peace. The pasture means wherever life prevails.452
Rather he defends the sheep by laying down his life—and taking it up again. This is the way, against all reason, to shatter cruel power. It is the way, paradoxically, toward fullness of life. It is the way beyond death. And so a new shepherd is in town. And one can all but feel priestly acrimony rise. Up until now, the title of shepherd lay in their domain. Enraged, they shout, “You are out of your mind.” And the episode ends with their reaching for stones. A telling reflex. It goes to show that social structures stand on foundations of death. The rulers know well the efficacy of killing. As the story unfolds, plots against Jesus’ life gather steam. In fact, throughout the religious authorities consistently show themselves shocked, scandalized, threatened. To their ears Jesus’ talk sounds like blasphemy. They’ve so structured power that his words are manifestly illegal.458 Jesus submits his grievance: “You are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth I heard from God.” They deny it even as they organize efforts to take him down.465
When the rulers send guards to haul him in, the guards linger at the fringe of the crowd and take in his words. They find themselves moved and inspired, and they refuse the order to make the arrest (7:44). Returning empty-handed, they are interrogated by the rulers. “Why did you not arrest him?” “Never has anyone ever spoken like this,” they answer. One of the great victories of the nonviolent Jesus.
Those in the Tombs Will Come Out
Naturally enough, the authorities don’t let up. As he persists in healing and proclaiming new life, the rulers turn up the heat. They interrupt, challenge, attack, try to discredit. They threaten, contradict,467
They reject a God who brings fullness of life. Their privilege and power are at stake here. If people take up this resurrection hope, it will undermine the foundation of their rule, maybe of the empire itself. He must be stopped. As for Jesus, he will not stop. To the extent that the culture stands on violence, he will stand against culture. As a consequence, for his remaining days, he will be a hunted man. The world is drunk with violence. Jesus’ entering the world is the intervention it desperately needs.
Often friends confront an alcoholic, force him to recognize his addiction, urge him to renounce it, and invite him to become sober. The same with Jesus. The God of life intervenes in the world, shows us our sickness, and summons us to the sobriety.473
God is a God of love and peace, compassion and mercy—a God who resists violence. And Jesus embodies this God. “The hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life,” Jesus announces. He is determined to lead us into the new life of love and peace. He will not tolerate death in any form.
Incorrigible, fearless, truthful, insistent, nonviolent, he sides with the poor and marginalized, resists the systems that bring death to people, points the way to a lifetime of peace, and expects us to follow. He tries to liberate us from slavery to violence and death. Over and over, Jesus confronts the rulers with an unbearable truth, namely, that death has no dominion, that we were created for Life, with a capital “L.” No episode better portrays this than the raising of Lazarus.
The authorities tried to stone Jesus to death in the Temple. Then they tried to assassinate him in the Bethany area of Judea. Jesus escapes, and this time, he walks back across the Jordan River to a safe, quiet place, where our story first began. He is still being hunted down by the authorities. There, in that quiet wilderness area by the Jordan River, Jesus hears the news that one of his closest friends, Lazarus of Bethany, is dying and then has died. To his disciples Jesus says, let’s go back. But they recoil in fear. Here to their minds is an unnecessary risk. Hadn’t Jesus just escaped an attempt on his life there? What makes him think he’ll fare better this time? But Jesus knows. As the God of life, he must confront death, so he tells his stunned disciples that he is turning around and walking right back to Judea, right back to the place where the authorities just tried to kill him. He will lead humanity from death to life, even if it means facing, once again, the empire’s death squads. He will fulfill the life of agape, and love his friends even to the point of laying down his life if necessary.
As we arrive at John’s chapter 11, we realize we have not made a long journey to Jerusalem, where Jesus engages in civil disobedience in the Temple. Instead, we’ve seen a series of subversive teachings and signs, nearly all of them causing crises and confrontations and death threats and assassination attempts on Jesus’ life. Like the characters who struggle to believe Jesus’ words and deeds, we too find his teachings hard to accept. We too struggle to understand who he is and what this promise of eternal life means. We too find it hard to imagine standing with him as he faces the rulers and their death squads. We do not know what resurrection is, much less what a more abundant life might feel like.
We cannot grasp what it might mean to never taste or see death. Few today appreciate this fundamental teaching. And how strange, since we live in the technologically deadliest generation of all time, in a world on the brink of “nonexistence.” We of all people should understand the grip of death. Who ever needed this good news of “the fullness of life” more than us? We’ve made a bargain with death, the same as the authorities in the narrative of John’s Gospel. Some of us are wary of the implications of life. Others among us despair that change can happen, that nothing can be done. So what’s the use of getting involved? What’s the use of granting Jesus a hearing? But John’s Jesus dogs us all our days. The God of life has overrun our deathly world, and his mission still stands: “I have come to bring you life, and life to the full.” Brace yourself!478
THE RAISING OF LAZARUS
I am the way and the truth and the life. —John 14:6
Just as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so also does the Son give life to whomever he wishes. —John 5:21
The hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.…Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life. —John 5:25, 28
This is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day. —John 6:40
Chapter 3 “NOW A MAN WAS ILL”506
We presume that Jesus will drop everything and heal him immediately. But we also remember that the last time we were told about an ill man, who was blind—he represented humanity.517
Humanity is sick, John is telling us artfully. The human race is ill, dying and helpless. Then, when we hear that Lazarus has died, we know: humanity is altogether dead. The human race is lifeless, lying inside a tomb, no longer breathing, a victim of its own culture of violence and death.520
Lazarus was apparently one of Jesus’ closest friends. His name, diminutive from the Hebrew “Eleazer,” means “God helps.” But according to scripture scholar Wes Howard-Brook, John’s use of this priestly name may be subversive. With Lazarus’s death, John might be referring to the death of the non-Jerusalem priesthood, the indigenous priesthood that the religious elite in Jerusalem had been trying to repress since Jeroboam first led people away from Jerusalem nine centuries earlier. It may also refer to the death of the violent priestly tradition of the sons of Aaron: Eleazar and then Phinehas (see, e.g., Numbers 25 and 1 Maccabees 2). Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha live not far from Jerusalem, in the village of Bethany. One imagines that they often offered Jesus a place of respite from the road, a place of friendship, support, food, and warmth. Their names come up in the Gospel of Luke (10:38–42). Jesus stops at their house in Bethany.527
(We recall the earlier story of Martha and Mary) Sister Joan Chittister. “It is pure revolution.” Women were not allowed to sit among men and forbidden to sit at the feet of a holy religious leader. Martha wasn’t put out or inconvenienced; she was mortified, scandalized. Her sister violated custom and tradition. What if word got around? But Jesus isn’t fazed. He welcomes Mary to join in. He not only lets her sit at his feet, like any of his male disciples, he says she has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.539
How honorable of Jesus; how brave of Mary. Jesus’ teachings intrigue her, this liberating talk of fullness of life and peace. Her heart soars at his words, and she gathers the courage to pull in close. And as for Jesus, no surprise that the Holy One who leads us from the ways of oppression and death would welcome a woman to listen. Of course he regards women as equals. The fullness of life is for all, for women as well as for men. One only hopes that Martha left the kitchen and broke through the male establishment—and her own fear—to sit next to her sister at the feet of the Master. Back in John’s Gospel, we are told that this same Mary is the one who anoints “the Lord” with myrrh and wipes his feet dry with her hair.543
The tale of Lazarus’s death and resurrection must be read within the context of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Jesus’ raising the dead man, his beckoning humanity into life, will cost Jesus his own. And, presumably, in some measure, ours as well. F
or now, Jesus abides across the Jordan River. He has just escaped an assassination attempt in Bethany, and word has come that his friend Lazarus is sick, and then dead. We note that the message comes with few details. In the Greek, it reads: “The one whom you are friends with is sick.” Scripture scholar Wes Howard-Brook notes that it bears the anonymous tone of an underground movement, where messages are necessarily cryptic. No names, no details, lest the message fall into wrong hands. The secrecy hints of a guarded network of a subversive community. The message arrives, and we the readers expect one of two things. Jesus will stay put because Judea’s death squads had just recently tried to kill him and still have orders to kill him. Or he will head to Bethany with haste and keep Lazarus from dying. Neither happens. Rather he lingers by the Jordan then announces to his disciples: let’s head back to Bethany. By then two days have passed.550
Up until now we haven’t known that Lazarus’s illness was critical. Nor do we have any sense of what the glory of God means, nor how an illness might glorify the “Son of God.” Each word adds to our confusion. In the original Greek are added connotations to help us understand. “The one you love is ill,” the sisters report. Of the many Greek words for love, here they use philia, meaning “the love between friends.”
When in John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of love, he employs the extraordinary word agape, meaning extravagant, unconditional, sacrificial, universal, nonviolent love—the love that lays down one’s life for one’s friends. How hard for us to understand, but Jesus held his three friends in an embrace of agape—the larger meaning being: Jesus so loved them he laid down his life for them. Jesus will come to practice what he preaches. He loves Lazarus; he loves humanity. He will risk his life for Lazarus—and humanity. Still, why does Jesus dawdle for two days while his friend grows sicker by the minute? His answer has something to do with the glory of God and the glorification of the Son of God, this Jesus.563
“Glory” nowadays comes with winning the Oscar or an Olympic gold medal or election to high office. But the reader of the Gospel will soon learn. The glory of God comes through nonviolently resisting empire and its idols, even unto death. God bestows glory on those who enact perfect agape for humanity. For agape and nonviolent resistance are the way to resurrection—John’s metaphor for fullness of life—and resurrection is the ultimate glorification of the Son of God.572
The Gospel gives us no clue as to whether the disciples are acquainted with Lazarus and his sisters. But they are quite acquainted with the dangers lurking in Bethany, on the other side of the river. “Rabbi, the Judeans were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” We can imagine the urgency in their voices: “Are you crazy? Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Why are they afraid? Because they do not want to get killed! They want no part of the perils he would face again in Bethany. “Let us go.…” he says. They say, “Rabbi…are you going…?” The clash of pronouns tells much. They still do not grasp Jesus’ fierce determination to confront death on every front. They are afraid—for Jesus, perhaps, but mainly for themselves.
We do well to pause for a moment and notice how like them we are. We have many fears, and, surely, the prospect of assassination would terrify any one of us. Jesus, on the other hand, does not let fear rule his life. He feels it, we presume, but acts against it. He does so because he trusts his beloved God. He believes in the power of life. He knows that doing what is right—acting in truth, resisting injustice, loving his friends, practicing nonviolence—will set him free to enter, from this moment, the richness of eternal life. “Are there not twelve hours in a day?” Jesus asks them. “If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” Here he continues an oration from an earlier episode, just before he healed the blind man (John, chapter 9). Then he had said: “We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:4–5). The point is: let Jesus be our light. As long as we live in his light, we shall see our way forward even in the darkness on the path to new life. He is our way out of the culture of death, out of the tombs, into the culture of life,575
Finally, in a poetic turn of phrase, Jesus tells them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep but I am going to awaken him.” The disciples, always obtuse, get confused and get it wrong. “If he is asleep, he will be saved.” “Saved” here does not mean our popular concept of “salvation”—dying in grace and going to heaven. It means here to be made well. The Gospel writer lays stress on their gaffe. “Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought Jesus meant ordinary sleep.”592
Our friend Lazarus… Lazarus, we learn finally, is their friend too! For Jesus, friendship forms the basis of the fullness of life. We read later: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And at the last supper, he says: “I no longer call you slaves, but friends.” It slowly dawns on us. Jesus is a God of love and peace who wants to be our friend. And if we hang in with the story to its fullest conclusion, the realization pierces our defenses. In Jesus, God seeks friendship with humanity.
God sees the whole human race as God’s dear friend. Reverting to the allegory, Jesus’ returning to raise his friend carries the mystery of God turning the divine gaze in friendship to help entombed humanity. Sad to say, friendship has fallen out of fashion these days. Our lives are so busy and complicated we have little energy to make new friends. More than that, friendship is no longer a part of our model of life. We don’t see life anymore as a journey together with others, or even with God. Our culture fragments. Young people fall into isolation, caught up as they are in the culture’s competitive rat race. They fall into the traps of alcohol, drugs, random sex, militarism, and the pursuit of money—all of these destructive of community and friendship. Often even the church fails to encourage friendship. It rather puts people in their places and strongly implies: stay put or be ostracized. Or in extreme cases, expelled. What are you willing to do for your friends? Jesus asks the fearful disciples. Are you willing to risk your lives for Lazarus? As I am for humanity? The question hangs in the air, awaiting our response. Need it be added, conventional wisdom offers a ready reply. A stentorian No. The wise thing is to watch out for number one. Take care of our own. Our culture forces us into a cloud of cynicism, coldness, judgmentalism. Though we’re part of humanity, we’ve by and large forsaken it. We carry a few loved ones in our hearts—our spouses, children, relatives, a handful of friends. We may—at our rare best—lay down our lives for a spouse or a child. But for a friend, not so likely. For the human race? Not in our wildest dreams.
At bottom, we think none too highly of human beings. I’ve spoken to many young people around the world, and they confide in me a seismic shift: the welfare of humanity isn’t worth the effort. Humanity exhibits little awareness, little gratitude, little self-criticism, little learning from their mistakes. Many young people would rather expend their energies on behalf of animals and the earth. At least the earth, when it’s cared for, returns the favor by flourishing with verdant life. At least the dark watery eyes of animals express their quiet thanks.
Still, the best among us have proven that befriending humanity is possible. They’ve proven that giving our lives for the other—for humanity itself—is our highest calling. Nelson Mandela, for instance. He languished twenty-seven years in a narrow cell in South Africa. And all because of his single-minded desire to end apartheid and rebuild a reconciled society. Dorothy Day is another example. For nearly fifty years she lived with the homeless and pressed New York’s bureaucracies to do right by them. Time and again, she also protested our wars and weapons. Most of all, we see the love of humanity among our martyrs: from Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian farmer whom the Third Reich beheaded for refusing Hitler’s conscription, to Martin Luther King Jr., who took an assassin’s bullet for resisting racism, poverty, and war. The best among us show us. Willingness to give our lives for others exemplifies the fullness of life, the fullness of humanity—a gold standard that springs from Jesus himself. He modeled the highest of human callings. “Our friend Lazarus… Let us go…”597
Then he adds, I am glad for you that I was not there…We balk at the words; they grate against our sensibilities. But there was something in Jesus’ thinking along these lines: “Afterwards, when Lazarus has been raised, perhaps then they will understand.” God isn’t an angry, provincial God but a universal God of resurrection and life. Perhaps his disciples would learn to believe. Here, for Jesus, was something worth hoping for, and the prospect made him glad, the only moment in his public life he uses the word. Such an elaborate plan makes us realize, of course, that in the believing department, the disciples must have constantly been falling short. The sticking point is their fear, which prevents their practice of agape for their friends. The idea of walking into the jurisdiction of Bethany, even for the noblest of reasons, terrifies them. They hem and haw. They rationalize. “He’s just sleeping; a few more days and he’ll probably be fine. More importantly, you just escaped an attempt on your life. Better stay away from that place. Lazarus will be saved, right?” Not a trace of agape among them; they don’t seem particularly glad.
And when news finally comes down that Lazarus is dead, they calculate again. “Why bother now? Nothing can be done. You can make no difference now. Don’t bother trying; it isn’t worth the risk.” Through the lens of John’s allegory, John shows us our own cynicism, fear, despair, and faithlessness. “Things are too hard, societies too intractable. Let’s be smart and take no risks. Let’s take care of our own and play it safe. You can only do so much.”
The genius of John, he speaks on two levels at once. On the level of the narrative, Jesus is undeterred. “Let us go to him,” he says. He wants this chance to reveal the God of resurrection and life, a chance to glorify the Son of God. His hour is coming. And he sees it happening, the day his disciples will believe and follow his example. And even beyond that, a day when all humanity will take up his way of courageous love. Not only will they be raised, they’ll transform their culture of death into a culture of life. He leaves for Bethany filled with hope. He goes rejoicing.
Here at this moment of decision, one of the disciples speaks up, Thomas, called Didymus, whom we’ve never heard of before. He says, “Let us also go to die with him.” Thomas makes two other appearances in the Gospel. A few days from now, he will interrupt Jesus during his last supper discourse and ask, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (14:5). “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus tells him.
Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, when the ten other remaining disciples tell him they have seen the risen Lord, he refuses to believe. In both cases, he’s easy to reprove. When he hears about Jesus’ resurrection, I think he wants to believe, but can’t. The implications are too grand; they bear too heavily on his mind. He requires proof. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). But resurrection comes by way of a cross—a sticking point. Another sticking point—it turns our presumptions of culture upside down.
And we recoil like Thomas. Thus Jesus offers him proof. “Touch my wounds…and believe.” Touch and believe; the two go hand in hand. We meet the risen Jesus when we touch the wounds of the world—the wounds of the poor, the wounds of the suffering. No one comes to believe meaningfully in the possibilities—for peace, justice, for the fruits of resurrection—until he or she touches the wounds of the world’s crucified peoples. Without that, our believing reeks of sanctimony, hypocrisy, and religiosity. Through our work among the homeless, in soup kitchens and shelters, through our work with the sick and dying, our work among migrants and prisoners, our work in war zones and refugee camps, our work in our broken inner cities, whenever we…626
This is a consistent Gospel pattern. Once you encounter the risen Christ by touching his wounds in the world’s poor, you find yourself on a route different than you had planned. Thereafter you’re likely to speak up, to advocate for justice, to accept being embroiled in legal trouble. Christ rises in you, and you begin a new resurrection life. And soon the Gospel life takes on a political mystique—the doubting Thomas episode makes this clear. He sees, he touches. And now believing, he utters his first subversive words. “My Lord and my God”—the same title, word for word, demanded by Domitian, emperor from 81 to 96 C.E., the generation in which John wrote. Any other claimant to the title—and his followers—was suspected of treason and subject to arrest and execution. Thomas then comes under a new light. His doubts had less to do with mere cognizance of facts than with their implications. Belief requires conversion and response. And Thomas responds. He embraces his future, which consists now of nonviolent resistance to the brutal empire. If necessary, to the point of martyrdom.660
But I jump ahead. Here in John’s chapter 11, Jesus says to his (male) disciples, “Let us go to Lazarus,” this even if death squads are patrolling for him. And this is when Thomas nobly lifts his voice. “Let us go and die with him.” On the face of it, how brave he is! Finally, a disciple willing to shoulder the same risks as Jesus, ready to be identified with the Holy One—the strongest support offered by any of the male disciples in the four Gospels. But wait. What happens? Thereafter, they’re nowhere to be found. They never appear in the rest of the story! We hear nothing of them again until verse 54—long after the story has ended and Jesus has gotten himself again safely to their desert hideout. I submit that, in the end, they stay put in relative safety, and Jesus goes to Bethany alone. Thomas and the male disciples say the right things, but can’t get their feet to move. They are all talk, but they do not walk the walk. When push comes to shove, when the discipleship journey must finally begin, they’re nowhere to be seen.
In Thomas, we see ourselves. This is the habit of many churchmen today. We heap our praises on Jesus, lift our prayers up to him, say we’ll follow. But facing death is another matter. We don’t lift a finger in the effort to end war, disarm our nation, dismantle our nuclear arsenal, save the planet and people everywhere from climate “suicide” (in Pope Francis’ words) or abolish poverty. Creating new life-giving energy, political or economic systems, or civil disobedience in the style of Gandhi and King lie quite off the map. Where are our ministers, priests, and bishops in the struggle for justice, decolonization, restoration of our environment, disarmament, and peace, against the many guises of death? They’re nowhere to be seen. They’re not part of the story. Jesus walks alone.668
Chapter 4 “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE”
Jesus returns to Bethany, alone and unarmed, entering a region where, if the authorities can avoid arousing a public outcry, they will seize this subversive and deal with him in the standard way. Notwithstanding the dangers, he goes in a spirit of perfect mindfulness, nonviolence, and peace. He remains centered in the God of life, who calls him “My Beloved.” That abiding sense of God’s love, whatever happens, keeps him from succumbing to worry, anger, or fear. That is the secret to his daring nonviolence.
Few of us attain such peaceableness. Not many reach such heights of composure and poise. Small disruptions throw us off. How easily we anger, grow anxious and judgmental. Mindfulness eludes us; our normal mental state is scattered mindlessness. The violence on television only feeds our agitation. Wounds still fester from the violence of our earliest years. And the unending series of vicious crimes and wars preys on our minds. Our routine each day pulls us this way and that, and so hectic are our days that rarely do we feel at peace.
But here we read of Jesus, mindful and at peace, though he knows that the death squads are out there and have their instructions. How does he do that? How does he embody such peace? His every step is peaceful. His mind rests in truth. His heart is filled with unconditional love. He takes in awareness with every breath. And he can do it because he knows who he is.682
He is free to trust, and as he enters a perilous region, he has reason to be glad. God will be glorified; perhaps his disciples will believe. At any rate, he knows to whom he belongs; his life is complete. He belongs to his beloved God, and he knows that, in the long run, all will be well. And so he is centered and mindful. Jesus embodies peace.695
Where mercy is involved, he’s undeterred. He goes to liberate Lazarus or, in the broader sense, to liberate us all. Nothing passive or disingenuous about it at all. He shows himself as direct and fearless; he intends, despite the certainty of affronting the authorities, to challenge the pretensions of death. And the pretensions of the rulers, who wield coercion like a sword. Jesus’ plans are laid out, and he’ll see them through. Anyone who claims to be Jesus’ follower is assigned the very same task.
Not only are we to reorder our lives toward what is generative and life-giving for all, we’re summoned to go farther and challenge our culture of war—this for the liberation of everyone everywhere. We too are summoned to undertake that journey on behalf of humanity. It’s an arresting image of Jesus that John portrays—Jesus walking, vulnerable, into the face of danger, prepared to meet the very crowd that tried once already to do away with him, eager to help his friend, determined to liberate humanity from the culture of death. This brave Jesus seeks people to join his movement, where no one is undeserving or forgotten. He wants followers who will walk with him. And so the story serves as more than a story. It carries something of an invitation. We’re invited—you and I and everyone. Jesus invites us to follow his example, to join his campaign. We can do this, because John’s Jesus is trustworthy; we know in our bones that he’s right. If we journey with him and bear his spirit of love, nonviolence, and mindfulness, we’ll find our lives bathed in blessings and meaning. More, we’ll reach a critical mass, create a global grassroots movement, and change the world. “Join my long walk to Bethany,” the nonviolent Jesus says, “my cosmic Selma march to liberate humanity from death. I promise you the fullness of life.”
The People of the Culture of Death
Bethany is but two miles from the big city. A short jog from the local seat of power, the rulers and their retainers and the acquiescent crowds.698 Though Lazarus’s death evokes public sorrow, in their hearts lies a spirit of murder. The sick man dies and by rote the crowd sheds tears. But the One most alive comes under the crowd’s evil eye. Tears notwithstanding, they are servants of death because they still stand poised to do death’s bidding. Meantime, they go by the book and honor the time-honored traditions. Model citizens, all of them—public servants, abiders by the law, devotees of the Temple. But inwardly, they’re jealous, greedy, violent—bound by the shady spirit of power and empire, prepared to crush all who threaten their (or their leaders’) lucrative domination over society.
Good people by all appearances, on hand to grieve with the grieving, but to their dark minds there are some they deem expendable. First we did this with those we encountered in the Americas, killing many, then, of those remained, going so far as to forcibly take their children away from them to re-educate them in our schools. Whether it was women of European descent killed as witches for their practice of native medicine, or the mere suspicion, or in modern times, those who rock the boat deserve to die.
Despite its cultivated image of proper response and mourning, before Lazarus’ tomb, the crowd, to use modern jargon, is not “pro-life.” Little today has changed. We too mourn our dead, yet we scarcely pay heed to our culture of death. We too call ourselves “pro-life,” but there are always exceptions. Deep down, we still believe some are expendable. Indians at Standing Rock can deal with poisoned water we calculate as too high a risk for Bismarck to face, in North Dakota. Land is taken when it is deemed to be needed. Again and again we hear of “underutilized” land, taken for nearly nothing, without regard to who or what lives and whose lives are based on and in it now. It’s taking and profit über alles.
We see the discrepancy in our values in our scripted public grief for the young who die in Iraq and Afghanistan—moments of silence are observed, flags lowered—even as we cheer the war on and pony up large tax liabilities to keep it going. We grieve for our dead and yet urge our young to join.718 In recent years our government has not allowed the media to bring images of the hundreds of caskets into our living rooms. It doesn’t want any true grief, the kind that might lead to a new spirit of compassion, that might sap our energy for war and create a movement to stop the killing. The culture allows the pretense of grief, enough to keep the wars going, “to honor the dead.”729 No questions can be asked. Public grief must be controlled, manipulated, used for the big business of war.733
How might we move from serving death to following the nonviolent Jesus? How can we align our hearts with the Gospel vision of humanity? In other words, how might we foster nonviolent hearts, nonviolent lives, and nonviolent cultures? How much do we truly grieve for those who have died, for the millions who die from conquest, destruction, polluted air (4-7 million/year), war and poverty? And how can we renounce our cooperation with the culture of death that kills the world’s poor and leads others to grieve? The Jesus who walks alone to Bethany shows the way. Namely, we are to side with the victims, walk to where the culture of death goes unchallenged, and be emissaries on behalf of life. We can grieve for those who have died, but not as “professional mourners.” Like him, we take action to make sure that no one else dies from our culture’s wars and greed, that no one else has to grieve for the innocent victims of state-sponsored violence. If we trust in the God of life and love, then we can follow him on that path and lead others beyond grief, false and true, to new life and real hope.737
Jesus arrives at last and learns that Lazarus has been in the tomb now for four days. The soul, according to Jewish tradition, leaves the body after three days. Now it has been four; Lazarus is hopelessly gone.746 If we survey the world and then our own hearts, we’ll find Martha’s despair to be our own. But we avoid looking; we are passive. Our despair runs so deep, we do not even voice it, as Martha does. As violence tears apart the human race, we scarcely take notice anymore and fail to act. Hardly a surprise then that violence and destruction come back to haunt us. Violence upon violence leads to further violence. It’s proverbial: what goes around comes around. If we fail to break the cycle, violence and destruction like a boomerang will come back to strike us.
The cycle is our doing, not God’s. Injustice, violence, empire, and war—the Gospel insists these are not the will of God. It is we who abide the violence of culture. We cannot justly blame God. But deep down we do. Our despair before Christ derives not from an impassive God but our lack of faith. Somehow we haven’t been able to trust in the balance God offers us in nature or the climate in which humanity has flourished these past 8,000 years, or Christ’s manifest ways of love, nonviolence, compassion, and justice.
At church we offer our rote prayers, ignorant of the price Jesus pays in reaching out to us. And not only the price he pays but the Way he offers. Out of love he takes his chances and asks the same of us. But we do not trust Christ or God. Instead of thanking Jesus for coming to us, we complain bitterly like Martha. Instead of noticing how he walks into a mob of death squads to stand with us, we focus, like Martha, only on ourselves.
What should we say to Jesus? We should realize that he always has our best interests in mind, that he only wants to help us, that he is always helping us, and that he is worthy of our trust. He would never hurt us or do anything against us. Our first, most fitting response should be gratitude: for his taking the initiative, for risking his life to side with us, for showing us the way, for standing with us, for becoming our way. “If you had been here,” Martha blurted. Then she realizes her gaffe. Quickly she regroups and takes another tack: “Even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Another big mistake. She presses Jesus to pray, even tells him how to do it. In an instant she moves from disappointment to bossiness. She has yet to learn how to sit attentively at his feet and listen, as Mary did in Luke’s Gospel. Instead, she makes Jesus listen to her. So far, Martha hasn’t let him get in a word.
John is deftly composing another figure, Martha, who models our behavior. I think back on my prayer life in the mid-1980s. Reporting to my spiritual director in 1990, I told her proudly of my regular morning meditation. “Every day I forcefully demand that God put an end to the war in Central America and an end to nuclear weapons. I angrily chide God for not being here to help us, and tell God in no uncertain terms what to do,” I said. Finally, Sister Jane Ferdon, my exasperated spiritual director, looked at me and asked: “Is that how you talk to someone you love?” That moment, for me, was a breakthrough.755 We’re none too shy about telling God to do what we say. Our impulse, since the foundation of the world, has been to control God to do our will. Our doing God’s will lies quite off the map. Follow the way of Jesus? We would rather try to compel Jesus to pray as we want, to do as we want. Few of us want to listen to Jesus, much less do God’s will. And so we do all the talking; he can’t get a word in edgewise. The saints tell us that prayer is formal time for our lifelong relationship with our beloved God, with Jesus. During our daily meditation, we learn to sit at the feet of the one we love and listen attentively. Over time, we can sit and rest in silence.777 That journey begins with contemplative listening, nonviolent love, and abiding trust, no matter what.
Your Brother Will Rise
It goes against reason, but it’s good that Jesus ignores our manipulations783 So habituated we are to the ways of death and war that little do we realize how weak our faith is in the God of life. Jesus, on the other hand, developed perfect faith, and so he can stand before us patiently and with compassion as we rail blindly at God at the way things are.785
God’s patience disarms us and begins the process of healing and faith. Jesus takes her seriously and, in the end, tries to hearten her. “Your brother will rise.” An intrepid promise by any measure: your brother will rise! What does that mean? I wonder if, in our common dullness, many of us have pondered this declaration and let it sink in. Your brother will rise. Can we fathom how revolutionary these words are? They point to an astonishing view of reality: despite its haughty presumptions, death will not be permitted the last word. Humanity and its cultures will rise to new life. Life in the end will edge out death.788
If yes, then our belief should mightily bear on our lives today. It should provoke a radical shift away from the culture of death. It should guide us into the freedom to love and serve humanity—boldly, with courage, without any fear or recourse to violence. We should discern and realize what is needed for life, for flourishing for all, and make our stance and choice based on that, as GCCM, Pope Francis, and the Paris Agreement has for a 1.5 C target upper limit for climate change. Across our death-dealing systems, we are called to turn around now, with courage and commitment to life.
Our belief in resurrection should liberate us to live life and serve life and help others into that eternal space of peace, love, and joy, and so resist the culture of death. Your brother will rise: The first words of Jesus, when at last Martha gives him space to speak, are words of hope.795
Let’s imagine him before us and hear his words—your brother will rise—and let his hope take root in us and dispel our despair and complacency. You brother will rise, Jesus says to each one of us. Your sister will rise. Your father will rise, your mother will rise, your friends will rise. All will rise, Jesus says. We stand there dumbfounded, mouths hanging open. Our options for understanding are few. Either Jesus is mad—unlikely or we would have forgotten him long ago—or something new is upon us. The challenge is to take him at his astonishing word. That is the beginning of hope and new life. Indeed, that is the beginning of our own resurrections. Listen to Jesus, trust him, and accept his promise. If we do, then we have embarked into the fullness of life.800
Jesus, however, knows something we do not know. The last day has come and gone! We are now in the first days of resurrection! We have already entered upon eternal life. It begins today, here and now. Death no longer has any sway. Jesus belittles it; he compares it with sleep. Jesus knows Lazarus will rise. And death, as it were, will die. And Jesus wants us to trust in this. To trust in it like second nature—which is why he told Nicodemus he must be born from above. Trusting in resurrection requires a new kind of person, —one who renounces death, domination, denial or discouragement as a methodology. And who does this naturally? It has to be as if by a second birth. For Jesus, such faith, such hope, such promise comes naturally. He wants us to believe naturally too.
He wants us to know that with him the day of new life has arrived! Martha’s bleak resignation reaches his ears, and Jesus presses back. You don’t understand, Martha. Hope is more immediate than you think. Today is the day after the last day. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Here, we have the Gospel in one sentence, a truth so deep that we must return to it daily, let it sink in, listen to it, and take it to heart. Jesus is resurrection, Jesus is life, and so, his generative, compassionate approach, his mission, is our hope. Our only hope.
Once again, John places the name of God from the book of Exodus in the mouth of Jesus. “Who,” asks Moses, “shall I say sent me?” “Tell them ‘I Am’ sent you.” “I am the One who is, the One who lives, the One whom death can’t destroy.” “I am…,” says Jesus. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” In other words, “whoever is alive here and now and believes in me as the fullness of life, love, and peace and follows my way of living life, loving everyone, and confronting death, will never die, because that person lives in me and I live in that person and so that person is already in eternal life, the fullness of resurrection life and peace.” Jesus, the Gospel announces, is the God of life in our midst.816
He embodies resurrection and life, he is the giver of resurrection and life, he is the path to resurrection and life. He does not speak of the “Last Day,” like Martha. He speaks about the here and now, about living today as if death has no authority, as if you are already in the fullness of resurrection life. With this announcement, we’re free today to withdraw our cooperation from domination of others, fossil fuel dependence, consumerism, scapegoating, weapons development, every pursuit and aspiration that makes our culture more deadly—what I’ve been calling the culture of death. We renounce violence, and let it go. We let his life, love, and peace live within us, so that we walk in his spirit. Eternal life has begun, he proclaims, you are already risen. Resist the culture of death; trust in the God of life. Live and let live.
I am the resurrection and the life.
Startling and hopeful—one of the loftiest sentences in the Bible. But what follows is nothing less than a direct challenge not only to Martha, but to each one of us: Do you believe this?834 In Jesus as the Way to resurrection and life? What does life mean for us? How much power do we give to death? What does resurrection mean for us? Do we believe that as we non-cooperate with death and live fully in a generative way, aligning ourselves with the God of life and what is good for all, we will never die? And if we do believe, how do we demonstrate our trust in the God of life in a world given over to the power of death? J
John’s unwritten hope is that all his readers will say, “Yes, Lord Jesus Christ, I believe that you are the resurrection and the life. I believe that you have deprived death of the last word. I believe in the fullness of life here and now, that I too can reject the culture’s ways and become like you, a person of agape, caring for others and our common home. From now on, I’ll serve life and resist the forces of death. You’ve shown us how to do it; I believe you’ll see us through to the fullness of life for all.” Between the lines lie John’s fondest hopes. Lo and behold, Martha believes! Or so she says. “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” No waffling in her words, they’re bold, confident, and assured. None of the male disciples in John’s Gospel has spoken so boldly. The only other such declaration comes in chapter 9, from the man born blind. For John, the model believer and disciple seems to be a woman.
But on closer look, we discern in Martha a hint of evasion. She never actually says, “I believe you’re the resurrection and the life.” She says, “I believe you are the Messiah…,” the very same words Peter utters in the Synoptics. Trouble is, Peter in the Synoptics hopes for a messianic revolutionary, one armed to the teeth, ready to take on the empire. A person, in other words, still using the means and methods of death. A violent Christ.843 But no, says Jesus. He’s a nonviolent messiah showing us a generative, life-giving path of care and inclusion, a suffering servant willing to die, to give his life that all might live in the fullness of life.857
We must try to listen deeply to Jesus and let his question linger. “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” We must take the time, sit with the doubt, live with the question. As we stay with it, we can live our way into the answer, into faith, into action. As we listen, we can try to say what Martha could not: “Yes, Jesus, I believe you are the resurrection and the life. And so I will live life to the full from now on. I will not cooperate with the culture of death. I will live in the resurrection from now on, and so be with you who are my life, my hope, my resurrection, my peace, my joy, my God.”868
If we take Jesus at his word and know that he is our resurrection and life, then all will be well. Our deepest desire will be to sit at his feet, take in his wisdom, and dwell in his peace. We know that from now on we will live, which means we will have nothing to do with death. From now on we’re free—of fear, violence, and death, come what may. Jesus, our resurrection and life, is with us.873 In the original Greek, we are told that Mary “rose” and went to him. Narrative criticism, as we’re doing here, assumes that the Gospel writers use no word casually. “Rose” here is chosen deliberately, a word full of resonances. It suggests a big transformation. Presently for Lazarus, but imminently for Mary. Not only will Lazarus be raised, but in a sense she will too. She arises, walks from the culture of death, and heads toward the God of life.900 The mourners see Mary go and assume she’s going to the tomb to weep, not knowing that she’s rising. And they “follow” her,904 Hopelessness and despair all over again. It seems she too is on intimate terms with the power of death, convinced like everyone in town: death is lord; nothing can be done. So far, no sign of her rising. She seems as squarely stuck in the presumptions of death as everyone else. She echoes the voice of utter hopelessness. But to her credit, she keeps her bearings. She does engage him, and she tells him how she feels. More, she falls at his feet—a profound gesture of intimacy.910 Here Jesus is standing before a despairing and doubtful friend sobbing at his feet, and a keening crowd who not long ago had tried to kill him. And there he stands: steady, self-possessed, nonviolent, and compassionate.914
Jesus longs for true worship. Not hero worship, not the people’s projections of nobility onto him. Rather his desire is that they account God’s way of kindness, care, inclusion, and healing as worthy and embrace it with joy. To worship Jesus is to follow his way and to unleash a godsend of security, forbearance, and peace. But there is little worship among the crowd. Jesus remains composed and centered, nonetheless. He does not get flustered; he does not press. Everything he does is for Mary’s benefit, and Martha’s and ours. Jesus is the Mount Everest of life. Immovable, unshakeable, a rock. It is here we see the trajectory of Mary’s rising begin. There at his feet she feels his healing peace. She doesn’t understand him but she begins to trust him—this contrary to the social pressure of the crowd around her that refuses to believe. She was at his feet once before as she listened to him teaching. She lies at his feet now in tears of grief. She will soon bathe his feet with fragrant and costly nard and dry them with her hair. She knows his feet well. This latter episode, of Mary perfuming his feet, marks something of an inner change for Mary. Shortly, after he raises Lazarus, Jesus will be in Bethany again, this time during a Passover charged with resurrection celebration. Her perfuming his feet publicly displays her honor and love. And perhaps her sorrow for her slowness of heart. At any rate, her costly outlay manifests her hard-won understanding. She understands all of a sudden something of the paschal mystery. She quietly appreciates that he must return to Jerusalem. Against common sense, he must return to the culture of death and there risk martyrdom. “Leave her alone,” says Jesus as Judas objects to the cost. “She bought the perfume so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Mary has come to realize that this is the way. Finally, a disciple who understands and will brace him in his hard choices. Mary of Bethany is on a journey of resurrection with Jesus. She moves from darkness to awareness, doubt to faith, despair to hope. No longer is she confounded by the idea of Jesus’ journey to the cross and new life. She understands: it’s been the way of life since the foundation of time. And she’ll support him as he takes his path.915
Jesus is in anguish, in great turmoil. And out of his distress, he engages for the first time the people who had previously tried to do away with him. “Where,” he asks, “have you laid him?”934 Finally, they think, he’ll concede the primacy of death, and submit to our rulers, who employ it so well. He’ll fall into line, and his chatter of resurrection and life will at last come to an end. He wants to see where Lazarus is laid. We’ll be happy to show him Lazarus’s tomb, where humanity lies dead. “Come and see,” they say937
Come and see. From Jesus’ mouth these are gentle words that invite us to resurrection and new life. They call each of us into radical discipleship and the hard choices we must make to convert our culture to one of life for all. But in the mouth of the mourners, his own words are used against him. As if they would recruit him into their culture of violence and death! Mythically one can imagine the scene. Their spiraling eyes are mesmerizing. “Come and see the power of death! Come and see: death does get the final word. That’s why we do its bidding. Come and see: the place of doubt, despair, domination, empire. Learn the ways of death. Become a disciple of violence. See and believe in death!” Their tone foreshadows the propaganda and seduction to come millennia later in the Third Reich.942 In their support for deathly ways, they say and believe “There is No Alternative”, but Jesus offers a Way.
In ways subtle and flagrant, you and I hear this very summons every day. On all sides we are badgered to believe in the efficacy of death and what promotes or results in death, for some people, somewhere, and sometimes, unexpectedly, our own when pollution, poisoning, debt, home foreclosures or landgrabbing come closer than we expected. We thought droughts and intense storms were for other places, that health catastrophes were not our lot. Violence, excessive consumption, corporations unleashed from any and all restrictions—these, the message is, will benefit and save us. And we go along complacently, some of us eagerly. Thirty wars rage across the globe today, a billion people starving, some twenty thousand nuclear weapons across the world, violence done in the name of law, the earth on the brink of catastrophic climate change—all this and we’ve scarcely anything to say. We ride the stiff current like driftwood. Even those who would register an objection feel powerless. Death lords over us, saying it has the last word. What hope can we sustain against it? The idea of transformation seems almost laughable. Relying on nothing but our own resources we quickly give in. And the minute we do we become unwitting disciples—no longer to the God of life but to the culture of death. Each of us from our toddling days has been recruited into the culture of death. We’ve signed on, done our basic training, put strict limits on our consciences, and obediently fallen into line. Discipleship exceeds our comprehension, even among churchfolk. New life and generative systems, life for all, baffle us. We can’t imagine John’s hope of resurrection, what it might mean today in practice. We’ve all made peace with the presumptions of death; we’re used to them. We are, in fact, quite contented with the ways of death, thank you very much. The glory of death—come and see, we tell one another. And indeed we do.949
Alas, we don’t know the harm our worship of death inflicts on our souls. The more we succumb, the less our chances to envision the possibilities of resurrection life. The human task of disarming our world, and our own hearts, falls beyond us. Our capacities for objecting to destruction of our atmosphere and life support systems, starvation, deprivation, or killing get beyond our reach. All because we’ve internalized violence. We’ve delivered our souls to the spirit of empire. What we serve, in sociological terms, are systems of death. In biblical terms, we worship idols. In terms of John’s Gospel, in quiet desperation we hang around the tombs. And to our dark minds there’s no way out. We have internalized the culture’s violence. The empire possesses us.964
We have no understanding of our own man-made predicament. We have rejected his invitation to new life and have been happily recruited into the culture of death. We find ourselves perplexed about his talk of resurrection and new life, as well as Jesus’ commitment to life for all, even those we’d rather overlook or not include.
Everyone Believes in Death, No One Believes in Life
How does this make Jesus feel? This question opens up new insights into discipleship and life. If Jesus is the God of life, as the Gospel of John insists, then our focus should be on him. We have only the four Gospels as guidebooks for our discipleship, so we need to stay with them, read them daily, make them part of our lives. Over time, our daily Gospel study puts Jesus at the center of our day-to-day attention. In our psychologically aware culture, we place high value on feelings. But Christians rarely consider how, in the Gospels, Jesus feels. I believe if we want to know Jesus more and more intimately, we need to ask how he feels about what is happening to him in every Gospel episode. We need to stop clinging narcissistically to our own piteous feelings and join our hearts with his. In this, yet another time of testing, the question arises: How might Jesus feel toward the crowd’s counterinvitation and recruitment into the culture of death? He is devastated. The next verse, famous for its brevity, the shortest in the New Testament, sums it up: “And Jesus wept.” The crowd imagines they have him reduced. At last he’s behaving according to cultural norms, showing his helplessness and bereavement before the face of death. Finally, he acts like a disciple. He’s one of us. He’s been recruited into the culture of death. When Jesus weeps, the professional mourners, the Judeans, everyone in the crowd, shake their heads in wonder. “See how he loved him!” they murmur among themselves. Love, that is, in the brotherly sense—philia. Others of a more vicious disposition offer him something like taunts: “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something…?” Even within the boundaries of their own religious duty to mourn, they show no compassion for the weeping Jesus. “If only he had done something!” they say. This taunt recurs in all four Gospels and follows him to his last day. There, in his hour of agony and abandonment, the religious leaders and passers-by shake their heads in disbelief. “If you are the Son of God, show it, prove it. Come down from your cross.” Poor Jesus. He shows compassion to everyone. Few show compassion to him. Nobody believes in Jesus. Everybody puts their faith ultimately in the power of death. This even though Jesus offers good news. He comes with the gift of life. He invites us to the fullness of life and care for all, much further than we can imagine. He stands with the God of life, as the God of life, inviting us into eternal life beginning this very moment. He tells us that we are no longer captives of death. We can be free of empire, of oppression, of destruction and domination. We can make life-giving choices, not those that rely on and excuse death and ruin. We need not harm. We can learn how to care for one another, even so far as to love our enemies. We can all live in mutuality and peace. This is God’s will, and it’s truly possible. But the crowd rejects his invitation. We prefer death. “We don’t want resurrection or life. Come and see how effective are our ways of death.…” How does this make Jesus feel? Jesus weeps—but not because Lazarus has died! And not because he is powerless in the face of death. We’ve misread this text for centuries. Jesus weeps because everyone in the scene—the crowds, the rulers, his male disciples, even Mary and Martha—have gone only so far with him. In the end they reject his invitation to life and put their trust instead in the tyranny of death. Earlier Jesus told us that he rejoices—he is glad—at the news of Lazarus’s death. Maybe, Jesus thinks, just maybe, we will come to believe in him. Instead, Jesus finds everyone given over to the power of death. And he breaks down crying. For centuries, we have presumed that Jesus wept because of Lazarus’s…970
Chapter 6 “JESUS APPROACHED THE TOMB”
Like a good dramatist, the Gospel writer leads us to the very brink of tragedy. The body now four days in the grave; the soul vacated; all faith and hope are lost. And all the characters are persuaded: death is invincible. But to the contrary, precisely here the story takes flight. Jesus, abandoned by all, takes matters in hand and clips death’s wings. The presumptions of the culture are about to expire. At this moment of total despair, Jesus takes action! “Jesus approached the tomb.” Here’s a verse we can ponder for the rest of our lives. By no means is it enough to read the words. 1015
The tomb is no place for a good Judean or Galilean. They wouldn’t be caught dead at one; it would violate their cleanliness laws. And what’s more repugnant to our sensibilities than a rotting corpse in a cavernous tomb? Still, he approaches. He goes because he lives in an enlightened reality. It’s his privilege to see that war must submit to peace, violence must submit to nonviolence, fear must submit to love. More mythically put, resurrection is stronger than entombment in our culture of death.1025
Jesus approached the tomb. Alone, unarmed, vulnerable, weak, peaceable, loving, faithful, hopeful. Jesus confronts the culture of death head on. He does not shy away or run away from death. He faces it and takes action. One of the most astonishing, hopeful images of history. From it other such images have multiplied. Think of the Chinese student standing alone before the column of tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It was on June 5, 1989, the day after the government cracked down on student agitation for government reforms. The young man stood there alone, unarmed, in the middle of the street, showing himself fearless and determined. The lead tank veered one way and so did he. It veered the other way and so did he. The tank driver was baffled, the tank in effect disarmed. The footage goes down as one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated images. What became of the student no one knows. Some think he is hiding from the deathly powers he embarrassed. Most think he was arrested and whisked away secretly to face execution. Whatever his fate, his action symbolized the best of creative, nonviolent resistance against the forces of death. A modern-day Jesus approaching the tomb, he put his body on the line and exposed the state’s reliance on killing. We might recall, too, Gandhi’s nonviolent followers who on May 21, 1930, marched toward the Dharasana salt mines. Another instance of Jesus approaching the tomb. Some twenty-five hundred had trained in Gandhi’s way of satyagraha; satyagrahis they were called. And they had resolved to come to the water’s edge and gather salt and thereby symbolically break Britain’s monopoly on India’s natural resource. It was also an early step in the struggle for Indian self-determination. The British seized Gandhi the night before as a kind of preemptive arrest, but the marchers proceeded undeterred. They would nonviolently “assault” the salt mine, Britain’s largest manufacturing center. In front of the gates, Indian guards in service to the British clutched steel truncheons, and every grade-school child knows what happened next. As the marchers arrived, the guards struck fiercely. Skulls were fractured and shoulders broken. Imagine the people’s mindfulness as, despite the blows, the column pressed forward. Thirteen hundred crumpled to the ground and in the end four died. But not one raised a hand in retaliation. Not one fled as they faced possible death. Each mirrored the nonviolent Top of Form
Jesus as he approached the tomb.1030 The macabre scene was reported live by United Press correspondent Webb Miller, and news of it went around the world. And in the time it took to read about it, the myth of Britain’s paternal benevolence was shattered. The marchers exposed British cruelty. It was a turning point in the struggle to bring about Britain’s departure. And think as well of Dr. King on Good Friday 1963. He and Ralph Abernathy walked into Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama, where they faced the simmering hostility of Sheriff Bull Connor. It was the spring that thousands marched nonviolently for an end to segregation and faced water canons and police dogs trained to snarl and bite. The jails in Birmingham were full; the prisoners crowding the cells languished. City leaders were determined: no inroads were to be made in their fair city. Dr. King walked into Birmingham’s culture of death.
On Good Friday the situation looked particularly bleak. Hundreds were in jail, and though King had promised bail, his funds were all but gone. And more, from a local court came the injunction: no more demonstrations permitted. The movement was on the verge of collapsing. This was months before King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, months before scoring civil rights legislation, and more than a year before his winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Meantime, Birmingham was bound and determined. They would yield not an inch. King arrived and convened at the Gaston Motel with his staff and other church leaders, and the arguing heated up. They were stuck. If they folded, Jim Crow would declare victory. If the demonstrations proceeded, Birmingham had finagled the legal clout now to all but crush the movement. King later recalled, “A sense of doom pervaded the room.” It seemed nothing could be done. Either way the cause was lost. King was “deeply troubled,” says historian David Garrow. Troubled like Jesus before him. And at the height of the squabbling he arose, retired to another room, and prayed. Thirty minutes later he emerged, no longer wearing ministerial black but a new set of denims. His meaning was clear. “I’ve got to march,” he told his astonished colleagues. He decided to risk arrest, prison, even his life. As for his friends, they thought: here is the end of the movement. And so off they went, King and Abernathy and fifty others, from the Sixth Avenue Zion Baptist Church to Birmingham’s city hall. They managed four blocks before the police, in none too gentle of a mood, raced to the crowd and lurched to a stop. Film footage shows on officer seizing King by the rear of his belt and hurling him into the side of the van. Off they hauled him to solitary confinement, where he spent “the longest, most frustrating and bewildering hours I have ever lived.” But again we know what happened. His imprisonment inspired New Yorkers to raise an enormous sum and local activists to mobilize hundreds of school children. These would make up the next wave of marchers to court arrest. As for King, he neither despaired, nor did he squander his time. He penned on scraps of paper a letter admonishing his brother clergymen, a missive known famously today as “The Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” And finally when he emerged from jail he was in a stronger position to negotiate with the city the right to vote and an end to segregation. August of that same year he came to Washington and declared, “I have a dream.…” And not long after that he attended the ceremony at which President Johnson signed civil rights legislation into law. But none of that was apparent on Good Friday 1963. All he could foresee was arrest and jail. And in southern towns where due process applied to people of lighter hues, he reasonably understood his chances of being murdered. Still, he took action. Peacefully, mindfully he headed toward downtown Birmingham, yet another image akin to Jesus’ approaching the tomb.1049
I know the feeling: the beautiful and terrible steps toward the tomb. The first time for me was toward the Pentagon. The police arrested me for blocking a doorway. It wasn’t so much the sit-in that I remember but the slow, mindful walk in the early morning toward the massive, lifeless building. It was on April 17, 1984, under a leaden gray sky and with a chill in the air. The weather fit my mood. I was tense and nervous and a little scared. Yet I was determined after two years of struggling to witness for peace to take my stand. The more centered and peaceful I became the surer became my steps. When I finally arrived, my heart was ready. I sat down, obstructed the doorway, and read from the Gospels. As they hauled me away I prayed for disarmament. For me a whole new beginning. I recall, as well, walking on to the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California, where friends and I approached the base’s nuclear bunkers. In my book Peace behind Bars, I’ve written about the scary morning of December 7, 1993, when I stepped illegally onto the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, knowing that trespassers could be shot on sight.1079
Jesus as he approached the culture of death. I want to carry on his legacy, to imitate his daring action, to model his fearless confrontation of death. We do not know the outcome of our actions, but we know that as his followers, we too are free to approach the tomb. Truth be told, it’s scary, this walk toward the tomb. There’s a reason we don’t undertake that walk. We deny the reality of death. We do not admit that we are embedded in the culture of death. We rarely even think about our own approaching deaths. So to walk toward the culture of death, to those places where death has become big business or we justify the deaths of others as a necessary cost of doing business or our need to defend ourselves or our ability to make the profit or save the money we want. It means staring down our normal ways of doing things. Jesus trusted in the God of life and realized his calling to be bringing life to others. As his followers, we are called to be people of resurrection and life, which means, at some point, we too must approach the tomb. We too need to face the culture of death. At last Jesus reaches the tomb and stands before it.1092
Chapter 7 THE FIRST COMMANDMENT: “TAKE AWAY THE STONE!”
There, before the tomb, Jesus commands, “Take away the stone!” Astonishing words. You want us to do what? Does he intend to exhume the body? Or open an inquest like a coroner? Why take away the stone? What good can come from that? According to the Gospel writer’s sustained allegory, Lazarus represents us all, entombed in a deathly culture. Imperial aspirations, climate change, destruction of the Earth and water that sustain us, corporate greed—these cause the vulnerable great harm—and ourselves as well: economically, psychologically, and spiritually. We’re dead as a doornail. But then his astounding commandment: “Take away the stone!” The God of life has intervened in our common mortuary. God does not leave us for dead but takes initiative to rescue and save. And, more, to prove that death doesn’t get the last word. The commandment issues like a thunderclap. Take away the stone! I hear these words as one of the fundamental commandments of the New Testament. Jesus, the God of resurrection and life, breaks into death’s domain, where death runs amok, where the big business of death has co-opted our societies, where death cheapens life for us all. Roll back the stone from where humanity lies dead, Jesus commands. The God of life is here. I urge Christians to hear this commandment as never before and begin to obey. We do well to ponder our life journeys and reflect on when we’ve obeyed or how we might begin. Can we locate in ourselves a glimmer of desire to see life prevail? Have we ever been astonished by an instance of death-defying, life-giving action? Where in our world is such a thing happening? How might we contribute? Imagine joining such efforts communally, nationally, globally, coming together with others to take away the stone in front of our culture of war and injustice. If this parable points to the presence of the God of life in the world of death, then this moment sums up God’s desire for the world. God will not let us stay entombed. God grapples against the culture of death. God has come to shatter the culture of death into slivers and shards and set things right that all might live life to the full.
We might have to poke in the crannies of history, but there have been many occasions through the centuries when indeed the stone has been rolled away—this just when the culture said, “Impossible.” Over the last two hundred years, the struggle has included the Abolitionists, the Suffragists, Gandhi’s satyagrahis, Dr. King’s civil rights movement, plus noble efforts to abolish apartheid in South Africa. When the moment seemed most hopeless and bleak, that’s when, against all reason, society transformed. The stone budged. We’ve seen as well people of intractable good will confront cultures of death. A dramatic display occurred in the Philippines in the mid-1980s. Dictator Ferdinand Marcos had rampaged and oppressed for twenty years, sending opponents and dissenters to early graves. But in 1983, the popular exiled Senator Benigno Aquino challenged him for election. As Aquino returned from exile on August 21, 1983, Marcos’s soldiers assassinated him, literally as he stepped off the plane. Rarely has a dictator shown himself so brazen. But Aquino’s widow Corazon took up her husband’s mantle and in his stead ran against the dictator and won. But a dictator willing to assassinate a political opponent has no intention of stepping from power. Election results notwithstanding, Marcos proclaimed himself the winner. Aquino responded by calling the people to engage in nonviolent rallies, marches, vigils, and civil disobedience. What the rest of the world did not know was that during the previous year, church activists throughout the country had held hundreds of workshops on active nonviolence. Hundreds of thousands had been trained. When it came time to roll away the stone, they were ready. Enormous crowds took to the streets…1107
On February 12, 2003, over fourteen million people in over 240 cities on every continent demonstrated against the impending U.S. war on Iraq. The largest single peaceful demonstration in the history of the world. The war went on. But February 12 opened our eyes to the strength of ordinary people. As the New York Times conceded the next day, there are now two global powers—the American empire and the global grassroots movement for peace. Today, grassroots movements carry on in nearly every corner of the planet. If they persist in rolling away the stone, they will one day bear the good fruit of justice, peace, and new life. Eventually, if people hear the commandment, take it to heart, and maintain the struggle, the stone will be rolled away before every culture of death and people will walk toward resurrection and life. Many shake their heads. Nonviolence, a society and economy free of dependence on fossil fuels, they say, can’t possibly work. Before some powers, change isn’t possible. What difference can anyone make? It’s an attitude that betrays a lack of hope for humanity. But on reading the history of the grassroots movements, one finds quite the opposite. The Vietnam War ended, apartheid ended, communism ended, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and dictatorships have scurried into exile. Most of our environmental laws were passed during the administration of an ardent conservative who awoke to public opinion. There is hope. The stone can be rolled away. Even in the United States.1174
We live in the most exciting, hopeful era imaginable because we will be the people who will lead humanity away from the brink into a world of life and justice for all. This was the message of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking before a crowd in Memphis the night before he was assassinated. We can change the world; we can, with our friends, put our shoulder to the stone and see it roll. Join the movement, Dr. King said. Be part of this salvific work. Do what you can to let light into the tomb. Do we want the stone rolled away? Jesus stands in the midst of our culture of violence, looks us in the eye, and issues a challenge. He wants the stone taken away. Now.1187
Chapter 8 “BY NOW THERE WILL BE A STENCH!”: RESISTING JESUS & THE PATH OF LIFE
Standing before Lazarus’s tomb, Jesus commands, “Take away the stone.” And how does the great disciple Martha respond? She tries to stop him! Earlier she said, “Yes, Lord.…” Now she says, “No, Lord.” In effect: “Nothing can be done; Lazarus is gone. You’re too late. Face it, death has won.” Here at the height of the story, Jesus’ friend and disciple resists the great commandment. “Let the stone remain where it is. Don’t trouble us any more—even if you are the Son of God. Even the Son of God must admit the reality of death. Leave us to our misery and despair. Don’t disturb my brother’s bones. We’re having a hard enough time as it is. Please don’t make a scene. Please don’t make us do something. Please don’t disrupt the tomb. We don’t want your intervention. We’ve made peace with death.” And then her last-ditch effort to impress on him the finality of it all: “Lord, by now there will be a stench!” One of the most comical lines in the Gospel—if it were not so tragic. There’s a parallel here to the Gospel of Luke. In Luke, Peter affirms Jesus as the Messiah, but objects to the idea of Jesus facing torture and execution. Here in John, Martha issues a similar objection. Likewise she objects to his confronting death. Her objection helps us understand our own predicament. “Lord, by now there will be a stench,” she says to Jesus. “He’s been dead for four days.” It’s the voice of raw despair, the voice of no-hope-whatsoever, the voice that says, “Life is a dead end. Once you’re dead, you’re dead. Evil powers always get the upper hand.” Don’t we harbor this attitude of disappointment all the time? This is our underlying confession to Jesus: “You’re too late. You’re absent, irrelevant, impotent. Nothing can be done. Don’t bother making us try.” On top of this is the bitter irony. In her objection, Martha tries to prevent Jesus from raising Lazarus! She does what we all do: object to, resist, and disobey the commandment to take away the stone. She knows that exposing the body will be a messy, unseemly affair. She has in mind the scene to follow—the putrid flesh, the swarm of flies, the crusted membranes. And the stench. The Mosaic cleanliness laws will be shot to hell. The month of mourning will be knocked off course. She strives to keep things under control—Jesus included. In the face of death, she tries to manage and control the God of life. Why would she do this? Why do we? The answer is simple, and shocking: resurrection is too much trouble for us! It could yield unexpected and messy things. Better the misery we know than new wineskins or the chance for new life. The idea of new life sets us on our heels. We can’t handle that much hope, that much freedom. The implications overwhelm us. We prefer the comfortable predictability of the culture of death. We’d rather have what’s familiar, as long as the problem doesn’t come to our own front door.1193
We’ve made our peace with all the metaphors of death—poverty, capital punishment, global warming, and destruction of people, land, and water. Trying to keep it distant, we’ve made peace with the tomb. Anyone involved in peace-and-justice work knows this first hand: the minute you publicly raise discomfiting questions, you inevitably make a stink. People get upset. They say, “Why are you doing this? Why mess everything up? Everything was fine the way it was. Stop rocking the boat. Stop disturbing our peace! Think of the stench!” But the commandment comes down, and it won’t go away: take away the stone!1218
For anyone who cares about the spiritual life, the human family and the fate of the earth, understanding is crucial.1223 God tries to lead us to the fullness of life, to resurrection—and not only individually but as a culture. God wants us to walk out of the tombs of death where we are stuck and unaware. The spiritual life is a long journey of learning not to resist God. As we let go of resistance, hurts, and fear, as we allow God’s word to take root in us, we’ll find ourselves consoled. We’ll become peaceful, even joyful. We will move closer toward oneness with God and creation. We’ll feel more alive—and get to work rolling away the stone that others too may walk toward new life. St. Ignatius, one of the great spiritual teachers of all time, taught that we’re not supposed to live in desolation. We are supposed to live in the consolation of God’s love and peace—personally, communally, and globally. We’re supposed to live life to the full, and to help one another do the same. When we learn not to resist God, and to do what God wants, we discover deeper sources of life. To return to the metaphor, we find ourselves raised to new life. We find ourselves walking out of our own tombs. This is, after all, John’s thesis: God offers us new life. “Take away the stone.”
The commandment is not rescinded. Move the stone that keeps us under the thumb of death, that imprisons our families and friends in the conventions of death, that deceives our churches into sanctioning those that would overlook the death and destruction they are causing, the pollution and war they are spewing, that makes us all cogs in the nation’s killing machine. “Take away the stone.” It’s a commandment we resist, each one of us. And a commandment we resist corporately too: churches, nations, the entire human family. And so most of us pass our days as if we are treading water. We barely make it through the array of crises and hardships—family divisions, health issues, job loss, financial difficulties, and tensions and anxieties of all kinds. Little energy remains to acknowledge the realities making things worse for everyone else, the risks we are willing to take with their lives and those of the unborn, of seven generations hence. We turn away, preoccupied with surviving our loneliness, despair, and dread. This is how we make peace with death. We find a precarious stasis point at which we hold despair at bay, and we hang on as best we can. In the meantime we grant death leave to stalk the earth and do its worse. So long as we don’t have to see its victims. And when that strategy fails finally, in our dark despair we eye our own death as a way out. We know nothing of new beginnings. Indeed, we live in the stench of death and do not even know it. Jesus would lead us into the fresh air of life and peace.
Seemingly secure at our stasis point, we do not want authentic change. We fear the disruption of our lives. We delude ourselves that this is happiness, though a little introspection will reveal just how exhausted and miserable we are. In fact, keeping awareness at arm’s length has exhausted nearly everyone we know. It’s our common lot, accommodating the culture of war. “Taking away the stone,” we fear, will only make our lives worse, will set us at odds. Certainly, the media and the government emphasize the point. They tell us it’s not in our best interest to look skeptically at the ways of death. Or even to ponder them. Of course it’s not in their interest that we do. Those who run the culture enjoy their power and privilege. It’s in their interest to keep things under control. Large shifts in priorities threaten their lofty perch and, at the first breeze of change, they roll out the propaganda machine that indoctrinates and programs us. Put shortly: “The way things are is the way things should be.” Movements for justice that raise the cry “Take away the stone” are derided and ignored. It would drain the elite of their power of coercion and their capacity to amass wealth. What causes death and disease, they insist, is what we really need. Oil companies, the financial industry, and weapons manufacturers are our true benefactors. Never mind if renewable energy is cheaper now and could serve more, faster, than fossil fuel or nuclear plants; we must stick with our old paths and profit over people. So our culture has its roots in fear and death. And we who are misled go along complacently with it.1229
Isn’t corporate greed just part of the fabric of life? What would a world free from deathly powers even look like? How would a society make such enormous changes in any case? A culture of life imagines and takes these questions on, seriously, not as a passing excuse not to take action. Clean, renewable energy for all, a safe planet and air to breathe, access for all, justice, a living wage, jobs and investment for people not more loopholes for the wealthy, care for our common home – is fresh air, something new, the worst stench? Better to keep ideas like that on the fringes and to paint people who espouse such ideas as unbalanced fanatics, unwashed subversives, or ungrateful traitors. So we squander the promise of John’s Gospel, that if we confront death we’ll be given new life—a kind of resurrection of family, friends, and community. And then it will dawn on us just how stuck in the stench of despair we were. Only then will we understand that what we regarded as peace and happiness was a phony sham. It was merely a case of playing it safe, of complying with death in the hope that it would pass on by. It’s a craven inclination that has all but killed us spiritually. Martha protests: Don’t make us do that, Jesus! She tries to stop him. But he’s not dissuaded. He turns and puts the question to her: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” We do not remember him ever telling her this. But we know he asked if she believed that he was the resurrection and the life. He had earlier told his disciples that Lazarus’s death would reveal the glory of God. Martha, stunned into silence, says no more. His authority prevails. And so we come to the astonishing declaration of verse 41: They took away the stone. “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” It’s a question Jesus puts to each of us. John’s Gospel brims with talk about faith and belief, blindness and seeing. It refers many times to Jesus’ coming glory and the glory of God. He has come into the world that we might believe, that we might experience the glory of God, and thereby have life to the full. Martha remains silent. And perhaps that’s the best way for us to respond too. Stay with the question in silence; let it linger in the heart. Then get to work rolling away the stone wherever people are mired in the culture of death. If we take on the task and roll away the stone, like Martha, we too will see the glory of God.1263
Chapter 9 JESUS’ PRAYER OF GRATITUDE
At last the stone gets rolled away. Who did it? Not Jesus. He ordered that it be taken away, but the ones who pressed against it and started it rolling were the people themselves. Jesus was the one with the vision, and the people did the work. They started it moving; they got his movement moving. His was the vision and the promise of new life. And when all resisted, he persisted. They did what he said finally because he was adamant. He believed purely, so they believed and obeyed the commandment. His was a staunch and unqualified and novel trust, and it removed the stone from their hearts. So the stone is taken away, and at this climactic moment, for the first time in all eleven chapters of John’s Gospel, Jesus prays.
Since we have never seen or heard him pray before in this Gospel, we might be surprised. We might have expected a lecture about the meaning of what just happened or another commandment. Instead, Jesus lifts his eyes and addresses God. But note: he does not pray according to Martha’s instructions, which went along the hackneyed lines of: “God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Imagine Martha trying to teach Jesus how to pray! When he does not pray but approaches the tomb and demands action, she resists. Her imagination and understanding falter before Jesus’ incomprehensible hope. It was he finally who had a lesson to teach. Jesus, it turns out, is the true spiritual master. It’s just that his ways are not ours. At least not yet. At this moment, with the stone off to the side and the tomb wide open, Jesus speaks directly to God—still not according to what we presume to be Martha’s fondest hopes. He doesn’t pray, for instance, “God, please take care of Lazarus. Please make Lazarus come alive.” In fact, he requests nothing at all. In the Sermon on the Mount, he instructs the disciples not to babble on in prayer like the Pharisees, for “God knows everything that you need.” Later, in his discourse, he will announce that anyone who loves him and obeys his commandment can ask for whatever they want in his name and will receive it. But here, he offers the most radical prayer of all. He simply says, “Thank you.” There at the heart of the culture of death, Jesus gives thanks to God that the stone that has us entombed has been moved. This is the prayer of Jesus: Father, thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me but because of the crowd here, I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me. He addresses God as if to a loving parent with whom he lives in close, intimate relationship. He knows that his loving God listens to him, and loves him, and he is filled with gratitude that God accompanies him on his mission to liberate humanity from the culture of death.1281
There is in all this an unspoken endorsement of contemplative prayer.1304 Contemplative prayer unleashes our gratitude and celebration for every nonviolent act and movement. Our hearts join with God’s in contemplative prayer, and God’s desires become our own. Because God’s heart lingers over the suffering of the world, our hearts linger there too. With every movement toward life, gratitude springs up from within. But contemplative prayer takes us further than mere sympathy. God shows us a way to move. And when we do, we gain confidence and come to trust more and more in the surprising ways of the God of life.1306
If we measure our own prayer against the prayer of Jesus, we discover how unlike him we are. Most of us pray like Martha, hectoring God about outcomes we desire. Behind this impulse of ours is a hidden desire to see God as an entity we can manipulate and control. We bargain. We negotiate. We expect a little reciprocity. (My friend folksinger Dar Williams jokes in one song about how we expect God to do our will—”that’s what we pay him for.”) But when God lays at our feet the path toward liberation from deathly ways, we object and resist. We cling to mere religion; we want to stay in charge. Jesus, on the other hand, lives in an intimate relationship with his abiding God, the one who called him “my beloved.” Jesus wants God to control him, to be in charge of his life. And from his lips flows gratitude—gratitude for God’s loving care, for God’s abiding presence and protection, gratitude mostly that God so loves the world that he would lead humanity from death into resurrection. The two are that united: God’s desires are Jesus’ desires. And that unity—God with the Son, the Son with the disciples—is the hope of the world. Jesus has in mind that we all follow his example and get swept up in God’s love for the world, that we too overflow with new life, resurrection, peace, and gratitude. The crowd now has heaved the stone from the tomb, and Jesus offers public thanks to God. And we come to understand that the two actions are one and the same. To cling gratefully to God is to join God’s campaign for new life. And the aphorism seems just as true the other way around. Campaigners for life incline towards gratitude and hope. Do the two merge in us, or do we divorce them?1312
If we’re attuned with God, we’ll be thankful for every nonviolent movement against the culture of death—its wars, injustices, double standards, policies of aggression, and stockpiles of arms. We celebrate the victories over death that preceded us; we celebrate the victories to come. Perhaps our prayer of thanksgiving could go something like this: God of life, thank you for the abolition of slavery, for all those who worked to take away the stone from the culture of slavery, for all those who welcome a new culture of human rights and freedom. God of life, thank you for the abolition of sexism, for all those who worked to take away the stone from the culture of sexism and violence against women, for all those who welcome a new culture of equality and women’s rights. God of life, thank you for the civil rights movement, for Dr. King and all those who took away the stone of segregation and racism and opened the way for greater racial equality, freedom, and dignity. God of life, thank you for the nonviolent movement to abolish apartheid in South Africa, for the leadership of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, for all those who suffered and gave their lives to take away the stone that entombed black people, for the global movement that helped give birth to a new South Africa and greater justice, truth, and reconciliation. God of life, thank you for the peace movement, for those peacemakers who speak out and oppose the world’s wars, for those who envision and enact nonviolent ways to resolve international conflict, for an end to the world wars, the Southeast Asian, African, and Central American wars, for those who beat swords into plowshares and help us to spend our resources instead on food, homes, jobs, health care, for those who work for the abolition of nuclear weapons, for those who help turn our cultures of war and violence into cultures of peace and nonviolence. God of life, thank you for those who organize and lead nonviolent movements for new democracy, for the nonviolent fall of the Berlin Wall and an end to communist dictatorship, for the nonviolent revolutions that bring new freedom to your people. God of life, thank you for the environmental movement, for those who speak out on behalf of creation, who defend the oceans, mountains, land, sky, and creatures, who resist our environmental destruction, who help us turn from our addiction to fossil fuels to reverse catastrophic climate change and live in harmony and respect with the earth and its creatures. God of life, thank you for hearing us. If we are grateful for the modest, loving efforts to enhance justice and peace, God’s desire for everyone’s fullness of life will gradually take root in our hearts. We will come to believe in Jesus, not only, as the theologians say, as the incarnation of God, but as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We come to believe in his Way, nonviolent resistance to the culture of death. We come to believe in his Truth: the power to expose the illusions and lies of our cultural proclivity toward domination, destruction, and greed. We come to believe in his Life—his promise that, indeed, all are meant to thrive in peace, hope, and agape. Like him, our love for others and gratitude to God will lead us to give our lives for the liberation of everyone, that all might know the fullness of life and resurrection. This is the challenge he places in our hands. Find a way to join some grassroots movement for disarmament and justice and offer thanks whenever you hear of people hauling away the stone from the tomb. You’ll soon realize that Jesus was right. Not only is his Sermon on the Mount method of nonviolent resistance God’s will—but it works. As hope begins to blossom within you, you’ll increasingly believe in the promise of fullness of life for all, and you’ll increasingly find new energy to further oppose the culture’s surfeit of death. It’s written in the fabric of our lives. As we believe more and more in Jesus, we will enter into his prayer and let our hopes for new life soar.1326
Chapter 10 THE SECOND COMMANDMENT: “LAZARUS, COME FORTH!”
His gratitude expressed, Jesus issues a second commandment—this time to Lazarus: Lazarus, come forth! Our premise all along has been this: Lazarus represents humanity. All of us are dead of spirit, entombed in a culture whose means and purpose and “glory” is death—whether defined as military superiority or racial purity or economic independence or cultural hegemony or domination, empire, and destruction of Mother Earth. All these rely on techniques of threat and coercion and, when push comes to shove, the unleashing of hell. We are all of us entombed in a culture of death. But now Jesus calls out: “Leave your tombs. You are no longer slaves to the culture of war and greed. Live free from the forces of violence and death. I am raising you to fullness of life. No more reliance on the ways of death. I offer you fullness of life.” Here is the climactic moment in the life of Jesus. Here he fulfills his mission to offer life to one and all. He has come in unconditional love and unwavering commitment to life, infinitely compassionate, and steadfastly truthful. And now his cry: “Come forth.” With that begins a nonviolent revolution that continues to this day. And it marks the first day of the rest of our lives.1365
But one can’t help but wonder about poor Lazarus. Time for him has stopped. His lifeless body lies on a slab in the dark. Inexplicably, the tomb fills with the rumble of grating and groans of exertion and then, dispelling the darkness, rays from the sun. Finally a voice calls Lazarus’ name. He knows that voice and understands the commandment: “Lazarus, come forth!” His friend, the One who loves him unconditionally, is calling, and the call raises him to life. He hears, rises, and obeys. He appears at the mouth of the cave. Lazarus, come forth! The word and the work of God. It is the word that summons us to nonviolence and peace, to dignity and simplicity and justice. It beckons us out of addiction and despair into freedom and hope. God’s word is always for our betterment. It leads us to healing, love, and peace. In every case it raises us out of our darkest depths into the light of a new day. Likewise, Jesus’ commandment reveals the work of God. Our Higher Power bears the only force that can liberate us from our violence and from complicity with institutions that destroy the weak and devastate the planet. In the beginning, God breathed life. The divine work continues still. Through the nonviolent Jesus, God offers us life by calling us out of death. We see God’s work in those freed from addictions who now celebrate their improbable sobriety and peace. We see it among those who, having surveyed the world’s cruelty, sank into depression and despair but who now are on the uplifting journey of promoting peace. We see it in nonviolent movements that work toward democracy, freedom, justice, and peace. Of the latter, I offer two examples of entombed people who obeyed, as it were, the commandment: “Lazarus, come forth!”1376 Together they rolled away the stone, called their people forth, and let them live in peace.
Liberia is a country of three million. Freed slaves from America founded it in 1847. But for more than a century, their descendents dominated the nation brutally. The people suffered under poverty and repression until, in 1989, civil war erupted. Matters grew worse; years of terror followed: torture, rape, starvation, and murder. By 2002, more than twenty thousand had died; one in three were driven from their homes. Then the women of Liberia rose up. And a leader emerged: Leynab Gbowee, courageous and articulate. Together the women declared themselves sick of war, sick of rape, sick of starving. They wanted peace. And, against conventional wisdom, they worked for it nonviolently. The terror centered on Charles Taylor, at once a churchgoing Christian and a brutal tyrant. He came to power in 1996—a man, they say, who could offer you a warm smile and then order your execution. One night he might lead a prayer service; the next day he would order the massacre of his opponents. He conscripted battalions of young boys and gave them the taste of gratuitous killing. These were his death squads. Hiding behind them, he embezzled enormous sums from the national treasury. In June 2002, Leynab Gbowee had a dream. In it, she invited the women of Liberia to come to a church and there discuss how they might make peace. She awoke and pondered the matter and set about to make the dream come true. She issued the invitation and hundreds turned out. With them, she founded the Women’s Peace Movement. Her call became the voice of Jesus crying out loudly, “Lazarus, come forth.” Originally their name was to be the Christian Women’s Initiative. But one woman, Asatu Ban Kenneth, spoke up. She was Muslim and objected to the name. Here was a critical moment: What to do? Leynab quickly settled matters. She proclaimed the movement open to women of all religions and creeds. Women were the nation’s only hope, and none would be rejected. Instinctively, the Christian women objected in return: they had no desire to participate with Muslims. An early impasse for the fledgling group. But Leynab was ready, and she posed a question, a kind of a koan: “Does a bullet know a Christian from a Muslim?” The question pierced deep and swept aside differences. They realized, in their common losses they were one. And overwhelmingly Muslim women were embraced as sisters. The struggle was on. They started off modestly, doing what they could. They prayed and fasted. Still, the killing went on. Rebels and warlords rampaged in the countryside; Taylor’s death squads rampaged in the city. Everyone everywhere was terrorized. And in March 2003, the violence surged. Rebels went on a wide spree of rape, torture, and murder. And thousands fled to Monrovia, the capital, and found asylum of sorts in makeshift refugee camps. Taylor in turn issued a decree, one without mercy. In the name of Jesus he evicted them back to the countryside—to take their dismal chances there. “Taylor could pray the devil out of hell,” one woman said in passing. He was a man of angelic piety and demonic violence, a fearsome mystery. In April 2003 conditions in the capital began to deteriorate quickly. Forces were converging, threatening total warfare. “We had to do something forceful and fast,” Leynab recalled. “So we organized a rally and asked the woman who ran the Catholic radio station to broadcast it.” The organizers weren’t sure what to do, so they opened their Bibles and read from Esther, heroine to her own people. The Liberian women were emboldened to do the same and fashioned a modest plan. Why not wear white, symbol of peace, and sit near the fish market, where Taylor often passed in his limousine? The sit-in was attended by twenty-four hundred women—the first time in their history that Christian and Muslim women had publicly acted together. They sang and chanted: “We are tired of suffering, we are tired of rape, we are tired of war. We want peace.” Their banner…1435
Chapter 11 THE THIRD COMMANDMENT: “UNBIND HIM AND LET HIM GO FREE!”
Lazarus appears, but bound in burial clothes. We are told in vivid detail: he was “tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth.” He can neither hear, see, speak, walk, nor reach out—each a symbolic function of being a disciple of Jesus. He cannot hear or speak the Word of God. He can’t see Christ in others or reach out in loving service. He remains trapped, even though he wobbles at the entrance, in the culture of death. There is therefore one more task at hand. Hence Jesus’ issues a third commandment: “Unbind him and let him go free!” He won’t leave bewildered Lazarus in the lurch. He sees the project to the end, freeing Lazarus for life to the full.
Once again Jesus directs his commandment to the people of Bethany. First he told them to take away the stone, and now to unbind Lazarus. He has them approach the formerly dead man and put their trembling hands on the burial wraps and then to clean him up and set him free. They must, in brief, embrace him, offer compassion, and welcome him back. If they had truly mourned him, they would rejoice to undertake this work of mercy. How well do they respond? We don’t know. On that matter, the Gospel is silent. We’ve come to the end of the story: the once dead man stands at the mouth of the tomb awaiting the people to unbind him. One thinks the crowd’s eyes grew big as silver dollars. Before them stands a dead man in a death shroud. They cast their looks between the two—first at Lazarus and then at Jesus, who had just said to unbind him. Touch him? Are you kidding? He is, of course, eventually unbound: though it goes unnarrated. We gather this from Lazarus’s appearance in the next chapter at a party thrown in Jesus’ honor. Lazarus, like Jesus, has become something of a celebrity. The same image appears in Mark’s Gospel, though, under Mark’s pen, inversely. Mark’s Jesus speaks of “binding the strong man” so that Jesus can plunder the house of the ruler of the world. A strange parable to describe God forcibly invading the world of death. John’s Gospel flips Mark’s imagery: Jesus commands that we “unbind the weak and let them go free.” For John, this is the work at hand. Everyone in the scene is called upon to join in. How might we do this? John’s Jesus commands us to spend our lives unbinding sisters and brothers bound by our culture of violence, destruction, and domination. For the rest of our lives, we are to help liberate others, setting them free from uncritical obedience to the culture. This is the work that Jesus assigns to each of us. Liberate everyone! Unbind everyone! Release everyone to live freely and in peace. The challenge hangs in the air. In a world where global destruction looms, this is an enormous undertaking. The genius of the Gospel is that the story ends there, with Jesus’ third commandment neither acted upon nor ignored. The work remains. Each of us needs to turn our attention toward those who are bound—the poor and the homeless, the hungry and the sick, the imprisoned and marginalized, the disabled and the elderly—and even the so-called enemy. Anyone straddling the threshold of death. To fulfill Jesus’ commandment, we need not travel far. In one way or other, we all need to be unbound, beginning with ourselves. After us come our families, friends and neighbors, and beyond, through grassroots movements, the entire human race. No matter our station in life or how we make a living, we are all of us summoned to unbind humanity.
Setting Ourselves Free
All of us stand at the mouth of the tomb, bound in some measure by the culture of violence and war. We may not realize the extent to which we are bound, but as we reach out to others, we need to let them help us as well. Could Lazarus free himself? No, and neither can we. He was dead, trapped, stuck. Jesus called him forth from the tomb, and somehow Lazarus managed to shuffle out, making his way toward the light and the muffled voice that called him. But he could get no farther. He needed others to roll away the stone.1525
The first few breaths are ours to take. And then we need to shake away our grogginess and face our predicament and do our best to stumble out of darkness. Prayer, spirituality, therapy, community, public action, and participating in grassroots movements for restoration, health, care and support for all, disarmament and liberation—all of these can be avenues toward inner freedom and new life.1568
The twelve step program offers one solution. It acknowledges we all feel pain, and our urge is to try to escape it through addictions—to alcohol, drugs, sex, work, gambling, consumerism. Our addictions lay heavy on us and keep us bound. But through naming our addiction, working with a support group and counselor, turning to our Higher Power, and living mindfully a day at a time, we can discover a new life of sobriety. The twelve steps unbind us and set us free. Indeed, they hold the promise of a new lease on life. For instance, many are stuck in the rat-race to luxuriate in opulence. Stuck in a cycle of greed, we go relentlessly after money, yet never find satisfaction. Our byword becomes more—and more than a byword, an obsession. We cling to our stuff and our status until our dying days. And only then, when our grasping finally strikes us as trivial, do we let go. But Jesus summons us to break free now. Life depends not on satisfying greed. Life springs from freedom, life springs from agape. Since consumerism, destruction, disregard of other life, and violence have been the backdrop of our lives, it’s no surprise that we’re addicted to it. It gives us a charge, unites us around the television, instills a false sense of transcendence and omnipotence. It also instills, when woven into our entertainment, a vague sense of fear. In our welter of fear we are inclined to hand over our civil rights in exchange for protection against hyped-up threats. More than that, fear inclines us to give the government a blank check to support death and conduct or give tax breaks for destruction, war, and domination in our name.1570
But from the perspective of Jesus—the one who said, “If you live by the sword, you’ll die by the sword”—violence and destruction spiral insidiously toward the hell of death unquestioned and unchallenged, adding nothing to life. The God of life cares for all others and our common home. Jesus rejects violence and calls his us to reject it too. But we can’t do it alone; we need help. Like Lazarus, like the alcoholic, we need others to unfurl our burial cloths, the layers upon layers keeping us stuck. So thoroughly programmed are we that our journey toward life and away from domination of others and what entails death will take us the rest of our days.1584
Saints throughout the ages taught we need a guru, a spiritual guide, a priest or minister or elder or healer or a community to set us free. Such guides present us with vision to see a new way of living. They offer the sense of inner hearing to discern Jesus’ call. They free our voices to prophetically announce God’s reign reflected in the way of Jesus. They untie our hands so we can reach out to others in loving service. They set our feet on the road to peace. I’ve said it before: most of us have grown comfortable with death. The challenge, then, is to recognize our need and choose the way of life. Freedom and fullness of life are ours for the taking.
Setting Free Those around Us
As we become freer, we need to busy ourselves unbinding those around us, beginning with those closest at hand—our relatives, children, friends, and neighbors. Conscious, compassionate, and nonviolent, we are to clothe our friends in dignity and honor. In so doing we free them and welcome them back to the land of the living. I have said we fear the ramifications of resurrection. On the other hand, a part of us yearns for this freedom. Just a little consciousness makes us aware; we don’t want to be blind, deaf, mute, paralyzed. At the edges of our consciousness we all desire the fullness of life, the flourishing abundance that Jesus offers rather than extraction, greed, and “no options”.
How to help others find it? Perhaps volunteer at a local shelter or soup kitchen, at a hospital or a school. Financially support a relief organization. Put in time at a local church or non-profit organization doing good. Wherever people yearn to be free from violence, poverty, and injustice, there’s work to do. Each of us is needed. Each can make a difference.1589
Setting Free Those Most in Need
Our story climaxes with Jesus calling on the bystanders, as it were, to unbind humanity and free one another to cast off violence, poverty, and war. Or put more succinctly, to cast off death in all its forms. This is nothing less than permission to change the world! Structures, systems, institutions: they all must change. Jesus wants no one trapped in the culture of death, domination, and destruction of life and what is life-giving. “For God so loved the world…” Jesus wants all to live life to the full. Isn’t that what Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu did? And the global movement to abolish apartheid? They unbound black South Africans from the evil of apartheid and led them to a new national freedom. They changed the structures of a nation. Isn’t that what Dr. King and the civil rights movement did? They unbound African Americans from the evils of white supremacy and segregation and led them into a new national freedom. They forced the president’s hand. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, and the structures of a nation changed. Isn’t that what anti-war movements do, and movements to protect the ecology and movements to end poverty and abolish nuclear weapons? All of them are busy trying to unbind humanity from all manner of death and liberate the culture toward nonviolence and peace. It is ours to free the human race from death in all its guises. This is the spiritual work that the Gospel demands. Yes, we are to praise God, say our prayers, and worship. But the God of life, as revealed by the nonviolent Jesus, did not create humanity to languish in tombs. God’s work is unfinished. Our job is to finish it. In our story, Jesus commands, “Unbind him.” Do they obey him? We don’t know. At the end of our tale, Lazarus still stands at the mouth of the tomb—awaiting our help. Our mission couldn’t be clearer. We are to unbind humanity from the shroud of death and set it free. It falls to us to create a new culture of life, nonviolence, and justice. Only then can all live in peace. This is the task before us. We have our work cut out for us.1609
Part III SERVING THE GOD OF LIFE
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me. –John 12:24–26 Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love her, and we will come to her and make our dwelling with her. –John 14:23 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. This I command you: love one another. –John 15:13–14, 17 My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Judeans. But as it is, my kingdom is not here. –John 18:36
Chapter 12 SERVING THE GOD OF LIFE INSTEAD OF THE CULTURE OF DEATH
How to serve the God of life, when we as a culture are hell-bent on taking what is not ours, waging war, and risking environmental destruction? The answer is plain and simple—and few buy into it. To serve God and live life fully we must withdraw our cooperation from the forces of death. And more than withdraw. Our task is more proactive, more assertive. We must co-create a world that supports life for all. We resist the big business of death and put our energies into those projects that bring greater life to others, especially the most vulnerable.1626
…Praying and singing, our group clutched white roses in honor of the White Rose movement in Germany, the small band of students who were executed for leafleting and speaking out against the Nazis.1652 We recalled the words of the risen Jesus to the disciple Peter, “When you were younger you went about and did what you wanted, but as you grow older, someone will place a belt around you and take you where you’d rather not go. Follow me.” 1674
On Trial for Calling Lazarus Forth
It is strange that when people of faith and conscience—from Jesus to Dr. King—act against the forces of death, the state resorts to death to punish them. This dynamic is a constant throughout history. But the Gospel teaches that we need not fear. We are free to suffer for resistance, perhaps even die at the hands of the state. It’s the paschal mystery, old as time: the precarious journey of nonviolent resistance may lead to death, but it leads in the end to new life. Theologian William Stringfellow explained this dynamic succinctly in November 1968 when he stood before a Baltimore congregation during the trial of nine who, in Catonsville, Maryland—as a gesture of resistance—had burned Vietnam draft files. Stringfellow reminded the people gathered: Remember that the state has only one power it can use against human beings: death. The state can persecute you, prosecute you, imprison you, exile you, and execute you. All of these mean the same thing. The state can consign you to death. The grace of Jesus Christ in this life is that death fails. There is nothing the state can do to you, or to me, which we need fear. We need not fear court, prison, persecution, or death. Our task is to seek God, to resist the guises of death, to live life to the full, help set every human being free.1700
At our trial, Ramsey Clark, former U.S. attorney general under President Lyndon Johnson; Ann Wright, a retired U.S. Army colonel and one of three former U.S. State Department officials who resigned on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq; and Bill Quigley, legal director for the New York City–based Center for Constitutional Rights came. We presumed they would not be allowed to speak. But lo and behold, the judge let them talk, and they testified for hours. They were brilliant. They spoke about the meaning of “trespassing,” and the so-called necessity defense and international law, which allows citizens to break minor laws in adherence to a higher law. Ramsey Clark, looking like Atticus Finch on the stand, said it was a duty. They cited the classic example of someone driving down a street, seeing a house on fire, noticing a child in the third floor window, hearing the screams, breaking through the front door, violating the no-trespass law, and entering the house to save the child. “[People] are allowed to trespass if it’s for the greater good —and there are certainly exceptions [to the law] when there is an emerging, urgent need,” said Quigley. He cited the history of protesters who broke petty laws, from our nation’s founders to the Suffragists to the civil rights activists who illegally sat in at lunch counters. In the long run, we honor them for obeying a higher law, for helping to bring us toward justice, he said. Unfortunately, there is a gap between “the law” and “justice,” and so, he explained, the struggle today is to narrow that gap. The best test is through “a hundred-year vision,” he explained. That is, how will this law and ruling be seen one hundred years from now? Through carefully crafted questions, the defendants were able to extract several key points from their witnesses: • Intentional killing is a war crime, as embodied in U.S. constitutional law. • Drone strikes by U.S. and coalition forces kill a disproportionate number of civilians. • People have the right, even the duty, to stop war crimes. • According to the Nuremberg principles, individuals are required to disobey domestic orders that cause crimes against humanity. After our experts testified, we rested our case. Then Brian Terrell stood up and delivered a short, spontaneous closing statement, one of the most moving speeches I have ever heard. Here are excerpts: Several of our witnesses have employed the classic metaphor when talking of a necessity defense. There’s a house on fire, and a child crying from the window and there’s a no trespassing sign on the door. Can one ignore the sign, kick down the door and rescue the child? It was a great privilege for us to hear Ramsey Clark, a master of understatement, who put it best. “Letting a baby burn to death because of a no trespass sign would be poor public policy.” I submit that the house is on fire and babies are burning in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan because of the activities at Creech Air Force Base. The baby is burning also in the persons of the young people who are operating the drones from Creech AFB, who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at rates that even exceed that of their comrades in combat on the ground. Colonel Ann Wright testified that soldiers do pay attention to what is going on in the public forum, and that they do respond to a “great debate” in the public sphere. There is no great debate going on about drone warfare in our country. Some have noted that the trend toward using drones in warfare is a paradigm shift that can be compared to what happened when an atomic bomb was first used to destroy the city of Hiroshima in Japan. When Hiroshima was bombed, though, the whole world knew that everything had changed. Today everything is changing, but it goes almost without notice. I hesitate to claim credit for it, but there is certainly more discussion of this issue after we were arrested for trespassing at Creech on April 9, 2009, than there was before. Judge, we appreciate the close attention you’ve given to the testimony you’ve heard.1717
After telling us how “nice” it was to see us, the judge presented each of us with a twenty-page legal ruling explaining why he found us guilty. You argued a defense of necessity, he said, “when an inherent danger is present and immediate action must be taken,” such as breaking a no-trespassing law to uphold a higher law and save life. “In this case, no inherent danger was present, and so I find you guilty.” In the end he sentenced us to time served. We didn’t go to jail, and meanwhile, our drones continued to drop bombs. A new report says unauthorized U.S. drone strikes in 2010 alone claimed nearly twelve hundred lives. According to Pakistani sources, our drone attacks kill almost fifty civilians for every “militant” we target. Together, through our action and our courtroom testimony, we argued that we could do better than drop bombs through these drone machines. As we left the courtroom, we pledged to continue to speak out against the drones, to try to wake one another up about the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to stir the embers of the peace movement to speak out and take action for a new world of nonviolence. We gave thanks for the opportunity to witness to peace, and we went forward determined to promote peace with everyone.1769
The Church’s Mission In the Gospel of John
Jesus commissions the church to live the fullness of life by fulfilling Jesus’ three commandments—Take away the stone! Lazarus, come forth! Unbind him and set him free! How well is the church fulfilling its task? In history we’ll find moments and movements of heroic faithfulness to the Gospel—from the early martyrs to the Franciscans of the Middle Ages. And more recently, the Quakers and Abolitionists and groups that mightily struggled for civil rights. They’ve raised generations from the stench of their tombs. But today the church remains by and large acculturated to the violence of the world. We are embedded in it. We bestow our blessing on it. We coexist with it in contentment. The church finds ourselves in the tension of a paradox—we are at peace with war, injustice, and death. We’re akin to the professional mourners who come to Bethany. We go about fulfilling our religious obligations and keeping the big business of religion on the right track. On the other hand, we turn a blind eye toward the culture’s proclivity to decimate the world’s poor. It stings to hear it. But we need to be honest about our failures. The demands of the Gospel are clear. It falls to us to fulfill the momentous commandments of Jesus. But know this, as well, the church’s crisis is not new. It dates back seventeen hundred years to the Constantinian arrangement when Rome assimilated Christianity into its empire. Christianity became imperial, coercive, dictatorial. And it soon found embarrassing the nonviolence outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. Nonviolence was discarded in favor of a theory of just war—a house of cards that rarely forestalls any wars. Before long, the church raised its own armies—Crusaders who eagerly waged war and killed others in the name of the nonviolent Jesus. Throughout Christendom, the centuries Anno Domini bulge with episodes of war, slavery, fleecing of the poor, and churchmen burning women at the stake. The church has outpaced the very Pharisees in cooperating with empire. In my estimation, our infidelity peaked with the institutional church’s support of the Nazis. Most Lutherans and Catholics supported the regime. They did what they were told, acceded to the faithful going off to invade Poland, France, and Russia. Above all, church leaders value order and control. And Hitler the sociopath guaranteed both so long as the church supported the Reich, permitted compromises to their theology, and remained silent as millions went to their deaths.
The church’s institutional survival rose in importance above the Gospel itself. And the church was overtaken by a bitter irony—the church, in essence, died. It became as deathly as the institutions around it. Of course, thousands of heroic Christians did resist Nazism, such as Sophie Scholl, Franz Jägerstätter, and Alfred Delp. Theirs are the names—not the anonymous hierarchs who would survive at all costs—that we hold up as exemplars of a living Christianity in the twenty-first century. The church has little changed today. The church today discounts Jesus’ commandments by supporting war, dictatorships, oligarchies, and the military training of our young, and by ignoring the racism and sexism of its leaders. The Roman Catholic Church’s recent sex-abuse scandal proves the case. Priests violate young people, and bishops and cardinals cover up to save face. Refusing to admit its own violence, the church ends up cooperating with the culture of death. And dies itself—indeed, one thinks, that part of it should die. Along the same vein, during these years of aggression toward Iraq and Afghanistan, few priests or bishops have spoken out. Few priests and parishes have taken action around Laudato Si’ or the threat of climate change, despite the Pope’s call to transition off of fossil fuels without delay (LS 165). Are priests afraid some parishioners would lodge complaints? For the sake of control and orderliness, the wars, destruction, and domination of those least able to defend themselves rages on and the priests and ministers keep silent. The Gospel does not exist in a vacuum. It comes to life precisely in such times as these.1779
Dorothy Stang, Martyr for the Poor and the Earth
On February 12, 2005, Sr. Dorothy Stang walked along a dirt road deep in the heart of Brazil’s Amazon on her way to meet a handful of poor farmers bearing up under harassment from illegal loggers and ranchers. She trudged along, until two hired assassins blocked her way. In response to their challenge, she produced maps and documents proving that the government had designated the land as a reserve for the landless poor. “Do you have a weapon?” they asked. Yes, she answered, showing them the Bible she carried for decades. She opened it and began to read aloud: “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are the peacemakers.…” Then, she said, “God bless you, my sons.” The two shot her six times and fled. Her body lay on the dirt road all day, nearby witnesses later said, because they were afraid they would be shot if they moved it. As it rained, her blood mixed with the dirt. The news pierced me to the core. I felt the same stab of pain and glory as when I heard the news on December 3, 1980, that four U.S. churchwomen—Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan—were missing in El Salvador. Their raped and murdered bodies were discovered the following day. I suspected early on that Sr. Dorothy had attained great moral heights. Anyone who leaves homeland, spends four decades serving the poorest of the poor in the Amazon, and defends the rain forest—long before anyone ever thought of an environmental movement—must possess enormous commitment, faith, and vision. She was born in Dayton in 1931, one of nine in a lively and devout Catholic family. At seventeen, she entered the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, and in 1953 she was sent to serve the poor, teach children, and assist at Most Holy Trinity parish in the desert of Sunnyslope, Arizona. After many good years, she volunteered to join a mission to Brazil, and in 1966 off she went—later to become a citizen there. In the years before she was killed, she was hailed for her work. She learned the languages and set up remote parishes. She walked the forest and met with the poorest farmers. She set up dozens of base communities and taught them the Gospel. She launched twenty-three schools and created a structure for the poor to reclaim their land. A tidy sum of work. She helped spawn the base community movement, liberation theology, and the environmental movement. Feisty and energetic and loving, one of the great saints. Surely she’ll be canonized one day. She remained faithful to the poor, to the beleaguered Amazon, and so to the Gospel and the God of life and liberation. Beautiful stories are now being passed on. How she fed the hungry, built community, lived in destitution. How she confronted illegal loggers and corrupt ranchers, the class that stole the poor’s land, kept them in misery, and bought off the police, the military, and the government. Death threats had rained down on Dorothy for years, along with insults and hate mail. Ranchers took aim at the community center for women that she had founded and riddled it with bullets. On one occasion the police arrested her for passing out “subversive” material. It was the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Another time, she escaped by a hair’s-breadth an attempt on her life. Yet she carried on and included the ranchers in her prayers for peace. Her defense of the poor was fearless. She did her homework, studied the laws, and barged repeatedly into government offices to lodge heated complaints. The poor, she said, were promised land, but here they are being driven off, loggers and ranchers behind it all, and the government turning a blind eye. Turning a blind eye, as well, toward the destruction of the forest. She stood fearless even as she witnessed over the years the marriage of powers, commercial interests, and the military. Together they threatened and terrorized and forced many of her programs to collapse. But she remained positive and hopeful, always smiling….1938
Chapter 14 THE PLOT TO KILL THE NONVIOLENT JESUS
Jesus raises his friend from the tomb, and the old disheartening adage falls like a hammer: no good deed goes unpunished. “From that day on, they planned to put him to death.” Some who had gathered in Bethany begin to believe. “But some went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.” Alarmed, the Pharisees and chief priests convene the Sanhedrin, the ruling council. John is referring to the religious leaders. On a visceral level they know their authority and privilege are at stake. Their coercive powers too. Who will bow and cower before them if someone goes around liberating the people from the fear of death? It can’t be permitted. It calls into question, perhaps threatens, the systems that provide their support. And so they gather in their august hall. “What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation.” Here John offers us a slice of wit and irony. Rome did precisely what the rulers feared. The Romans overran Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Not because of destiny, not because the will of a capricious God. But, insinuates John, it was because the rulers had refused Jesus’ way and gift of life. Put briefly: Sell yourself to the patronage of empire and it will eventually rise up against you. Or according to the familiar proverb Jesus coined: “Live by the sword, die by the sword.” The rulers deliberate around the table, and their dialog rings true to life. It was Caiaphas, the high priest, who argued against Jesus, hewing the classic line of the “scapegoat principle.” “You do not understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.” The scapegoat principle: it lies at the bottom of all violence. It is nearly instinctual among us and has driven every culture down through the ages. Throughout history, empires have relied on it to try to crush liberation movements. All that is needed is to stir the crowd’s frenzy against the stranger, the noncomformist—in this instance, the charismatic leader of the dispossessed. The rulers figure his subversive campaign will suffer a great setback and in the bargain the people will unite around his demise. Mobbing the scapegoat always creates a moment of counterfeit oneness. (Mark’s Gospel makes the same point through caricature. The mocking of Jesus on the cross is unanimous—including even the two crucified with him. Killing the scapegoat provides a catharsis and creates a moment of accord.) Caiaphas’s logic has been seized by authorities in our own century. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Steve Biko, and many others have died by the subterfuge, behind the scenes, of shadowy figures in power. Their argument: “It is better for one person to die.” Always, they say, to preserve nation and land. But violence ultimately fails. Relying on violence only spawns a new wave of it. In Jesus’ time the next wave arose with the Zealots (guerrillas against the occupation) and the so-called Sicarii (assassins of Jews who collaborated with Rome). Rome retaliated in turn, destroying both nation and land. Jesus chose a nobler way. Cultures of death will eventually succumb to creative nonviolence. Break the cycle of violence, he taught his followers. Give your lives if need be to pioneer this new way of life. He summed it up like this: “Offer no violent resistance to one who does evil” (Matt. 5:37). Should this catch on, should its simplicity and brilliance capture enough minds, rebels will cease killing, religious authorities will cease killing, oppressors will cease killing. And empires will put away imperial claims. Jesus sows seeds of nonviolent transformation and lasting peace. A kind of heaven on earth. But the authorities are blind; they act predictably and clumsily. Ironically, by striking down the One who embodied resurrection and life, they unleash the Spirit of nonviolence that beckons people to this day. For Jesus didn’t only die, he was raised…2084
(Jesus’ entry) John downplays the mockery and rather crafts the scene as a fulfillment of the prophet Zechariah’s heralding a non violent age. Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion. Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! See, your king shall come to you, a just savior is he. Meek and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass. He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem. The warrior’s bow shall be banished, and he shall proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth. (Zech. 9:9–10)2185
Time to prepare his cadre for what’s to come and why. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” He is teaching them the mystery embedded in reality—heaven on earth blossoms out of self-giving, life-giving love. Moreover: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world, will preserve it for eternal life.” And then he issues something in the nature of a summons: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be.” Here is nonviolent discipleship concisely expressed. Peace isn’t served by our hanging back. It’s brought by giving our lives in love with Jesus, in Jesus, through Jesus, and for Jesus.2194
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Throughout history, humanity has corrupted God’s justice and sullied the divine name. Now, through Jesus, God’s good name will be restored. Namely, whenever there is fullness of life and the terror of death banished, God’s name is wreathed in glory. And God passes the glory on. Jesus, light of the world, is glorified by God because of his being prepared to complete his mission, though it courts the Roman cross. And even there, on a cross, will Jesus be glorified. His suffering love carries the power to disarm everyone, because it is God’s way to transform humanity. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” Jesus proceeds in the confidence that his way will win out. Everyone—everyone—will be taken into the new life of resurrection. Jesus’ nonviolence will win over everyone who ever lived. Jesus is no hapless victim. He knows what he’s doing and that with the God of peace all things are possible.2203
The Washing of the Feet
This theme of eternal life is carried over to the last supper and John’s lengthy “last supper discourse,” where Jesus offers his final reflections. But unlike in the Synoptics, which stress the bread and the wine, John’s account features foot-washing (13:1–21). It’s an episode so central to Holy Thursday liturgies that for centuries it has been wildly misunderstood. The episode is not meant to inspire us to service. It is not meant to urge us toward self-humiliation. Rather it is a ritual of preparing our feet to walk Jesus’ road of nonviolence. Think of it as a rite of passage of sorts, a summons to the holy lineage of agape, perhaps martyrdom and, beyond, resurrection. To enter upon such a life, ritual is in order. Ritual is how we prepare one another; it’s how we spread mutual support. Disciples prepare one another’s feet to tread the Way. Mary of Bethany did the same for Jesus—not only symbolically to prepare him for burial, but to fortify him for his walk toward Jerusalem, where almost certainly he would face the cross. Apparently, just as Mary prepared Jesus, he decided to prepare his disciples. He learned from her, so he instructs them. Whoever follows him must be anointed for the difficult journey. There are bound to be consequences to resisting the injustices of empire. They wash one another’s feet, they prepare themselves. They’ve chosen a road that could lead to martyrdom.
This is a political reading that is strange to our ears. All our lives an opposite reading has been hammered into our heads. Says Wes Howard-Brook in Becoming Children of God (Orbis, 1994): How many Holy Thursday services and homilies have put priest and bowl before the congregation as an “example” of “lowering oneself like Jesus” to do the dirty work of washing feet. How easy it is for relatively safe and secure middle-class Christians to deny the call to death in favor of charity work! The prevailing interpretation is a function of both the chasm between the position of the interpreter and that of the Johannine community as well as the folly of taking passages out of context. If readers are comfortable, it is enough of a challenge to call them to serve the poor (or even “one another”) by humble actions. But if readers are like the Johannine community—as people in El Salvador, Malawi, and other places are where proclaiming God’s truth is to risk one’s life—“humble service” is a commonplace that requires no exhortation at all. It is the call to help one another face death that is both the challenge and comfort of the Gospel. (299–300) Between the lines, says Howard-Brook, is “the risen Jesus, who lays down his life for his own, girding himself to prepare his disciples to see their own deaths that are approaching!” The clues, Howard-Brook notes, lie in the verbs. “He rose from the supper and laid down his outer garments and girded himself…” (13:14). A fine and subtle writer, this John the Evangelist. His paschal allusions conceal themselves among his verbs. Understood correctly, foot-washing we’re in dire need of. Practicing Gospel nonviolence, steadfastly resisting war and injustice, accepting the consequences including inevitable rejection, perhaps harassment, arrest, jailing, or dying—these require that we prepare one another. This fresh reading, I trust, will be a comfort. It should fortify us in our public work for justice and peace. We are not lost; neither are we bereft. Jesus has prepared us for the road to peace. “I have set the example,” he said, “and you should do for each other exactly what I’ve done for you.” Jesus’ final teachings, plus his hopes and dreams, are set down in the following several chapters. He calls his followers to keep his word, practice agape toward one another, and welcome the gift of peace. What we need for the journey he promises to give us. All we need to do is ask. And he concludes: be one. Exhibit to the world the unity of the human family, and one day, he assures us, our joy will be complete. Beautiful…2211
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He frames the story so that the world doesn’t judge Jesus so much as, through his trials, Jesus judges the world. “My kingdom,” he testifies, “is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would fight…But my kingdom is not of this world” (18:36). Jesus draws a glaring distinction between his nonviolent kingdom and kingdoms of the powerful. Pilate sends him to his death ultimately, but Jesus’ condemnation two millennia later still hangs in the air. The torture is carried out and then the crucifixion. And just when one would expect him to knuckle under, his nonviolence shows itself as perfected. He neither recants nor retaliates. He utters, “It is finished.” Jesus unites his suffering to the sufferings of humankind. Here is the divine showing us how to be human. One can’t help but wonder how, how die on the empire’s cross without malice on the tongue? He can do it because he surrenders himself to God’s loving hands. That, after all, is the key to practicing nonviolence, knowing God as the author of life and peace. Keep the focus on the God of love and all will be well, no matter what the violent culture does to us.2257
THE RESURRECTION OF THE NONVIOLENT JESUS
On the first morning of the week, Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body—only to find an empty tomb. The story of Lazarus has come full circle. The One who called humanity from its tomb and died a subversive’s death—he himself rose to new life. Once again an empty tomb.2272 She’s puzzled—what foul play is this?—and she lingers and weeps. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” It’s the voice of Jesus, whom she mistakes for the gardener. At hearing him utter her name, she recognizes who he is—another literary gem pointing to a spiritual truth. She would embrace him but he sends her on a mission. “Go and tell my brothers that I am risen.” Ladies and gents, meet Mary Magdalene, the first apostle of the resurrection. Jesus sends her off to proclaim it to those still entombed in the culture of death. The shame his culture heaps on women is no deterrent to Jesus. He grants her the honor now of liberating the entombed. That evening Jesus appears to the community locked away in hiding. “Peace be with you” are his first words. Then after showing them the wounds of his crucifixion, he says again: “Peace be with you.” John is pressing a point—a startling point, so he presses it obliquely. He’s telling us that the peace Jesus offers is contingent on his wounds. Resurrection peace comes by way of nonviolently resisting the culture of death. Shortly put, by risking the cross. More startling yet, he passes the mantle on. “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And he breathes on them—“Receive the Holy Spirit”—and then confers on them soaring authority. “Those whom you forgive, are forgiven. Those you hold in community are retained.” An authority vastly different than that of emperors and rulers. Here Jesus confers authority to reconcile.2275 Now we are to live together in the spirit of agape and peace, as servants of life, as proclaimers of the resurrection and all its social, economic, and political implications, understanding full well that Jesus’ resurrection was illegal, knowing that it portends the undoing of empire because it robs the state of its only intimidation—the threat of death. We are to trust and proclaim. Death has no more sway; it is struck from empire’s hands. It is not something to fear but to defy. Little do we realize: the resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate revolution. And a gentle revolution at that. Jesus returns to his tortured land, to the disciples who had scattered, not like Zeus or Mars fulminating in anger, not seeking revenge, but bearing the gift of peace. He exacts no retribution; there is no hell to pay. Neither does he unleash a riot of vengeance on the Temple or Rome. How unlike the gods of war. How unlike you and me, who can nurse grudges for decades. None of that. No trace of condemnation. He had declared to Pilate that God’s kingdom rejects violence. Then he proved it on the cross and now again before his disciples. He forgives them, offers them even now his steadfast love. More, he banishes hierarchy. Lordliness bows to friendship: Jesus shows himself to be their friend.
On the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he makes them breakfast. It’s a touching, intimate scene. The disciples, having gone back to their livelihoods, pull into shore. Then we read: “When it was dawn, there on the shore stood Jesus.” Waiting for them, looking forward to their return. The sentence is simple but brims with camaraderie and welcome. From the boat, with the sun rising, the disciples strain to make out his dark form in the distance. A beautiful new day, an image of peace, hope, and love. The risen Jesus stands silhouetted against a rising sun. He waits for them, and us. A “charcoal fire” crackles nearby. And he invites them gently, “Come, have breakfast.” They eat in silence, none daring “to ask who he was.” And here, I think, is the font of resurrection peace. Silence, a common meal, the risen Jesus present, the beauty of creation. I like to imagine the scene and place myself in the circle. There, in my prayerful imagining, I sense Jesus’ peaceful presence and the soothing of my battered soul. In that intimate circle I feel new beginnings of love, hope, peace, even joy. I urge you to try this. Conjure holy settings as you read them; let them be the context for forming your own peaceful life. From those spiritual settings, we too can go into the world of violence on a mission of liberation to lead humanity from its tombs. It was certainly a new beginning for Simon Peter.2288
Three times Jesus poses the question: “Simon Peter, do you love me?” Three times: “Do you agapao me?” And three times: “Yes, Lord. You know that I phileo you.” (Phileo: “brotherly love.”) Nonetheless, Jesus and Simon Peter are reconciled. And for the first time Jesus explicitly calls his impetuous friend to the life of nonviolence. “Simon Peter, follow me.” Jesus has risen, and he stands beyond all cultures of violence and war and above psychological urges toward rancor and ill will. In his gentle reunion he demonstrates nothing but agape, compassion, kindness, reconciliation, peace, and joy. And it transforms their hearts. We know this from the book of Acts. Upon Jesus’ ascension, they take to the streets, form communities, confront injustice publicly, and offer their lives to embody Jesus’ vision. This is what the resurrection of Jesus has in store for us, as well. He calls us out of tombs of our own making and into the freedom of nonviolence and care for others and our common home. When we step into freedom we will, like the early community, have nothing to do with death anymore. We will not make wealth our pursuit or hoard more than we need. We will not be violent to ourselves or to anyone. We will be nonviolent people offering the world compassion, agape, and peace. Life is short, but our survival is guaranteed. So we can risk living in solidarity with all, especially the forsaken and even the enemies imposed on us by our nation. We can live life to the full, and so resist the forces of death, knowing that our resurrection has already begun. This is the key to fullness of life here and now. And it’s a foretaste of eternity, at home in Jesus’ circle, at peace with creation, our hearts healed in the aura of his love. This is our invitation to forsake the wiles of death and live life to the full. Now we know it’s true: The kingdom of God is life.
The Gospel of John presents a stunning illustration of how the God of life enters the culture of death and calls humanity out of the tombs into the new life of resurrection. If we can begin to understand this climactic parable in the life and works of Jesus as a story of God’s action to liberate all humanity in the figure of the dead Lazarus, then we have been given a great mission—to join God’s campaign to lead humanity to the fullness of life. This great text summons us to obey the three new commandments of Jesus. We are told to “Take away the stone” that keeps us all entombed in the old ways of death, such as war, violence, greed, and injustice. We hear ourselves called out of the tomb with a bold summons from the God of life, “Lazarus, come forth!” We join that voice by calling one another to come forth out of the culture of war and death into new life. And we are commanded, “Unbind him and let him go free!” With that final commandment, we are sent to unbind humanity from the trappings of death and injustice, that every human being may live free in dignity, love, and peace to follow Jesus on the path into new life. This Gospel story sets the path for the rest of our lives. We are no longer dead, but summoned to live life to the full. That means, we have to renounce our complicity with the culture of death, and do what we can to help everyone else live life to the full. At this tumultuous hour in our history, Jesus’ invitation offers astounding new hope. He empowers us to do what we can not only to liberate humanity from the powers of death, but to transform the culture itself into a new culture of justice, nonviolence, peace, and life. To do that, we need to join local, national, and global grassroots movements for nonviolent social change. Like the Abolitionists of old, we announce an improbable, nearly impossible dream.2311
We summon everyone into the new life of nonviolence, the new life of resurrection peace, the fullness of life which is God’s Kingdom here in our midst. We can go forward now, filled with hope, knowing that our God is a God of life who wants us to live life to the full, that our resurrection has already begun, that the days of the culture of death are already over. May the God of life and peace give us strength for the task ahead, and make us instruments of resurrection peace. Amen. Alleluia.2342
QUESTIONS FOR PERSONAL REFLECTION AND SMALL GROUP DISCUSSION
- What does Jesus mean when he says that he has come to bring us “the fullness of life”? Do we want to live life to the full? How do we live life to the full? How is our world, instead, a culture of death? In what ways are we comfortable with the culture of violence, war, and death?
- Is Jesus nonviolent, and if so, what does that mean for us individually as his followers and collectively for the church? How do we journey with Jesus from violence to nonviolence, reject the ways of the culture of death, and follow Jesus on the path of life?
- How does Jesus confront the culture of death? How can we publicly confront the culture of violence, war and death?
- Where do you see yourselves in the story of John, chapter 11? In the male disciples? In the professional mourners? In Martha and Mary? In Lazarus? In Jesus?
- In what ways are we, like Martha, “disappointed” with God? When have we said, “Lord, if you had only been here…?” What does Jesus say to us in return? When has Jesus said to us, “Your brother, your sister, will rise?” How do we respond to his talk of resurrection?
- What does this statement by Jesus mean to you: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even if he or she dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die?” How do we respond when Jesus asks, “Do you believe this?”
- How do you imagine this verse: “Jesus approached the tomb”? How does Jesus approach the tomb, the culture of war and death, today? How do we?
- How do you fulfill the first commandment: “Take away the stone!”? When have you rolled away the stone from the culture of death? Do you want the stone rolled away? How do you, like Martha, resist this commandment? What is “the stench” that happens today when we confront the culture of death?
- Do you pray like Martha or Jesus? How often do you give thanks like Jesus? Do you thank God for the nonviolent movements that take away the stone from the culture of death today? How can we thank the God of life more and more for this work of liberation?
- How do you fulfill the second commandment: “Lazarus, come forth!”? How is Jesus calling you out of the tomb, the culture of violence, war, and death? How do you call others out of the tomb, the culture of violence, war, and death?
- Where do you see humanity rising, and coming out of the tomb, the culture of violence, war, and death, today?
- How do you fulfill the third commandment: “Unbind him and let him go free!”? Who unbinds you and sets you free? What people in the world are bound and not free because of the culture of death? How can we unbind them and set them free?
- What inspires you and challenges you in the stories of Ben Salmon, Dorothy Stang, and Oscar Romero?
- How do we “wash each other’s feet,” that is, prepare one another to walk the way of the cross as nonviolent resistance to injustice and the culture of war and death? Who washed your feet? Whose feet do you wash?
- How do we give our lives in agape/love for one another and humanity? How do we practice resurrection and welcome the risen Jesus’ gift of peace here and now?
- What gives you hope these days? How does the nonviolent Jesus and the Gospel of life give you hope? What hopeful things for peace and justice do you do, can you do?
- What can we do to help abolish war, poverty, starvation, executions, nuclear weapons, and environmental destruction? How do we live life in the Kingdom of God here and now?2346
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