Crucifixion, Resurrection, and the Reversal of Power by Kelly Brown Douglas

Rev.-Dr.-Kelly-Brown-Douglas - Version 2

Within the Christian tradition, this week – l known as Holy Week – is perhaps the most significant week on the Christian calendar.  During this week Christians are called to contemplate and to remember the core events of Christian identity—the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  Given the focus of this week for many Christians I am sharing my theological reflections on the crucifixion-resurrection event.

As I begin this reflection, it is important to recall that which I and others have pointed out in other places. In Jesus’ first century Roman world crucifixion was reserved for slaves, enemy soldiers and those held in the highest contempt and with lowest regard in society. To be crucified was, for the most part, an indication of how worthless and devalued by established power an individual was.  It also indicated how much of a threat that person was believed to be to the order of things. There was a decided crucified class of people. These were essentially the castigated and demonized as well as the ones who defied the status quo of power. It is in this respect that I believe Jesus’ crucifixion affirms his identification with the marginalized and outcasts. Indeed, on the cross Jesus fully divests himself of all pretensions to power and anything that would compromise his bond with those most othered in the world. The reality of the cross further affirms the profundity of god’s bond with put-upon bodies..

At the same time, the cross represents the height of human wickedness. It is in this regard that the impotence of human evil, that is divisive and destructive power—that which would destroy bodies, is revealed.  This is revealed in several ways. First, Jesus takes on all of this evil, yet he is not destroyed by it. The first indication that evil has no power over Jesus is seen in his response to the jeering and taunts he receives from the crowd throughout his crucifixion. As he is spat upon and ridiculed for not being able to save himself, Jesus does not respond in kind, neither does he try to prove himself by conforming to the demands of the people to come down from the cross. Most striking is the fact that he does not condemn the crucifying crowd. Instead, he asks for their forgiveness. Essentially, Jesus refuses to allow evil to destroy who he is and thus to become somebody that he is not. He does not succumb to narratives outside of himself, namely narratives of power. Most importantly, he does not allow them to compromise his bond with the powerless and oppressed. At this point it is beginning to become clear that divisive and destructive human power at its height is impotent in relationship to the power found in the intersect of divine and human realities. This was the power of Jesus, and this was the power of the cross.

In the end, the cross shows that evil at its mightiest simply cannot prevail against the power found in the intersect of divine and human goodness that is Jesus. Ironically, the power that attempts to destroy Jesus on the cross is itself destroyed by the cross.

There is a final irony in the fact of Jesus crucifixion.  That Jesus had to be crucified actually reveals his power. If he were not a threat to the dominating political and religious forces of the day, then they would have summarily dismissed him. That he was a threat, that he was powerful meant that they had to crucify him.  Thus, that which is to be a sign of Jesus’ weakness—the crucifixion–actually reveals his power. In this sense, Jesus’ words, “Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they are doing,” takes on a new layer of meaning.  They mock at the pretensions of power. On the cross God has used the weak to confound the power of the strong.  The resurrection makes this unequivocally clear.

The resurrection is god’s definitive triumph over crucifying evil power. Power that denigrates human bodies and destroys life is revealed as actually illusory and certainly no match for god. The resurrection shows that evil has no stable existence. In the end, the one that was crucified was restored to life. Thus, a mockery was made of prevailing political and religious forces.  In the end, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus witness to a force that restores justice to the universe. It is a force that repudiates and virtually makes a joke of the crucifying powers in the world. For on the cross, God plays with power. Just when power seemingly prevails, its defeat is at hand. The resurrection of Jesus is god’s last laugh.  The ultimate reversal of power has occurred.  The life force of god has reversed the power of death. The realities of death are defeated. In defying death itself, god shows the very futility of life-negating, dehumanizing power and thus the transitory character of evil constructs, i.e. racialized hetero-patriarchal constructs of structural and systemic power. In the final analysis the cross-resurrection event is that which lets me know that the world the way it is, is not the way it is meant to be, and that the “arc of the universe” does indeed bend toward justice. And so it is, that as the events of  Holy Week are central to Christian identity,  they are the source of Christian hope in a better world.

Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.”  She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black ChristSexuality and the Black ChurchWhat’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul.  Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.

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Categories: Black Feminism, Christianity, Christology, Resurrection, Theology, Womanist Theology

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6 replies

  1. The question I keep asking is: “What does it mean, today, for me?” You’ve given me lots to think and pray with Kelly. Many thanks.

  2. Well argued. When churches show Jesus hanging on his cross above their altars, are they testifying to the power you write about? Isn’t there a better symbol that people could use?

  3. Here in Greece the theological focus is on immortality or life after death. I would say for the “folk” the meaning of the “sacred drama” is the participation of divine figures in the tragic conditions of life, including the loss of beloved children or other loved ones to death. Nothing could be farther from anyone’s mind this week than “social justice.”

  4. Social justice is very much on my mind as the cause of the suffering and death of so many. That, and the aspect of how I want to live – according to Jesus’ teaching or following society’s worship of money and power.

    Barbara A – I find the crucifix has become a symbol of some sort of theology that doesn’t “fit” for me. Hard to express. I find the idea that “Jesus came to die for my sins” or/and “God the “Father” loved me so much “he” sent his son to die for me” repulsive. I think these statements are a “cover up” for some Church corruption and to maintain powr over others….with a little magic thrown in.

    For me, the cross is a reminder to “choose sides”, to “die to some things” (greed, selfishness, revenge, etc) so I can “live to others” (compassion, simplicity…etc) I’m finding Kelly’s post clarifying how I can do that.

  5. I’m always confused when I read posts like this one written by scholars of religion. Jesus never claimed to be the son of God and his divinity was not a part of the Christian doctrine until several hundred years after the crucifixion. Are you speaking metaphorically or literally? As far as I can tell the resurrection story is a purely human construct. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. I would love to hear other viewpoints. How do you reconcile the history with current interpretation?

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