What If Jesus Is Dead (And It’s A Good Thing)? by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee


Bear with me.

I know that most Christians accept some version of the idea that Jesus, the person, died, and then ‘rose from the dead’ in a supernatural, miraculous way – probably the most common definition of what Christians celebrate at Easter. I grew up in progressive Christian churches, where I, too, was taught this idea, which I found fascinating and inspiring. Many people (both Christians and others) still find it healing and inspirational; and I want to state clearly that I think that’s well and good.

Okay.

What I would like to suggest, however, is that this approach may miss the main point of Easter, of resurrection, and of these narratives. Here goes.

Sometimes I like to play the game of ‘what if.’ It goes like this: what if we strip away all the elaborate theology, and we are left with Jesus the Jewish mystic, who strove to reform the Judaism of his day away from the corruption of the temple authorities who cozied up to the Roman empire, a domination system that oppressed peasants, widows, orphans, lepers, prostitutes, and others to the point of ostracization and starvation? What if Jesus sought to embody his prophetic tradition in order to spread a movement of healing, justice, shalom, and abundance?

You’re probably with me so far. Let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ tradition. The Hebrew Bible repeatedly describes cycles of death and rebirth, what I would argue illustrate its foundational narrative of abundance: life always, always follows death. Slavery in Egypt leads to the birth of the people Israel. Exile eventually ends in return, restoration. The holy resurrects the valley full of dry bones into a people returned to the bosom of their land. Story after story, psalm after psalm reflects a narrative in which hope follows despair, and life follows death.

So – what if life really does follow death? What if the ancient Hebrews looked around at the abundant, holy Creation, and saw that spring always follows winter – even a really, really hard winter? What if they drew their foundational theological narrative from the Creation itself? What would that look like?

Spring does follow winter – but, and this is key: it is never the same spring. We can’t go back. Life does follow death – but it does not look the same as what came before. Ever. And what if – maybe – that’s okay? What if that’s good?

Families are part of Creation, too. Families of birth, families of choice – they flow through time, including pets and plants and waters and lands. When my mother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, all I wanted was for her to come back. I felt frozen in time, in this in-between space of unwillingness to accept her passing and unable to move on. I remember the first time I journeyed through Holy Week after her death. I realized I was resting in the tomb of Holy Saturday. I knew I could not have the past back; but I was not ready to face the new life – the resurrected life – waiting outside that door.

But time has a way of moving forward anyway, inexorably, and my niece was born, and we adopted a puppy, and my family moved forward into its new identity. Not divorced from the past – my mother is now an honored and beloved ancestor, a source of powerful inspiration and comfort to me. Rather, in continuity with the past, my family embodies the resurrected life.

So, what if? What if Jesus died, was violently, horrifically executed by the corrupt domination system he protested? What if his Jewish followers, family, friends claimed this event through the lens of their tradition, of cycles of death and life?[1] What if the Jesus Movement redacted and embodied this tradition for their own time, and they unequivocally preached life, rebirth, liberation, resurrection? How much more courage, how much more inspiration, would it take to preach life in the face of actual death? What if, instead of a supernatural deity reaching in with a magic wand to resuscitate one and only one (male) human, it is something… more? Something each of us, our communities, can choose, and live into? Will we recognize this resurrected Christ?

I wanted nothing more than to have my mother back. And I know many of Jesus’ friends and family must have felt the same way. But Jesus knew what would happen if he spoke truth to power, and he did it anyway. To reduce his death to a magic trick has the potential to diminish his courage in the face of actual death. It also has the potential to leave resurrection safely in the past, where it cannot challenge us.

It takes great courage to live in the present, because it takes great courage to let go of the past. Eventually, slowly, I stepped out of my tomb; and I realized that I didn’t want to go back, not really. As much as I miss my mother – and I do, every single day – I would not trade the resurrected life for the fossilized life. Because – as scary as it is – what if resurrection sets us free?

I planted a rosebush this spring, and I heard my mother’s voice reminding me to trim off the dead blossoms. I hear her when I tell my own daughters how precious they are to me. Maybe I am the hands and feet of my mother in the world; and maybe we Jesus-lovers are the hands and feet of Jesus, too. Maybe, instead of a Divine Magician, a community honored a prophet who was willing to die for justpeace, by claiming his death as a perfect example of the liberating narrative of their faith tradition. Maybe their beautiful stories about this powerful ancestor were never intended to be taken literally – just like Ezekiel’s dry bones. What would happen, I wonder, if we, too, let Jesus go? What if we found something holy, and healing, and free? What if we found – resurrection?

 

Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.

 

[1] Marcus Borg calls this the difference between the ‘pre-Easter’ and the ‘post-Easter’ Jesus.



Categories: Ancestors, Belief, Christianity, Community, Embodiment, Family, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Resurrection, Theology, thriving

Tags: , , , , , , ,

15 replies

  1. I resonate with most of what you say here. I certainly have no belief in nor desire to believe in individual life after death and have written about this in She Who Changes.

    I wonder though: if Jesus is a spiritual-political human being who tried to change the world for the better, is he all that different from me and thee? And if not, why should a religion be focused around his life and death? Of course “me and thee” have our flaws and I suppose so did “he.” Other leaders that I admire surely did, whether that be Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Gandhi.

    Btw, I have been surprised to discover that there are many in the Goddess movement and in Neo-Paganism who do desire some form of life after death and some form of cosmic justice–often tied to notions of karma and reincarnation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your comment, Carol. You are absolutely right that the implications of this theology are that what happened with Jesus can happen with anyone, which is consistent with Jesus’ own words in the New Testament, as well as other biblical writings. The layers of theology that were added later, particularly by empires and arguing political factions, can easily obscure the attempts by the early movement to create subversive and liberating interpretations of what happened with Jesus of Nazareth.

      Part of the difference, of course, stems from the fact that he was executed, whereas other reformers, such as Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and so on, were not; so they remained present and alive to continue to shape and inspire their reform movements. It is much easier for respect and inspiration to turn into idolatry when someone has passed away or was killed, which we see with people like Gandhi and MLK, although these events happened later, post-Enlightenment, so the idolatry is of the emotional, rather than the literal kind.

      The idea of bodily resurrection (resuscitation) is related but separate from general afterlife, of course. I would say the Bible is mixed on this idea. As for me, I am decidedly agnostic about it, and it is fine with me to engage in practices that assume a sentient communion of ‘saints,’ whether or not I ‘believe’ in it. Ancestor rituals provide great comfort and inspiration, and are part of every human culture. Whether or not they are taken literally does not negate the comfort and inspiration taken from them. That said, I agree that many people do cling to these beliefs, perhaps out of fear – it is very hard to let go. My hope is that people engage in rituals and theologies/spiritual beliefs not out of fear, but out of a place of peace and abundance. Easier said than done!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Just last night, I was thinking of Jesus Christ Superstar and one of its most famous songs, “Gethsemane,” which we can listen to here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P__JXupgI5A In this song, Jesus the Superstar is singing about his coming death. He chooses to die. I don’t much like martyrs, whether they’re gods or abused women who won’t leave their husbands (I’ve known several of these women and their husbands) or revolutionaries.

    And here you and Carol are–writing about resurrection that is not going back to the way it was (MAGA??) and that it’s possible that our beloved dead ones still live in us. I doubt that anyone would recognize the resurrected (standard-brand) Jesus, but if he came back new and improved? If our mothers and fathers and ancestors came back new and improved? If we could live new lives with them?

    That is indubitably worth pondering. Thanks for your post and all its food for thought. Brava!

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    • Thank you for these interesting thoughts, Barbara. Indeed, the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar tries to make the point that Jesus never wanted to be a Superstar, despite how much some try to give him that label. I find it a fascinating show, and in particular the song Gethsemane. You aptly name the dangerous implications of theologies of redemptive violence, which Jesus rejects as well.

      I firmly agree that MAGA represents this kind of idolatry of the past (I have written about this elsewhere in this blog site); nostalgia is a powerful force, as is fear, and the combination is dangerous. So many religions teach about letting go. Letting go of fear, of the past, of attachment to life, earthly wealth. It is not the same as saying, we shouldn’t grieve, or even rage, at the loss, the injustice, the pain. Many blessings to you.

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  3. Really liked this and it triggered some thoughts for me: First, I wonder if the Church didn’t want to pick up on the aspect you write about, namely “Jesus speaking truth to power” because institutions really don’t want us doing that. They want us to accept oppression, abuse, conditioning to sacrifice and suffer – especially if we’re women. Instead they rather preach “prosperity gospels” which I believe are the antithesis of who Jesus might have been. And I believe the teaching of prosperity gospels conditions us to accept greed, including corporate greed – afterall, the prosperity of the 1% is grace from God for their efforts, right? Speaking truth to power would demand we not tolerate domination and exploitation in its many forms, including molestation of priests, abuse and exploitation of workers, domestic violence and all the rest. These things would be a sin. Greed would once again be one of the Seven Deadly Sins instead of being accepted as normal. Imagine if we might reclaim this idea of greed = sin and use it against those who want workers to struggle in environments of abuse, making wages so low they have to have a second or third job. The Church used to be the social conscious of society – not anymore. It perpetuates/tolerates/ignores greed no matter what lip service the Pope says about poverty and greed.

    Second, you mention life after death and that cycle of change. It reminded me of the sistrum of Isis. It’s said when Goddess shook this sacred rattle she kept the energies of the universe flowing so we/the cosmos might not become stagnant. We are supposed to keep changing, moving forward, learning, growing, facing challenges and life’s lessons that help us evolve. It stops us from being a victim, staying stuck. It’s a message of growth, change, transition. Once again, as it happens so often, the Christian story is borrowing from the Goddess story.

    Yes, I wish these were the messages the Church taught instead of the distortions we see from fundamentalists, the Religious Right, the prosperity gospel crowd. When Joel Osteen didn’t open his mega-church in that hurricane down in Texas and when he and others ride around in their jets instead of using that money to set better examples, I think the real Jesus is turning over in his grave somewhere, metaphorically speaking, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for these thoughts, Kate. It is true and beautiful that the Judeo-Christian tradition didn’t really eliminate the feminine elements of the polytheistic world, but instead applied concepts of goddess wisdom to, for example, the ideas of the eternal (female) Spirit of Wisdom, particularly in the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible, as well as later, particularly in Catholic Mariology, as well as in the more gender balanced theologies of Celtic Christianity. There was never a complete loss of the beauty of the goddess traditions in Judeo-Christian theology – simply different ways of expressing it. All the traditions cross pollinated in the ancient world, learning from one another and growing in wisdom as a result. The Taoist idea of the “Way” arose around the same time that the Jesus Movement was describing religious life in the same terms, and those trade routes criss crossing Asia, Africa, and Europe all met right there in Palestine! What an incredibly fertile ground for ideas to meet and engage!

      I hear your frustration with the ways empires in particular, and greed/power lust have used religion to distort and even conceal the underlying messages of justpeace. Of course, all ideologies, both secular and religious, can fall prey to this temptation; even some of the druids of Ireland became oppressive and corrupt. My hope comes from the ways in which people of all cultures and religions and ideologies push back against injustice, including Jesus and many others, who continue to lay down their lives for justice. Unfortunately, we humans have deep fears of unworthiness, and so we often fall prey to the idea that if we can just find the right approach to life, religion, etc, we can finally feel good about ourselves. What a dangerous trap to fall into – for anyone. My prayer is that we can find deeper sources of self love and self worth that give us the courage we need. Peace to you!

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      • I loved this post and it made quite a bit of sense, but the church must cling to a real Jesus with a real virgin birth and literal resurrection because they think they can control people with the narrative. Without it you can’t hold people in fear of damnation and devils and all the rest. I have to say Karen Tate hits many points – but she is mainly pulling from today’s church stances. The church has much to answer for over the last 1800 years, including crusades, pogroms, inquisitions, burnings, torture and all the rest. I was also brought up in the Christian Tradition (Lutheran – Missouri Synod) and I can say that there was little, if ANY hold over from any Goddess tradition. God was MALE. Period. Even the Holy Spirit was male. Women couldn’t serve in any capacity in the church, rather than clean and cook. We were told in religion class that sin and death were OUR fault because a naked woman in a magic garden listened to a talking snake and ate some fruit from a miraculous tree. Compared to that narrative, Jesus’ magical resurrection is lack luster. So I have a hard time thinking that most denominations hold the ancient wisdoms in respect and the behavior of toady’s current powerful Christians still shows that what matters most is power, money, and patriarchy.

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    • The seven deadly sins were fabricated by Catholics as they’re not Scriptural; rather there were 32 deadly sins in Ro 1.

      conscious what?

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  4. Yes!!! So much of your musings are how I frame the story’s meaning as well. I am not interested in a sacred story that must defy the laws of science in order to justify its wisdom – as if somehow this lends credibility to it. To use your experience with your beloved mother makes your argument quite real. Thank you.

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    • Thank you for your comments, Beverly. It is a shame how some post-Enlightenment theology reduces the powerful wisdom in these stories to simple tests of whether we are willing to sign up for certain supernatural interpretations or not. It has helped me to imagine what these stories would feel like to pre-Enlightenment folks for whom this was a complete non-issue. I am grateful that my experiences with my grief and love for my mother helped. I am so grateful for my tradition. Peace to you!

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  5. Beautiful post, which for reasons I am still exploring released some pent up tears. Thank you. I am no longer a creed saying Christian and am not someone with literal beliefs. Some people, for me Jesus is one, and certainly our own beloved dead take on a life that lives in us. And sometimes what is inside or what is outside or how we perceive it as such is just that, a perception. It is late (for me), and I am not able to articulate all your post stirred. I rest in mystery. Just wanted to say thank you.

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    • Elizabeth, thank you for sharing these thoughts. I am so glad the post was helpful. These are heavy things. Powerful things. These ideas touch us at the heart of who we are. Sometimes, I weep because of a kind of relief; sometimes it is naming my fear that helps me finally release it, or naming my gratitude that helps me feel moved to tears with deep joy. So many reasons to weep, all of them sacred. Blessings to you.

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  6. This post blew me away. Ever since I left christianity I have struggled with the idea of a Jesus that is still alive somewhere “out there”. Over the years I have entertained many thoughts on this but this is the first time anyone has said anything quite like this. Thank you for this wonderfully practical way of thinking about him. A lovely addition to my arsenal of explanations.

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    • I am so glad it was helpful. Many people leave religions because they feel they are required to ‘check their brain at the door.’ It is very common and truly unfortunate (and usually unnecessary). As a former molecular biologist, it has been important to me to engage with my faith tradition in a way that has integrity both with my understandings of the cosmos and with the tradition itself. Simple answers can seem satisfying or comforting on the surface, but to me, they usually do not offer deep comfort or inspiration. Peace to you.

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