Around 33 CE, Jesus of Nazareth was executed in Jerusalem by the Roman authorities, with the collusion as well by certain Jewish leaders. Jesus had a way of upsetting people more committed to religion than to faith. After his death, the women (first) and the men who were his disciples experienced him very much alive.
Jesus of Nazareth was not raised from the dead like a resuscitated corpse. After death on the cross, his followers experienced him alive in a new way: alive in God in a new form of life far beyond the restrictions of a physical body and the imaginations of the human mind.
Jesus’ resurrection introduced a major paradigm change in understanding the human condition: life is stronger than death, love is stronger than hatred, people more important than regulations, and the old regulations don’t work anymore.
Christian moral responsiveness and leadership – proclaimed in the Resurrection of Christ – is a journey with God in human life and history, a journey of cross and resurrection that transforms everything. It challenges self-understanding, institutional life, and the very nature of Christian witness and ministry.
I suggest it is far better to speak of a Christian spirituality than a Christian ethic. As we stand at the resurrection and look back at the life of Jesus, we see now perhaps more clearly that Jesus did not just show kindness to the sinner, but subverted the whole division of the world into the good and the bad, the righteous and the unrighteous.
Far too many people require the existence of the bad against whom they then secure their own goodness, living in a perpetual state of self-righteous comparison and judgment. Every day in the news, we see examples of “Christians” proclaiming their “goodness” by denigrating others as bad.
This past week Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed into law a sweeping bill allowing individuals to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against LGBT people and other minorities. Legislators from Arizona to Indiana have now conceded that the intent of their bills, on behalf of “religious liberty,” is to protect business owners from having to serve gays and lesbians.
Closer to home in the Catholic camp, Cardinal Raymond Burke has spoken out again, telling an interviewer that gay couples and divorced and remarried Catholics, who are trying to live good and faithful lives, are still living in sin just like “the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people.”
Far too often, Christians too easily and too comfortably forget what Jesus was all about.
Jesus refused to allow himself to be designated as good (Mark 10:18). He understood God to be unconcerned with our division of each other into good and bad categories, because God “makes the sun rise on the evil as on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45) and gives the worker, who has worked least in the fields, the same wage as the one who had worked longest (Matthew 20:1-16).
In his life and ministry, Jesus was not simply proposing a new principle of moral life, or a new form of judgment within an alternative system of goodness. Jesus was making available a far deeper way of being Good.
One could argue, perhaps, that the antidote to the moral and spiritual danger self-justification and self-righteousness would be to refuse to prescribe norms of goodness, since without norms there would be no bases for envious comparison and assessment. The problem however is that a mere rejection of norms would not transform the dynamic that underlies the human tendency towards envy, competition, and threatening others. It is precisely this tendency that is inimical to the possibility of true human fellowship, true Goodness.
What then is the deeper order of Goodness to which Jesus gives us access? Jesus opened up new possibilities for human being that are interdependent, with the possibility of participating in God’s Goodness: a Goodness beyond categorizing people as good and evil.
It is in the experience of finding ourselves in communion in a deeper way with other people, with the energy of divine life, so that we can begin to realize the extent to which we had been previously isolated.
The healing of the self and of human community is dependent on our letting-go of the illusion of both the possibility and the necessity of self-making, by learning to accept our vulnerability and dependence on others without fear of annihilation. This, I suggest again, is the way to understand the experience of salvation for those women and men who were Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus himself modeled freedom from any project of self-making, entrusting himself entirely to God as the source of his life and meaning. By freely allowing himself to become the victim of the system of goodness in his day, Jesus was able to unmask the mechanism by which the identity and the goodness of the group was secured by denigrating the designated other. Indeed, many people become victims of systems that reinforce the identity and goodness of one group at the expense of those who are cast out.
As Paul reminded the Galatians (3:13) “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”
Through his own exercises of hospitality and his resurrection from the dead, Jesus enacts God’s endlessly giving life in the human world; and he invites the disciples to “follow me” in that same trusting dependence. Just as the mystical tradition has discovered it: as the self comes to know and embrace its own nothingness, it can finally authentically become itself and receive the fullness of being.
(I will be away from my desk for a few days and will return later in April.)