Made Known in the Breaking of the Bread

I have always thought of the kitchen as the heart of a household. In some primordial half-remembered, half-imagined archetypal house, it is the hearth fire around which the members of a household gather. A house can shelter different, even disparate people. You can enter a household, live within its sheltering walls, and share its fellowship and rituals with your fellow inhabitants.

And what more visceral expression of a household’s unity than to share meals together regularly? We all need food to live and sharing food can be symbolic of shared life. And it is in the kitchen, the hearth and heart of a house, that the abundance of creation is chopped and julienned and boiled and sautéed and broiled and then taken and blessed and given and shared.

Perhaps you have had the experience in your family of everybody working together in the kitchen to produce a big meal. Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, summer barbecues. And you talk while you cook, tell stories, laugh together. A large table is set (maybe with the little card table set out for the youngest) and the meal is shared by all with more talk, stories and laughter. In the observance of Passover, the ancient story of freedom told around the shared meal is formalized.

At Easter, many of us ponder the stories of Jesus’ appearance to his followers in the days following his brutal execution. Isn’t it interesting how many of these texts involve food? In fact, they all involve food. In some stories, Jesus cooks the disciples a breakfast of toast and fried fish. In another he eats with them (again, a fish) as if to demonstrate that he is not a ghost. And in these appearance stories, Jesus is at first unrecognized.

In Luke’s story, the two Jesus followers who walk with a stranger to Emmaus don’t recognize that it is Jesus who walks with them until—what? They break bread together.

And more than that. “Jesus would have gone on,” the text says, “but they begged him to stay the night with them.” They offer hospitality to the stranger. And then, when he is at the table with them, he takes a loaf of bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. And suddenly their eyes were opened.

Now this language is formulaic. It is a formula, a blueprint, a recipe. He takes bread, and after blessing it, breaks it and gives it to them. This is the formula of the Eucharist, of communion, the Lord’s Supper.

Remember, of course, that the gospels are the theological expressions of the early followers of Jesus and not biographies written by eyewitnesses. So the early followers of Jesus, the original Jesus movement, are telling us something very important about how they experienced the continuing presence of Jesus in the days following his crucifixion.

In the early decades of the Christian era, followers of Jesus met in one another’s homes. In the Greco-Roman world, the home, the household, was the domain of women, so often women would preside at the table, around which songs were sung, and scriptures and letters read, a meal was shared and food distributed to the hungry. And, around the table, the Eucharist was celebrated.

Reaching out to the stranger, the inclusion of the stranger in this godly household, the act of pulling up one more chair to the collective table, was essential. At this table there is always room for one more. The universe is extravagant in the goodness bestowed upon us and out of that abundance comes the grace with which we share with others.

The point of being a household of faith is not to lock the doors and draw the blinds and parcel out God’s scarce, limited resources among ourselves. The point of being such a household—of being the church—is to invite everybody to the banquet. This is a feast and everybody is invited.

And everybody sometimes meant random guests being invited from the highways and byways, thrown together in a generous act of hospitality. People of different social status rubbed elbows at such a table.

Jesus shared a table fellowship with his followers, students, and friends. It was a symbol of what his mission was about. Jesus’ table was a symbol of God’s abundance, of the possibilities of liberation and communion when people came together and shared what they had, often across lines  of difference.

And the stories that circulated among his friends were fantastic tales of fish and loaves multiplying, of water turning into wine. In his presence, these stories tell us, nobody goes hungry. At Jesus’ table, all are fed.

Anthropologists speak of commensality—a fancy word for sharing a table—and the insights into culture when observing who is invited to eat, who sits where at the table, who is served first. Open commensality is the practice of there being no restrictions or taboos at the meal table. Jesus’ practice of open commensality is remarked upon throughout the stories of him in the New Testament.

In the beloved community, social differences are elided in a banquet of sharing and hospitality and abundance and fellowship. The bodies we all share unite us in their need for nourishment and we are all given what we need.

When Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, he knew that he was going to get in trouble. He might have even known he was going to die. For at the last meal he ate with his friends, he told them that every time they came together in his name, sharing food, sharing bread and cup, they would be living out the beloved community.

Do this and remember me, Jesus says. Daily acts of eating and drinking, do it for the remembrance of me. You know, the Greek word in the New Testament that is translated as remembrance also means reenactment.

Do this and re-enact my table fellowship. Do this and re-enact my mission.

The shared meal, symbolic of shared life, is the centre of a household’s life, a community’s life. For the earliest followers of Jesus, the reenactment of his mission of shared abundance was the way they experienced his ongoing presence among them—the worshipping, Eucharistic community, those gathered around the freely-given, justice-creating meals of Christian worship.

 

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You have just arrived in town.

The mid-morning sun is heating up the stone walkways of this Mediterranean port city. The sky is a dazzling cobalt, a blue that offsets the whitewashed houses and sandstone walls. It is the first century, and you are arriving in a seaside city along the coast of the Mediterranean in what is now Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Italy.

You are a stranger here. You know nobody here and nobody knows you. Perhaps you are a migrant labourer, one of a growing number of destitute peasants looking for work. Perhaps you are a recently freed slave. A few things are certain. You have no money, you have no family, you live in the rough world of sailors, fishers, traders making up the underbelly of the Roman Empire.

And you are a Christian. You are a member of a secretive mystery cult based in the life and teachings of a Jew from Galilee, a spirit-filled miracle-worker and sage. He was executed by the Romans as a political criminal, but his earliest followers say that he lives on within and among his followers, wherever two or more are gathered in his name. And his name is Iesous, Iesous Christos. Jesus the Christ. Most of his followers that you know are not Jews, but Greeks, like you, and like you from the lower classes of the Empire.

There are networks of Christos followers, Christians, throughout the towns and villages of this region. You need to keep your cultic practices to yourself, as the religious leaders have disestablished followers of Christos, forbidding you from meeting in the Jewish meetinghouses of the diaspora.

As a newly established sect, your Greek neighbours and the Roman authorities alike are suspicious of this upstart religion. In another generation, Christians will be actively persecuted. Indeed, there are already stories circulating among the believers of court cases and accusations. The secrets of your religion must be kept.

You seek and find each other out, meeting before dawn on the first day of the week, before going to work. You meet to sing, mostly, sing and pray. And then share a meal together. A meal of fish and bread and wine. And then, at the close of worship, food from this feast is distributed.

That’s how you became a Christian. You heard that they would feed you, and so you sought out this new mystery cult. Because you were hungry, physically hungry and desperate to sustain yourself. And they helped you, these Christians. They fed you, gave you clothes, told you who in town was a Christian who you could find work with. And the network of believers exists throughout the Empire, clandestine and unseen.

Like other secret societies, yours has its version of code words and secret handshakes. It is said, for example, if you meet a stranger on the road and begin to talk about your religious practices, and you wanted to know if he or she was a Christian, you could scratch an arc into the dirt, and if without speaking, they drew a similar intersecting arch, you knew there was a brother or sister with you.

And so you arrive here, the mid-morning sun heating up the stone walkways as the cobalt blue sky above offsets the whitewashed houses and sandstone walls. You need to find work, you need to find a place to stay, you need some money, you need to eat. And although you don’t know where to look, you know there are believers here who will help you.

You begin to scan the walls, some of which are scratched with graffiti. Lovers names, political slogans, sexual innuendos, and—finally, you spot it—a fish. Two simple, intersecting arcs. The sign of the fish. It is pointing you to the right, and so you step along that alleyway, to another sign of the fish, pointing left. You continue left along the walkway, following these fish until you arrive at the household of the local Christian community, the household at which the local believers gather for pre-dawn worship on the first day of the week.

You will knock on this door. The door will be opened by somebody who will help you, somebody who will welcome you in to this city’s network of believers. You will be drawn in, welcomed into this circle, and fed. These are your people and they will not let you go hungry. These are your people, and they will take care of you.

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The sign of the fish is the earliest Christian symbol. As early as the first century, Christian grave markers displayed images of the fish and the dove. Long before the cross, it was the fish that symbolized Christianity, the Jesus movement.

As a secretive worshipping community, the fish was a kind of password, an acrostic. If you take the Greek words Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, which mean Jesus Christ God Son Saviour, and take the first letter of each of those words, you get IXTHYS, the Greek word for “fish.”

It is possible that this creedal formulation (Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Saviour) emerged in Alexandria, the major Hellenistic city of North Africa in the late first century as a reaction to the reign of Domitian, who proclaimed himself a son of God, and had coins pressed with his image and these words. The Christian counter-affirmation was that Jesus was the true ruler, that their first allegiance was to the Kingdom of God.

Mosaics, murals, and frescoes from the first three centuries of Christian worship spaces, including the catacombs of Italy, depict the Eucharistic gifts as a fish, a loaf of bread, and wine or grapes.

The fish is an ancient symbol of life, fertility, abundance. In the ancient world, the fish was a symbol associated with the Goddess. In the ancient Mediterranean,it was a symbol of fertility associated with various Goddesses, including Venus who is venerated on the sixth day of the week—Friday, dies Veneris. In Scandinavia, the Great Goddess was called Freya and fish were eaten in her honour, also on the day named after her: Friday. The Roman Catholic Church, until recent years, had its adherents abstain from eating meat on the day that Christ was crucified and to eat instead fish on Fridays.

The association of the fish with abundance and fertility and life is expressed in many of the gospel stories.  A symbol rich with meaning in the minds of the people, the fish came to represent the worshipping, Eucharistic community, those communities gathered for worship that was both devotion and social justice, both reverence toward God and the distribution of foodstuffs to the needy.

The cruciform symbol of Christ’s cross came long after these early symbols of the table, and I for one take that as significant. Jesus’ death was not as significant as his ongoing mysterious presence among them at the table, where they reenacted his mission.

For me, the symbol of the living Christ is not a codeword for Jesus the man, but rather a symbol of life’s creative, transforming power. I believe to understand the symbol of the Christ, the living Christ (or the “Cosmic Christ”), we need to understand how God’s creative transforming power is lived out in communities of people.

The only compelling and truly meaningful Christology I’ve encountered in all my years of study and reflection is that of the feminist theologian Rita Nakashima Brock. In her book Journeys By Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, she speaks not of the Christ, but of Christa, the feminine form used in conjunction with Community. The living Christ is Christa/Community.

The power that gives and sustains life does not flow from a dead and resurrected savior to his followers. Rather, the community sustains life-giving power by its memory of its own broken-heartedness and of those who have suffered and gone before and by its members being courageously and redemptively present to all. In doing so, the community remains Christa/Community and participates in the life-giving flow of erotic power. No one person or group exclusively reveals it or incarnates it.

Jesus is like the whitecap on a wave. The whitecap is momentarily set off from the swell that is pushing it up, making us notice it. But the visibility of the whitecap, which draws our attention, rests on the enormous pushing power of the sea—of its power to push with life-giving labor, to buoy up all lives, and to unite diverse shores with its restless energy. That sea becomes monstrous and chaotically destructive when we try to control it, and its life-giving power is denied. Jesus’ power lies with the great swells of the ocean without which the white foam is not brought to visibility. To understand the fullness of erotic power we must look to the ocean which is the whole and compassionate being, including ourselves.

 

Brock argues that the very nature of the Christ insists on relationality: “What is truly christological, that is, truly revealing of divine incarnation and salvific power in human life, must reside in connectedness and not in single individuals… [Jesus] neither reveals nor embodies it, but he participates in its revelation and embodiment.”

In other words, the creative transforming power of God happens when people come together and act out the creativity and transformation of our own lives, as individuals and together in the intentional relationships we call communities. The living Christ exists where love, mercy, and compassion are enacted among human persons.

And this is not an abstract thing. We embody mercy and compassion in concrete acts of care and concern for those around us, particularly those in need, those who are most vulnerable. We embody that spirit—a meal delivered, a bandage applied, a hug, setting out food, a hospital bedside vigil—we make that spirit known in what we do with our bodies—feeding, visiting, clothing, touching.

I think those of us who gather in community can be the conduits of salvation (in that word’s sense of healing and wholeness). We, involved in the intentional relationships known as community, can be the places of saving grace and action. Within the matrix, the network, of who we are collectively moves the spirit that saves the world. Within the matrix, the network, the oceanic swell, of who we are cooperatively moves the spirit that saves the world.

At Easter time, my sense is that people celebrate a living spirit, a green springtime of the soul, a numinous presence of creative, regenerative, transforming power. This power is at work in the world, if only we would recognize it. Its alchemy transforms strangers into friends, disparate individuals into a community. It is the Life that makes all things new. For Christians, it is the living Christ.

When I was in seminary, I worked off campus. One of my co-workers was involved in something called Food Not Bombs. Once a week, these activists would collect discarded food from restaurants and supermarkets in downtown Toronto. Restaurants and supermarkets, you might know, throw away a lot of food. Things that spoil easily or are slightly bruised, food they cannot re-serve or that go off the menu the following day. The activist volunteers of Food Not Bombs collect the leftovers and the refuse of restaurants—who happily give their garbage over—and create huge, vegetarian feasts.

Once a week, Food Not Bombs sets up a table in a public park and invites all passersby to a free meal. The homeless population of the city makes good use of this free food, but it is meant for everybody. I used to love the meals of Food Not Bombs, probably because I shared many of the political aspirations of those involved, with our vision of a world of plenty, where human need comes before human greed.

It seemed to me that if the spirit of Jesus was alive anywhere, it was here. And I don’t mean in the individual face of a homeless person, and I don’t mean in the face of a young idealist. I mean the whole gesture of turning garbage into a feast, redeeming leftovers, of freely offering a table full of food to strangers, the Bay Street business man sharing a meal with a street-involved youth with a mental illness, the rough poor from the underbelly of another empire knowing where to go for food, people of disparate backgrounds rubbing elbows at a shared meal.

For me, the living Christ is not an individual, the living Christ is a feast, a table where mercies are spread, a community, a common wealth. The living Christ is a symbol of our common life shaping a world of mutuality and trust and love, a symbol of what sustains and nurtures life.

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Bearers of Dangerous Memory

There has been an outpouring celebrating the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela since his death last week. He was an outstanding statesman as well as leader and kept his nation from the brink of catastrophic civil war or worse by courageously walking the path of reconciliation, justice and peace. He refused to become like so many other post-colonial leaders, a strongman with a lifelong hold on power, insisting on serving only one term as president of a liberated South Africa.

What has been somewhat surprising has been the accolades he has received from conservative political figures. When he was a political prisoner, Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the British, American and other governments. As a matter of fact, he was on a list of terrorists kept by the Department of Homeland Security up until 2008.

Politicians who claimed he was a communist instigator of instability and revolution, and who actively resisted international sanctions against apartheid South Africa, are now singing his praises. The CIA had a hand in imprisoning Mandela, he was considered so dangerous by our US government. Now the US president is lionizing Mandela at his memorial service.

Mandela never backed down from his castigating the US for its military adventures overseas, never backed down from his support for national independence for the Palestinian people, never backed down from being a voice for the oppressed and colonized.

We have seen this before, haven’t we?

In the United States, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was considered subversive, increasingly so in the year before his assassination. Dr. King became progressively more trenchant in his criticism of the US war in Viet Nam, and increasingly vocal about economic justice and its relationship to racism and militarism.

Now he has a federal holiday in his honor, during which we are reminded how he dreamed of a bias-free society.

And guess who called upon workers to rise up and do this:

“Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction.”

If you guessed the avowed socialist, Helen Keller, you’d be right.

Keller is lauded for her heroism in overcoming difficulties and prejudices associated with her disabilities, and her lovely words about optimism and hope are glowingly quoted. Like Dr. King, her pointed remarks about the wealthy leeching off of ordinary people while keeping them down are willfully forgotten.

This white washing of individuals who spoke out boldly for social justice, economic equity, and an end to war, colonialism, and imperialism dulls our senses and lulls us into accepting the status quo. They become domesticated saints, nonthreatening figures who stood for good things we all believe in. This revisionism is meant to keep us from catching their vision of the world made right.

Every Advent, there are right-wing pundits who deplore the so-called “war on Christmas.” In my view, the real “war on Christmas” was the battle that turned the celebration of the birth of Jesus from a warning that the powers of domination are going to be overthrown into a sentimental holiday.

The story of Jesus’ birth, told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, tell of the political upset caused by the arrival of this baby. The stories of his birth describe him as a threat to the powers that be. King Herod seeks to destroy this claimant to his throne. Outcast sheep herders hear “good news” proclaimed about a “saviour” and “messiah” and “lord”—all political terms.

The revolutionary message of a great leader who taught and lived the way of resistance to domination, taught and lived the way of peace and reconciliation, has been domesticated and drained of its radical power.

It happens all the time.

Yet some of us will remember.

Some of us bear the memory of the ones who defied the powers—Mandela, Helen Keller, Dr. King, and a host of others, a great cloud of witnesses.

Some of us bear the memory of the prophet who proclaimed the arrival of God’s realm of justice and peace and embodied God’s desire for humanity in healing acts of protest and compassion.

Jesus was himself arrested by the powers that be, interrogated and tortured and finally executed as a political criminal. German theologian Johann Baptist Metz speaks of the “dangerous memory” of Jesus’ life and mission, dangerous because it continues to challenge the powers and principalities of this world, powers and principalities based on domination, exploitation, and violence.

Dangerous because the memory of Jesus draws us to the abandoned places of empire—the prison cell and torture chamber, the battle field and the homeless shelter, the toxic waste dump and the inner city school, the family farm and the sweatshop factories—drawing us out of our comfort zones and across lines of class, race, nation and culture to do the work of creating the realm of God.

We who are enlivened by the memory of those who proclaimed a vision of the world redeemed, the world salvaged, the world reclaimed by the passionate, unrelenting forces of love continue to struggle for it to be made in this world. We risk what they risked in the service of a vision of the world made right. In our efforts to make the world a better place, we truly remember and reenact the mission of all who came before us.

We contain within us the powerful memories of prophetic voices that proclaimed justice and truth to the powers that be. We remember all those who struggled to set the world right.

In this age of willful amnesia, such memories are dangerous.

May we all be bearers of such dangerous memories.

When We Sleepers Rise

There’s a story told about Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament. Jesus is traveling throughout the towns of Galilee, the northern reaches of Palestine. A leader of the local synagogue in the place through which Jesus is passing seeks him out. His name is Jairus, and when he gets close to Jesus, he throws himself at the teacher’s feet. “My daughter is about to die,” he pleads in anguish. “Please, come and lay your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.”

Jesus had a reputation as a healer and was being sought out by many for the healing of their afflictions. Jesus goes with Jairus, is led by this local leader through the crowds to where the young woman is. On the way there, messengers from Jairus’ household arrive and tell him, “Your daughter has died. We don’t need to bother the teacher any longer.” Jesus overhears them and says, “Don’t be afraid. Just keep trusting.” He then takes only a select few of his students with him to the synagogue leader’s home.

When they arrive, there’s a commotion of grief surrounding the house. People are crying and wailing. “What is all this tumult and weeping for?” Jesus asks them. “The child is not dead. She’s just sleeping.” They all laugh at Jesus. Jesus gets them all to leave. He brings his students and the girl’s parents with him to the room where the child lays. She’s twelve years old. Taking her by the hand, Jesus says simply, “Little girl, rise up.” I imagine he speaks softly, squeezing her hand as he rouses her. And then she gets up. The way any of us would get out of bed first thing in the morning. And then she starts walking around. Her parents and the friends Jesus brought into the room are in shock. Jesus instructs them not to tell anybody, which seems a little odd considering the crowd that’s there mourning the death of Jairus’ daughter. What are her parents going to say, that she was merely asleep? But he says not to tell anybody and please, give this child something to eat.

There are many stories in the Christian scriptures about Jesus healing people and even reviving them from death. The gospels, the books in the New Testament that narrate the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, are not, of course, eyewitness accounts. These texts are not biography, nor are they journalistic reportage of events. These texts are theological proclamations written by the earliest members of the Jesus movement more than a generation after his death. The basic, remembered facts about what Jesus said and did are narrated as theological reflections on the meaning of his words and actions.

He was remembered as a healer, as a person who was able to restore health and wholeness to the bodies of the injured and infirm. Jesus is represented as God’s healing agent, a divine salve, for the suffering of the mind, body and body politic.

The followers of Jesus who wrote and redacted these stories were expecting a new world order to arrive imminently. Indeed, they believed that it was already arriving, breaking into the current world order in small sometimes unseen ways like small cracks in the solid façade of the world’s systems of domination and oppression, like small mustard seeds or bits of yeast, that would grow and expand and eventually bring the current world order down.

The incoming order is marked by the principle of shalom, the biblical ideal of peace and wholeness. Shalom is a word that resonates with meaning; it does not merely signify the absence of war. It also means wholeness, balance, health, harmony, integrity and completeness as well as peace. Shalom is right-relation, wellbeing that is personal and interpersonal, economic and social, international and planetary.

The wholeness and health and integrity of individual bodies is a microcosm for the balance and harmony and peace of the body politic, the social order. Shalom for the nation means shalom for persons, and vice versa.

In one healing story, Jesus is called upon to expel an unclean spirit that possesses a man and causes the man great suffering and self-destruction. Jesus says to the spirit, “What is your name?” And the answer comes: “Our name is Legion, for we are many.” Legion, of course, is the name for the basic unit in the Roman military. It comes from the Latin word legio, which means military conscript, because the Roman Legion were drafted from among the Empire’s citizens.

So when Jesus expels the Legion from the body of a man, who then enter a herd of pigs and drown in the sea, we are getting a theological-political statement about the power of God to expel the unclean, foreign bodies from the nation, the restoration of national wholeness and integrity and peace.  As the nation is possessed, contaminated by a foreign, unclean power, this possession is expressed in the body. So, when the formerly possessed man appears dressed and in his right mind, he is a sign of liberation and shalom.

(Lest we think such imaginative views are a product only of the ancient world, think for a moment about our own metaphors of illness. Think of our images of disease as an invasion of the body, of the immune system being a defense against that invasion—all military metaphors. Think of the names of what we might suffer from—German measles or Asian flu. Anxieties about invasion are named for national and political enemies).

Restoring the wholeness of body and mind, then, are signifiers of the in-breaking divine social order, the arrival of God’s shalom. Health is a sign of what Jesus and his movement called the kingdom of God.  It is a realm in which suffering and illness have been vanquished, in which brokenness and disease are no more. It is a realm in which God’s shalom overcomes powers of destruction and death. Perfect bodies that never experience pain, never get diseased or disabled…perfect bodies that never die.

Our bodies will no longer fail, they proclaimed, because there is a life-giving, vivifying power greater than our bodies’ failures. Greater even than death. Death itself is merely an illusion in the face of this living power—she’s not dead, she’s just sleeping.

Resurrection, for the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth, was ultimately about history.

It was about a time, in history, when the rule of God would manifest in the world—the real world of nations and rulers and armies. It was about a time, in the future, when worldly kingdoms were defeated and the kingdom of God was ushered in—a real territory on the actual earth. Not an otherworldly kingdom in the heavens—the real world of bodies and passions and appetites. Not an afterlife in the clouds—a restored creation, a renewed earth, an earthly paradise full of redeemed people with unfailing, perfect bodies. This was an expected utopia, a verdant place of peace and prosperity and plenty. It was coming, and the early Jesus movement believed it was coming very soon.

The gospel stories of Jesus healing and reviving people were told as indications that the Kingdom of God was arriving. And so, the stories tell us, in his presence, nobody went hungry. In his presence, bodies were restored to wholeness. In his presence, the dead are rejuvenated. Healing, being restored to wholeness, being made sound—these are signs that prefigure the arrival of that day when all have transformed bodies, when all are whole, healthy.

The word “salvation” comes from the Latin and it means to be made whole, or sound. “Salvation” is simply a Latin word for shalom. A savior in the ancient Greco-Roman world was a natural philosopher, the ancient world’s equivalent of a physician. The Roman ruler or emperor was sometimes called a savior because he brought health and soundness to the body politic.

In the Jesus movement, salvation, for individuals, was an embodied state of everlasting, abundant life in a renewed body on this renewed earth–not being bodiless in a spiritual heaven.

The Jesus movement proclaimed that God’s saving work in the world is healing, wholeness, salvation. People’s brokenness, our wounds, are bound up in the healing salve of God’s love, our broken selves are made whole. The broken down and ruined places in our world are salvaged by God’s grace and are transformed, rebuilt. These are all motifs in the Jesus story and hearken back to stories and motifs of the other Jewish prophets found in Jewish scripture.

Some Jews (namely, the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus) believed that in the time to come, life would be restored to those righteous people who had died, and others did not. The biblical notion of the afterlife was an underworld called Sheol to which the souls of the dead retired. The New Testament, which was written in Greek, uses the Greek name Hades for the abode of the dead.

Around the time of Jesus, there came to be known another place to which dead souls went called Gehenna. The Hebrew is literally, Ge Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom, and is believed to be somewhere outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem. It was a place where offal—animal remains—and other refuse was slowly burned.

Gehenna was conceived as an afterlife of torment, a place of unquenchable fire. In the New Testament, it is distinguished from Hades and Sheol as a place of punishment for the wicked. The name is also found in the Qur’an and later Jewish writings with the same meaning; the King James Version of the Bible translated Sheol, Hades and Gehenna into the single Anglo-Saxon word, Hell. This effectively erased the distinction between the silent abode of the dead and the afterlife of burning punishment for wickedness.

The resurrection of the dead came to be seen by some Jews, including Jesus’ followers, as an occurrence at the beginning of the messianic era at the end of this present age. When God was going to usher in his paradise on earth, those righteous people who had fallen asleep and were resting in their ghostly abode were to be awakened from their deathly slumber. The wicked would meet their fate in Gehenna, and both their bodies and souls would be consumed in the flames there.

Followers of Jesus were among those Jews who believed the messianic era would begin with the dead being restored to life. The righteous would rise up with their new and improved bodies and live in the realm of peace and plenty, wholeness, health and holiness. They believed Jesus, the paradigmatic figure of this incoming kingdom and time, was the first to rise up. But he was not thought of as unique in this feat.

In the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he describes Jesus as the firstfruits of the harvest, the first crop of a general harvest. Everybody will be resurrected; Jesus was merely the first to be given his new body. The resurrection celebrated by Christians at Easter was not the singular resuscitation of the corpse of Jesus, but a sign that the messianic age had begun.

The most articulate vision of this early Christian hope is found in the letter of Paul to the church in Corinth, the fifteenth chapter. The expectation had been that Jesus would be coming back to usher in the new world order sooner rather than later. And as time wore on and he didn’t return and his followers began to die, the question about the resurrection arose. It was this question that Paul is answering in his letter. Those dead people had merely fallen asleep and would be awakened when Jesus came back in glory to rule a redeemed world. And those that are still alive will experience themselves as transformed on that day. “Listen, I will tell you a mystery,” Paul writes.

“We will not all die [literally “fall asleep”] but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 NRSV)

“Our dead and decaying bodies will be changed into bodies that won’t die or decay. The bodies we now have are weak and can die. But they will be changed into bodies that are eternal.” (1 Corinthians 15: 53-54 CEV)

The bodies that we will have in that time will be nothing like the bodies we have now, Paul explains. “We do have a parallel experience in gardening,” Paul says in a paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Patterson called The Message.

“You plant a dead seed; soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed. What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike. The dead body that we bury in the ground and the resurrection body that comes from it will be dramatically different.” (1 Corinthians 15:35-38)

At the resurrection, the living will be transformed. Their perishable bodies will transform into their unfailing bodies. Everybody who had lived a good life who had died or fallen asleep would be raised. The hope of this occurrence is the proclamation of the Christian gospel.

The meaning of Easter, in those years following Jesus death and appearances among his followers, was that the many who had fallen asleep were beginning to be roused; the entire citizenry of the age to come were beginning to wake up; everybody who would inhabit the future in their perfect bodies were beginning to receive them. It was a soaring hope and affirmation that the new life in the new world order was beginning.

JESUS, SANTA & CAESAR: Christian vs. Capitalist Christmas

Religion is popularly thought of in terms of faith—personal faith. One’s beliefs, values and practices may be nurtured in houses of worship, but are largely personally held and seen to be private.

Yet religion is also a cultural phenomenon, a discourse of stories and signs that are represented in art, re-presented and acted out in performance (including worship), and expressed in many other forms of culture.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously defined religion as

… a system of symbols which establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [individuals] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

Myths, legends, and rituals help form personal and community identities, embody communal life, and frame a worldview. They help give life meaning.

It may surprise some to hear consumer capitalism defined as a religion. And stranger still to think of Christmas as a holiday of this religion.

The capitalist festival of Christmas is “religious” in the sense that consumer capitalism creates and maintains a system of symbols that motivates people to shop for consumer goods and creates an all-encompassing atmosphere during “the holidays” of cheer, generosity, and togetherness.

Symbols of this religion—including Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, candy canes, snow men—are ubiquitous. Its symbols (unlike a nativity scene or crèche) are not considered controversial or inappropriate for public display.

Indeed, the culture at large compels participation in this civic religion. Tree-lighting ceremonies are observed at city hall, public spaces are festooned with lights, and the media are full of “holiday” stories—Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, and more–and “holiday” music–songs about bells and snow.

Civic, secular and cultural spaces are used for this ever-present festival precisely because it is a “religious” festival promoted by the dominant “religious culture,” that is to say the capitalist economic order. This commercial carnival called Christmas is not Christian, nor is it at all the same festival as the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ.

In European and Euro-American cultures, the winter solstice was a time of feasting and carousing. For these agrarian cultures, it was a slow time of year and the darkness needed to be fended off in some way. Festivals involving drinking ale and mead that had had time to age, feasting on foods that would spoil by midwinter, and assuaging anxieties about the darkness evolved.

Here in New England, Christmas was banned or not celebrated not because the Puritans were anti-Pagan, but rather because it was a time of drinking wassail, carousing, and (most importantly) of working people demanding favors of the well-to-do. Revelers going door to door and asking for treats (“bring us a figgy pudding! we won’t go until we get some!”) and threatening mischief if not satisfied was a common practice.

Stephen Nissenbaum, in his fascinating book The Battle for Christmas, details how this celebration was transformed by the US ruling class into a domestic holiday in which children asked for or received favors from adults. The action went indoors and the holiday was literally domesticated.

Traditions involving Saint Nicholas were expanded in the late nineteenth century with the popularity of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy promoter of the domestication of Christmas. The story that Santa Claus descended the chimney to give good little children toys and presents became a central element in the Christmas mythos.

The contemporary Santa, with his red suit trimmed with white fur, was popularized tremendously by the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s.

Santa Claus comes to town on Thanksgiving Day, purportedly, in a nationally televised parade of other commercial icons (the Smurfs, Kermit the Frog, Sponge Bob, Scooby Doo) sponsored by a department store.

Santa Claus may be visited this time of year—where else?—in the local shopping mall or department store. Children queue for hours to commune with him—and to ask for things.

Stating the obvious—that commercial culture and forces of consumer capitalism created and sustain a quasi-religious festival—is not to condemn it. It is, rather, to clarify what is and what is not happening in North American culture from US Thanksgiving to Superbowl Sunday.

The birth of Jesus Christ is not being celebrated.

That is another festival practiced by another religion. It, too, is called “Christmas” and that has caused an unfortunate confusion.

From its agrarian beginnings in material culture, through its domestication and reinvention in the late nineteenth century, through its growing prominence in twentieth century capitalism, this Christmas has only incidentally ever been about Jesus. It’s been about money, material goods, and commercial trade all along.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Jesus was never really the reason for the season.

The Roman Empire had a festival celebrating the birth of a savior, a man worshipped as a god who brought salvation to the people. Weeks long reveling took place in his honor, celebrating not only the new year, but a new era that began with his birth, an era of peace and prosperity. Civic sponsored parades, philanthropic giving, and lavish feasts celebrated the birth of this prince of peace.

It was Caesar that was being celebrated as savior and lord.

The Christian Church in the third century began to associate the birth of Jesus with this time of year.

From the very beginning–indeed from the very story of Christ’s birth found in the gospel of Luke–followers of Jesus have been subverting political culture by speaking of Jesus in Roman and Jewish political terms (messiah, savior, lord, kingdom, gospel, church [“assembly”]—these are all from the Hebrew and Greco-Roman political and civic lexicon).

By saying that Jesus was the only ruler, they were saying that Caesar had no power over them. The affirmation “Jesus is Lord” is subversive. If Jesus is lord, then the emperor is not.

By pledging allegiance to the kingdom of God, they were stating their opposition to and noncompliance with the kingdom of Caesar.

A different kingdom and indeed a different kind of kingdom altogether was lurking in the shadow of the world’s kingdoms, small and unnoticed and yet, like a mustard seed, growing. A different social order was being lived out in the margins–a society based in forgiveness, jubilee, compassion, nonviolent resistance, sharing and love.

When the church came to power, the festival was baptized as Christian. Christianizing the winter solstice, the church hoped to transform culture. The worship of Jesus was to replace the worship of the emperor. With the shift in power, what had been acts and rhetoric of subversion began to more closely resemble the discourse and apparatus of imperial rule.

In the era of Christendom that followed Constantine, the church was in the position to create culture.  Its feasts and fasts, heroes and heroines, liturgies and ceremonies, became continuous with civic culture, political governance, and—let’s face it—empire.

Now that that era is gone… What? Oh. Yes. Sorry. That era is over. It has ended. So sorry. Bummer, eh? Welcome to post-Christendom.

Now that that era is gone, it seems to me that followers of Jesus have a choice to make.

Jesus or Caesar?

Jesus or Santa?

Will we pattern our days after the current empire with its gods and mythos and festivals? Will we participate in the feasts and holidays of the dominant religion—capitalism—or will we not comply?

Which kingdom has our allegiance?

The Kingdom of God as described in the gospels is in opposition to the kingdom of Caesar. The imperial savior brought peace through domination, military might, and the fear of violence. The peasant savior from the margins of the empire brought peace through cooperation, soul force, and trust.

How is it that US Christians still believe that claiming the corporate-sponsored frenzy is or ought to be a Christian holiday? That Christmas is a different holiday. Let those who find meaning in it celebrate it. And, you know, really. Quit bugging them that they are not celebrating what you celebrate.

What you celebrate is different.

And maybe it’s time to differentiate the Christian Christmas from the capitalist Christmas.

Provoking the Powers: The Palm Sunday Action

The Canadian journal Adbusters is known for its provocative design. It makes use of a technique known as détournement—literally “derailing” or “turnaround.” The Adbusters artists call what they do “culture jamming.” They take familiar media figures, like Joe Camel, the cartoon promoter of Camel cigarettes, and put him in a hospital bed, redubbing him “Joe Cancer.” The logos and campaigns of Nike, Coca-Cola, and Shell Oil are similarly subverted in ways that highlight those companies’ labor and environmental abuses. Sometimes, the likeness to the actual media campaigns of these corporations are so realistic, viewers are fooled.

That’s the point. Not to fool viewers, but to mimic the propaganda of the powerful and so unmask their motives—is this really an advertisement for pollution and the exploitation of workers?

It was Adbusters that provided the spark that ignited the Occupy Wall Street movement. Last spring, it published a call for protesters to flood lower Manhattan and camp out on Wall Street until a federal investigation of the corporate influence on US politics was begun.

Wall Street is a street in New York City, yet when we say “Wall Street” what we actually mean is: the finance industry, the banks, the stock exchange, the market. The location is highly symbolic. Protesters have taken over Wall Street in the past, of course, and for this very reason. On the 50th anniversary of the stock market crash in 1979, protesters occupied Wall Street, blockading traffic to protest the nuclear industry and arms manufacturing.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, I was involved in an activist group that was famous for its graphic designs and theatrical actions to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the political crisis surrounding it, including the slow governmental response. It was called ACT UP—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.  It began in New York when playwright Larry Kramer called for direct action to pressure governments and drug companies into acting. The first protest was on Wall Street on March 24, 1987 and was dubbed No More Business As Usual. Activists protested the unholy alliance of the Food and Drug Administration with the pharmaceutical companies producing the only approved HIV treatment at the time and the profiteering of Big Pharmacy.

Certain symbolic actions work in a similar way. Gandhi marching to the seaside to make his own salt. People of different colors sitting together at a lunch counter to be served. Michael Moore escorting youth who were shot during the Columbine massacre, with the bullets still lodged in their bodies, to the corporate headquarters of Kmart, which sold the ammunition to the Columbine killers, in order to give those bullets back. The agitprop gesture itself is speaking to much larger issues in the society—salt tax and empire, segregation and institutionalized racism, gun violence and access to firearms.

Dollar bills, piggy banks, Monopoly playing cards are some of the visual cues that protesters on Wall Street have used, along with costumes—the mask from the graphic novel V is for Vendetta, a banker with bowler hat, monocle and cigar. Without ever being granted an interview by the media, these protesters effectively get their point across. Without ever being granted the ability to explain their demonstration protesters use images with which most people are familiar. This is a form of protest known as guerilla theatre.

Using familiar images, easily recognized characters in costumes and masks, and symbolic actions, guerilla theatre is able to summarize, in a few short visual bytes, an entire political position. In quickly understood symbols and gestures, guerilla theatre summarizes whole economic and social analyses. Through enacting and ritualizing power relations in dramatic forms, the powers that be are provoked, the effects of their power unmasked.

Guerilla theatre, détournement, symbolic actions are practices of those who would protest systems of domination and exploitation. Imaginative and humorous use of images, characters, and stories are practices of those who would bring about a change in awareness, consciousness, who would transform the political, social, cultural and economic landscape to be more just, more peaceful, and more equitable. Satire, parody, irony simultaneously make people laugh and question the powers that be.

The Jewish prophets knew something about guerilla theatre. The visionaries of ancient Israel, they were constantly using attention-grabbing antics to convey God’s displeasure. Hosea marries a prostitute, symbolizing the people’s unfaithfulness to God. Jeremiah burns a linen belt, he smashes a clay jar in front of the priests, to illustrate God’s coming punishment of Judah; he puts on a yoke and parades around with it on, to illustrate living under the oppression of Babylon. Isaiah goes naked and barefoot for three years. Ezekiel lies on his side for 390 days and eats only measured amounts of food, food cooked over human dung. (When Ezekiel protests, God relents and lets him use cow dung, but the message is the same: the people will be restricted and defiled when they are in exile).

Jeremiah stands at the entrance to the Temple in Jerusalem and yells at everybody going in. “Don’t think that you are safe just by being in God’s temple and praying. Only through social justice, not oppressing the marginalized and not shedding innocent blood will you be close to God.” The prophets in general targeted the elites in Jerusalem and their association with the Temple. Since the beginning of the monarchy in ancient Israel, God called upon certain visionaries to proclaim an alternative vision of the social order free from the abuses of hierarchy and domination. The prophets rose up to proclaim the alternative to monarchy. So when we read the prophets, we find Jerusalem and the Temple targets of their wrath as well as hope for the redemption of Jerusalem and the Temple.

By the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was the center not only of Jewish aristocracy, but also of its collaboration with Roman imperial rule. The Romans, in acquiring lands for their empire, generally allowed local customs and religion to continue, as long as tribute was paid annually to the emperor in Rome. The Romans commonly used local wealthy elites to rule on their behalf and collect the tribute. Jerusalem and the Temple, then, had become symbols both of domination by elites and by foreign powers. The people were being increasingly forced into debt, their land confiscated outright or foreclosed upon, all in funding the payments to Rome, and the payouts in land to the Romans and their local collaborators.

What’s more, faithful pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem needed to pay for the animals that were to be sacrificed for them by the priests. They had a store of such sacrificial animals for those traveling from far, which could not be paid for with Roman coins. This secular money had forbidden images on it, and so the money was exchanged in the Temple for Temple currency. And in so doing, the Temple charged a fee. Because the celebration of Passover necessitated the ritual sacrifice of an animal in the Temple at Jerusalem, the faithful multitudes, already overtaxed and indebted, were further gouged.

Passover was a tense and turbulent festival in Jerusalem. It was, after all, a celebration of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery, a fact not lost on either those who wanted to be liberated from Roman rule or on the Romans themselves, who tightened security during the weeklong observance. The city became crowded with pilgrims and large crowds could easily become mobs in rebellion against Rome. This had in fact happened within memory at the time of Jesus’ arrival to the city.

The Roman governor of the region, Pontius Pilate, made sure to come to Jerusalem with reinforcements. Usually stationed on the seaside Roman city of Caesarea Maritima, Pontius Pilate and his soldiers paraded, in a show of force, from the east up to Jerusalem. Banners emblazoned with Roman symbols of empire and might waved as the procession marched along. Legions of professional warriors, helmeted and heavily armed, were surrounded by lightly armed auxiliary forces. Shields, swords, javelins, bows and arrows, slings were all on display as the army made its way on horseback to the Roman fortress on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. People no doubt gathered along the way, watching, in awe, in fear, in resentment.

Jesus, too, paraded into Jerusalem for the Passover feast. In what I suggest to you was an act of guerilla theatre, Jesus and his fellow protesters staged a mock military parade parodying the Roman one. The Roman governor and his army arrived through the east of the city, Jesus and his followers from Bethany and the Mount of Olives, from the west. Jesus did not come riding on a horse, but unarmed and without armor, rode a donkey. Jesus likely entered the city by the Golden Gate, where it was believed the messiah would appear. Protesters waved branches, palms according to John’s gospel, symbols of triumph and victory. They covered the path before Jesus as he went along, a sign of honor and homage.

The donkey added humor and pathos to the parade; the humble, stubborn beast made a mockery of the Romans with their horses. It also harkened back to the messianic visions of the prophet Zechariah, who saw the coming ruler of Israel “triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” Zechariah continues: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zech. 9:9-10) Banishing weapons and war, this king would usher in peace. Perhaps this is why Jesus chose a donkey; the messianic vision would have resonated with the crowds, a king of peace. Jesus’ followers shouted out that he is the son of David, the heir of the David’s throne, also political and messianic affirmations. The rule of the Romans will end and the messianic era, the rule of God will begin. The kingdom of Caesar will fall and the kingdom of God will be ushered in. And systems of domination will fall as systems of right-relation, justice and righteousness will prevail.

Imagine the laughter and excitement at this demonstration, the astonishment at this act of provocation, this détournement of a military parade. Imagine the underlying sense of awe and hope.

The Romans rode into town from the east. Jesus rode in from the west. One procession represented the force of empire, the rule of military might, the powers of domination. The other represented the force of love, the rule of peace, and the powers of cooperation. One way of life was based on power over others, on exploitation, on the hoarding of resources. The other way of life was based on power within, on equity, and the sharing of resources. One a social order of fear and scarcity, the other a social order of faith and abundance.

Which of these two parades do we, today, find ourselves in?

The next symbolic act of guerilla theatre that Jesus performed, in his campaign to highlight the incoming rule of God, was to target the profiteering of the Temple elites. He came into the place in the Temple where secular money was exchanged for Temple currency, and where animals such as doves were being sold for sacrifice. He drove them out. He upset their tables, scattering their coins as he dumped everything onto the floor. Jesus and his followers then blockaded traffic in that area of the Temple, not allowing anybody to carry anything through. It was a sit-in, this blockade. No more business as usual! Jesus condemned the Temple elite as thieves, robbers who were hiding out in the Temple. Like Jeremiah before him, he decried those hiding in the Temple, thinking they were holy, when in fact they sanctioned injustice, oppressed the marginalized, and turned a profit from people who simply wanted to get close to God.

This event is frequently misrepresented as Jesus “cleansing the Temple,” as if the Temple needed to be pure and this purification meant ridding it of money, filthy lucre. It should be a house of prayer, not a house of commerce. This obfuscation of the gospel spiritualizes this action, and in so doing drains it of its import and power. Jesus was making a point about the power relations of his society, how the Jewish aristocracy had acquiesced to Roman power, allowing the Romans even to appoint and remove chief priests at their will. Jesus targeted the Temple in this way to highlight this situation.

In quickly understood, dramatic, symbolic gestures Jesus summarized his whole economic and social analyses. Using familiar images and easily recognized characterization, Jesus was able encapsulate, in a few short visual bytes, his entire program and mission. A social order based on compassion, forgiveness (including the forgiveness of debts), and peace was at hand. This was to be God’s imperial rule that stood in opposition to Roman imperial rule and all forms of rule that included domination, exploitation and inequity.

Jesus made his message known not just through his words, his stories and parables. He also enacted his message, choosing actions that would convey more than words could. His détournement of Pontius Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem is a good case in point, using humor and song and parody and symbols that readily conveyed his message that there was a more powerful ruler in the world than Caesar, and this power flowed with grace and humility and peace. Referencing the prophets, using messianic symbols, everybody watching would get the point even if they never heard of Jesus or heard him speak. His interrupting business as usual in the Temple was another case in point, gestures that conveyed his message of judgment against the unfair powers that be.

Crucifixion was a Roman form of punishment reserved for insurgents and those guilty of sedition. It was a gruesome form of public execution meant to quell any further forms of dissent. When I hear the mission and teaching of Jesus characterized by people as: “Jesus taught his followers to be nice to people,” I always laugh. Be nice to each other? You do not get executed by the Roman Empire as a political criminal for walking around telling people to be nice to each other! You get executed by the Romans as a political criminal for antagonizing their interests, for challenging the legitimacy of their rule. You get crucified by the powers that be for suggesting that another world is possible.

I can’t help but think of all of those who have stood on the side of love and paid for it with their lives. Who have told the world that another way is possible—individual lives rooted in the practices of kindness, forgiveness and empathy, a social order rooted in the values of compassion, mercy and mutuality. I can’t help but think of all the other protest movements that have stood on the side of love, on the side of peace, on the side of justice. I can’t help but wonder if the powers that be will always win, if domination and war and wastefulness are the fate of human beings and human communities.

Which procession do we, today, find ourselves in, which parade up to the Passover feast, the celebration of liberation? The military procession of empire or the protest march of freedom?  Are we following the processions of militarism and money or the procession of prophecy and peace? We can stand by the side of the road in fear or jump in to the laughing, dancing throngs that are hailing the news: another world is possible.