Shuck and Jive

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Empire Strikes Back: A Sermon

Empire Strikes Back: Peace Through Victory
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 17, 2011
Palm/Passion Sunday

Gospel of Jesus 21:1-12

Led by one of Jesus’ disciples, the police show up at the place Jesus and the rest of his followers were gathered. Because Jesus had often gone to the place, Jesus’ followers knew the place too. And the police seized Jesus and held him fast. And the disciples all deserted Jesus and ran away.

They brought Jesus before the high priest.

The ranking priests bound Jesus and turned him over to Pilate, the Roman governor. Then Pilate had Jesus flogged and turned him over to be crucified.

And the Roman soldiers bring him to the place Golgotha (which means “Place of the skull”). And the soldiers crucify him.

Now some women were observing this from a distance, among whom were Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome. These women had regularly followed and assisted him when he was in Galilee, along with many other women who had come up to Jerusalem in his company.

Then Jesus breathed his last.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 83, 84. Mark 14:43, 50, 53; 15:1, 15, 22, 24, 37, 40-41; Matthew 26:47, 50, 56-57; 27:1-2, 26, 33, 35, 50, 55-56; Luke 22:47, 54; 23:1, 33, 46, 49; John 18:1-2, 12-13, 28; 19:1, 16-18, 25, 30.

This is probably the most we can know about the death of Jesus.

The passion story in the Gospel of Mark is the first written narrative. The gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke followed Mark and elaborated. The gospel attributed to John is of a different variety but also likely is aware of Mark and takes on his own direction based on theological concerns.

The first narrative, Mark’s, wasn’t composed until at least four decades after Jesus’ death and is the product of scriptural and theological imagination. If you read Psalm 22 you will find details that Mark borrowed to construct the narrative.

The psalm begins,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These are the same words Jesus is supposed to have uttered from the cross. One might think that he knew the psalm and quoted it. Possibly. But then from Psalm 22:
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’
Compare to Mark 15:29
Those passing by kept taunting him, wagging their heads, and saying, “Ha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself and come down from the cross.”
That is an obvious case of the author borrowing and creating. Or this one from Psalm 22:
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
Compare to 15:24:
“…and they divide up his garments, casting lots to see who would get what.”
Mark, borrowing from the Psalms and from other scriptures created a narrative of the trial and the crucifixion. There is no likelihood that there even was a trial. The passion accounts in the gospels that we hear in church and that we watch on film and that preachers relish in recounting from the pulpits are fictions. Stories. These events didn’t happen. The theological explanation is based upon pure imagination.

I think it is important to admit that. I think it is important to say it publicly from a pulpit. Think of the weight of needless guilt that has been heaped upon people because these fictions were taken at face value. The legacy of taking these fictions literally has been:
  1. A theology of blood atonement. It goes like this: You are bad. In fact, you were born bad. Bad and sinful. That’s you. You deserve the punishment Jesus received because you are so bad. Jesus suffered and died because of you, for your sins. Even if you weren’t born yet when Jesus died, it doesn’t matter. You are still bad. And if you don’t believe all of this hocus pocus and repent, down the chute to hell for you. See how loving God is?
  2. The claim that the Jews “crucified our Lord”. Subsequently, we have had a 2000 year history of anti-semitism and violence against the Jewish people.
It is important that we tell the truth about history.

We know historically that the Roman Empire crucified troublemakers or perceived troublemakers by the hundreds. It was a spectacle of imperial power. It was state sanctioned torture. They would be crucified by the entrance to the city so all the passersby would see and know who is in charge. It is plausible that Jesus was one of these unfortunates. We don’t really know the reason Jesus was executed. He could have been the leader of a movement that upset authorities. It appears that Jesus was critical of the local religious and political authorities. They could have handed him over for revenge. He could have been perceived to be a leader of a revolutionary movement against Rome. Or he may have just been at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The author of Mark and subsequent gospel authors writing many decades after the death of Jesus and after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple shift the blame from Rome to the Jewish leaders, eventually to all Jews. They know who they don’t want to offend if they want the Roman Empire to leave them alone. As the movements that eventually become Judaism and Christianity separate the early Christians distance themselves from Judaism and reflect this separation by the way they tell their story.

Two books I think are good on this topic. The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? by the Jesus Seminar will show the method and result of how biblical scholars and scholars of Christian origins approach these texts. James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword offers our 2000 history of the relationship between Christians and Jews and the dark, violent legacy these fictional narratives have had on real people.

We don’t have to tell the story in the same harmful way.

Founder of the Jesus Seminar, the late Robert Funk, was refreshingly candid and blunt in his assessment of the state of religion. In his book, Honest to Jesus, he outlined 21 theses for the radical reformation of the church. This is thesis number 7:
The plot early Christians invented for a divine redeemer figure is as archaic as the mythology in which it is framed. A Jesus who drops down out of heaven, performs some magical act that frees human beings from the power of sin, rises from the dead, and returns to heaven is simply no longer credible. The notion that he will return at the end of time and sit in cosmic judgment is equally incredible. We must find a new plot for a more credible Jesus.
I also particularly like thesis number 9:
The doctrine of the atonement—the claim that God killed his own son in order to satisfy his thirst for satisfaction—is subrational and subethical. This monstrous doctrine is the stepchild of a primitive sacrificial system in which the gods had to be appeased by offering them some special gift, such as a child or an animal.
Robert Funk. He attended Johnson Bible College in Knoxville. He came to the school on scholarship. He was by far the brightest student. After about a year or so he was asked to leave. He was told that he didn’t fit in to the ethos of the school. He was asking too many questions that they weren’t interested in pursuing. The great thing about Bob Funk is that he never stopped asking those questions.

What do we do with Jesus? What is this story about? How do we read and participate in Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter in such a way that does not inflict spiritual violence on ourselves or others? How do we do it in a way that doesn’t insult our minds or crush our spirits? How do we read it responsibly? How do we read it in such a way that it leads to compassion, justice, equality, and hope?

One way to read the story of Jesus and his execution is to read it between the lines. We need to read it with awareness of the default reality of Empire. It is an Empire that crushes and executes and that sees itself as beneficent, as part of the divine order. God Bless Empire. We bring peace through victory.

That is the setting, that is the default, the everyday reality in which the Jesus stories appear. These stories of Jesus are about a movement that is much larger than Jesus. It is not about an individual whether the son of God on one hand or a clever poet on the other. Whether dying for sins or leading a rebel movement, it isn’t about him. He stands for something larger than himself.

The movement for dignity, compassion, justice, freedom, decency, bread and roses, is always there. It is mostly hidden. It is mostly underground. It is not in the news. It is carried out by thousands of people whose names are lost forever. We only know of them by glimpses, through stories of individuals like Jesus who as a literary symbol stand for them.

He wasn’t the only one executed by an empire, then or now.

Even more importantly, he wasn’t the only one who was active in bringing about awareness and hope. Attributed to him are parables and aphorisms about the kingdom of God. He wasn’t the only one with that dream. He is simply the tip of an iceberg, the crest of a wave, a cipher, a finger pointing to the moon.

A question we could be asking is, why did Rome execute so many people? Of what were they afraid? How do we capitalize on that fear? How do we resist it? I am asking these questions in the present tense because this Jesus story isn’t just about an event in history. These are questions for then and now. We are not gathered here on Sunday because we have objective, scientific dis-interest in some historical event. We are here because we are participants in life, in a movement for healing, wholeness, peace, goodness, joy, transformation—the kingdom of God.

Apparently, since we are still gathered in a Christian church, the Jesus story still has power. It still resonates as a resource for struggle and transformation.

The story of the execution of Jesus is the story of Rachel Corrie. Rachel would have been 31 this past week. But she died at the age of 23 standing in front of an Israeli bulldozer when it razed a Palestinian home. It didn’t stop for her. It rolled over her and crushed her to death. She was standing for justice. Empire crushed her. The struggle continues.

The story of the execution of Jesus is the story of Matthew Sheppard. Twelve years ago, a young college student was beaten, tortured, and tied to a barbed wire fence in Wyoming because he was gay. It is the story of fear, homophobia, bullying and ignorance preached in pulpits and too often ignored by those with the authority to stop it. The struggle continues.

The story of the execution of Jesus is the story the indigenous people of the Amazon. For three decades Texaco operated 300 oil wells in Ecuador horribly polluting the land and destroying the lives and culture of the people who inhabit the rain forest. These stories are covered over, rationalized, dismissed. Empire needs to keep happily motoring. The struggle continues.

The story of the execution of Jesus is larger than the human story. It is the story of the largest extinction of species in 65 million years, right before our eyes as our climate changes, our rivers and streams are filled with toxins, and our mountains are destroyed for the prize beneath them. Empire can’t stop itself. The struggle continues.
“Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”
And yet…everywhere you look, you see resistance. Everywhere you look you see signs of green things growing from the stump of Empire’s destruction. It won’t be the same, but it will be something. Amidst all the craziness in the world now, there is sanity. There are pockets of decency and hope. Empire killed Jesus. But it didn’t defeat him. That is Easter. Next week. The struggle continues.


  1. Thank you. Unitarian Universalists ignore Palm Sunday, and have Easter Egg hunts for the kids on Easter Sunday, but -- as one UU explained to me when I first crawled in looking for respite from the fundies -- "we do Christmas. We don't do Easter."

    Something is missing from that -- as I know you know and so do I -- So I wore my Cross earrings to church yesterday and put my CDs of Bach's St. John and Matthew Passions in my Subaru, and now I'm ready to blog Easter Sunday.

    For the Exiles. Thank you.

  2. Ironically, there is more freedom in a Christian congregation to pursue some of these progressive Christian ideas than in the UU setting. The whole Palm/Passion/Easter thing is not easy but I think worth keeping and reinterpreting.