Last week I dove into “The Last Week” written in 2006 by pre-eminent scholars and theologians Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. It analyzes the last week of Jesus’s life, the tail end of his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, as told in the Gospel of Mark, believed to be the earliest penned of the four accounts of Jesus’s ministry in the Christian Scriptures, dating around the year 65 – 70 of the Common Era. Jesus has been characterized in a lot of ways - Pacifist. Anarchist. Mystic. Torah commentator. Curator of the Jewish wisdom tradition. An unhoused person. Advocate for voluntary poverty as spiritual practice, for civil disobedience and direct action. Opponent of usury and the world's money system. Critic of the accumulation of material possessions. He taught that the Commonwealth of God is a state of transformed consciousness, available to everyone here and now.
Borg and Crossan present him as much of that, but also as a leader of a small but vocal resistance movement. Maybe we recall the story of his entrance into the city on what Christians refer to as Palm Sunday, but we don’t often hear about this as a planned act of resistance in opposition to the entrance by another gate of the Roman imperial governor Pontius Pilate. The latter came to Lord the power of the Roman Empire over those gathering for the traditional Passover. The former, in a bid to mock the pomp and circumstance of Pilate’s arrival, came by simple means on a donkey surrounded by his band of followers. Because this was the very thing that he was teaching against – this marriage of Empire with the tradition of his people as he understood it to have been taught. He spent the following week making his point under the careful watch of that Empire and it was ultimately the thing that got him executed publicly alongside other rebels. Jesus saw the danger in this collusion between church and state which served to deify the Empire, equating their actions, no matter how corrupt, with godliness, with the will of God, the ultimate power grab. Roman imperial theology said that the political ruler was indeed the Son of God. What he taught against was this domination system which had become seated in the Jerusalem temple, a system marked by political oppression, economic exploitation, and religious legitimation. This was nothing new, is nothing new, such systems holding sway over the many with a power wielded by the few. This is what had evolved at the time of Jesus’s life and what he resisted so intensely.
Does any of this sound familiar? Not the scriptural references so much, but the theme? A wealthy, powerful few in a dominant position, the majority suffering under some level of oppression? For as much as we here in the US have advocated for the separation of church and state, my read of history is that we haven’t done a really good job in making it a reality. And every so often it comes to head. I see the times we are living in now as a real example of the same domination system at play. We will hear more about the concept of Christian Nationalism in July, but I want to point to it here on this day in particular. Because while Christians the world over are celebrating the death and resurrection of this man, Jesus, I am inclined instead to celebrate his example of resistance.
This Kingdom of God he talked about was really a way of being in the world, most easily equated for us to the idea of Beloved Community that Dr. King spoke about and that we as Unitarian Universalists aspire to. It is a system where justice and equity reign supreme. When we talk about inclusive community we are talking about resistance. When we move toward justice and equity, we are moving toward resistance. When we talk about freedom of thought and spiritual practice, we are talking about resistance. Our mission is one of resistance and thus far we have been able to present it quite publicly on our sign out front and on our website, in our choices about organizations we support with community outreach resources, in our shared ministry here that is less top down and strives to be more collaborative. When we open our Thrift shop every spring, we are resisting the dominant culture’s consumerist, never enough approach. When we said, “Yes!” to the solar panels on our roof, we were resisting the monopolization of energy and a reliance on fossil fuels. Because all of these things run counter to the domination system we find ourselves in the midst of, a system that has wed religious literalism to capitalism. Every day we can read in the paper, or however you get your news, about this or that marginalized group of people having their freedom legislated against.
We are, for the most part, insulated against that oppression. We can choose to resist or not, although it hits closer and closer to home as evidenced by recent Supreme Court decisions. So, the temptation here might be to take a passive stance in our resistance – to be quietly resistant – so we maintain our status quo, don’t need to relinquish any of our privilege, but grant our tacit support of the idea of resistance. We maintain an intellectualized version of resistance. It is a slippery slope.
Jesus’s resistance was active, bold, right out there for all to witness. His followers were right there alongside him until things got dangerous. He was willing to risk his life for a movement he believed in. Many of the rest were not, denying any relationship with him when questioned, disappearing from the scene when his death became imminent. We are not living in such times, but I wonder where we would fall. On the side of resistance? Or on the side of temptation?
This idea of resistance has captured my ponderings over the past week or so because I see it as a two-sided approach. On the one hand you can hear a certain passion in my message about resisting in order to ensure justice in our world. But is resistance always the right thing to do?
The Rev. Dr. Theodore Loder, Methodist minister and social activist, wrote, “However much we talk about our longing for change in ourselves and the world, the actual prospect of that change, and the cost of it in terms of engaging in battle with the powers of conformity, produces some ambivalence at best. Ambivalence generates resistance. It is hard to get carried away when we're hanging on tightly to the familiar.”
Loder is talking about resistance to change, and change is something we have been talking a lot about lately here at UUMH. We are steeped in it and rightly so as we plan for our future. And we have talked about this idea of holding onto the familiar and about resisting the risk it takes to make of ourselves a viable and sustainable religious community. As much as we preach resistance as a faith tradition, when it comes to personal resistance, as individuals and as a people here in Chatham, I tend to think that we are sometimes heading down a path of resistance more akin to what Loder is saying. Our natural inclination to hold onto what is gets in the way of becoming what can be. It is sooooo tempting to play kick the can with change! We resist the hard work rather than resisting the temptation. Our resistance becomes misplaced.
David Dillard-Wright, professor of philosophy, religion and ethics at the University of South Carolina, says that to move beyond a place of resistance or blockage when it comes to personal or social struggles we need to be willing to give everything away, to empty ourselves in order to be filled again with what we need to move beyond reticence and timidity, to “a place of boldness where we speak our truth and the truth of the communities to which we belong.”i The Easter story highlights one man’s struggle and ultimate willingness to do this, to give it all away in order to live into his passion in both senses of the word – the thing he could not “not do” and the suffering that doing so rested upon him.
A Unitarian Universalism for our times, one that aspires to live into our values, has to acknowledge the evolutionary character of our existence. Just like humanity is always shifting in response to the forces of nature, our faith is changing in response to life in the world we inhabit today. Religious traditions that resist the call to change in concert with the ever-widening circle of knowing, of living and being on this interconnected planet are being left behind. Our larger faith invites us into the kind of change that keeps us relevant, that is expressed in ways that can be received by those we hope to reach, that meets the needs of the world we embrace. It calls us to creative resistance.
The Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers is a UCC minister and Distinguished Professor of Social Justice at Oklahoma City University, in his book “Spiritual Defiance,” advocates for a shift toward ‘embodied noncompliance’ with domination systems and cultural norms that don’t represent the majority, returning us to the resistance that I began with this morning. The choice, and therefore the temptation, is between resistance in name alone or resistance with our whole selves. Meyers asks us to take a close look at the systems of power in our world and to be willing to resist where we see inequity and injustice.
Here at the Meeting House I see us dancing on the line between the two. We hear the call of justice, see the world changing all around us. We feel the fear of risk – it’s real, I grant you! Sometimes it is hard to see ourselves in our changing faith and we resist. We can look in one direction to the comforts we have come to appreciate and in the other at some relative unknowns that ask us to be uncomfortable for the good of the whole. The Jesus of the Easter story invites us into counter-cultural resistance, to name the things we see as wrong or dis-ordered in our world, to not give in to definitions of normal that veer away from respect for the worth and dignity of all persons and to come together as what UU minister Rebecca Parker calls “a community of resistance” which she defines as, “countercultural habitations in which people learn ways to survive and thrive that can resist and sometimes even transform an unjust dominant culture.” And I would add that in so doing we transform ourselves and our Meeting House into places of thriving.
The Easter story reminds us that resistance is a part of life, that we have choices to make about what and how to resist, that we are not above the temptation to resist in ways that keep us from the very things we value most. It reminds us that resistance is a risky business, whether we risk standing up to systems we oppose or we risk doing nothing. This Easter as we ponder the meaning of a holiday and a celebration that may seem hard for us to grasp or find ourselves in, I encourage you to consider the power of resistance to bring our community and our world into alignment with our values, to explore the faces of resistance in our own lives and the temptations inherent in our wonderous and complicated human selves.
Blessed be and Happy Easter!
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, April 9, 2023