Remembering: Part Two

In part one of this two-part series, I wrote the following regarding Jesus’ resurrection: Resurrection in the Jewish faith was all about restoring justice. Because the early church understood Jesus to be God’s way of entering history, embracing creation from the inside out, and experiencing comprehensive solidarity with all of humanity and the created order, it interpreted Jesus’ resurrection as “the first fruits” of God’s intention to bring justice, liberation, and healing to this world God so loves. This God whose “eye is even on the sparrow” can be trusted to bring all of creation home. But this homecoming is possible only because of God’s costly solidarity with every part of creation. God in Christ enters our suffering, oppression, sin, and death and takes it all into the divine self with the intention of healing everything and everyone. The facile and shallow understanding many Christians have of resurrection leads to a triumphant misunderstanding of the depths of the Christian faith. Such a misunderstanding has led to what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” which is no real grace at all.  I want to elaborate on these thoughts. 

“Incarnation” is a term in theology which points to the Christ Event in which the divine enters into partnership and solidarity with Christ and through Christ into all creation. As John puts it in the first chapter of his Gospel, “The Word became flesh.” The beginning words of that chapter are, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The writer of Colossians gives a fuller understanding of the Christ Event in which God tabernacles in Jesus and through him in all creation: “He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things are created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning of the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” 

And the author of Ephesians continues this thought with these words: “For he (Jesus Christ) has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of God’s will, according to God’s purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

So, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with remembering. Bear with me. Early church theologians understood the incarnation as God embracing in solidarity every part of creation. In Jesus, God joined the divine with the human. And since the human was made from the dust of the earth and was a part of the larger creation, God through Christ was embracing all creation from the inside out. This unity of God and humanity in Christ was the basis of profound and glorious hope in the early church. And as we can see from the above quotes, this unity is both retroactive (going back through all of time) as well as reaching into the future of creation. From the beginning of creation, God has been in a compassionate and committed solidarity with Her creation. In Jesus of Nazareth, this solidarity becomes focused like a laser beam and represents what God had intended even before the Big Bang. God experiences creation, time, space, history, and each part of this universe from the inside out. As MLK said when comforting the grandfather of a young, unarmed Black man who was brutally murdered during the Selma tragedy, “God was the first to shed a tear over the loss of your grandson.” God feels every pain, every loss, every hope dashed on the hard rocks of hatred, greed, and violence. And God also feels every movement of love, every hope cherished, and every healing resulting from kindness and compassion. It’s all kept within God’s memory and God’s experience. Nothing is ever lost. God through Christ takes it all into the divine being with the intention of freeing and healing every single part of the human story which in Christ becomes a part of God’s story. 

In Christ God identifies with all those who are subjected to oppression, hatred, violence, greed, and disenfranchisement. For those who need a prooftext, read Matthew 25 where Jesus says that when we feed the hungry, we feed him. “Whenever you do it unto the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do it unto me.” Their suffering becomes his suffering. He incorporates their stories into his story to the point that through this radical identification and solidarity, he “becomes” them — suffering their pain and taking it unto himself for divine healing and ultimate justice. 

When we remember Jesus, we also must remember all those with whom he identifies. We are required, if we call him Lord, to remember all those he loves and embraces. We cannot correctly or redemptively remember Jesus without remembering those he has loved. His story continues in them and, because of this divine solidarity which the early church recognized and celebrated, their story becomes his story. It is because the church in America has forgotten this aspect of the incarnation that we continue the evil practices of racism, scapegoating, and institutional greed. We do not see Jesus in the oppressed, maligned, disenfranchised, and neglected. We do not see Jesus in every Black who was lynched, every Native American who was slaughtered, every Latinix who is denied freedom and dignity. We do not realize that the incarnation continues in them as Christ identifies with those who, like him, were tortured and killed by blind prejudice, irrational fear, and greedy self-interest. 

But we must remember them and Christ with them. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes profoundly about this kind of remembering as she reflects on the theology of 20th century theologian Johann Baptist Metz:

“Given Christ’s solidarity with all of humanity, the pivotal act of remembering his death and resurrection brings in its wake the memory of all who suffer unjustly in history. Crosses keep on being set up in the world; the cry of abandonment echoes down through the centuries. To be faithful, theology remembers the cross of Jesus in solidarity with all the dead and those who suffer now in our world. Given that the crucified one is risen, remembering entails burning hope for their future.”

Metz and Johnson point out that this kind of remembering is very dangerous. First of all, it keeps “alive their story against the inclination of tyrants to bury it. It robs their masters of their victory. History is written by the victors, who strut about as if the dead over whom they climbed did not count. But memory keeps the reality of their lives, in protest against their defeat and in commitment to their unfinished agenda.” Remembering is a courageous protest against past injustices which should never be forgotten, especially when the infamy of those injustices continues into the present. Remembering is a way of bearing witness to the harsh truth, and as the Scriptures remind us, only the truth can set us free. 

Such remembering within the context of the ongoing incarnation of God through Christ and especially its relevance in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection also provides hope. Resurrection is always about restoring justice and bringing about healing and reconciliation. God, not the tyrants and lords of evil, has the last word, and that word is good news for all of history’s victims. Such also inspires us to act today to bear witness to that ultimate deliverance and liberation as we seek to bring justice in our time and place.

This country has no hope of maintaining its democracy or any moral decency until it repents of its Original Sin of racism.

These insights about remembering are highly relevant today in our culture. Right-wing groups are trying to rewrite history to obscure and, in some cases. erase any memory of the genocide of the First Nations and the horrible oppression of Blacks through slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the “separate but equal” and “law and order” dog whistles. Republican state legislatures and members of Congress are trying their best to suppress voter rights because they know they can no longer win in a democratic system. One way to facilitate the success of their evil strategies is to encourage convenient, intentional, and insidious amnesia. Just sweep all the hatred, violence, and oppression under the rug and pretend that it never happened and that it has no continuing abominable legacy today. But such amnesia will be disastrous for all Americans. This country has no hope of maintaining its democracy or any moral decency until it repents of its Original Sin of racism. We were built on the genocide of one race and the enslavement of another race. And to this very day, that evil legacy continues to bear bitter fruit. We must remember, and in that remembering, experience the repentance necessary for needed healing and reconciliation. 

During World War I, over one million Armenians were slaughtered within the Ottoman Empire. This Armenian genocide was quickly and conveniently forgotten. In 1939, Hitler ended a speech in which he talked about the intended extermination of Poles and Jews with these words: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” There is evidence that Hitler and his toadies were guided by the Armenian genocide as they planned how to murder millions of men, women, and children in the Holocaust and to commit other atrocities during the Nazi reign of terror. Will we come to a time when some demagogue might say, “Who today speaks of the annihilation of the Native Americans and the enslavement and brutal oppression of Blacks in this country?” That’s exactly what those who want revisionist history seek—a forgetting which will allow for more oppression and suffering. 

George Santayana in The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” For God’s sake and for the sake of our children and future generations, let us remember. And those of us who remember in the context of God’s solidarity with creation and all humans in Christ will find the inspiration, courage, and hope that can make a much needed and powerful difference in this world. 

(The quotes from Elizabeth Johnson come from her book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, pp. 65-66.)

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