In our hotly divided nation, as culture wars are fought over such matters as the status of science and religion, debate rages over the question of whether Jesus really rose from the dead. Yet how sad if, amid the debate, we miss the main practical point of the resurrection tradition, as it actually functioned for the earliest Christians:

It was, I would maintain, a statement to Rome from a community of resistance: “No matter what happens, even if you kill our leader, and even if you slaughter us as well, we will not stop living lives of love, we will not stop forming egalitarian communities of mutual aid that undermine imperial values and social structures.” They even dared to call their alternative communities “the kingdom of God,” which rivaled Caesar’s kingdom and social order. 

The point was not lost on the Romans. It’s why they killed them. Today, however, it seems fundamentalist Christians and their skeptical opponents have entirely missed it. But if we listen (a skill that is sorely lacking in our culture) to what this ancient oppressed community was trying to say, if we seek to understand them on their own terms instead of appropriating their ancient texts into our own modern fights over conflicting religious vs. secular middle class ideologies (for none of which the early Christians would have had the least bit of sympathy), then we might finally hear the challenge that the resurrection tradition intended to convey all along.

The heart of that challenge is this: What is our relation to empire? Are we content to find and maintain our niche within an oppressive system, or are we seeking to subvert that system and replace it with a more humane alternative? Maybe we believe in God. Or maybe we are atheist or agnostic. Maybe we proclaim what we think is the one true religion. Or maybe we reject all religion for “spirituality.” But what does any of that matter if all of our hopes and dreams, and the shape of our practical lives, are defined in terms dictated by a hollow empire, by a social and economic system that is propped up by oppression? What difference does it make which side we take in a culture war over the competing ideologies of a dying middle class, if both sides are blindly beholden, as if the hideous monster were something normal and inevitable, to a ridiculously oppressive and unsustainable way of life – a way of life in which the more we “succeed” in it, the more other humans and nonhumans, present and future, must suffer, and the sooner it will all come tumbling down bringing ourselves and our children with it?

The earliest Christians, in Judea and the diaspora, were in a similar situation and faced the same basic choice. They could have chosen, as many people did, to seek as comfortable a niche as possible in an oppressive and dying system. Instead they chose to live lives of radical love. They strove to build an alternative new society in the shell of the old, replacing exploitation with cooperation, sharing meals and possessions. They were willing to risk death in the attempt to establish new ways, and even mocked their oppressors who sought to intimidate them, by flaunting the Roman cross, the instrument of terror by which the Romans kept peoples subdued, as their central symbol. With subversive irony they proclaimed that Jesus, and not Caesar, was the true “king,” because, as they put it, Jesus “defeated” the cross, “emptying it of its power,” by remaining faithful to the way of love even to death. Death could be no threat, because they considered that living in complicity with the empire and its values was not truly living. Only living in love and justice and cooperation, they were convinced, could really be that. For them “faith” was not defined, as fundamentalists define it today, by a willingness to uphold the literal statements of sacred myths over against the clear weight of observation and reason. Rather, in faith they dared to believe that the corruption and oppression that daily bore down on them was not the inevitable or final reality, and would someday give way to a better way of life, that God would bring about as they persevered in love and cooperation in their alternative communities.

That was the choice they made. And it is the choice that countless people from every language and nation and religious tradition are making today. Though they celebrate different holidays, though they use a variety of religious and nonreligious modes of expression to communicate their values, they are seeking to resist an oppressive globalist empire with its doomed social and economic system, and replace it with materially moderate, just, and cooperative ways.

What will be the choice we make today?

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