by Jim Mitulski
Were you there when they crucified my Lord
Were you there when they crucified my Lord,
Oh – Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble ...
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
– African American Spiritual, often sung during Holy Week
I recently heard veteran activists Elaine Brown and Angela Davis speak at the Grand Lake Theater at an Occupy Oakland/Occupy San Quentin event focused on the rights of the incarcerated in which I was reminded that the word "Resurrection" has a secular resonance. They both described the various Occupy movements as a literal "Resurrection of a New Social Movement." I am also aware that resurrection has a more conventional religious application.
I work at a progressive seminary in Berkeley, where we teach future religious leaders not only about Christian tradition, but how to make these stories meaningful in the present. Because it is a liberal school committed primarily to liberation in church and society, we especially are aware that the misuse of these stories can contribute to sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, religious intolerance, and the uncritical acquiescence of religious institutions to systems of power from which they benefit.
We teach them to question and not simply receive the tradition, to use the tradition to critique the status quo and even to subvert it. We teach them that Christianity can be a religion of revolution, not of social conformity. We challenge them to find Jesus the revolutionary comrade whose death was a political execution engineered by an occupying foreign government and to examine ways in which his death was a form of capital punishment, and how the Roman Empire can resemble our own government's presence in other countries. We teach these future clergy that if religion is only about then, and not about now, then it isn't worth embracing.
It is easy to see the suffering of the past reflected in the present. As we go through the services of Holy Week, we are acutely aware not only of the suffering caused by racism in the case of Trayvon Martin in Florida, but of Oscar Grant here where we live. The wailing and lament heard at the foot of the cross is recognizable in the terror-filled cries of students who perished at Oikos University in Oakland at the hands of a gunman who took the lives of seven of them. The similarity of the setting – a Christian school just a few miles from us exactly parallels our own setting. We are able to connect the events that took place on a hill 2,000 years ago with the world around us as we gather here on what we call "Holy Hill" in Berkeley, serene, verdant, pastoral, and undisturbed. We cannot allow ourselves to ignore suffering – the suffering of immigrants in our midst, the ongoing suffering of LGBT youth who experience the pain of bullying, the suffering of the incarcerated, and the suffering of those whose future health care is now being debated by the courts.
This semester I have been teaching a class on HIV and theology. Many of these students are curious about who Ronald Reagan was, who Roy Cohn was, and are genuinely unaware that nearly 20,000 San Franciscans died of HIV/AIDS mostly in a 15-year period from 1982 to 1996, and that Alameda County continues to be one of the largest concentrations of people with HIV in California. They recognize the crucifixions of African American and Latina men and women who now form the largest percentage of people with HIV, and are even puzzled that it was once characterized as a gay disease. I am grateful for their desire to learn, and for their determination to transform this situation of people with HIV/AIDS from one of crucifixion to one of resurrection, especially since the disease, though still strongly stigmatized in many religious circles, can be managed as a chronic illness and is not necessarily the terminal illness it was in the early years of the epidemic.
The world is a different place than it was when I was younger, and even religion is changing. Once the enemy of LGBT people and people with HIV/AIDS, it is now as often likely to be in solidarity with our liberation struggle.
Working with young people has reignited in me hope that resurrection is possible. Crucifixion is not just something that happened to Jesus. It has a personal, political, spiritual, and social resonance as we look at the world today. Crucifixion is easier to spot than resurrection.
But I also believe that resurrection was not something that we need associate with the Jesus two millennia ago. If it means anything, and I have focused my life on the fact that it means something, it is because resurrection is meaningful today, and available to the world in which we live. My Easter faith is not about then, it is about now. My conviction that resurrection is about life before death is based on my personal experience as a person living with HIV/AIDS. As challenging as life becomes I try to remember daily that I have been kept alive for a reason, and that if nothing else I am here to inspire others to believe that life before death is even more important than life after death.
Resurrection is political as well as spiritual, and every time we see the emergence of a spontaneous expression of social change or protest, we are seeing resurrection tangibly. Resurrection is communal. I am proud to be a part of a community that did not expect to have a future in 1995. If you are alive, then resurrection is possible. Don't give up, don't settle for too little too soon, don't resign yourself to what may seem inevitable. Engage the world around you, love recklessly, take risks, and engage in a life of solidarity with others who refuse to give into the finality of crucifixion.
"Love is stronger than death" is the biblical mantra that got me through the most difficult of life's challenges, and I urge you to try it until resurrection seems inevitable to you. The late Adrienne Rich's words from her essay "When We Dead Awaken: Writing As Re-Vision" have given shape to my Easter longings this year, and I commend them to you in her memory:
"It's exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness it can also be confusing, disorienting and painful ... The sleepwalkers are coming awake and for the first time this awakening has a collective reality; It is no longer such a lonely thing to open one's eyes." (pps 34-35 from On Lies, Secrets and Silence (Selected Prose 1966-1978) .
Resurrection is real, and Resurrection is now.
Jim Mitulski is the co-director of worship and campus pastor at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley (www.psr.edu) and pastor of the New Spirit Community Church (www.newspiritchurch.org) located on campus.