[NOTE: This morning – 4th Month (April) 9, 2023– it was my turn to bring a message to Spring Friends Meeting, in Snow Camp NC. Herewith an edited version, with images added later.]
I’ve been to Easter morning worship at a good many Friends meetings, mostly liberal & unprogrammed. And the most visible special character noted at many on the occasion was someone, usually female, in an adult-sized cartoon rabbit costume. It brings to mind a cartoon I turned up this past week:
It is not, of course, that liberal Quakers worship rabbits or poultry. The focus on floppy ears and colored eggs serves as a familiar, welcome distraction and deflection. It’s all-but certain to avoid the framing of the occasion by the vast majority of Christian groups. Because in these Quaker meetings, that framing is believed in even less than that of a bountiful bunny.
Let’s recall the difference, in sum: Those who traveled more than a few miles to meeting today probably passed one or more signs or banners proclaiming “He Is Risen!”
Like such banners, Easter marks the climactic moment in a drama that began, in the traditional reading, shortly after God’s creation of a human couple. They at first subsisted in blissful divine-human communion in Eden, until something went terribly, fatefully wrong:
The couple defied a divinely-announced taboo. As a result, they were expelled from Eden, condemned to labor, bear children in painful travail, and then die.
As the tradition developed, the errant first couple, following their deaths, was to be plunged into a bottomless pit of fiery torment, which they would endure as conscious torture, forever, and ever.
This prospect of endless torment in hell was soon expanded to include as many as all humans ever born (or to be born); or just most, with a select few (numbers were fuzzy) exempted for various reasons, or (in some major theologies) no reason at all.
All this was justified by saying the first couple’s downfall was not simply an infraction, but a sin, evil – and the stain of this sin marked all their children, through all generations, magnified by the children’s own sinful contributions. These millennia of total human depravity added up to a kind of debt load no human could ever repay, even in theory.
But God eventually (in 33 A.D.) decided to offer (an uncertain number of) exemptions. To produce the exemptions, God would transfer the debt to their own (sinless, ergo innocent) divine offspring, who would pay for it by being killed. Lynched, in the standard script.
But as mercy, God would revive the offspring not quite 48 hours after his demise.
This and similar ominously vivid scenarios captured wide attention. They also soon began to evoke questions, and skepticism. The questioning even seeped into the sacred pages of the Bible.
There were doubts about the mechanics: How does it work to transfer responsibility for evil from the evildoer to an innocent? (Like, if I murdered someone and was found out, how could I fix it so, knowing my guilt, the authorities would select some innocent person as a proxy to punish, maybe execute, and let me go free? (It sounds like a trick even the redoubtable Roy Cohn would find hard to pull off.) Put another way, how does punishing an innocent absolve the guilty?
There were also doubts about this kind of “justice” — the “sin” of the First Couple, however precedent-setting, was still finite, even petty; and for pete’s sake, it was their first offense. Yet the punishment, for them and their spawn, was infinite in scope, everlasting, and endless.
I mean, if I were burned at the stake, even with the newest AI technology, they could only burn me once, til my bones were vaporized. In current crematoria, the process only takes a couple of hours.
But in the scriptural hell, and its tributaries, the fire and torment are endless, infinite punishment. As in Revelation 14:9-11 (one of numerous similar passages): “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he . . . will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night . . . .
Such revenge fantasies did not mollify the doubters, primarily because they were far out of whack with their life experience.
The scriptural efforts to uphold such asymmetric suffering, which makes the tortures of the Inquisition seem tame, and square it with “divine justice,” can be profound (the Book of Job), but are unsuccessful (ibid.). As one of the best biblical writers to make the effort admitted, in Ecclesiastes 8 & 9:
8:11: Why do people commit crimes so readily? Because crime is not punished quickly enough. 12 A sinner may commit a hundred crimes and still live.
Oh yes, I know what they say: “If you obey God, everything will be all right, 13 but it will not go well for the wicked. Their life is like a shadow and they will die young, because they do not obey God.”
14 But this is nonsense. Look at what happens in the world: sometimes the righteous get the punishment of the wicked, and the wicked get the reward of the righteous. I say it is useless. . . .
9:16 Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day 17 and never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. The wise may claim to know, but they don’t.”
Some say this is cynical, others merely realistic. I oscillate.
Whichever; but if such after-death salvation schemes are “useless,” in explaining how they embody or vindicate divine justice, what then to make of Jesus, whose figure emerges from this context?
I follow an extra-scriptural elder and teacher here, in the form of Lucretia Mott; she clerks my inner clearness committee on the topic. In 1849, she declared plainly to her home meeting in Philadelphia that:
“This creed based upon the assumption of human depravity and completed by a vicarious atonement–connected with a belief in mysteries and miracles as essential to salvation–forms a substitute for that faith which works by love and which purifies the heart, leading us into communion with God and teaching us to live in the cultivation of benevolence, to visit the widow and the fatherless in their affliction and to entertain charitable feelings one unto another.”
And she wrote in a letter to Friends that:
“As to Theology, I am sick of disputes on that subject; though I cannot say just as my husband has—that he ‘doesn’t care a fig about it’—for I do want [that] those I love, should see their way out of the darkness and error with which they are surrounded. Moreover, I think so much harm is done by teaching the doctrine of human depravity & a dependance (sic) on a vicarious atonement, that I feel constrained to call on all everywhere, to yield such a mistaken and paralyzing dogma.”
For her, instead, Jesus is not a substitute but a model and a teacher. His key teachings begin in Luke 4, with his first public appearance after spending six weeks in the desert wilderness:
16 Then Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath he went as usual to the synagogue. He stood up to read the Scriptures 17 and was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free the oppressed
19 and announce that the time has come
when the Lord will save his people.”
20 Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. All the people in the synagogue had their eyes fixed on him, 21 as he said to them, “This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.”
(How did the crowd respond? They tried to kill him.)
Then the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and the Last Judgment of the “sheep & goats” set out in Matthew 25: 31-48. Each of these is worth extended study, but my thumbnail is that: what matters most is what you do, particularly leavened with justice, mercy & compassion, more than what you believe, or the religious rituals you repeat.
Lucretia Mott also revered his example: rejecting both the exploitive empire, the co-opted and corrupt religious establishment, and the self-and communally-destructive rebel terrorists; then facing his senseless fate with resolve and resignation.
But what about resurrection? What about the related issue of Jesus as the “messiah”, the widely-expected liberator of the Jews from Roman oppression??
Mott didn’t buy either of these notions as historic events. But she accepted the rise of the church — at least the good parts of it (among which she frankly preferred the Religious Society of Friends, tho she collaborated with many others), and the leading figures in them – those were the resurrections and messiahs (aka liberators), that she could believe in.
And these lasting figures among Friends – like John Woolman, William Penn, Margaret Fell, what Catholics would call “saints” but Mott wouldn’t (superstitious priestcraft, she considered such titles), could bring liberation, in fits and starts, to their people and others. She claimed them as part of the company of “Messiahs of every age”; not just one person, one group, one tradition, or in one era.
Now, Mott might not agree with my next thought, but her view reminds me of the Catholic doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ. It’s one of the few beliefs from my Catholic upbringing that’s stuck to me:
In my revision, rather than Jesus climbing out of the grave, his spirit has come back repeatedly, showing up in and among the church (and other religious bodies) again, in its good parts, and not only by his biblical name.
The official Catholic version says this Mystical Body is only manifest in the Roman Catholic Church. I don’t buy that: the “mystical body” can show up — or be resurrected — in many places & groups; it can also, dammit, be crucified/lynched again too.
Early Quakers thought much like that as well, tho they were also mostly anti-Catholic & anti-pope, and for awhile figured Quakers were really the one & only true church. (When William Penn published his summary of Quakerism, his title was, perhaps hyperbolically, Primitive Christianity Revived. Eventually, some Friends got over that particularist triumphalism. Some.)
In this Mystical body view, whether seen as a potentially profound metaphor or even a theological belief, Jesus can become a kind of archetype, that is, the embodiment of a story (not necessarily historical) that can come alive for people and groups. Such archetypal stories can then die, be resurrected, and evolve.
From this perspective, perhaps the tomb on that ancient Sunday morning was really vacant.
Vacant, yes, but not empty.
There was left in it a story and teachings that continued, renewed themselves (more than once) and for many, aren’t finished yet.
Ponder all that for awhile. I’m going to talk with Lucretia about it, and then go crack a decorated egg or two.
And maybe eat an apple.