“Easter is About Empathy, Not an Empty Tomb” by Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D
Easter is About Empathy, Not an Empty Tomb
APRIL 14, 2017
Easter is about empathy. Jesus was a Jewish martyr, not a Christian savior. He was a liberator of his people, not an evangelizer of all people. His stated mission was to empower the poor and oppressed, not gain power over them. (Luke 4: 18) He taught his followers to love their neighbors as themselves, not require their neighbors to be like themselves. (Mark 12: 30-31) For him, the bottom line of “the Law and the Prophets” was: “So in everything, do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7: 12) — not exploit them or ignore their oppression. It was about empathizing with people, not evangelizing them. But, in time, his followers used belief in an empty tomb to make him a theological prisoner of heaven – and themselves the bearers and evangelizers of a resurrected Son of God’s one true Christian religion. The aim here is to re-open the tomb and liberate the empathetic meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The New Testament records that, after Jesus was crucified, one of his disciples placed his body in a tomb, and “rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb.” Recalling that Jesus had said, “After three days I will rise again,” Jewish religious leaders (chief priests and Pharisees) asked Pilate to “give the order to have the tomb be made secure until the third day. Otherwise,” they warned, “his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead” – which would be a worse “deception” than him having claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, and the Son of God who, after his death, will take his heavenly place seated at the right hand of God. Pilate told them to “’take a guard . . . and make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.” (Matthew 27: 62-66; and 26: 62-65)
But the guards and the Jewish religious leaders could not make the tomb secure enough. According to the Gospel story teller, on that third day after Jesus’ crucifixion, two women “went to look at the tomb.” Suddenly, ”there was a violent earthquake, and an “angel of the Lord, robed in “clothes . . . white as snow,” descended from heaven, “like lightening,” and “rolled back the stone and sat on it.” Which was enough to paralyze the soldiers guarding the tomb, who “were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.” And “the angel said to the the women that Jesus “has risen, just as he said.” (Matthew 28: 1-10)
The anti-Jewish slant of The New Testament story teller continues with the guards reporting back to the chief priests “everything that had happened.” This alarming news led the chief priests and elders to give the soldiers “a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’” Dutifully, “the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” (Matthew 28: 11-15)
In fact, the Gospel story teller had set up the Jews to take the wrap for Jesus’s crucifixion. Never mind that they had no political power: their country was occupied by the Romans, with Pilate, the brutal Roman governor, in charge, and crucifixion a Roman form of execution. But I’m injecting historical reality into the Gospel story.
As the narrative goes, the Roman governor’s custom at a festival was to allow the crowd to choose a prisoner to be released. So Pilate asked, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus, who is called the Messiah?’” Now, “the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.” So the crowd said, “Barabbas.” Pilate then asked, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah? . . . They all answered, ‘Crucify him!’” When Pilate asked, “‘Why? What crime has he committed?,’” he had the beginnings of a riot on his hands, with the crowd “shouting all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’” (Matthew 27: 15-23) So Pilate washed his hands of the matter, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility.” Then words are put in the mouths of the Jews, setting them up for their own persecution as “Christ killers” down through the ages: “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children.’” (Matthew 27: 24-26))
Jesus’ early followers had dissociated themselves from the Roman-persecuted Jews and began evangelizing the Roman world with their belief in a resurrected Messiah. Which is why the Gospel story is Rome-friendly — and puts the onus on the Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion. Brutal Pilate finds “no fault” in Jesus, but the chief priests and the people say he is an insurrectionist who “stirs up the people” and demand his crucifixion.
The Gospel story leaves much reality to be assumed. Such as, the removal of Jesus’s body from the tomb by his disciples “has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” “To this very day” would have been 50 to 60 years after Jesus’s crucifixion, the time period when the Gospel of Matthew was assumed to have be written. (See “The Dating of the Gospels, http://www.bc.edu) That is a long time to rely on one’s memory to get the story straight. One also wonders how this Gospel story teller knew so much detail about the empty tomb. He would have had to be everywhere, knowing and seeing and hearing everyone involved, discerning everyone’s mind and heart, and recalling their conversations verbatim.
Of course, there is no problem of credibility here if one believes The Bible is the divinely inspired, literally true Word of God. But then one also has to believe in, remain oblivious to, or rationalize away The Bible’s legitimizing of racist and classist slavery (Ephesians 6: 5-9); the subjugation of women and perpetuation of patriarchy (Ephesians 5: 22-33); even the injunction that “women should remain silent in the churches,” (Corinthians 14: 34-35); the death sentence pronounced against loving same-sex persons (Leviticus 20: 13); the genocidal slaughter, ordered by God, of “anything that breathes” when the “chosen people” approached the ‘Promised Land” of Canaan (Deuteronomy 20: 16-18); the pronouncement that “false teachers,” who propagate beliefs other than the gospel of Jesus Christ, will be “under God’s curse” (Galatians 1: 8-9); and other moral and rational Biblical mind benders.
Nevertheless, for many Christians, the empty tomb is about right belief, not right behavior. Christianity’s claim of being the one true religion rests squarely on that empty tomb. The miraculous resurrection of Jesus is believed to be divine proof that he is the only Son of God and savior of the world.
Thus the Gospel story teller is assumed to put words in a resurrected Jesus’ mouth – in the interest of promoting the imperialistic evangelism of Christianity as the one true religion. A risen Jesus is reported as appearing before his disciples and telling them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 16-20)
Here is the historical rub: the doctrine of the Trinity (belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit as comprising the threefold nature of one God), was not formulated until 325 AD, at the Council of Trent, some 300 years after Jesus’s death. (See “Trinity,” www.religous facts.com) The inerrancy of 20/20 theological hindsight in for-telling the past.
Many Christians also use 20/20 theological hindsight in for-telling the future. That is, they dismiss the historical realities of Jesus’ time in interpreting the meaning of his crucifixion and empty tomb. They go way back, supposedly to the beginning of the human race, to theologize about what happened to Jesus. The meaning of the cross is found in the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve.
As the Book of Genesis records: God created Adam “from the dust of the ground,” put him in the garden of Eden, provided “all kinds of trees . . . that were pleasing to the eye and good for food,” and told him that he was “free to eat from any tree in the garden” – except “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” warming him that if he disobeys and eats from that tree, “you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2: 7-17)
God then created Eve to be Adam’s companion. Unfortunately for the human race thereafter, Eve turned out to be Adam’s undoing. She tempted him to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Both took a bite and saw the light, becoming aware of the difference between good and evil — like God. Which threatened an apparently jealous God’s authority over them, seen in God saying, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Genesis 3:22) Never mind that there appears to be more than one God ganging up on Adam.
Instead of Adam living forever, God cursed his very being, saying, “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” God also “cursed the ground” on which he walked, and sentenced him to toil in pain for his food: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.” (Genesis 3: 17-19)
Eve’s punishment. She was condemned to a suffering and subservient existence. God said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe . . . Your desire shall be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16) More Biblically legitimized patriarchy. Which leads one to question the morality of that tree of the knowledge of good and evil — planted so long before Jesus’s time and political realities.
Nevertheless, for many Christians, the story of Adam and Eve goes to the heart of Jesus’ crucifixion and the empty tomb. They believe that God created Adam and Eve, that they were the first two persons on earth, “the birth parents” of the human race. They were uncorrupted by sin, until they disobeyed God and ate forbidden fruit that made them morally wise like God. Their disobedience means that all human beings thereafter are born with a sinful nature, and alienated from God. Because all people are inherently sinful, they have nothing to offer as atonement to please God and escape eternal damnation.
Telling people that they are born in sin and need the Church and its Gospel truth to save them from hell is how various Christian denominations gain power over and control people. The cardinal virtue of such Christians is obedience, and disobedience the cardinal sin. Being guided by the knowledge of good and evil is secondary.
Thus evangelical Christians especially believe that God’s great love for the world led him to send his only Son, pure and undefiled, into the world to sacrifice himself on the cross, as an act of atonement for sinful humankind. (John 3: 16) And those who confess their sinful nature and accept Christ as their savior shall not perish in hell, but inherit eternal life. This Christian substitutionary theory of atonement is expressed in various books of the New Testament. Like 1 Peter 2: 24: “’He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’” Christianity’s theology of substitutionary atonement conveniently dismisses historical reality.
Consider the recorded political reality of Roman occupation facing Jesus as he sat on a donkey and rode into Jerusalem during a Passover observance. His entrance aroused the whole city: “The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” And then these dangerous words threatening Roman order: “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’” (Matthew 21: 1-11) The one who preached the coming of the Kingdom of God and end of Roman rule.
“The whole city was stirred.” That was enough for Pilate to have such a popular Jewish prophet crucified. Pilate also ordered “above his head the written charge placed against him: ‘This is Jesus the King of the Jews.’” (Matthew 27: 37)
Jesus’ crucifixion was about the political sedition of a Messianic insurgent, not about the personal salvation of sinners who believe in his name. He did not die as God’s sacrificial lamb for the sins of the world. He died in an attempt to save his Jewish people from the sins of the Roman Empire. Which violated their national sovereignty by occupying their country, and crucifying would-be Messiahs and thousands of insurgents – for whom belief in a Messiah was grounded in the political realities of Jewish nationalism, freedom and justice. That is how Jesus is reported to see his mission: he entered a synagogue on the Sabbath, read from “the scroll of the prophet Isaiah,” where it said, “The spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor . . . to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovering of sight to the blind. To set the oppressed free.” And then he said to those present, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. (Luke 4: 16-21) His mission was about the political liberation of his people, not the personal salvation of the soul.
The report of a group of nine Christian and Jewish scholars is believed to provide historical and political clarity about Jesus’ crucifixion. Reviewing the script of the movie, “The Passion” for historical accuracy, these scholars state,
The fact that Jesus was publicly executed specifically by crucifixion means that Rome wanted him dead. The point of a public execution was to communicate a message.
Crucifixion implies, further, that Rome was concerned about sedition; and that Rome was concerned specifically to disabuse the Jews gathered for Passover of any thought of sedition. Historically, disturbances and riots during Passover’s celebration of freedom from foreign oppression were not uncommon. . . . Jesus’s words and deeds on behalf of a coming “Kingdom of God” were enough to convince Pilate that he should be preemptively removed from the scene as a warning to the thousands of Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem for Passover. (Report of the Ad Hoc Scholars Group: Reviewing the Script of The Passion, By Dr. Mary C. Boys, SNJM, et al, May, 2, 2003)
The Biblical scholars say that Pilate was not a “vacillating administrator who found “no fault” in Jesus and wanted “to free him.” They write, “Other data from the gospels and secular sources contemporary with the events portray Pilate as a ruthless tyrant.” (Ibid)
The scholars state that “the Roman nature of Jesus’ execution must be stressed.” They said that Jesus’ “crime was generating public enthusiasm for the coming ‘Kingdom Reign of God,’ which would by definition transcend and supplant the Roman Empire and all other human governments.” His crime was “political sedition.” He was one of “hundreds of Jews crucified without proper trial under Roman law.” (Ibid)
How did the Jews interpret Jesus’ crucifixion? Their faith was in a Messiah who would restore their national freedom in this life, not resurrection in the next. Jesus did not liberate them. After his death, they remained brutally persecuted by Rome. And later they were persecuted by Christians, with whom God created a “New Covenant,” favoring them over the Jews. (See “New Covenant,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
Jesus’ early followers endured persecution, at times severe, under Roman rule. But the martyrdom of some backfired: the refusal of martyrs to renounce their faith in a risen Christ as the Son of God contributed to the growth of Christianity. Duke University Religion professor Elizabeth Clark writes that Pagans, witnessing Christians’ refusing to recant and worship Roman gods, were, “so impressed by the . . . courage of the Christians that they came to see the truth of the Christian religion themselves and immediately converted to Christianity.” (“The Martyrs/ From Jesus to Christ,” PBS) With the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, Christianity gained acceptance, and ten years later became the official religion of the Roman Empire. (“The Roman Empire: Early Christians,” PBS)
A radical change occurred within Christianity when it became the religion of the Roman state. Gaining power, Christian leaders stopped speaking their truth topower. In fact, Christians joined the state in persecuting and evangelizing Jews and pagans and other (theologically diverging) Christians. The victim became the victor. The persecuted the persecutor.
Over the centuries, as Christianity grew and gained political power, its mission changed from liberator to evangelizer. Salvation was interpreted as a personal matter, apart from political, economic and legal realities that greatly determined who, in the Gospel words of Jesus were “poor” and “oppressed” and in need of “good news” for the body and not simply the spirit. The Kingdom of God shifted from society to the soul, from this life to a future life, from earth to heaven and hell. From Christian leaders being the prophetic conscience of the state, to serving as chaplains of its status quo. From empathy for the living, to eternity for the dead.
This critique of the empty tomb is not against belief in a loving God who eternally embraces people when they die. As a hospital chaplain, I witnessed countless people find comfort and empowerment in the belief that their dying loved ones would be in their God’s eternal embrace, and that they would be reunited in a heavenly realm. And I supported and enabled their belief. A truly loving god would seem to make room for everyone in an afterlife. Or, at least, allowed those who die to remain dead in peace.
Furthermore, countless evangelical Christians, professing faith in Jesus as their savior, have overcome challenging personal problems and live creative, responsible, caring lives. Unfortunately, their belief that Jesus died for everyone’s sins leads many of them to limit their love of their neighbors to those who are like-minded, or who are seen as like-minded prospects.
My issue is not the empty tomb, but a restricted heaven. The belief that only those who confess their sinful nature, believe that Jesus died on the cross as atonement for their sins, and profess him as their savior will inherit eternal life; and everyone else deported to hell forever.
Here, heaven and hell are actually projections of life on earth. White European Christian settlers believed that their America was the “light of the world – like a city on a hilltop” (Matthew 5: 14) – and their “manifest destiny” fulfilled on the bones of indigenous peoples and the backs of enslaved black people. Hitler’s fascist pursuit of a pure Aryan “Master Race” resulted in him launching a horrific holocaust against Jewish people. The Jewish state, claiming Jews are God’s “Chosen People” and the land of Palestine their “Promised Land,” continues subjugating the Palestinians, and building settlements on the land Palestinians have lived in for centuries. America, the “indispensable nation” and “leader of the free world,” with some 800 military bases in other countries, is engaged in a so-called “global war on terrorism,” ostensibly to protect American interests and promote human rights around the world – imperialism by a virtuous name.
On earth, like in heaven and hell, certain people with political, economic, legal and religious power are favored and other people banned, deported, walled off, or otherwise marginalized. Or fair game for an exceptional nation’s imperialistic pursuit of world domination.
Many evangelical Christians are complicit in the creation of hell on earth for human beings of a different faith. On bended knee, a prayerful, “Christ changed my heart”-President George W. Bush committed a horrible war crime: pre-emptively invading defenseless Iraq under false pretenses, creating hellish suffering for Iraq’s Muslims – an atrocity that renowned political analyst Noam Chomsky calls “the worst war crime of this century.” (“Noam Chomsky: 2003 ‘Invasion of Iraq is the Worst Crime’ of 21st Century, Sputnik International, Oct. 28, 2015) Over one million Iraqi civilians were estimated to be killed (“Iraqi conflict killed a million Iraqis: survey,” Reuters, Jan. 30, 2008), and millions uprooted and turned into refugees. (“Iraqi’s Invisible Refugees, By Ann Jones, The Nation, Feb. 18, 2009), with almost 4500 American military persons killed and over 100,000 wounded. (“Casualties in Iraq,” anti-war.com)
President Bush’s accomplices in this evil war include a reported “87% of all white evangelical Christians, who “blessed the president’s war plan,” because “our president is a real brother in Christ.” In fact, certain evangelical Christian leaders were quoted as “claiming that the American invasion of Iraq would create exciting new prospects for proselytizing Muslims.” (“Wayward Christian Soldiers,” By Charles Marsh, The New York Times, Jan. 20, 2006) Ironically, belief that Jesus died for the sins of the world helped to legitimize the horrible sinning of many Christians against Muslim people, and against American families of various faiths, whose sons and daughters have been sacrificed on the altar of this unnecessary, unending imperialistic war for oil and world domination.
Many Christians who believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world keep sinning against the world. The Pew Research Center reported that “fully eight in ten self-identified white, born again/evangelical Christians say they voted for Trump.” And “white Catholics” also voted for Trump “by a wide, 23-point margin.” (“How the faithful voted: A preliminary 2016 analysis,” By Gregory A. Smith, PewResearchCenter, Nov. 9, 2016)
Evidently these Christians had no moral second thoughts about presidential candidate Donald Trump’s pathological lying. About him repeatedly saying that, as president, he would replace the Affordable Care Act with excellent health care coverage for every citizen. About his plan to cut taxes for the wealthiest at the expense of social programs that help millions of Americans to barely get by. His dehumanizing of women as sexual objects and sexual abuse of specific women. His promise to break up immigrant families, by inhumanly separating and deporting long-residing mothers and fathers from their American-born children. His repeated put down of “political correctness” that has encouraged racists, Islamophobes and anti-Semitics to come out of America’s woodwork. His hateful warmongering proposal that family members of “terrorists” should be killed, as “the terrorists “care about their lives.” (“Donald ‘Kill The Families’ Trump Played into al Qaeda’s Hands,” By Katie Zavadski, The Daily Beast, Jan. 31, 2017)
The U.S. military is now killing even more Muslim families, because newly elected President Trump has relaxed the rules of combat regarding the killing of civilians in America’s “war on terror.” Trump promised on the campaign trail that, as president, he would “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” and that is what he is doing to Muslim families. (“A lot more civilians are dying,” By Tim Hume, Vice News, Mar. 30, 2017)
Journalist Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept reports that the brutality Donald Trump promised is coming to pass, and will merely create more enemies. Greenwald writes, “From the start of his presidency, Donald Trump’s ‘war on terror’ has entailed the seemingly indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people in the name of killing terrorists.” Greenwald states, “The most recent atrocity was the killing of as many as 200 Iraqi civilians from U.S. airstrikes this week in Mosul.” Shortly before that, “the killing of dozens of Syrian civilians in Raqqa province when the U.S. targeted a school where people had taken refuge.” A week earlier “the U.S. destruction of a mosque near Aleppo that also killed dozens.” Also, “one of Trump’s first military actions was what can only be described as a massacre carried out by Navy SEALS, in which 30 Yemenis were killed.” (“Trump’s War on Terror Has Quickly Become as Barbaric and Savage as He Promised,” March 26, 2017)
President Trump joined the global outrage in response to the recent horrific chemical attack in Syria that killed dozens of people, many of them children. He said, “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies – babies, little babies – with a chemical gas that is so lethal . . . that crosses many lines.” (“Trump says Syria chemical attack ‘cannot be tolerated’ but offers no specifics,” By Josh Lederman, Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, Apr. 5, 2017)
President Trump himself then crossed the line, violating Syria’s national sovereignty in ordering cruise missiles to reign down on the Syrian air base from which the chemical attack was believed to be launched. Trump was quoted as being moved by the “slow and brutal death of so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.” Never mind the report that “nine civilians including four children were reported killed” in the attack he ordered on the air base. (“Trump launches attack on Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles,” By Everett Rosenfeld,www.cnbc.com, Apr. 7, 2017) Never mind also that the United Nations should be the representative world body to investigate and make sure who was responsible for the chemical attack, and then take appropriate action.
A televised President Trump said of the Syrian children killed in the chemical attack: “I saw those images of children killed. It had a big impact on me.” That’s a photo op to make Trump appear human. His blatant hypocrisy is seen in the sudden increase in the number of babies, children and mothers already killed in Yemen, Syria and Iraq under his presidential orders. It is unfortunate that the American people cannot see the graphic images of dead Yemeni, Iraqi and Syrian children and mothers, and their grieving loved ones, who already have paid the price for Trump’s need to prove that he is in control as Commander-in-Chief.
This is the same president who keeps trying to ban “beautiful” and desperate Syrian refugee babies and children and their families from entering America. The same president who is tearing apart the families of beautiful Central American babies and children with his cruel policy of rounding up and deporting their hard-working undocumented mother and fathers For Trump, it is about empire, not empathy – “America first.” Trump demonstrates that he doesn’t have an empathetic bone in his narcissistic body.
Glenn Greenwald points to the moral depravity of President Trump, which will create more enemies rather than protect Americans:
Trump’s reckless killing of civilians in Iraq, Syria and Yemen is many things: barbaric, amoral and criminal. It is also, ironically, likely to strengthen support for the very groups –ISIS and al Qaeda – that he claims he wants to defeat, given that nothing drives support for those groups like U.S. slaughter of civilians (perhaps the only competitor in helping these groups is another Trump specialty: driving a wedge between Muslims and the West.) (“Trump’s War on Terror Has Quickly Become as Barbaric and Savage as He Promised,” ibid)
Evidently, for Bible-believing literalists, Donald Trump’s presidential promise to appoint a “pro-life” Supreme Court Justice is far more important than the killing of any number of Muslim babies, children, mothers and fathers. Yet, the truth is reflected it what one does, not believes.
Jesus is recorded as telling a lawyer that the way to eternal life is a matter of behavior, not belief. The lawyer had tested Jesus, asking, “Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him, “What is written within the law?” The lawyer correctly replied that it was about loving God and one’s neighbor as oneself. Jesus said, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” But the lawyer “wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10: 25-29)
In the Gospel narrative, for Jesus, loving one’s neighbor is about moral caring, not geographical or cultural closeness. Thus he told the lawyer a story about a Samaritan, who, unlike a priest and a Levite, stopped when he saw a stranger beaten and robbed. The Samaritan “came near to him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity . . . bandaged his wounds . . . brought him to an inn, and took care of him.” (italics added) Jesus then asked the lawyer, “Which of these three . . . was a neighbor to the man?” The lawyer answered, ”The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise. (Luke 10: 30-37)
Easter is about empathy. About being “moved with pity,” and intervening, when other human beings are robbed of rights and possibilities and resources that protect, sustain, fulfil and renew their lives. Empathy opens tombs and resurrects lives.