Resurrection Now!

I never intended to write a book about resurrection. I thought the topic was off limits. As a historian, how do you have access to an event that by definition is beyond history? I was not interested in writing an apologetic study of resurrection, like N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, nor refuting an apologetic study. What did interest me was how the followers of Jesus Anointed shifted their views about resurrection during the first two centuries. That I could study as a historical issue. The Trouble with Resurrection follows a strictly chronological pattern and asks, “how did they describe their experience?” Technically, it is a phenomenological study.

The Earliest View of Resurrection

The earliest extant explanation of resurrection occurs in Paul’s letters. His is also the most extensive discussion (see 1 Corinthians 15) in the New Testament. In last week’s blog post I summarized it as follows:

Paul understands resurrection in a very Jewish fashion. Resurrection is God’s vindication of the martyrs and, in the process, creation is restored. This makes a certain sense in the Jewish context. The murder and torture of the martyrs demonstrates that God is not in control of creation, that it is out of control. Therefore, God will raise them up and reclaim God’s creation. For Paul’s contemporaries this was in the future, while for Paul the end-times had begun with God raising Jesus up from the dead, the first of the martyrs to be raised.
For me, Paul’s view makes hermeneutical sense, not literal sense. His view is undergirded by an apocalyptic worldview, which I no longer can accept. To put it in an aphoristic fashion, Paul and Jewish apocalypticism affirm that life triumphs over death—the value of a life is not life after death but life before death.

Paul’s understanding and explanation of resurrection provides a hermeneutical key for understanding resurrection in our world. Resurrection is not about an event that happened on Easter morning, but about how the g-d[1] of Israel is active in the world. G-d raises up the martyr Jesus from the dead to signal g-d’s reclaiming of creation from the evil imperial powers that had usurped g-d’s claim. For Paul this is an example of g-d’s justice, which is not an abstract idea, but an activity on g-d’s part. G-d makes right the world, sets it on the right course. Hermeneutically this puts the focus on reclaiming life from death, both understood as metaphors. Reducing resurrection to Jesus’ or my life after death misses the most important aspect about resurrection. Life is about justice, setting matters aright; death is about denying justice, persisting on the wrong course. It is about creation, g-d’s creation, taking it away from the powers of death that would drain life out of it. Since this is a hermeneutical process, it requires interpretation. 

“I Have a Dream”

To my mind, one of the finest examples of resurrection thinking in modern America is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (August 8, 1963).[2] Its first sentence sets up King’s model. “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” This sets the promise. “But one hundred years later, the Negro is still not free” (I Have a Dream, 102). This defines the current situation. Justice is the promise, but reality demands a coming judgment. The speech oscillates back and forth between the promise and the reality. But the failure of justice creates a strong sense of present crisis now.

We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. . . . Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy; now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice; now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood; now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. (103, emphasis added)

The repetition of “now,” “fierce urgency,” and “urgency of the moment” creates a sense that now is the time for the promise. Resurrection lies just below the surface: “lift our nation from the quicksands.”

The same resurrection theme reappears in King’s warning to his people: “But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. . . . Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force” (103).

King notes the suffering of his people: “Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive” (104). Suffering and storms of persecution link these blacks to the martyrs, so King calls out, “knowing that somehow this situation can, and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

This leads to the titular passage:

I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. (104)

King links the martyrs’ narrative to the nation’s narrative and hopes the “nation will rise up,” be restored to life, and live up to its creed. Like Lincoln, he turns the Declaration of Independence into a sacred document.

But the dream is not only about the future, “I have a dream today!” In King’s language, the anticipated future collapses into the present. The speech’s great climactic ending continues this theme of collapsing future hope into a realized present: “Let freedom ring” he calls out over and over again until the final call:

And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children— black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants—will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” (105–6)

Like the apostle Paul, King imagines that future time as already present in the shout “Free at last.” His speech demonstrates that prophecy is not about the far away future but declaiming the here and now, in naming it for what it is and should be. He sees God’s justice as denied and calls for the raising up of a dead nation, a nation unfaithful to its creed. While never mentioning Jesus’ resurrection, the theme of new life, of rising up from the dead, runs through the speech like a mighty river giving hope to the future and promise to the present.

When the Reverend Billy Graham, fashioned as America’s pastor, was asked about King’s dream “that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” he replied, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” King dreamed of God’s justice and life and saw it as present; Graham chose death and denied resurrection.

Martyr Raised

Martin Luther King was a prophet, vilified and persecuted. He died a martyr, as much as any prophet of ancient Israel or the early church. Like Jesus, King was a martyr. But God raised Jesus from the dead and not Martin Luther King.

Yet God did raise Martin Luther King from the dead. King’s prophetic words and martyrdom helped raise up a nation to a new standard of God’s justice, helped it live up to its creed. Once we see that resurrection is not literal language, but a metaphor used to explain God’s vindication of the martyr, then we can see that King stands fully in the tradition inaugurated in Jesus.

Martin Luther King’s speech helps us not only to appreciate but even experience anew the power of resurrection, of being raised up from the dead, taken up into a new creation. To listen to King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” to hear that last triumphal shout, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last” is to be drawn into the kingdom of God, to be raised from the dead, if only for a moment. That is the transcendent moment.

With hermeneutical effort and a little imagination, we can find resurrection breaking out everywhere. Even in the face of death.

Where, O Death, has your victory gone?
What's happened, O Death, to your fatal sting? (1 Corinthians 15:55) 

[1] Pronounced “Adonai.”

[2] I dealt in more detail with this speech and other King speeches in regards to resurrection in the final chapter of my The Trouble with Resurrection.

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