American Christians focus on any empty tomb. But we rarely speak publicly about occupied tombs. This is a shame because Jesus was not ashamed to speak about certain ones. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31) The text immediately following does not get any easier. It is easy to consider the time in which Jesus speaks. So long as we keep it there.
Tombs and Monuments
William Lloyd Garrison, American abolitionist, was dragged through the streets of Boston by a mob of anti-abolitionists. Tolstoy reflected on this event in his The Kingdom of God Is Within You. In his day a statue to Garrison was erected to his memory in Boston. Tolstoy points out the descendants of those same anti-abolitionists honored the memory of a man who their ancestors would have lunched. Even though we tip our hats to Jesus in our culture we forget the sins he readily applied to others could be for us.
It is hypocritical to invoke the honored people of the past who our ancestors would have destroyed especially when we keep the same attitude. We often paint ourselves as good people today who would have not done the same as our ancestors. Why would we not do that? Do we know better? Do we approach solutions differently?
The simple fact is we want to believe we are on the right side now. Unfortunately, it does not improve anything.
Off The Hook
The three celebrations of these days, Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls, could be viewed as decorating the tombs (memories) of the righteous. Like Shaw’s Saint Joan, we honor but avoid the hard questions such honor should make us ask about ourselves. Being on the right side, after the fact, is not courageous. It is a feeling that one is just and good. Jesus’ point to the scribes and Pharisees is they are no different from their ancestors. To claim we would have been on the side of the dead prophets does not mean we side with the living ones. We just like feeling we are off the hook for the past.
Often the story told of the past gives one a reason to ignore the present. In the case of Martin Luther King, his story is told as though we do not have anyone like him now that we can follow. But why is that important? We can read and listen to King’s messages and concern ourselves with the issues of overcoming poverty and injustice. But hagiography allows us to claim we are off the hook. So we keep it.
Those with No Tombs
When we walked among the monuments of Gettysburg, we ended at the “hallowed ground” Lincoln dedicated to the dead soldiers of the Union. The National Parks Service reminded readers that confederate dead were buried somewhere in mass graves as enemy troops were in that time. We should consider that for a moment. In a land of many tombs and monuments, there are an unknown number of mass graves that carried the remains of countless enemies. Media today link mass graves today with atrocities. What do we say about those unknowns with no tombs? Sorry, we would not have done this? The more time passes the less impact those lives have on us. Can we at least say, their lives and death mattered to God? Where does that place us today?