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So what do we do with the passage from John’s gospel? First, I understand how desperately some people in the early Jesus community needed to make sense of Jesus’ unjust execution. So many had placed their hopes for change and liberation in his teachings, and he had been executed by the very status quo he had spoken out against. I can imagine early followers grappling with what this all meant for them and their decision to follow Jesus. I understand why, especially with Paul’s popularity among Gentile Christians, so many would come to see Jesus’ death as salvific and redemptive.
Today, I find much more positive fruit in life-affirming interpretations of the Jesus narrative, like those from womanist theologian, Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, who in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, writes, “God’s power . . . is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of life. This is resurrecting power” (p.178). In other words, God doesn’t overcome death and death-dealing through more death, but by giving life, resurrecting life—life that overcomes, reverses, and undoes everything accomplished in the killing of Jesus.
Also, science has something to teach us about this passage. Seeds that germinate haven’t died! Germination is not death, but transformation. When seeds die, they don’t germinate. They actually “abide alone” when they die. But if they germinate rather than die, they transform or “sprout” into a new form: a beautiful plant with the potential to propagate and create more potentially germinating seeds that continue to give life. Life on top of life on top of life on top of life.
As we shared a couple of weeks ago, in other versions of the Jesus story, Jesus died because he refused to keep silent in the face of injustice. The cross was not his silent bearing of injustice, but an unjust penalty imposed on him by unjust people in power who felt threatened by him and his public critique of their unjust system. In other words, Jesus doesn’t model the passive bearing of wrong. He models how to speak out against injustice even if you’re threatened with a cross for doing so.
I didn’t always teach this and I’m thankful for womanist and feminist scholars like those mentioned above who have brought these ideas to our attention. The way I used to interpret and teach the story of Jesus death’ has had devastating effects on the lives of abuse survivors and victims. Suffering is never redemptive. Standing up, speaking out, and saying “no” is redemptive, and glorifying people’s victimization can extend their bodily, emotional, and psychological pain. Victimization destroys a person’s self-worth, self-image, and dignity, robbing them of their sense of self-determining power, and theology that glorifies victimization rather than condemning or resisting it can also lead to death.
Life-giving interpretations of the Jesus story tell of a Jesus who doesn’t ask us if we are willing to suffer, but asks if we desire to fully live, to not let go of life, to not lay down, to not be passively silent when threatened for speaking out. Jesus did not come to die, nor did he choose the cross. He rather chose to live a life opposing unjust, oppressive and exploitative ways of organizing life in this world. Jesus chose not to remain silent; he chose to stand up in faithfulness to his life-giving God, and he refused to change course because of threat.
Jesus knew where his speaking out would lead. He knew what his solidarity with the excluded and exploited would cost him. And he chose to do it nonetheless. He refused to let go of life. He rejected the way of death, even while being threatened with death himself. In the words of Brown and Parker, choosing this interpretation, “is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 18)
Indeed, it makes all the difference in the world.
This week, let’s not ask ourselves how we can die. Jesus doesn’t call a person do die, but to live.
So what is it going to take for us to germinate?