Don’t Look for the Living Among the Dead

If last year we celebrated Easter amid the physical death of a pandemic, this year of the COVID vaccine we remember Jesus’ resurrection amid the apparent dying of his church in the United States.

Having hovered around 70% since Gallup began polling, the share of Americans who belong to a faith community is now below 50% — and there’s little reason to think that downward trend will slope any less sharply in the years to come. “Regardless of the cause,” wrote David French this morning, “we’re often left with the same emotions. So many Christians fear a seemingly inevitable secular future. There’s a deep anxiety for our children and grandchildren, and real alarm that the church may face deepening isolation and perhaps even persecution.”

So where can we find signs of life, reasons for hope, amid such decline? I think Luke’s account of the Resurrection can lend us some counsel:

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

Luke 24:1-5
Stained glass from Chartres cathedral, with an angel speaking to the women at the empty tomb – Wikimedia

So what’s the advice? First, don’t look for the living among the dead.

Don’t look for Christ in Christendom. I don’t doubt there was real spiritual vitality in that 70% figure, but more worrisome traits were hiding in plain sight: religious behavior as rote custom and grudging habit; religious belonging as cultural expectation and social tool; religious belief — even in resurrection itself — as dead orthodoxy. And being part of so large and durable a majority inspired self-confidence, but not much self-awareness.

Don’t look for Christ in Christian nationalism. When we hear this morning that the God who “will swallow up death forever” will “make for all peoples a feast of rich food” (Isa 25:6, 8), why do we Americans assume that our place at that banquet is to be found next to Christ? Why do we assume that the purposes of a God so inscrutable as to work through through the death of his Son would be made clear in the history of any earthly power, let alone one whose greatness so often stemmed from something other than goodness?

Don’t look for Christ in “Christic manhood.” Warning that the “man who is willfully soft physically is often soft spiritually,” Baptist theologian Owen Strachan has called Christian men to instead be “protective, sharp, watchful.” But as Nate Pyle pointed out in response, “fear is at the heart of” what Strachan called a “Christic” version of manhood; such sentiments merely reflect another iteration of a historical pattern in the history of Christian men who have sought to preserve patriarchy in the midst of America’s unceasing waves of social, cultural, economic, and demographic change. Rather than look for a Christ who would willfully reject power, humble himself to the point of death, reveal himself to women rather than fearful, disbelieving men, and so establish a religion that valorized meekness and self-sacrifice, defenders of patriarchy have always seen the world they knew — they controlled — crumbling around them and, “rather than lose status and influence… doubled down on what gave them power.”

So on an Easter Sunday that finds more and more Americans put off by a religion that has been too closely identified with political power and social authority, let us look for life among the living:

• In the quiet faithfulness still to be found among the shrinking minority of Americans who do try to know Christ and make Christ known through institutional Christianity. For Lent and Holy Week, we’ve spent several hours worshipping virtually with my brother-in-law, who pastors a small congregation in rural Iowa, at once sustaining the best of tradition as he experiments with pandemic-era innovations. As okay as I am to discard America’s version of Christendom, I have no doubt that Christ is truly present in the word and sacrament, mission and ministry of such anonymous churches. Indeed, the experience of writing a spiritual biography of a decidedly non-religious individual has made me better appreciate the benefits of organized religion, like the ritual that brought the first eyewitnesses to the Empty Tomb.

• Among the women who continue to bear faithful, courageous witness to Jesus, in our time as much as in his. And in other groups that were always part of the 70% but rarely seen by those of us in the majority: the Black church, whose discipleship and worship has sustained it through constant, painful reminders of what Frederick Douglass recognized as “the widest possible difference” separating “the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ”; and the immigrant church, which comes to America and suffers new versions of the poverty and persecution that drove it here, yet still enriches and enlivens American Christianity with diverse ways of seeking and serving God.

• Among the ways of thinking, learning, discovering, and creating that the American church has often regarded with skepticism and that currently risk being overwhelmed by a model of education more responsive to the unremitting demands of the market. For if what we said in the creed this morning is true, then the study of “all things visible and invisible” — by arts, humanities, and sciences — can show anew our Christ, “through whom all things were made.”

• And in the new ways of believing, behaving, and belonging that will unexpectedly but undoubtedly arise from the political, economic, and public health disasters of the early 21st century. It may feel like we have lived through catastrophe after catastrophe in recent years, but as historian Paul Michelson wrote yesterday, Easter Sunday concludes the greatest example of what J. R. R. Tolkien called a eucatastrophe: “a story in which seeming disaster turns cataclysmically to the good in a way that ‘pierces you with a joy that brings tears.'”