“He Got Up!” Imagining an Afrofuturist Resurrection

I’ve celebrated Resurrection Sunday my whole life. I’ve been fully familiar with Black liberation theology’s commentary that Jesus was a brown-skinned Jew who was killed by the state; most of my life I understood Jesus’ death on a cross as a political death. However, the end result of a lot of schooling and mulling over theology in both high-minded ways and in practical ways has often made me wrestle with what to do with the resurrection story. Doctrines and dogma simply state that the man Jesus, of Nazareth, died a human death and experienced a human reawakening. Science can’t confirm this. The Gospel narratives are the only stories that record this. One would think, the other parts of recorded history would certainly include a story about a man once dead and then alive if this were verifiable facts.

But this Resurrection Sunday was different.

Perhaps not being inside a full church since Resurrection Sunday 2019 made a difference; perhaps it was being back in church for the first time for this high holy day in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death; perhaps it was living in the aftermath of the cultural awareness around unnecessary death’s at the hands of the state, this past Sunday was different. Whatever it was, this year felt different. As I sat in church this Resurrection Sunday 2022 I had a startling realization:

There is a no more powerful statement to a hegemonic entity than to remain alive after the government, quite literally, killed you.

Both words resurrection and insurrection have the same genesis: they both mean to rise up. The story of Jesus getting back up from the grave after being killed by the Roman government has the ability to both function as a bodily resurrection and a cultural insurrection, a political middle finger to the Roman government that constantly kept the Jewish people living in a police state and a socio-economic system that relegated many of them to being subsistent farmers wholly dependent on the same system that oppressed them.

The writer(s) of Luke tell the passion narrative—from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem in chapter 19 all the way to his death and burial in chapter 23—but, the first words of chapter 24 begin with the preposition of “however.” Many English translations don’t include this preposition “however” or “but” and the deep resonance of the message can be missed: the discovery of the empty tomb is a direct counternarrative to the successful plot to kill the insurrectionist Jewish prophet from Nazareth. It’s not just that biological life has victory over existential death, but it’s that human flourishing has victory over human oppression.

Perhaps I will get in trouble for this next part, but, maybe, in my Afro-millennial cynicism, I’m not convinced that Jesus died for everyone. The totalizing concept that Jesus’ died for the sins of the world seems to be a system-rooted-in-power co-opting of the Gospel’s narratives. Consistently the sentiment of “It’s easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven” was at the center of Jesus’ parables and lessons. For Jesus knew that to be rich in 1st century Palestine, in the Roman empire meant that someone was made all the more poor. In turn, I truly believe that Jesus came for those who were oppressed in order for them to be redeemed—even resurrected—into a future liberated from the principalities, powers, rulers of darkness and spiritual wickedness in high places. This suggests that the only way the message of Christianity has been able to spread so deeply to all socio-economic ranks is because of the personal concept of individual sin. The theology of sin is able to “buy” one into a mode of oppression; the notion that metaphysically we’re all tempted by an external and unassailable force whereas we all need the saving power of Jesus. I contend that it is the oppressed peoples of the world that need saving—existentially that is—more so than they need metaphysical salvation from sins. The mass graves, the unmarked graves and even tombstones of human history tell the stories of families and communities that deeply desired the resurrection of their loved ones who died at the hands of an imperial power.

I don’t seek to diminish the profound immorality of individuals exerting their will over others in the cases of rape, murder, abuse, etc. but I would argue that, in the vein of restorative justice, the people that commit these acts are also in desperate need of redemption. A redemption that replaces human depravity with human flourishing. To commit such acts, to sin in that way, is not the fruits of a human being that is flourishing at life. However, the early church fathers that trace the beginning of sin to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, such that Jesus’ death and resurrection has impact only on the individual level is not an atonement theory in which I’m interested.

Joy James, professor at Williams College published an article in 2013 entitled “Afrarealism and the Black Matrix: Maroon Philosophy at Democracy’s Border” where she outlined Afrarealism as “two coterminous phenomena: democracy as a boundary defining freedom through captivity, and maroon philosophy at the borders reimagining freedom through flight.”In her conclusion, she notes the beauty of the Black matrix maroon, those who find ways to defiantly snatch back agency, even if it results in violence. In noting the transgressive act of Mamie Till Mobley choosing to display the violence meted upon her son Emmett in an open casket funeral on the South Side of Chicago in 1955, she recalls her travels in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the “Brazilian mothers’ nonnegotiable demands to democracy’s paramilitary police (“Highlanders”) who decapitate youth in favelas: ‘Resurrect the child you have killed!’” In a more recent podcast interview, James recalls this narrative of the Black mothers of slain children, clearly one that has stuck with her through the years. In response to the demands of these mothers, she offers further commentary saying “only a God can do that… I am obedient only to a God, everybody else is just somebody talking at me and threatening me.”

The words of Black mothers from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the ghettos of the South Side of Chicago who’ve had to bury their sons sit with me in this season of resurrection. The woeful cries of bereaved to the elected officials who manage the cops who commit murder with impunity to “Resurrect the child you killed!” are the exact sentiment that satisfies the ultimate injustice that humanity enacts against itself. Can you imagine if George Floyd got back up again? If you put aside the scientific and biological implications for a moment, can you imagine how it unravel so many systems of entrenched racial ideologies, embedded concepts of justice and righteousness, and the grave implications it would have on sensibilities of power to those who subscribe indubitably to white supremacy?

Theologically, for me, I invite folks to understand Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection functioning as God’s care for humanity’s propensity to be “always becoming.” This is the linguistic functioning of a future continuous tense in reference to things in progress in the future. Building on the moral influence theory for atonement, that Jesus died as a demonstration of God’s love for humanity, I believe that Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection function as God’s perpetual interest in humanity’s future, such that it resists systems of oppression and tyranny. If Jesus wasn’t even safe from death at the hands of an immoral and power-hungry governmental system, what should ever make us think that those on the underside of history are safe?

To put a fine point on it: how do white people, then, become true followers of Jesus? How does this Afrofuturist-inspired theory of atonement function for those that consider themselves white? It first requires an understanding that they themselves suffer under our current systems of capitalism and broken concepts of democracy. Working class white folks in North America and other parts of Western civilization are just as susceptible to being locked-out of human flourishing as Black and Latinx peoples. Stories of the opioid crises, inability to have access to decent jobs and housing that come from urban centers as well as rural communities tell me that the system of whiteness (white supremacy) isn’t even good enough to assure that all white people are taken care of well! Secondly, it would require white folks to divorce themselves from whiteness. (In fairness, that’s an unfinished thought. I’m not sure what that would look like on an individual basis let alone within relationship to a community. What I am clear on is that it is not embodied in the personhood of Rachel Dolezal.)

In short, Jesus got up for our future flourishing. A flourishing free from the systems of this world that have been institutionally designed for our demise. I write this as a theologian, a self-professed Christian that has consistently come back to this way because it began with a human being who saw his people being hurt and harmed, and he did something about it, even unto death. I remain Christian because I believe, like the words attributed Frederick Buechner, the great Quaker prophet, that resurrection means “the worst thing isn’t the last thing.” Resurrection is the belief that there is a future, a future that can be better than what is current. In this, I will always hang my hope.

“Therefore, if anyone identify with a resurrected Jesus, they already are becoming a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” 2 Corinthians 5:17

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