Easter Sunday—Insurrection not Resurrection

READINGS: Mark 16:1-8

From: ‘An Insurrectionist Manifesto: Four New Gospels for a Radical Politics’ by Ward Blanton, Clayton Crockett, Jeffrey W. Robbins, and Noëlle Vahanian (Columbia University Press, 2016, pp. 1-2)

We believe in the Insurrection, not the Resurrection—whether it be of Jesus Christ or of anyone else. Resurrection generally smacks of simple repetition, whereby the same person is resuscitated, revived, restored to life. Such things are fantasies. We fashion ourselves not as the mythological phoenix, rising from the ashes, but as the salamander, severed and bruised—insurrection as regeneration.
    Every genuine creation is an insurrectionary event. Insurrection is a political term, and it operates in clear tension with a more individualistic notion of religious resurrection, the idea that each person should be invested in his or her salvation rather than that of anyone else. Insurrection, however, is generally seen in political terms as intrinsically limited, as a failed attempt at change, as change that is destroyed or aborted, change that does not pass to a fully revolutionary action or successful event. No doubt, we have become more skeptical of the possibility and the result of a revolution after the short but intense twentieth century that manifests what Alain Badiou calls a “passion for the Real” and the failure of most of its political revolutions. If a revolution comes full circle, back in some respects to where it began, an insurrection is more of a diagonal line that surges forth without, however, renouncing its passion for the Real beyond imaginary fantasy and the symbolic reality.
    The other problem with a political thinking of insurrection is that it is generally seen as reactive, as being an insurrection against a given state of affairs. Just as the Occupy movement was seen as a protest movement without any positive agenda or demands, an insurrection can be viewed solely as a protest against the status quo. But what if we free insurrection from this limited viewpoint and see insurrection as a radically affirmative event, resistance not as reactionary but as constitutive? An insurrection is not primarily against something, but for something: for an idea, a life, a being together whose existence is not given but can only be created through struggle. Insurrection is a
surrection-in-process, a surging-in that unfurls and surges forth, and it is this vital affirmation that must characterize insurrection and insurrectionary thought today. 


Easter Sunday—Insurrection not Resurrection

There are many safe, uncontroversial, poetic and metaphorical ways a modern, liberal minister of religion might approach writing an Easter Sunday address but, behind nearly all of them is a general discomfort and unwillingness publicly to cut to the chase and admit an unspoken truth. For some reason this year I strongly feel the need clearly to speak the truth and to say at the beginning of my address that I do not believe in the resurrection, of Christ, of his friend Lazarus, or of anyone else. In saying this I am as sure as I am about anything in this world and I feel that Jesus’ body remains to this day hidden beneath some unknown Palestinian garden. With respect to those who think differently, the whole idea of bodily resurrection appears to me, as my philosopher friend Jonathan Harrison once tersely put it, ‘. . . preposterous. All the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly against it and good science should always take precedence over bad theology’ ("God, Freedom and Immortality", Ashgate Press, 1999,  p. 463). So I hope this makes it clear that, whatever else I’m going to do today, I’m not going to be proclaiming the resurrection.

But, you may object, if a person won’t (or cannot) talk about resurrection then they probably can’t offer up anything approaching a meaningful, positive, constructive Easter address. Certainly, in orthodox Christian terms, I don’t think they can and I’m minded to take St Paul seriously, as does the Christian Church to this day, when he wrote to the Corinthians saying:

‘If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:13-14).

In so far as I ever genuinely had a Christian faith of the kind imagined by St Paul (possibly only when I was a child) I feel that mine was, indeed, one held in vain and so it is for the best that it has been gently let go.

However, having said all this, although I do not believe in the resurrection (a word derived from the latin ‘resurgere’ meaning ‘to rise or appear again’) I’m more and more inclined to believe in a related concept, namely, the insurrection (a word derived from the latin ’insurrectio’ meaning ‘a rising up’). And, today, I want to raise the question of what Easter Sunday might come to mean were we able to understand that what followed Jesus’ execution was not a resurrection but an insurrection? I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this is, or is not, still to offer something which meaningfully can be called an Easter Sunday address. 

But, before I begin to try to answer this question it’s worth briefly indicating why I think we need to focus on insurrection and not resurrection.

The first reason is that, over the past few decades we, in the UK, have been entering more and more into a post-Christian time. Nothing showed me the truth of this better than this week's Tesco’s advert: ‘Great offers on beer and cider. Good Friday just got better. I'm not offended by this advert in any religious sense because religion, if it is to have any genuine place in a modern democracy, must be able to take this kind of stuff on the chin and not merely take offence. I mention it because the fact that it exists shows clearly that we are in a post-Christian context and it also shows something of the the overwhelming power neoliberal economic, political and social beliefs and practices have over every aspect of our culture—even one of the holiest days of the older culture now simply provides and opportunity for us to buy and consume more stuff more cheaply. I think both the basic lack of education and the power of capitalism shown in this example requires from us some kind of insurrectionary response, don’t you?

The second reason is that, despite the aforementioned reason we here in the UK are also clearly entering a post-secular culture. By which I mean that, despite the obvious waning of formal, traditional Christian religious affiliations, understandings and beliefs as revealed by the Tesco advert, we are all also aware that religion per se has not gone away and that, in other various and complex ways, it is powerfully returning to the national stage. I think this also requires from us some kind of  insurrectionary response — not precisely to stop religion’s return so much as to make sure that the kind of religion which returns is not of the dangerously regressive, reactionary and nationalistic kind. 

Anyway, it is clear to me that we mustn’t be foolish and bury our heads in sand and continue to go about as if this return of problematic religion is not occurring. Instead, it is incumbent upon our own radical, religious tradition to find creative ways to develop a contemporary political theology that helps us engage with, tackle, and reinterpret some of the most stubborn and problematic aspects of returning religion’s superstitions including, of course, belief in the resurrection. (Actually I think it requires a political (a)theology, but that point is for another time.)

So, now let’s turn to our non-biblical reading.

The first important thing to observe is that resurrection ‘smacks of simple repetition, whereby the same person is, Phoenix-like, resuscitated, revived, restored to life from the ashes. Insurrection, on the other hand, is to be like a salamander, ‘severed and bruised’, but also a creature capable of ‘regeneration’, capable of learning from and being radically changed by its experiences, injuries, new knowledge and new situation. This difference is very important. Resurrection is about restoring the status quo ante in some fashion, i.e. returning something to the state in which it previously existed. In connection with Jesus this surely cuts against everything he seems to have been teaching about for he was a man deeply concerned to affect change and radically to challenge the status quo, a status quo which, remember, privileged (and still privileges) the rich and powerful over the marginalised poor and powerless. Jesus’ message was all about turning the world wholly upside down and from the grand correction that followed creating a vision of something completely new, something he called the kingdom of God in which the poor in spirit would inhabit this kingdom not tomorrow but now; in which those who mourned would be comforted not tomorrow but now; in which the meek would inherit the earth not tomorrow but now; in which those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness would be filled not tomorrow but now; in which the merciful would be shown mercy not tomorrow but now; in which the pure in heart saw God not tomorrow but now; in which peacemakers would be called children of God not tomorrow but now; in which those who are persecuted for righteousness sake would come into the kingdom of God, not tomorrow but right here, right now.

There is absolutely no sense that Jesus was interested in bringing about the simple repetition of what had been — even what he had been — but, instead, he was concerned to find the energy and wherewithal to create something new out of the struggle with the status quo which, then as now, will try every which way permanently to silence insurrectionists like him. When Jesus was killed we know that, although the small community which had gathered around him were severed and badly bruised, somehow, miracle of miracles, salamander like, they managed to regenerate themselves and their insurrection against the status quo was continued in a new and more creative form. Even though the Church later on became itself the status quo, as a radical religious tradition taking its inspiration from Jesus rather than the Church I hope that we, today, continue to inherit his creative, open-ended insurrectionary spirit of struggling with the world and that, like him, we continue to have no interest in, nor any need for, a resurrection which is a mere repetition of what has already passed. Our hopeful, utopian spirit knows we can always do better than we have done thus far, much, much better.

The second thing to observe is that insurrection is a corporate activity and way of being whereas resurrection is centred on the individual. Once again we may observe that Jesus was never concerned only about himself but only with the health, well-being and life-enhancing and enlarging possibilities of the community of which he was fully a part. In the social, political  and religious insurrection imagined by Jesus we are potentially all always-already involved. However, in the resurrection of Jesus only he is involved and we can but look upon this event only as modern consumers look at mere commodities — and Easter, along with Christmas, is in our neoliberal world, for most people anyway, merely a commodified event. Does this sound like the state of affairs that Jesus would have been interested helping to create? I don’t think so because he was an insurrectionist to the core and insurrection is all about living in solidarity with each other against the status quo and powers that be whereas, on the other hand, resurrection is all about the individual, either Jesus, Jesus, Jesus and, by extension, me, me, me as the consumer of the event of his resurrection.

The third thing to observe is the difference that exists between revolution and insurrection. Let’s start with revolution. As we look back on the ‘short but intense twentieth century’ what we primarily see are the many failed revolutions of which the Russian Revolution of 1917 — whose centenary year we are in — is only the most obvious and high-profile. Seeing this has, rightly in my opinion, instilled in most of us a deep skepticism about the possibilities for, and value of, revolutionary change. As the authors point out an insurrection is often seen as related to revolution, as a reactive practice, ’a failed attempt at change, as change that is destroyed or aborted, change that does not pass to a fully revolutionary action or successful event.’ If this is all an insurrection is, merely a possible (if unlikely) precursor to a revolution that will become, itself, deeply problematic then who in their right mind would want to be an insurrectionist?

But, what happens if, along with the book’s authors, we start to see insurrection ‘as a radically affirmative event, resistance not as reactionary but as constitutive? Seeing that an ‘insurrection is not primarily against something, but for something: for an idea, a life, a being together whose existence is not given but can only be created through struggle.’ And wasn’t this exactly the kind of thing that Jesus was attempting to do in his own time and place? And isn’t this precisely what we must do in our own time and place as we seek to ‘struggle with and within the world for an ethical-ecological vision of Life beyond money, greed, power, and the devastation of neoliberalism and corporate capitalism’? (An Insurrectionist Manifesto, p.4)

To conclude, the resurrection is today, as I’ve already indicated, a commodified event attached to a specific time and place — for the Christian some two millennia ago somewhere in Palestine — and attached to a specific, single person — a first-century rabbi named Jesus. However, the insurrection is always-already ‘a surrection-in-progress, a surging-in that unfurls and surges forth’ and, in the opinion of the book’s authors, ‘it is this vital affirmation that must characterize insurrection and insurrectionary thought today.’

I cannot but agree with them and say my own loud ’Amen’. If we can start doing something like this then we will no longer need to celebrate the resurrection — which never happened anyway — and we will have begun to celebrate and bring into being the necessary, life-enhancing and joyful coming insurrection against dreadful, neoliberal status quo that is our equivalent to the oppressive Roman Empire and religious orthodoxies of Jesus’ own time.

I wish you all a life-affirming and insurrectionary Easter.