Malcolm, Martin, the Mahatma and a couple of Mary’s: A resurrection story
Holy Saturday sermon By Sandhya Jha
New Spirit Community Church, Berkeley, CA
March 30, 2013
The Gospel : Mark 16:1-8
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Malcolm. I’ve been thinking about him especially as someone who saw brokenness and named it.
Now I’m a Martin girl. I’m all for nonviolence and I love me some Jesus. I love that Martin Luther King’s thinking was shaped by Mahatma Gandhi and is somehow, to me, inextricably connected to my own people’s generally peaceful struggle for freedom in India.
I like the way Dr. King pushed compassionately but forcefully, on a Holy Saturday 50 years ago, for poor white folks to recognize their lot was inextricably bound up with that of poor Black folk, calling us all to work together in a shared movement. I’m a Martin girl, and even moreso after reading Rev. Jim Mitulski’s op-ed in the Bay Area Reporter this week. But I’ve been thinking a lot about Malcolm.
Malcolm X named brokenness, especially in the way he was exposed to Christianity: don’t give me that pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die-by-and-by stuff. Don’t give me that “it’ll be better in the hereafter” mush. Tell me where God is for the people who have been enslaved and beaten down and lynched and locked up and trodden on for generation after generation. Show me a God of my people’s dignity NOW, not once we’re under the dirt.
Malcolm wanted liberation. He would not be stalled out in pursuit of it.
But Malcolm’s pursuit forced him to complicate some things he would have rather left uncomplicated…his journey into Islam and its justice ended up being tempered, tempered in ways towards the end of his life that forced him to be in relationship with people he had not thought of as his own. He discovered brokenness within the way he himself was practicing his own form of Islam. He went on Hajj and discovered a whole different way of connecting with Allah that forced him to do some heavy deconstructing and some much more complex thinking.
The Scriptures today are also about liberation. But they also complicate things we might rather leave uncomplicated. They are also liberation tempered by something else, something more, something complicated.
You probably already know the midrash—the Jewish interpretation—of the Exodus story we heard today. From the Talmud: As the Egyptians started to drown in the Red Sea, the heavenly hosts began to sing praises, but God silenced the angels, saying, “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises!” [Talmud Tractate Megillah 10b]
Exodus is a story of liberation. The passage we heard tonight speaks to the crushing of the Israelites’ enemies as they finally escape generations of slavery. And it’s celebratory. During the Passover ritual that Jewish people today honor, however, they pour out some of their wine to remember the suffering of the families of the Egyptians destroyed in the red sea that day. Our pursuit of liberation as people of faith is necessarily complicated. We’re challenged to say “If we are a saved people, part of that salvation lies in our compassion, in our care for others even when they have shown brutality towards us.”
So I think about Malcolm tonight—about how his pursuit of justice in his relationship to God resulted in a tempering. Of how the Israelites’ pursuit of freedom and their resultant jubilation at the destruction of their enemies has been tempered over the centuries.
And I think about Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of James and of Salome, from our gospel reading.
I don’t know if Mary Magdalene was a freedom fighter like Jesus’ disciple Simon, but if so, she was reeling from the loss of that dream of Jesus as the head of the rebellion against the brutal Roman regime. I don’t know if she knew much of the Jewish scriptures that people thought pointed to one great heroic man who would be a king like David of centuries before, but if so, she would have been crushed to have watched him mocked with the sign “King of the Jews” painted in three languages on the cross where he died. I do not know if she simply loved Jesus as the wise teacher who welcomed women as well as men of every caste and character to sit with him and study and wrestle with God’s teachings, but if so, she would be wrecked at his absence, and if she was anything like me, she would be overwhelmed with rage at an occupying state that would kill someone for teaching a simple message of equality and dignity and divinity of all of God’s children.
What I do know is that her faith was in the middle of being tempered, right there, as she walked with her sisters towards the tomb. Any simple and uncomplicated faith she had up to the moment Jesus was hauled before the Jewish and then the Roman authorities had gone up in smoke by now. Her faith was in the midst of becoming much more complicated.
I remember a story of some Christians in South Africa who made the acquaintance of Mahatma Gandhi when he lived there as a young man—they were struck by his fluency with the stories of Jesus and the Bible. They asked him, since he knew those stories and seemed to resonate with them so powerfully, why he didn’t become a Christian, especially since there might be perks for him within apartheid South Africa as a Christian. “Your Christ,” he responded. “I admire your Christ. I do not admire your Christians. If only your Christians were more like your Christ.”
And I think about Malcolm, who famously said, “The greatest miracle Christianity has achieved in America is that the black man in white Christian hands has not grown violent. It is a miracle that 22 million black people have not risen up against their oppressors – in which they would have been justified by all moral criteria, and even by the democratic tradition! It is a miracle that a nation of black people has so fervently continued to believe in a turn-the-other-cheek and heaven-for-you-after-you-die philosophy! It is a miracle that the American black people have remained a peaceful people, while catching all the centuries of hell that they have caught, here in white man’s heaven! The miracle is that the white man’s puppet Negro ‘leaders’, his preachers and the educated Negroes laden with degrees, and others who have been allowed to wax fat off their black poor brothers, have been able to hold the black masses quiet until now.”
And I think about smart young people I occasionally get to talk with in Oakland, who have seen over and over a Christianity of parrot-what-you’re-taught, a Christianity of don’t-question-authority, a Christianity that is not self-critical and that they don’t witness in the streets where people are getting shot because of the racism that is soaked deeply, almost inextricably, into the fabric of our city and our nation. And I hear them say religion is stupid even if they believe in God. And I wonder what or who will ever complicate their religious horizon, so they are not stuck with only the options of a lousy, broken church that has internalized racism and patriarchy and respectability and intellectual laziness and fear or trusting only themselves.
Holy Saturday—the day between death and resurrection—is a day of tempering. It’s a day of reflecting on what we have believed, where those beliefs have done us and others harm, and what new way of being in the world we are moving into now.
Mary Magdalene’s new and complicated faith, the faith of all three women, I believe, began to emerge before they got to that empty tomb. When you have faced murder head on, and when it looks like brutality has won, you start to make some hard choices; you start to ask what is worth having faith in. I picture them walking to that tomb having made a choice to honor the body and the life of a man whose teachings were worth following, even at risk to themselves. I imagine them grieving but not abandoning their brother, teacher, son. I imagine them determining that his wisdom would live on.
I imagine them gritting their teeth and choosing to share his teachings with the next generation, teaching little girls that they are made in the image of God even if Roman occupiers deny it, teaching little boys that they are more favored in their innocence and their challenging convention than their parents who behaved like sheep after years of being taught not to question, teaching prostitutes and beggars and foreigners that there was room for all of them in this alternative community where God loves all and where they all take care of each other. Their world is much more complicated, and their faith is tempered, but they are participating in something radical in those tempering hours.
I believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But I imagine those women, long before they got to that empty tomb, already having begun to participate in the resurrection of Jesus.
And I see Mahatma Gandhi, when he points out that the church bears little resemblance to its proclaimed savior, participating in the resurrection of Jesus.
And I see Dr. King, demanding liberal white pastors stand up against the racist state instead of telling civil rights leaders to go slower, participating in Jesus’ resurrection.
And I see Malcolm X, pointing out how Christianity in America is being used to dope an entire race of people, participating in Jesus’ resurrection.
And I see my colleagues like Jhamel Robinson, saying he wants nothing to do with a religion that hates and discriminates and has no willingness to engage in self-criticism, participating in Jesus’ resurrection.
Make no mistake—the spiritual journeys of all of the people named in this message were hard-fought. They all signed up for lifetimes of self-reflection and self-renewal; their faith grew and evolved and changed. (And in Jhamel’s case, I suspect will continue to evolve for many years to come—he’s too deep for it to be otherwise.) Malcolm’s last days were spent with a completely different relationship to Allah and with the global and diverse Muslim world, and he even worked with Martin in the South, playing off of the state’s stereotypical assumptions about him, preaching separatism in the places Dr. King had been preaching integration, driving local and state leaders towards Malcolm as the palatable alternative. Gandhi’s last days were spent fasting to stop Indian from killing Indian as he sought to heal the rifts of violence of internalized colonialism. Some stories say that Mary Magdalene, quiet and loyal follower of Jesus during his life, spent the rest of her life smashing patriarchy and leading a feminist movement for women’s equality within the burgeoning early church while challenging oppression by the Roman state. None of them stayed stuck. All of them became the transformation they needed in the world.
I believe that future is available for every one of us tonight. When we confront death, when we commit to what is beyond death, we participate in resurrection, even before the stone is rolled away. And it pulls us ever forward into constant new and better ways of being, for our sake and for the sake of the world.
Holy Saturday. Time of reflection. Time of tempering. Time of complicating. And time to participate in Jesus’ resurrection.