The world has discovered an unlikely protest anthem in the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof/Because I’m happy./Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth./Because I’m happy.” How odd it might seem to juxtapose a song called “Happy” with the lament of the psalmist from out of the depths, and the Gospel writer’s depiction of Lazarus’ tomb. But that’s exactly the sort of thing people are doing, all around the world. They are producing videos of themselves dancing their hearts out to “Happy” against the backdrop of armed soldiers and tanks, buildings reduced to rubble, cities in ruin—in Tunisia, Moscow, the Philippines, in Kiev’s Independence Square. (http://nypost.com/2014/04/01/pharrells-happy-becomes-unlikely-protest-anthem/)
The story of Lazarus is a protest anthem, too. The verses that come right after today’s story make it clear that, from the perspective of John’s Gospel, the raising of Lazarus is the event that causes the religious leaders to seek Jesus’ death. “What are we to do?” they say to one another. “This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” These religious leaders knew of their people’s distress in living under Roman oppression—the illnesses, the tombs, the deathly stench. And surely they shared their longing for freedom. But it was best, they thought, not to go there. Their religion was a kind of anesthesia: it numbed the pain. It promised a better day, but not just yet.
By the time Jesus arrives at the home of his friends Martha and Mary, their brother Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. In other words, he is good and dead. His spirit has departed from his body. Martha accuses Jesus boldly, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary, later, utters the exact same words. Jesus does not turn away from the sisters’ sharp lament. He understands that they, like us, often feel God’s absence more acutely than God’s presence. When he stands before the crowd of mourning friends and neighbors, he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” One of the Greek words used here can also mean “angry.”
Is Jesus angry at death itself, upset because he can’t spare those he loves from suffering? He knows Lazarus will die again, as we all will. The raising of his friend is not a reversal of the natural order of creation, which includes death. It is a sign that points beyond itself, toward a different kind of life: resurrection life, life in the spirit of God, life rooted in eternity that is available to all of us here and now. To Martha, Jesus declares himself to be a sign: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
The events at Lazarus’ tomb foreshadow and interpret Jesus’ own cross and resurrection. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone argues that white theologians and white churches cannot truly understand the meaning of the cross unless we examine its haunting connection with our nation’s history of lynching. Emmett Till was fourteen years old in 1955 when he was brutally beaten and murdered for whistling at a white woman in a store. His killers, though they admitted in federal court to kidnapping Till, never spent a day in jail. Cone writes:
“If lynching was intended to instill silence and passivity, this event had the opposite effect, inspiring blacks to rise in defiance, to cast off centuries of paralyzing fear. The signal of this change was marked by the actions of Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett’s mother, who refused to allow this heinous act, like so many similar cases, to remain in the shadows or to fade from public memory. When Emmett’s body was brought back to Chicago, she insisted that the sealed casket be opened for a three-day viewing, exposing ‘his battered and bloated corpse’ so that ‘everybody can see what they did to my boy.’ She exposed white brutality and black faith to the world and, significantly, expressed a parallel meaning between her son’s lynching and the crucifixion of Jesus. ‘Lord you gave your son to remedy a condition,’ she cried out, ‘but who knows, the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching.’” (66-67)
Cone remarks that the faith of African Americans in the cross was one key element that “cast out black people’s fear of death and sent them flowing into the streets.” (69) Though Jesus and his followers bear the cross willingly, it is not an acceptance of victimhood; it is a protest. Cone explains that the cross, for African Americans, “was God’s critique of power—white power, with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.” (p. 2) The climax of the Lazarus story, and perhaps the part of it that really gets Jesus into trouble, is his call to the community to take up their part in the protest. Even when Lazarus’ heart muscle restarts and his lungs begin to take in air, he is still not fully alive, and neither are the friends and loved ones who surround him. Resurrection life, life in the spirit of God, eternal life in the here and now, is about freedom from all our fears, and particularly our fear of death. “Unbind him and let him go,” Jesus commands the crowd. “Arise and protest!” he stirs their hearts. Stand against a faith that is merely anesthesia for suffering and injustice.
Last Saturday, a number of us attended a workshop about how to support those living with dementia. Our facilitator for the day was Anne Simpson, who cared for her husband Bob through his Alzheimer’s journey. Bob wrote a “guide” for those who wanted to accompany him. We’ll share the full list in the newsletter next month, but here’s one request that really struck me:
“Talk to me: I wish people would talk to me directly as they always used to do. I try to talk directly to them but now I feel they are more apt to talk about me, talk over my head. Where do they think I am? There is almost nothing you can say that will bother me—you can’t say a ‘wrong’ thing. What pains me is when you stay away or say nothing at all.” (Through the Wilderness curriculum, p. 41)
We meet Lazarus’ tomb and Jesus’ cross not only in evils such as white supremacy, poverty, and environmental destruction, but also in our personal struggles with illness and pain. Bob’s remarks help me to realize that in the face of this deathly disease, we can protest the cross, we can unbind one another’s fears, simply by choosing to stay in courageous and compassionate relationship with those affected and their caregivers.
I want to close by playing Pharrell’s music video of “Happy.” “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth,” he sings, and I realize that might sound a little too simple and glossy. But this “official” video, like the copycat versions made by people around the world engaged in life and death struggles for freedom, doesn’t minimize pain or deny injustice. It does celebrate the spirits of ordinary people unbound, people who dance, with liberating joy, in front of their tombs. It portrays a beautiful vision of a community both diverse and inclusive, a community, like the one that gathered around Lazarus, with a powerful capacity for protest and resistance. For me, this song is an affirmation of life—resurrection life, life in the spirit of God, eternal life in the here and now.