I Believe in the Insurrection

April 08, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

I believe in the Insurrection. Resurrection comes after insurrection, not before. Resurrection is that lift out of the basement, after you empty your attic. You live in the main house on the main floor with the stuff you need for living, not more, not less. You become simple, just like you always said you wanted to be.

You heard Jesus’ questions. Why don’t you get it, he asks. We don’t get it because we want to complicate it because if we complicate it, it will look like our brief lives matter, which they do but not in the way we think they do. Like parents who will tell you exactly why their son committed suicide, control of the narrative almost always beats facing the narrative, whether it is right or not. Then it looks like there are no mysteries we can’t manage. And we appear to be in charge. Jesus’ questions drive us to a sophisticated simplicity: You are not in charge. You never have been and never will be. Love is in charge. Life is in charge. Death is in charge. Why, he asks, do you refuse living questions on behalf of dead answers?

Insurrection is your way to resurrection. Insurrection is your uncanny way to its freedom. You die to your old ways, your constant obedience to Pharaoh’s bitter yoke, your compliance with the rules about who you must be and what you must do. You even die to the complicated fantasy that if you just do everything right, then everything will be ok. Even the most free among us, the artists, the dancers, those who dare nudity to point us to the body’s great strength and fragility – even those of us with the most Zen of personalities and the least reliance on self-medication – even we can be cluttered with death. We can feel like we are living the wrong life, or someone else’s life, or our mother’s life, or our father’s life. Or in useless self-differentiation we live the Frank Sinatra song. “I did it my way.” We can live in the attic with our memories or in the basement of our fears. We can keep our windows closed, even when it is warm outside. We can work at a job that doesn’t have our name on its paycheck or stay married for the health insurance. We may not be the victim of Pharaoh’s bitter yoke, so much as its quiet but faithful servant. We object in our spare time to our marching orders and then we pull up our bra straps or gird our loins or take off our clothes or put on our suit and go on to march in his parade. Recently the commandments have become to answer your email and post on your face book: Aye, aye, captain.

If resurrection is that great sense of surprise that the women knew at the grave at dawn, insurrection is the refusal to keep looking for the living among the dead. Jesus’ questions drive us, even before his death, to that refusal. Their theme is asking us why we didn’t see what was in plain sight. Did you not see? Have you not heard? Many activists work hard at changing the system that makes us work hard. The time famine among do gooders is a perfect example of worshipping Pharaoh while thinking you are not. I was just with a magnificent group of activists who after a few hours of honesty began to tell each other something like the truth. Our truth was summarized in our final report as “fighting for a little stillness.” We had a great belly laugh about FIGHTING FOR STILLNESS. Insurrection is the refusal to fight for the grace we have been given.

What grace, you will say? I can’t afford grace. It would mean I wasn’t in charge. I think I’ll be in charge and go out to fight for stillness and demand justice. Is there not insurrectionary grace in Jesus’ questions? Have you not seen? Did you not hear? Your people crossed the red sea. Have you not seen? I fed a lot of people with a little. Do you not know? I take care of birds. Will I not take care of you? Do you not remember? You will know me in brokenness of bread and spilled wine. You will know me because they will kill me and I won’t be afraid. Don’t tell me you need more evidence than that?

Wangari Maathai, the great Kenyan leader, noticed that the earth was no longer producing. She planted trees. I am sure she worked very hard. I am sure her fund raising proposals for the not profit industrial complex were articulately written with measurable goals and accomplishments. I am also sure that she didn’t care about pleasing them so much as she cared about restoring fertility to inert ground. She did not look for the living among the dead. She knew that the disciples had not buried Jesus that day but planted him. She knew that Jesus was driving the desert back even in his death. We know that Tyler Clemente and Trayvon Martin may be dead and we are not naive about who else will kill whom else. We also know that the dead click and compost the living into ways of being. The dead help us get clear, clear enough to live on the main floor of our existence. They keep us out of the attic of nostalgia and the basement of fear. Walt Whitman said it well when he suggested that we not look for him after he was dead. He wanted us to look under our boots. There, he said, we will find him. Insurrectionists are always planting ourselves. We are ready for great stillness in life and the great stillness in death. We are not trying to achieve stillness, like teachers have to achieve scores on tests. Stillness is not an achievement. Stillness is a grace, in life and in death.

Our very strategy of hard work for social change often crucifies us. We give Pharaoh way too much power, when the point is to ignore him with our parables, our politics, and our poetry. Instead we are to find the place where the desert is advancing and plant our bodies. We plant as living and we plant as dead. We live safe. We live grace. We live simple.

When we feel safe, we go deep. We find ourselves rich with whimsy. We bring a kind of deep attention to things as they are. We send the Good Will or the Salvation army all the crap that is in the attic of our past and the basement of our fear. We release ourselves from the burden of ourselves and achieve a great lightness of being. We cease feeling like we can never get anything done. We are already done. Death had its name on our resume before we even got to update it. So interesting, someone asked Arianna Huffington if she was going to write a memoir and she quipped, “Aren’t they for dead people?” Once you write the memoir, by dying early to an achieving self, you don’t have to carry your story around any more like a burden that needs to be written. So many people say this theme to me: “I don’t feel good about what I’m not getting done.” Do you hear the Pharaoh in that line? Who said you had to get what done? Was it Occupy? Then tell occupy to stop its hyper activism and go inhabit something. The best advice I ever got as an organizer was to go lie down in a field and watch a carrot grow. When I could do that, people were willing to trust me as a leader. Before I could do that, I was just pushing them around, packaging them into justice and peace packages, all destined to assuage my own terror that Pharaoh would remain in charge. Teja Cole calls this the White Savior Industrial Complex. When you live there, you are already dead but not yet still.

Once the insurrection happens, the resurrection is assured. How will you know? Such a great enlightenment question. You won’t know. But you will also be free of that diversion of knowing and be able to get on with life and death.

55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844