Gayraud Wilmore a contributing editor to Christianity and Crisis, recently retired as professor of church history at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.
This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis on March 20, 1989. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.
The thought comes to the author that it is just not possible to sleep enveloped in the glow and glory of the Risen Christ. One has to be up and doing something worthwhile, something that draws strength from the resurrection, something related to the victory over death.
I am writing this guest editorial on a red formica-topped table in the small kitchen of my mother's quiet, early morning house. It is several weeks before Easter, but resurrection is on my mind. Upstairs the floor creaks as the elder of my two younger brothers gets out of bed. Otherwise, this old brick house in the Nicetown section of North Philadelphia is empty and soundless. Somewhere over southern Africa our youngest brother is flying west and north, hastening to mother’s funeral two days from now. Earlier this week, after a long illness, Patricia Wilmore slipped away only a few weeks from what would have been her ninety-fifth birthday.
There is a reason why I could not sleep. It has to do with more than the nagging reminder of a promise to write this editorial. It is the fact that this old house, so recently bereft of its gray haired matriarch, is full of the glory of the resurrection this morning, and the thought comes to me that it is just not possible to sleep en veloped in the glow and glory of the Risen Christ. One has to be up and doing something worthwhile, something that draws strength from the resurrection, something related to the victory over death.
This house, this little space on God’s earth, so inseparably connected to other spaces around the world where our extended family resides, is the center of the strange phenomenon I am experiencing this bright February morning. This emanation, this something inexhaustible that streams from this place, the navel of our world, I cannot explain except to say that it energizes, awakens, fills everything with force and vitality. I believe it can only be the mystical effulgence of the resurrection left by my mother’s departure from this temporary haven and her arrival in a new and more permanent, eternal home.
It seems almost too unctious to say that we, all of the old C & C fire-fighters who may read these lines, need this power of the resurrected Christ to get off our duffs. I don’t mean to be overly romantic about it. There is nothing very romantic about the desperation some of us feel when we try to operate in this crazy world outside of the gravitational field of Easter. It rather takes cold, pure logic to recognize, here at the beginning of a new year and the Bush administration, that we Christians -- Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, black and white. men and women, liberals and conservatives -- are dying. The United States of America is sick and the churches of this nation, no better off, are a most unlikely source of healing. I cannot remember a time, either before or after the 1960s, when we Christians were more confused, more demoralized, and in greater disarray -- a rudderless ship in a heavy sea. In fact, the whole society seems caught up in a paralyzing ennui, except perhaps the new and very rich who rode into power eight years ago with six-shooters blazing and white sombreros waving, behind a Hollywood cowboy who sanctimoniously and effectively represented their interests in the name of "less government means better government."
They Ate the Cake
It strikes me with something akin to terror to think how we permitted ourselves to be taken in, silenced and neutralized, by the boyish grin and a trickle-down prosperity while resurgent racism, Rambo militarism, cultural philistinism, and unregulated, let-them-eat-cake capitalism swaggered across the stage on an eight-year run. If I were asked what in the world happened, how did we let ourselves get into that situation, I should only reply that most of us Democrats, who were out there battling twenty years ago, fell asleep at the switch. While we were dreaming Martin’s dream and waiting for some new messiah to arrive and save "the gains of the ‘60s," this new group off middle-aged, increasingly well-off stock- and bondholders, corporate managers and their cadres of young urban professionals who never had it so good, were walking away with their loot and leaving the nation with a deficit which in 1990 will probably be in excess of $l54 billion. In the meantime, our new leader is proposing to deal with the unprecedented problems of the city, child-care, education, homelessness, and the environment without raising taxes. An economic policy that will surely have to out-voodoo anything that Ronald Reagan was able to conjure up.
If Easter does anything for us this year, let it rouse us from our apathetic slumber and give us the energy to build some fires under George Bush and the 101st Congress before this new four-year period gets very far along. It is past time for us secular humanists, wimp liberals, and unborn-again spoilers of the American Dream to wake up.
Since rereading 1 Corinthians 15 during these days of quiet bereavement I have been more than usually sensitive to the New Testament image of death as sleep, to the several connotations and implications of words in the Bible that speak of sleeping and awakening, perishing and quickening, death and resurrection. The Scriptures have nothing to do with somnolence and inactivity. They call us out of sleep into wakefulness, out of darkness into enlightenment -- eyes open, fists clenched and punching, poised on tiptoes like high-strung boxers bobbing and weaving before the hell.
Why do the cults and sects make so much better use of these images and metaphors than the church? I remember how often Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologv, and the late Honorable Elijah Muhammad spoke about being awake! clear! rousing ‘a race of dead men and women from their sleep of death," and getting them "on the battlefield against the Devil!" Such talk feeds on the idea of resurrection. The sleep of death is understood to have been banished and the true believers are called to awake, full of energy and vitality, strengthened to do what they have to do in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and "unto the uttermost parts of the earth."
It is undoubtedly bad exegesis, but a useful -- if eisegetical -- application of 1 Corinthians 15:6b, "but some are fallen asleep" to describe what has happened to the forces of progressive Christian action in recent years with such a metaphor. Some of us who were so deeply involved in the urban mission, the fight against racial segregation. opposition to the war in Vietnam, the struggle for the rights of Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and women, freedom in southern Africa, and hands off Central America, badly need to hear Paul’s exclamation in verse 34, "Awake to righteousness, and sin not!"
For it is as true of us as it was of the Corinthians that we have shamefully lost the knowledge of God and must renew our faith in the resurrection and the claim it lays upon the church of Christ before we can get on with the mission of liberation.
Sitting here this morning. I am aware of a great loss, but also of a great encouragement -- personally and in terms of our common struggle for a more just and responsible society. I have a keen sense that this quiet house that seems so empty is really full of power and life as never before, and that this is also true of the world at Easter, 1989. Life! Obviously I am not talking about the mechanical motion of the planets or the rumpus of atoms and molecules, but about the eternal beingness of intelligent, purposing, seeking life. That is what the church and the nation need today as we blunder into a world in which the desire of Americans for wealth and power has been the source of so much benevolence, and yet so much anguish and death.
Life! Life that breaks through denial, negation, and oppression to freedom, justice, and peace, not only for Americans, but for every person on earth.
Life! Life that posits, affirms, and defends all we believe in and hold dear -- loving justice and tenderness against all attempts by the Enemy, who always appears as an angel of light, to wipe them out and return the world to the power of death, to the anarchy of "might makes right" and "only the fittest deserve to survive." But life will not be suppressed. Death is swallowed up in the victory of Christ who stands against such an insensible, dying world and, through our ambassadorship, raises it from the dead. Easter calls us to wake up. Wake up and choose life!