The Marks of Resurrection | Easter 3 | 19 April 2015

Text: Genesis 4:1-17; Luke 24:36b-48

Practice resurrection.  This is the theme we have chosen for our Easter season as a way to remind ourselves that Easter is not about celebrating just once a year the new life that resurrection shows us is possible.  Rather, we remember that Easter is a season, a way of life that holds every moment in the light of the new life that is possible in God. 

It is easy to see why Easter falls in the early spring.  It’s not hard to imagine the possibility of new life when we are surrounded by both daffodils and people bursting from the dark places that have sheltered them through the cold, hard winter. 

But if Easter is a call for us to practice resurrection in every moment, what do we do with the moments that don’t feel like spring?  What does it mean to practice resurrection in places of deep suffering?  What new life is possible when our bodies and our souls are marked by the wounds of violence and abuse? 

Specifically this morning I want to spend some time thinking through these questions by looking at a topic that has been in the forefront of Mennonite news in the last few months.  For those of you for whom the name John Howard Yoder means very little or nothing at all, suffice to say that Yoder is one of the most important pacifist theologians and ethicists in the world.  For me, personally, his most famous work, The Politics of Jesus, has been immensely influential in allowing me to see not only that there is a political dimension to Jesus’ life and teachings but also that this politics of Jesus was one of nonviolence.  In a world that was and still is in desperate need of strong critiques of the pervasive nature of war and violence, Yoder offers sharp, biblical, and persuasive arguments for peace. 

But this is not the reason Yoder has been in the news lately.  In the last few years there has been a resurgence in interest in Yoder because of a growing recognition that true healing and reconciliation have not been achieved for the many women Yoder sexually assaulted during his time as both ordained clergy in the Mennonite Church and professor at what is now the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.  A recent article in The Mennonite magazine reported that, “Precise numbers will never be known, but two mental health professionals who worked closely with him…believe that more than 100 women experienced unwanted sexual violations by Yoder.”  Rumors and stories about Yoder have long floated around Mennonite circles, but I think it is only in the recent past that the broader public is coming to grips with the pervasiveness of the abuse. 

And this is the point at which we must also realize that these stories are not just about Yoder.  While what he did was truly terrible, what is becoming more and more clear beyond the many stories of abuse is the reality of the many ways that the institutions to which Yoder was accountable both failed to protect his victims and failed to hold Yoder accountable to his actions.  According to the recent report, seven different Mennonite groups from various institutions connected to Yoder were formed to address the issue, but none of them were completely successful.  The painful slowness and ineffectiveness of these institutional responses allowed for the continued victimization of women, largely because these processes were shrouded in secrecy and confidentiality.  The voices of the victim-survivors were largely silenced or ignored, and Yoder and his legacy of nonviolence were allowed to flourish, unmarked by the violence of his personal actions.  

This is the dark night to which we are called to practice resurrection. 

Even for those of us who might have little or no connection to this specific issue, we must be willing to wrestle with what it means to seek the possibility of new life in situations such as these, especially in a world where statistics on sexual abuse are staggeringly high.

So what does it mean to practice resurrection?  What new life is possible in this?
You may be wondering why I would choose the story of Cain to help us think about practicing resurrection.  I admit that this is not where I would normally go for guidance on such matters, but for one of my classes this semester I had to read a book called The Mark of Cain that I have not been able to get out of my mind.  Historian and theologian Katharina von Kellenbach argues in this book that Christian narratives on reconciliation such as the parable of the prodigal son rely so heavily on models of unconditional forgiveness that they miss the reality that true reconciliation in many situations requires a lifelong journey of moral transformation.  She offers the story of Cain as an alternative that shows us that for new life to truly be possible, we must not attempt to erase the past but allow ourselves to be transformed by the truth of it. 

The term “the mark of Cain” has become synonymous in our culture with the idea of ongoing punishment and shame.  It has become a curse, a stigma, or a sign of justified suffering.  It has even been dangerously interpreted as the “mark” of dark skin as a way to justify the African slave trade and the continued oppression of African Americans. 

But if we look closely at Genesis 4, we can see that the mark of Cain, whatever this mark actually was, is not the punishment but, rather, is a mark of God’s protection.  This is not at all to say that Cain was not punished; he was separated from his community, cut off from his livelihood, and turned away from the face of his God.  In response to these sanctions he cries out, “My punishment is greater than I can bear!”  Cain argues that his punishment might as well mean death, but to this, God’s response is “Not so!”  The punishment remains, but by imparting the mark upon Cain, God opens up the possibility of new life. 

But the mark also makes the possibility of this new life contingent on Cain’s ability to remain accountable to his actions.  Von Kellenbach writes, “Cain’s success as a human being is measured by his ability to resist the impulse to bury, forget, and cut off the past.  Cain’s crime does not end his life.  He lives on and gets a second chance, but only because he does not erase the guilt of his past.”   
In order for new life to be a possibility for Cain, he could not continue to deny his own culpability.  He could not continue to evade the consequences of his actions by snidely responding to those who questioned him, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  In some respects, I think that Cain was marked by the violence he enacted against his brother even before God placed a visible mark upon him.  Trying to deny or hide or forget that mark would lead only to more violence and death.

Instead, God’s visible mark compels Cain to adopt a posture of radical truth-telling, which becomes the basis for his moral and spiritual recovery.  Cain’s new life as a husband, a father, and the founder of a city are lived out within the memory of his brother’s murder.  Von Kellenbach invites readers to imagine the conversations between Cain and his son, Enoch.  How does he explain the mark to Enoch?  What words does Cain use to account for the ever-present memory of his violent past?  How does Cain regain moral integrity and build a new life in the face of his brother’s murder?  These are all questions that invite us far beyond the text, but they are questions that become pertinent to the project of practicing resurrection through truth-telling.   

I am attracted to the story of Cain as a way to think about the legacy of Yoder’s abuse because so much of the discussion surrounding the issue has been focused on Yoder himself rather than his victims.  More often than not, these discussions have centered on questions about whether we can still use Yoder’s theology, or how long we have to continue talking about this before we can move on.  To me, this shows that we need a framework for thinking about what it means to practice resurrection in ways that include both the possibility of new life as well as deep accountability.  

Yoder died in 1997, yet even to the end he fought to hide the truth of his actions as a way of preserving his legacy.  There were seven different institutional processes aimed at Yoder’s rehabilitations and redemption, yet for too long they relied on narratives that came much closer to “forgive and forget” than anything that looked like true reconciliation.  This failure to mark Yoder through truth-telling and holding him accountable for his actions left the work of practicing resurrection to future generations.  Even though Yoder is gone, this work continues to be an important way for the institutions of the Church to commit themselves to dismantling all systems that contribute to abusive situations.

Thankfully, the institutions involved are beginning to take steps in this direction.  Sarah Wenger Shenk, the current president of the seminary where Yoder was affiliated for so long, recently wrote, “I’m committed to a new transparency in the truth-telling that must happen. We must strive to get the facts straight, to acknowledge healing work that has been done, and to shoulder the urgent healing work that must still be done.”  Part of this healing work involved a service of lament, confession, and commitment recently held at the seminary, which included a time for victim-survivors to walk the campus, collectively marking the places where they experienced abuse.  

In this truth-telling, these women were practicing resurrection by calling forth a commitment to new life in those places marked by death.  None of these steps toward resurrection would have been possible without the persistent and courageous willingness of these women to name their experiences and call the Church to accountability. 

Von Kellenbach closes her discussion on the story of Cain in a beautiful section that I would like to read at length:

“Cain lives among us.  He cannot be banished and deported, ostracized and incarcerated for the rest of his life.  He should not be abandoned and hidden behind veils of indifference.  We should not avert our eyes and reintegrate him by erasing the memory of his past.  The price for such “rehabilitation” is high.  It not only coerces the victims to forgive and to forget, but also paralyzes perpetrators in defensiveness and denial.  True reconciliation can only arise where the truth of the past can be born communally and across the chasm of hate and violence…Release from guilt is not the result of miraculous divine interventions but the fruit of faith in human beings’ ability to change and to embrace responsibility in the face of the suffering of others.”

The truth of the past must be born communally, across the chasm of hate and violence.  For Cain and Yoder and other perpetrators of violence, the truth of the past calls them to accountability as it moves them toward the possibility of new life.  For the victims of such violence and the communities left behind, the truth of the past calls them to see their scars not as marks of death but as signs that new life is possible.

In the reading from Luke, Jesus appears to his disciples after he has been raised from the dead and encourages them to look at his hands and his feet and see the scars.  I have always been intrigued by the idea that Jesus’ resurrected body still bears these marks, but the more I think about it, the more I find comfort in this.  This tells me that practicing resurrection does not mean that I have to pretend that I am someone I am not.  Claiming new life does not mean that I have somehow overcome all of the hurt and the pain that this world has to offer.  When we claim our scars not as marks of death but as marks of resurrection we allow the truth of our past to make possible the new life of the future. 

And so, my wish for you, my friends is:
– That we would be resolved to tear down any system that makes possible violence and abuse.
– That we would know that God is able to bring new life out of even our darkest nights.
– That we would allow the truth of the past to call us into this new life.
– And finally, that in every moment we would find the courage to practice resurrection.