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Resurrection is a movement: A call to recover the original Easter vision in an age of mass incarceration

I never really liked Easter – the pastel holiday of springtime flowers, the tired imagery of an emptied tomb, the hollow cheers of “He is risen” – until I had friends buried away in prisons.

It wasn’t until I spent time in a jail as a volunteer with people awaiting actual trials that Holy Week became troubling and electric for me.

And it wasn’t until some of the bodies of these people I loved were removed upon sentencing that I started visiting the immense tombs of our day, the “corrections centers” many miles outside our cities.

The entire New Testament saga came back to life for me the more I had relationships with the condemned of my community.

Think about it: the passion narrative that we read and rehash in our liturgies year after year, at the core of our Christian faith, is the story of an arrest, a standoff with police, a betrayal against the accused, a junk trial, a community’s fears and politics, public protests, a prosecution and sentencing without a defense, a public execution — and the roles that a religious community played in it all.

For all the sermons, movies and greeting cards about hope and empty tombs, how do we not recognize a glaringly dark criminal legal experience – and its undoing (resurrection) – at the very center of our faith?

This might be because many folks in middle-class churches today – and especially those preaching – rarely have had to interact with the arrested or those facing trial. We don’t have many friends sealed away in the tombs of our own time.

The original Easter morning, after all, was completely off the radar for most of the religious community. It was a quiet and unsettling surprise — only for those who drew near to the tombs, grieving their beloved on the other side of the stony walls. The tombs were a frightening place where post-trial bodies were stuffed in Jesus’ day, thrown out, away from the living.

The Easter story could not be more relevant, more needed, than in American society today. We have the world’s largest criminal punishment system of police, jails, courts, charges, more charges and an industry of prisons across every state where the bodies of the poor are stuffed away and packed in tight. Many are finally waking up to our societal sickness of mass incarceration; still, 2.2 million people – parents, children, siblings, friends – are locked up. To summarize what philosopher Lisa Guenther describes as the “social death” of incarceration in America: When you break the law, you are punished by being cut off from your children and loved ones, cut off from voting and all civic participation; you become a financial burden to any remaining friendship and to the taxpayer, a ghost threatening school boards and real estate developers should you ever return. You are dead. And the physical and legal walls around the convicted get thicker and thicker.

In a sense, Good Friday and Holy Saturday are every day in America. The tombs are full, and our communities grieve.

We need a resurrection movement today.

Recovering our roots

Michelle Alexander, the civil rights attorney who kicked off the last decade of anti-mass-incarceration organizing with her now-famous book The New Jim Crow, for years called for “a new underground railroad” — a new grassroots movement of networks within communities welcoming released prisoners home, out of their captivity, into a new future together. Then, after her years of traveling and speaking on the topic, Alexander decided to not return to her post in a law school but rather to develop this work within a seminary:

“This is not simply a legal problem, or a political problem, or a policy problem. At its core, America’s journey from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration raises profound moral and spiritual questions about who we are, individually and collectively, who we aim to become, and what we are willing to do now.”

Alexander knew we had to dig deeper, address our spiritual traditions and root imaginations as a prison culture.

During the very years Alexander shifted the movement’s conversation toward the seminary, my own prayer life shifted toward earlier Christian traditions. With so many men writing to me from solitary confinement cells, praying with me through prison letters, I wanted to connect them to what monks had learned in their chosen monastery cells for centuries. Their friendship from the graves led me to Benedictine, then Trappist, then Eastern Orthodox monasteries across the country where I was spellbound by this image.

For the first thousand years of Christian history, before the Roman West broke with the East, this – and many similar variations – was the shared, essential, most common icon of the faith: the Anastasis, the Resurrection.

You might notice it’s different, radically different, from what we in the West have inherited since that split. There’s a larger social and cosmic imagination here, more than just Jesus slipping out of one burial cave on a Sunday morning. In this vision, Jesus lifts others out of the tombs. Matthew’s Gospel describes not only the Temple structure and dividing curtains ripping open when Jesus descended into death, but “the earth shook, rocks split apart, and the tombs opened” (27:51-52), and an instant breakout of formerly dead men and women were freed into the world, returning to their friends and family. In the icon, that’s Adam and Eve rising with Christ, representing all humanity who have been lost to shadow and death. In Scripture and in this first-century icon, Christ’s death and resurrection crack open the entire domain of death – the opened underworld – for a new future together.

Now look closer. What’s all that debris in the darkness below? Yes, those are locks and keys and chains. For the early church, death was a lockdown realm, a spiritual existence of captivity, a prison-like fortress. For the early Christian imagination, such instruments of incarceration are exposed, shattered and scattered by the resurrection.

Go ahead and Google “resurrection icon.” You’ll see there are endless iterations of this theme. Pick another one. They all have those crossed rectangles beneath Jesus’ feet. Most Protestants can’t easily name them. Can you?

Those are the gates of Hades. Though we don’t hear about them in church as much these days, they were central imagery to Jesus when he founded his ekklesia on earth:

“Upon this rock [Peter, a tough and stubborn human being, a growing relationship — not a piece of real estate] I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

We become what we worship

For centuries, we’ve missed this verse and Jesus’ imagination for his movement.

How many times have we heard this verse inverted, where Peter is cast as the bouncer at the pearly gates — as if his and our job were to gatekeep who enters into heaven? But it’s the gates of Hades – the locked realm of the dead – that Jesus charges Peter and all his followers to invade with him. Jesus described a downward divine movement, where we join heaven’s descending mission on earth and continue downward together: conquering the gates of hell itself. The barriers of death and separation can’t stop us, can’t keep us out. What a gorgeous and liberating rally cry that is!

But we inherited a sad reversal of the dream.

Northern European scholars, caught up in their own politics and kingdom-building for centuries, flipped the early church’s radiant story back into a more typical human arrangement. God was cast as the ruler of this world (Jesus repeatedly assigned that title to the Evil One), an all-controlling sovereign who enforced cosmic “justice” with the creation, threat and maintenance of an eternal Hell — where, according to most versions of this tradition, a good many of history’s souls will end up suffering in anguish, darkness and separation. Such a logic of punishment and confinement is still referred to as “divine justice” in Western theological debates. This is a Department of Corrections God we have fashioned and worshipped.

It should not surprise us, then, that a nation founded in variations of this European religion quickly made itself mighty using a system of captivity and human slavery — a nation that has now built, blessed and normalized the largest system of punishment and imprisonment in the history of human civilization. As many Reformed theologians have said, we become what we worship.

So if we are to undo the expansive Hades system we’ve built today, we need to recover the radical roots of our faith. It’s right there in the original Anastasis icons: the early church worshipped not a mighty warden, but a humble prison break leader.

In recent years, I’ve stepped into Eastern Orthodox churches and monasteries for their all-night Easter vigils. I’ve been enchanted – sometimes to tears – to hear ancient litanies celebrating Christ’s descent among the dead, to be caught in an incense-thick swarm of worshippers all chanting through the dark hours of Holy Saturday about Christ’s loving abolition of hell, shouting together, over and over and over again:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down Death by death
And upon those in the grave bestowing Life!

Practice resurrection

Philip, his family, and his One Parish One Prisoner team for the first time together after Philips’ release at First Presbyterian Church in Bellingham, Washington. Photo submitted by author.

This kind of celebration moves me because for 17 years, I’ve driven across long, rainy stretches of the Pacific Northwest’s evergreen forests and ferries, coastlines and high plateaus to visit remote detention centers, barbed-wire camps and immense maximum-security facilities. I pass through dungeon-like walls, heavy automated doors, metal detectors, wardens offices, and lockdown units — all to visit and pray with men in tan pants and white Velcro shoes who live within these containers. Many prison ministers, volunteers, chaplains and programs are dedicated to such work around the country, thankfully. This is a sacramental “descent into Hades”: entering these fortresses, these tombs, pursuing those who are dead to society with the love and friendship of God in Christ — in us.

But ask anyone involved in “prison ministry” about what’s needed, and aside from the challenges of navigating the prison system (the gates of Hades are thick), you will hear something like, “I wish we could offer something to these amazing people when they get out. We don’t have much of a reentry solution.”

Even when the actual prison gate groans open one bleak morning for the millions of people who will eventually be released, they still face immense legal barriers to jobs, rentals, banks and driver’s licenses due to felony records that follow them — essentially locking them out of the land of the living. Many loving prison program volunteers aren’t even allowed to contact these folks once they’re “out.” The gates of Hades are thick.

The most vulnerable community members we’ve thrown away due to their sins (crimes) and sicknesses (mental health struggles, trauma, addiction, orphan-like childhoods) are stuck in a kind of civic underworld. They find ways to survive with old street contacts, making money in the underground economy, and eventually get arrested and sucked right back down into the bowels of the courts and buried in another facility.

After years of watching our beloved siblings come alive in our jail Bible studies or grow in hope through our long-distance prison visits and exchange of letters only to suffocate under these reentry barriers, a group of prison chaplains and volunteers founded Underground Ministries in Washington State to help communities open the underworld and enact the resurrection icon as a social option.

Look at that icon again: Jesus does not just welcome his beloved out of the tombs, but they blend and integrate into a wider community, the land of the living.

Joe Ray in the prison visiting room with his One Parish One Prisoner team friends Sarah and Madeline. Photo submitted by author.

With our growing One Parish One Prisoner program, we help churches across America – from downtown Catholic basilicas to suburban Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations, from queer-affirming Lutheran home groups to conservative evangelical megachurches – connect with one person in prison who’s released to their town, build relationships of mutual transformation and reentry planning, and so practice resurrection.

This fall, the Outlook has planned an entire issue dedicated to the many ways congregations and communities engage the tombs of the prison system in America. In this upcoming issue, we at Underground Ministries will be back to share more about how our One Parish One Prisoner program follows the story of Lazarus’ resurrection as a blueprint for parish teams: to draw near to the tombs, enter Jesus’ friendship with someone inside, “roll away the stones” of local reentry barriers and together “unbind” each other from all that disguises our shared need and beauty as bearers of God’s image. The “How-to” is on its way.

For now, let this be a new kind of Easter manifesto. With a blessing:

With each Resurrection Day that passes, may our churches and homes be filled with more of these icons, more prison letters from new friends read from the pulpit, more parishioners telling their own stories of addiction and shame, mental health struggle and domestic violence recovery.

May we become a fresh movement of resurrection communities in a “post-church” America — who creatively look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

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