The late Vincent Harding, an African-American scholar and civil rights activist with Mennonite connections, recounted a visit to Guatemala to witness the turmoil and suffering of its oppressed indigenous people. There he crossed paths with the writer and activist Julia Esquivel, who said of an encounter with government enforcers, “They threatened us with the Resurrection,” a refrain embedded in her poem of the same name.
This assertion, arising from fierce love and devotion, vividly captures elements of Paul’s prison story told in the opening stanzas of his letter to the Philippians. There is in both accounts a palpable sense of menace: the awareness of frailty in the face of hostile state power, the real possibility of personal extinction.
That much is perfectly ordinary, experienced daily by those who struggle for justice against cruel odds. What is extraordinary in Esquivel’s witness is the whiplash of her last image: Resurrection. What awaits is not primarily sword, not torture, not public disgrace and isolation, but Resurrection.
This is the confession at the heart of Martyrs Mirror and the larger treasury of such faith stories: “They threatened us with the Resurrection.”
Julia Esquivel and those who walk in that train — including Vincent and Rosemarie Harding — are cut from the same fabric as St. Paul. They find in their troubles more than discomfort and danger. They see those troubles aligned with a grander purpose, which runs true and sure to its end.
This perspective alters the significance of the troublesome elements in each story. Consider Paul’s specific circumstances, as described in Philippians 1:
— He is in shackles but exudes joy and confidence.
— His lot spells disgrace, but he writes with dignity and assurance.
— Treated unjustly, he declines to lash out or blame others.
— To some he is an embarrassment, but he is burdened with no shame.
— He stands accused of crimes, but he is an agent of peace and hope.
— Deprived of common comfort and company, he exhibits contentment.
— He faces death, yet his concern is for the welfare of others.
— His prospects may be dim, but he perceives the advance of the gospel.
Such is the imprint of the Resurrection on trying human circumstances.
When leaders of the Anabaptist Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia were thrown into prison by the Mengistu regime in the 1980s, they turned their detention cells and camps into buoyant churches. The authorities set them free, fearing what the Resurrection might do to enemies of the state.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer turned his Nazi prison into a hush-hollow of sacrament and strength.
Joe Seremane, friend of Mennonites in the bad old days of apartheid in South Africa, found himself flooded with compassion for his abusers even as they accosted him at night in a Pretoria torture chamber.
The Lesabea twins, prophetic voices among indigenous churches in southern Africa, alarmed their apartheid jailers when they organized prisoners in Mafeking into a school of gospel justice, earning them hasty release from detention.
Such are the effects when they threaten us with the Resurrection.
Left there, these would be stories of heroic faith. But Paul wants his readers to know the fountainhead from which such Resurrection effects arise. That story is told in lyric form: the famous Christ hymn in Phil. 2:5-11.
And the arc of that story has a familiar pattern — a descent from security into humility, into bitter suffering and then beyond, to release and adulation. The threat of Resurrection.
Here is the template from which all the other Resurrection stories, Paul’s and ours included, arise.
Those inextricably linked Resurrection stories — the story of Jesus and those of his followers — are hinged by this appeal: “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel” (1:27).
You see, they threatened us with the Resurrection.
Now writing and leading retreats, Jonathan Larson of Atlanta has wandered the globe as storyteller, service worker, teacher and pastor. He blogs on the spirituality of travel at jonathanlarsonblog.com.