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Who will roll the stone away?

by Hope S. Antone

Hope S. Antone is the Joint Executive Secretary for CCA Faith Mission and Evangelism. This article appeared previously on CCA News.

Jesus did not come simply to die on the cross for us (that is simply suicidal). Rather, Jesus’ death was the result of the strong opposition from the powers that be to what he came here for: to initiate and demonstrate a movement towards fullness of life in the reign of God.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. [Mark 16:1-4, NIV]

“Who will roll the stone away?” This question seems to carry a note of helplessness and despair that seemed to have engulfed the women disciples. Yes, I call them disciples because they had faithfully followed Jesus, helping him in his ministry and providing their resources (Luke 8:3). They must have been there to keep vigil until he breathed his last on the cross. In order to carry out the custom of anointing the dead body of their dearly beloved teacher and friend with spices, these women went to the tomb early morning after Sabbath, not knowing how they could even get to the body—for the entrance to the tomb was tightly sealed.

The tomb of Jesus was sealed in three ways. One, through a large stone rolled against the tomb. Normally stone covers for tombs weighed somewhere between 1-1/2 to 2 tons or 1,361 to 1,814 kg., so levers had to be used to move them.

Two, through the Roman guard unit stationed at the tomb. Normally a guard unit consisted of four soldiers. These Roman guards were strictly disciplined fighting men who knew that failure on duty was punishable by death, torture and other humiliating methods.

Three, through the Roman seal affixed to the stone. This seal symbolized the power and authority of the Roman Empire. Moving the stone from the tomb’s entrance would have broken the seal, thereby deserving automatic execution by crucifixion upside down.

The gospel accounts in Mark, Luke and John do not include a description of how the stone was rolled away and who was responsible for it. They simply mention that the stone had been rolled away. Only Matthew’s account mentions a severe earthquake and that an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, rolled away the stone and sat on it.

Who will roll the stone away? Where Jesus’ death was concerned, the stone had already been rolled away. He is not dead but alive! Let us not look for him among the dead for he is among the living.

What does this message mean for the many people who are suffering in Asia, especially for Asian women who continue to face the heavy stone of oppression which is often justified by our Asian cultures and religions?

The church’s traditional theology states ‘that the death of Jesus atoned for human sin, saved the world, and is the model of loving self-sacrifice.’ This atonement theology underpins the common advice to victims of abuse and violence: “Just bear your pain; it is nothing compared to the pain suffered by Christ on our behalf;” or “Never mind if you suffer now (or that you are poor and deprived now) for you will be greatly rewarded in heaven.” If not other people’s advice, the suffering victims themselves have been taught to rationalize and make a self-judgment: “I must have done something wrong or bad to deserve this suffering.”

Theology that keeps women and other marginalized people under the yoke of oppression is not a liberating theology. Any theology that is not liberating falls short of Jesus’ purpose to bring fullness of life to all. Any theology that reinforces oppression falls short of the biblical affirmation that women and men are created in the image of God. It is therefore important to critically revisit some of our theological affirmations. One of the most problematic theological affirmations we have is on atonement, which seems to glorify or romanticize suffering. As the verse in “How Great Thou Art” goes:

And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing; Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in; That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin.

If this is so, there seems to be something suicidal about Jesus’ death: that God sent him to die? That Jesus was gladly bearing my sin? Now really I scarce can take that in.

The concept of atonement is rooted in the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) during which the high priest offered a sacrifice of atonement for the forgiveness of Israel’s sins (see Leviticus 16). That idea has been adopted and “Christianized” by applying it to Jesus’ death on the cross. The difference is that in our Christianized version, Jesus, the holiest and highest priest, did not only offer an animal sacrifice but his very own life as atonement for sinful people.

Why would a supposedly loving and just God, who is the source and giver of life, demand the offering of life? Why would God want to be appeased by a sacrifice of life? What makes this loving and just God blood-thirsty? Is it really through Christ’s dying on the cross that we are saved from sin? How can that make sense to the many women in Asia who continue to suffer from the yoke of oppression?

Theological affirmations that are related to the notion of atonement help to make us feel guilty or remorseful about our sinfulness; and therefore to be grateful for Jesus’ sacrifice for our sake. But what about our being sinned-against as women and other marginalized groups in Asia?

Instead of focusing on atonement alone, it is very important to link the death and resurrection of Christ with the very reason for his coming to the world. Jesus did not come simply to die on the cross for us (that is simply suicidal). Rather, Jesus’ death was the result of the strong opposition from the powers that be to what he came here for: to initiate and demonstrate a movement towards fullness of life in the reign of God.

In this context, it is not enough to understand salvation only from the traditional perspective of the sinner; it should also be seen from the perspective of the sinned-against: the marginalized and oppressed peoples in Asia whose oppression is not a fault of their own but of structures and systems, including cultures and religions that are so patriarchal and hierarchical. By oppressed I mean the suffering Asian women, poor, indigenous people, the disabled, people of different sexual orientation, lower castes, to name a few. For them, a more hopeful and helpful emphasis of Christ’s salvific act is on his having come “that they might have life in its fullness” (John 10:10).

It is important to understand the cross, on the one hand, as a reminder of the human capacity to sin, to abuse and victimize others, and to defile the sacred. But it is not completely true that Jesus the Christ was, on the cross, gladly bearing our burden. We remember his pain and agony, his tears and blood.

We can also look at the cross as God’s statement that just as Jesus died once and for all, no one deserves to suffer anymore injustice, discrimination, or oppression. Moreover, we can look at the cross as a symbol of the human ability to take risks for a higher cause—that of claiming our God-given right to fullness of life and of making that available for others as well. The offering of life in solidarity with all who hunger for justice and a fuller life always involves risks. Like Jesus, we who follow his way knowingly take the risks, not with the hope of dying, but with the hope of bringing about the better and fuller life that all deserve to have.

Who will roll the stone away? The stone of oppression that keeps women and other vulnerable groups in a dehumanized position remains entrenched till today. It is well guarded by patriarchal cultural traditions and sealed by religious teachings or justifications. But through Asian feminist theologizing, many women and also some conscientized men are gently but firmly chipping this gigantic stone. In Asia we say that together, women and men can and must roll this stone away. When we ask, “Who will roll the stone away?” we are inviting others to join us.