After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he* lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead,* and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
Compared to the extended dramatic tension found in the Gospel according to John, Matthew’s resurrection account may strike the reader as abrupt. But what Matthew lacks in suspense, he makes up for with power and grandeur.
Before even discovering an empty tomb, our two Marys are struck not only by an earthquake, but by a great earthquake (μέγας σεισμὸς)! These violent tremors and deafening sounds are accompanied by an equally unsettling image of an angel of the Lord, descending in an appearance “like lightning.” “Do not be afraid,” the angel declares. The dead body that these women sought was not there. Something unprecedented had occurred.
On March 17th 2011, Ahmed Jan sat together with approximately twenty other men in a Jirga, a government-sanctioned communal decision-making process common to Northern Waziristan. Without warning he heard “the hissing sound” of at least two Hellfire missiles, mere seconds before they struck the Jirga, killing approximately forty-two people, mostly civilians. The force of the blast, Jan stated, threw his “body a significant distance, knocking him unconscious, and killing everyone else sitting in his circle” [International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Law School) and Global Justice Clinic (NYU School of Law), Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan (September 2012), 56-57].
Violent shaking, blinding brilliance, descending from above in a flash like lightning—there remains a disconcerting parallel between our first Easter and the brutality of contemporary warfare. With increasing global tensions and the expansion of US bombing in Syria to include Assad regime targets, it is imperative that the ostensible analogy between the manifestation of divine glory and all-too-human violence be interrogated. Said otherwise, what can an Easter earthquake teach us about state violence?
The image of the earthquake runs throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Earthquakes function in a variety of roles—historically situating events (Amos 1:1), punishing sedition (Numbers 16) and communal injustice (Amos 9), symbolizing God’s power (Habakkuk 3.6), and even centering laments of God’s seeming indifference (Psalm 60). And while it is undeniable that the great earthquake of this first Easter marks the advent of the glory of God—in the form of an angelic visitor—it is perhaps within another scriptural tradition that this quake can most easily be understood.
Following the traumatic exile to Babylon of the southern Kingdom of Judah (6thc. BCE), there emerged a literary tradition of resistance and hope that has become known as apocalyptic literature. Remarkable for its vivid imagery—great beasts and dragons, angelic champions and fiery destruction—this stunning literature regularly calls upon the image of the earthquake.
In Isaiah 24, an earthquake marks the coming divine judgment of the earth: “the foundations of the earth tremble. The earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken. The earth staggers like a drunkard” (Isaiah 24.18-19). In Ezekiel 38, an earthquake marks the destruction of the symbolic Gog of Magog: “in my blazing wrath I declare: On that day there shall be a great shaking, in the land of Israel” (Ezekiel 38.19).
For this literary tradition, the earthquake symbolizes an ultimate moment of socio-historical reorganization—a moment wherein the powers of oppression and injustice are set upon by a divine judgment. We have a helpful figure of speech in English that marks precisely these sorts of moments: the “seismic shift” (σεισμὸς, seismos = earthquake). It is this apocalyptic tradition of seismic change that informs the teachings of Jesus and the imagery of Matthew.
We can already see this apocalyptic imagery in Jesus’ famous “Olivet Discourse” (Matthew 24). This sermon draws together anticipations of the destruction of the temple, images from the apocalyptic visions of Daniel 7, and visions of eschatological judgment: the world, Jesus says, will be struck with war, famine, and “earthquakes in various places.” (Matthew 24.7-8).
Likewise, Matthew marks Jesus’ death with an earthquake: “then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.… The earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27.50-51). In each instance an earthquake marks an event of world-changing consequence; they symbolize a moment of cataclysmic (or seismic) change.
What then distinguishes this glory of God from the violence of the modern state? Is it not the case that the earthquake, like the drone-strike, carries with it a destructive force, a shocking capacity for violence? To untangle this question it will be necessary to return to our first Easter.
The sheer shock of the angelic appearance plunges everyone involved into a state of horror. But the reactions are not univocal. While the ostensibly hardened soldiers guarding the tomb are rendered unconscious “like dead men” by the sheer terror of the situation, the women remain shaken, but unmoved.
It could be tempting to relegate this difference to the fortitudinous character of the women; strengthened as they certainly would be by a life under foreign occupation. But such a move may miss the symbolic power of this moment, the symbolic power not only of an Easter earthquake, but perhaps of the resurrection itself.
The revelation of the resurrection is marked by the incapacity of these soldiers, the impotence of the powers of oppression. In this way, our Easter earthquake reveals the profundity of resurrection hope. The resurrection not only marks the finitude of death in a metaphysical sense, but perhaps more directly, it marks the finitude of those powers which employ death in the maintenance of systems of violence and destruction. The resurrection issues a definitive “No!” to oppressive regimes of state violence.
It is here that we can return to a March 17th 2011. That which marks the decisive difference between the apocalyptic terror of an Easter earthquake and the existential terror of state-violence is their respective orientations toward structures of violence and repression.
The violence of state power brings only escalating violence and terror—as is marked for example by the devastating instability of Iraq and Syria since the 2003 US invasion, and the subsequent refugee crisis. The Easter earthquake, on the other hand, offers a resurrection hope wherein the powers of oppression are “shook” to their core.
What the resurrection and its earthquake promise is an egalitarian reorientation, wherein hierarchies of oppression are levelled, and “the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful” are brought together with the “slave” (Revelation 6.15). The great earthquake of Easter Sunday stands as a reminder to Christians that the hope of the resurrection is always the hope of a seismic shift, a hope in the possibility of a world-historical change.
In the ensuing months, American Christians will inevitably be called to offer our stamp of approval on state violence, to offer ethical and religious justifications for violence and aggression. As these calls inevitably arise, may the dawning sun of Easter morning remind us of our resurrection hope for a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, a new socio-political order. May it remind us that we have been called to offer a new way of being together as people. May something truly unprecedented occur.
J. Leavitt Pearl is a PhD candidate at Duquesne University, and adjunct professor at St. Vincent College, currently completing a dissertation on the phenomenology and theology of the sexual body.