Jesus wept

On Monday evening, at Donald Trump’s final campaign rally before the election, Donald Trump, Jr declared, ‘Let’s make liberals cry again!’ Of course, this is a play on the worn-out ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan, but with an added twist!

The narrative peddled by Donald Trump and company is that the United States is an inherently conservative nation and the so-called ‘liberals’ are pedantic outliers and sore losers, and that these people actually hate America. In reality, it can be argued that the United States is a ‘liberal’ nation. Do you find that difficult to believe? Here are some figures:

Perhaps one might believe that these polls cannot be trusted. Granted, polls like these always have margins of error, but it cannot be denied that a large swathe of the American population supports policies that are associated with liberal ideals. This 2020 election is a very tangible demonstration of the fact that the United States is not wholly one position or the other with regard to the narrow spectrum represented by ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ labels in the country. This matters because, in expressing a desire for liberals to ‘cry again’, Donald Trump, Jr is making clear that the Trump campaign is not in the business of uniting the United States. This isn’t news — Donald Trump’s disparaging views regarding anyone who disagrees with him are well-established.

Donald Trump paints himself as the voice of ‘true America’. He speaks of how good he has been for women and people of colour, but the poll numbers seem quite clear and these demographics have expressed their verdict. By and large, women and people of colour do not believe that another Donald Trump presidential term would benefit their interests. A side note – if you feel the need to retweet when the odd woman or person of colour expresses their admiration for you, you might be a sexist and a racist.

With regard to the desire to ‘make liberals cry again’—beyond it being but one example of serial juvenile bullying from the Trump camp—I feel the need to express that this is not a Christian view. (I relate this to faith since Donald Trump, Jr has expressed that liberals hate Church.) From a more neutral perspective, perhaps it is possible to say that there is no virtue in wishing for (or taking pleasure in) the sorrow or misfortune of others.

This morning, I spent some time reflecting on the story of someone crying, namely (as this blog post’s title suggests), Jesus of Nazareth.

In the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, Jesus is walking around Palestine, upsetting the powerful and empowering the poor — you know, as he does. At the beginning of the 11th chapter, Jesus and his disciples are out in the wilderness, east of the River Jordan, where his cousin John had been baptising people. While he is there, he receives a notification from some of his friends, the sisters Mary and Martha. They inform him that their brother, Lazarus, is very unwell. They do this in a very intimate way, writing, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ Mary and Martha assume that Jesus, who had demonstrated this specific power at other times (especially in 9.1-12), is able to make Lazarus well again, but for them, time is of the essence.

Perhaps unusually, Jesus does not rush to their aid. He states, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ (11.4). The Gospel continues: ‘Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.’ (11.5-6).

To provide a little geographical context, Jesus is probably in a place called Bethany (‘Bethany Beyond the Jordan’, 1.21; modern-day Al-Maghtas, Jordan). Mary, Martha and Lazarus are in another Bethany (modern-day Al-Eizariya, Palestine) just outside of Jerusalem. As the crow flies, the two are about 60 kilometres (approximately 38 miles), or a day’s journey from each other. Therefore, when Jesus and his disciples finally reach Mary and Martha, it is likely that four days had elapsed since the sisters’ message was sent.

When he reaches Bethany, he is first approached by Martha who expresses, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ (11.21-22). Here, Martha is demonstrating an immense amount of faith, believing that this man somehow possesses the ability to heal people.

Some might discredit this sort of belief in ancient times because it is assumed that people back then were somehow more superstitious or gullible. But just as this sort of healing is not something that happens in our present experience (speaking generally – I have my beliefs, but I cannot discredit others’ experiences), in the same way, it was not something that happened in their ancient experience.

Martha entertains the possibility of some other demonstration of Jesus’ power, but doesn’t seem to be able to put the specific words together: ‘Jesus, I know you can raise him from the dead.’ Maybe she wanted to say that. She was in a desperate situation and in desperation people can be open to a whole range of possibilities that would have otherwise been impossibilities. In her grief, maybe she just can’t accept that this ‘avoidable’ death is here to stay.

Up to this point in the narrative, Jesus is demonstrating a degree of nonchalance that makes others uncomfortable. He speaks of God’s glory and God’s power to do the extraordinary, but those around him seem more concerned with immediate action. When Mary finally catches up with him, she falls at his feet and says, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (11.32). Whatever modicum of faith that Martha had expressed in the open-ended suggestion that God will give Jesus whatever he asks, Mary’s devastation stops her faith at the former statement: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ Mary shows a large degree of faith, but that faith is somehow incomplete.

Mary breaks down in tears and is surrounded by a company of mourners, all weeping. The Gospel states, ‘When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.’ (11.33) He is then shown Lazarus’ tomb and begins to weep (11.35). This verse (translated historically as the supposed shortest verse in the Bible, ‘Jesus wept’), has been interpreted by many as a demonstration of Jesus’ compassion, empathy and grief. Indeed, the mourners with Mary seem to share this understanding when they look at Jesus and say, ‘See how he loved [Lazarus]!’ (11.36).

I am not suggesting that Jesus is lacking in compassion, empathy or grief, but I believe that the cause of his particular grief in this episode is not over the death of Lazarus. Jesus does love Lazarus, but all throughout the chapter he has demonstrated no urgency. He is not concerned about reaching Lazarus before his death. When he is approached by Martha, he explains calmly that this is not the end for Lazarus.

Why would Jesus then cry for the man he knew he was going to raise from the dead in a matter of moments? My argument is that he would not. Instead, it is his observation of Mary’s response that causes him to break down. The oddity of interpreting Jesus’ weeping as grief for Lazarus is highlighted in the very text. Among the mourners, some are inconsolable, while others see Jesus weeping and question, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ (11.37). These individuals are perplexed at the incongruity between Jesus’ power and his perceived powerlessness.

If Jesus was not weeping for Lazarus, why then was he weeping? At the very least, I believe the text demonstrates that he was weeping because these people believed that while he was able to heal a blind man (9.1-12) and while he might have been able to keep Lazarus from dying, Lazarus’ death was, for all intents and purposes, game over. Jesus was aware of what was about to transpire. While he was still at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, he said to his disciples, ‘For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.’ (11.15). Even his disciples did not yet believe he was able to do anything about Lazarus’ death. This is evidenced by Thomas’ follow-up, demonstrating an understanding that a return to Judea would bring about their own deaths at the hands of the authorities (11.16).

When looking at the whole of the Fourth Gospel, one can find a wide range of things that would disturb Jesus more than this incident in Bethany. For example, he would have known that Thomas was right, to some extent: a move toward Jerusalem would be a move closer to his death at the hands of the authorities. In the section immediately following the raising of Lazarus, some observers see this impossible act and report to the religious leaders, who continue in their plot to have Jesus killed. Therefore, it is possible to see that Jesus was also grieving for the challenges ahead. If his followers did not entertain the possibility that he could raise Lazarus from the dead, what hope would they have when it came to Jesus’ own death? I believe that this is why Jesus wept.

Throughout my reflection on John 11, I have thought about the words of Donald Trump, Jr. ‘Let’s make liberals cry again!’ While the Trump campaign might assume that liberals will cry because of the overwhelming victory for conservative America, ‘true America’, I posit two alternative reasons.

I wouldn’t like to call myself a ‘liberal’, though I can see how a lazy assessment and pigeon-holing of my beliefs might lead some to the conclusion that I am a liberal. (Others might feel the need to place me in the ‘conservative’ camp due to my beliefs in a divine being and in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus.) But whoever wins this election, I may weep.

In case you weren’t sure, I shall now put my ‘cards on the table’.

If this presidential election goes to Joe Biden, I may weep with joy because of the end of a sustained assault on the basic humanity of the country of my birth perpetrated by an individual and the poisonous social climate he has helped to propagate. I may weep with joy because I will be able to wake up in the morning and not worry about the onslaught of misinformation and abuse tweeted by the Commander-in-Chief and analysed by seemingly every news source in the world. Don’t get me wrong — a President Biden would have every opportunity to disappoint and deceive. The difference is that I believe that Joe Biden represents a very different, far more dignified, diplomatic and fair ideology, one in which the cry of the oppressed will have more opportunities to be heard in the halls of power. For these reasons and many more, I may weep with joy.

If this election goes to Donald Trump, I may weep for very different reasons.

Last night, while I was languishing in election results at 04.00 GMT, I was following alongside one of my brothers who lives in California. I had told myself that I wouldn’t stay up: ‘There’s no point. We won’t know the results for a week.’ But with so much riding on this presidential election, I gave in.

Earlier in the evening, I told my brother that I would ‘eat my hat if Trump wins Texas’. I thought it unlikely, but I began to entertain the idea of making a hat out of bread and consuming it. The light-heartedness persisted, but by 04.00, it had come mask my growing anxiety. My wee brother—though we probably occupy somewhat different political positions—offered consolation, because he is a sweetheart. He told me that he was sorry for the direction of the results. In response, I told him something along the lines of:

Don’t be sorry for me. Be sorry for the hundreds of thousands who will die because of Donald Trump’s pandemic policies. Be sorry for the hundreds of children who are separated from their parents and are forced to live in camps. Be sorry for people with pre-existing conditions who will have their healthcare stripped. Be sorry for the blacks who will keep suffering oppression under a government that doesn’t believe in institutional racism. Be sorry for the people who will keep losing their homes and their lives due to climate change. Be sorry for the poor who are only getting poorer. Be sorry for a lot of other people, but not for me.

I admit that I am somewhat embarrassed by the dramatic tone, but this election is not about mere personal preferences. I believe that people’s lives are in the balance. I am heartbroken by the growing chasm between political factions. I will not weep because am a ‘snowflake’, nor will I weep because I am ‘liberal’. I may weep with anguish because I believe a better world is possible and I am of the conviction that a second presidential term for Donald Trump would be another step in the wrong direction. For these reasons and many more, I may weep with anguish.

As for now, we are all in that place of waiting. Are we waiting for Lazarus to die or are we waiting for Lazarus to be raised again? We shall see.

Lord have mercy.

Author: Elijah

Currently, I am a PhD student at New College, the University of Edinburgh, where my research focusses on liberation theology and semiotics. In 2016, I received a PhD in Theology & Art from St Mary’s College, the University of St Andrews. I reside in the west of Scotland with my canine flatmate, Karl Bark.

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