This article was originally written in December 2015. It was commissioned as part of a project called 9Beats – to creatively retell the Beatitudes for contemporary situations of injustice. I had the chance to ‘perform’ it to the original Nine Beats Collective, an improbable assortment of artsists from all over the world when we met in February 2016 in an equally improbably location – an old Catholic monastary at the top of a steep hill in Malibu, LA. The song with the title ‘Blessed Are The Undead’, performed by Heatherlyn, was on the 9Beats double-album, with my translation of the Beatitudes (below) as the lyrics.
The opening scene of The Walking Dead culminates in a police officer shooting a little girl in the head. There was no one else around, and she only approached him slowly. But with one half of her face missing and that look in her eyes it’s easy to understand why he did it.
Zombie stories tap into something primal within us. The fear we experience is not primarily due to gruesome injuries or freakish eyeballs; it’s something much deeper than that. It’s the spectre of the undead that haunts us. We all love to hate death, but once it stops playing by the rules and people who die aren’t really dead we lose a fundamental power over the world. This is why a policeman shoots a little girl in the head from close range. The alternative is too terrifying.
The image of the little zombie girl and the tall, armed police officer reveals why the spectre of the undead is so vital to us. It opens us to the haunting reality that we would prefer to kill and be done with. That our power and privilege has victims. That whatever we do to ignore them and seal off the dark places, those victims slowly advance on our consciousness, demanding our recognition.
I don’t know about you but I’m a haunted house, fending off zombies every day.
Matthew’s Gospel is probably the most widely-known zombie apocalypse of all time. Although weirdly most people pretend it isn’t one.
The story is, of course, a kind of biography about Jesus – his birth, life and death. Near the end (SPOILER) Jesus gets killed, and at that moment all kinds of freakish stuff happens. The sky goes dark, there’s an earthquake, and dead people wander out of their tombs and into Jerusalem!
Who are they off to haunt? The Roman guards are the ones who freak out first. They are the powerful ones after all. Instantly their Centurion goes weak-kneed and proclaims that Jesus was the Son of God, which is basically tantamount to defecting the army since that’s the title claimed by Caesar. I like to think they also paid a visit on the Temple Sanhedrin, the powerful religious figures who took out the contract on Jesus’ life. The undead threaten the powerful most.
But what do they threaten them with? Are they infected with some virus which will destroy all of humankind? Do they seek living souls on which to feed? Or is that classic zombie plot-line a metaphor for the deeper truth of the walking dead: that until there is justice, there will be ghosts that haunt and maim and menace the present order of the world.
Could that be the meaning of the Resurrection?
Three years earlier, Jesus had climbed up a mountain many miles further North, away from the city in the heart of the revolutionary region called Galilee. He’d gone to get away from the large crowds and speak to his disciples in what has come to be known, rather grandly, as the Sermon on the Mount. To begin, he pulls out some stunning words that have haunted the world ever since. They’ve been called The Beatitudes and they go a little something like…
Actually hang on… Let me set them up first. I want to say why the normal translations don’t really work, and why they should be understood as an invocation for ghosts.
So we need to track back to the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. Before the familiar stories of Jesus’ birth there’s a little family tree, called a ‘genealogy’, which lists descendants from Abraham all the way down to Joseph, the husband of Jesus’ mother, Mary. It’s a bit dull, to be honest; it’s the sort of thing Tolkien insisted on including in The Lord of the Rings to create a sense of history when really you just want to read about orcs and elves and hobbits. But it achieves a different thing here, because the genealogy is basically a whistle-stop tour of the Old Testament. There’s three parts: Abraham to King David; King David to the Exile; and the Exile to Jesus – which is a pretty good summary of how the Old Testament story is structured.
After the genealogy we get into the stories of Jesus’ birth, which is the first part of an extended prologue. There’s the bit about Mary getting pregnant even though she was a virgin. Then there’s the bit about Jesus being born in Bethlehem where the Magi visited him. And then there’s the bit about how Mary, Joseph and Jesus have to flee to Egypt as refugees because King Herod goes on a power-crazed baby-killing spree. (If you’re wondering where the heartless innkeeper and the shepherds are, they’re in Luke’s Gospel.)
The thing that most people miss is that these three stories are direct parallels with the three main moments of the genealogy. The big story for Abraham is having a son when he was really old and he and his wife, Sarah, couldn’t have children, and Abraham’s miracle-child is matched by the miracle-child of a virgin birth. The birthplace of Israel’s hero-King David was also Bethlehem, and Jesus is visited in Bethlehem by foreign leaders who pay him homage as a ‘king of the Jews’. And the Exile to Babylon and subsequent Return was described as a ‘second Exodus’, because it was like coming out of Egypt all over again. Jesus has to flee in exile to Egypt and then return again to the Promised Land. The first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel are an astonishing work of fan-fiction, riffing on the whole Old Testament narrative to drive at one overwhelming conclusion: that Jesus is the Messiah, the one Israel had been waiting for, the fulfilment of the whole story-so-far.
‘Messiah’ is one of those words we think we know. But in ancient Israel it had a very different meaning to the one we use today. It literally meant ‘anointed one’, which is a religious term for a rightful king. In practice, living in a place ruled by Rome, it meant revolutionary.
That’s the context into which Jesus is born. Foreign occupation, harsh and often violent oppression (both military and economic), loss of freedom, and – most importantly – a powerful, theological case for self-rule. It’s a revolutionary melting-pot in which the Roman authorities tolerated an uneasy truce with the Jewish Temple establishment in Jerusalem, and crushed periodic rebellions underfoot, crucifying (literally) those who defied Caesar. In fact, by the time Matthew writes his Gospel (a few decades after Jesus’ death), Rome had had enough. Jerusalem lay in ruins after one of the harshest military campaigns of the Roman Era. Being the Messiah in first century Palestine was not a straightforward task!
But there’s another layer of complexity to all this. The Jews of Jesus’ day were divided over how the Revolution should take place. There were a bunch of freedom fighters, called Zealots, who basically functioned like terrorist cells, convinced that they should take up arms and fight to defeat the Romans. Then there were the Pharisees, wandering bands of strict religious teachers who claimed that their God, Yahweh, would bring about the revolution if everyone could just keep the Law of Moses (even for one day)! And then there were the Essenes, who had withdrawn to the desert to wait for the revolution which they believed would happen in a violent apocalyptic showdown between the powers of light and the powers of darkness. Oh, and of course there were the Collaborators – the Sadducees (the Temple leaders), the tax collectors and the line of Herodian kings, all of whom had given up on the revolution because the status quo benefited them pretty nicely. So the average Jewish person in Jesus’ day was trying (and often failing) to make ends meet, avoid Roman oppression wherever possible, while also having to constantly negotiate these different factions, all of whom were recruiting people to their cause.
So we move on in Matthew’s Gospel from the stories of Jesus’ birth to the other stuff that’s happening before Jesus gets up that mountain with his disciples. Jesus, now a grown man, goes to the Jordan river to meet John the Baptist. John, fiery preacher that he is, is busy lambasting the Pharisees and the Sadducees, calling them on their religious oppression (and lumping them in together as an extra slice of offence to both). Then John baptises Jesus in the river, which is a symbol of political defection, a re-enactment of the escape through the Red Sea with Moses, liberated from the oppressive empire for a new life in the Promised Land. Finally, Jesus goes off into the desert for 40 days where he is tempted by Satan. He doesn’t give in, but then returns home to Galilee.
In other words, Matthew tells the stories that show what kind of revolutionary Jesus is not. Jesus is not a Collaborator – a collaborator could never get baptised; he is not a Pharisee – he takes John’s baptism and John hates the Pharisees; and he is not an Essene – he goes to the desert for a showdown with the powers of darkness, but he doesn’t stay there. Which just leaves the Zealots.
Is Jesus a terrorist, a freedom-fighter for the violent overthrow of Rome from the Promised Land?
So Jesus goes up a mountain with his disciples to escape the crowds. And he says…
Well what he says is actually quite hard to translate. Yet most English Bibles put it the same way, despite many differences over other passages. They write:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
These are the Beatitudes, one of the most influential and well-known parts of the Bible, celebrated as a sublime moral code by which to live, regardless of one’s theological beliefs.
And yet I’m not convinced this captures the dynamic of what is really being said on that mountaintop.
Firstly, there is the word makarios, which people have generally translated as ‘blessed’ in English. It’s really hard to replicate all of the resonances of this Greek word in a Hebrew culture. Makarios has a history in Greek culture, referring to the happiness and prosperity of the gods, and to those rich and powerful who had attained a life of near god-likeness. But in the Hebrew worldview, a blessing is also much more like an invocation. In that context, the opposite of ‘blessed’ is not unhappy or unfortunate, but ‘cursed!’ In Matthew’s rendition of Jesus’ words (I say Matthew’s rendition because if Jesus spoke the original he would have done so in Aramaic), these two uses collide, which makes for a much more subversive meaning. This is not just saying nice things about people who are finding life a bit tricky. It is invoking blessing on a way of life generally understood to be the exact antithesis of the makarios life, and by implication, cursing the life of the gods – and their rich, powerful mortal underlings.
So in order to better capture the power of Jesus’ words I think we need to rephrase a little.
And to do that, we need to look back and look forward. Back to the set-up for this story, and forward to the zombie apocalypse!
Is Jesus a Zealot? That is the question set up by the first four chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. And the answer in this Sermon on the Mount is no. ‘Love your enemies’, says Jesus. ‘Pray for those who oppress you’. Resist violence, but not with violence. Resist violence with love, creativity, and courage.
Yet there is a reason the Zealots are left till last. The religious sects – the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, and the Essenes – all prey on the weakest, scapegoating the vulnerable for the lack of revolution. The Zealots at least menace the powerful. They are not so far off.
Let’s fast-forward to the middle of the story. Jesus goes up another mountain, and there with him are Moses and Elijah. According to tradition neither of them died, but were ‘taken up into heaven’. But here they are, shimmering on a mountain in Galilee, the spectral undead from Israel’s past come to call time on the present.
And finally let’s press on to the very end. Where Jesus himself has suffered the ignominy of crucifixion, an innocent unjustly executed by the state. And yet, as the zombie army descends on Jerusalem, he returns to the mountains of Galilee, to haunt the powers that sold him and beat him and killed him.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is the Messiah, but not like any version of the Messiah anyone was expecting. He is a revolutionary, but not with a revolution like anyone was expecting. He takes on the powerful with creative, non-violent resistance, and invokes the spectre of a new world. Far more threatening than weapons (which Rome could always beat) are the ghosts of the oppressed which return to haunt the powerful. They cannot be killed and so remain a permanent reminder of the illegitimacy of the system and its oppression. It’s a non-violent revolution, but it is more terrifying than all the tools of war.
And it all begins on that first mountain, with Jesus and his disciples and a new community, with the blessing for the undead: the invocation of ghosts.
Here come the depressed,
they own the future.
Here come the grieving,
they will be comforted.
Here come the enslaved,
they will have the whole earth.
Here come the ones who are starved of justice,
they will be filled.
Here come the gracious,
they will be shown grace.
Here come the uncorrupted,
they will see God.
Here come the peacemakers,
they will be protected.
Here come the oppressed,
they own the future.
Here you come, you oppressed, you wrongly accused.
Take heart, they did this to your heroes whose ghosts will not die.
The spectre is a menace, but only if you are the powerful. The demand for justice is only a threat to whose who won’t give it. To the powerless, to those who need revolution, the spectre is the dazzling white of transfigured life.
This is the flip-side of the Beatitudes, the side always out-of-reach of those who cling to power. There is an alternative, a new community, invoked by the undead, and made real by the Holy Spirit – a ghoul of death for the world that is passing away, but breath of life to the world that is coming into being.
The Beatitudes and the Resurrection are the bookends for Matthew’s Gospel (everything before the Beatitudes is the Prologue). Both bookends whisper that another world is within reach, just beyond the suffocating shroud of the present. The first bookend, the Beatitudes, whispers about the type of community who can discover – and create – that world. The second bookend, the Resurrection, whispers that anything is possible. Those whispers carry on the wind as fragile and uncertain breath. They cannot be grasped or pressed into service, but neither can they be chained or struck down. Together, quietly, insistently, they have the power to topple the empires of the world, and recreate it with a deep and divine justice.