Portrait of 'Doubting Thomas' by Caravaggio, circa 1600. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Thomas' wounded Christ is a savior for the COVID-19 crisis

(RNS) — Is it possible to speak of new life in an Easter season marred by ongoing death? The question feels new as we reckon with the novel coronavirus, but it is not.

Christian communities have always affirmed faith in resurrection in spite of enduring loss and bereavement. For communities on the margins, especially those subjected to oppression and enslavement, faith in resurrection has never been a Pollyannaish refusal of suffering and death. The Christian symbol of resurrection admits many readings, but any magical interpretation that minimizes pain could neither console nor encourage.

The grittiness of the resurrection narrative is captured in the reading from John’s Gospel many churches traditionally read the Sunday after Easter. John tells the story of the apostle Thomas, who misses Jesus’ first post-crucifixion appearance to the gathered disciples. When they tell him what transpired, “doubting Thomas” earns the moniker he has been saddled with ever since: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later, Jesus obliges. “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’”

A person is taken on a stretcher into the United Memorial Medical Center after going through testing for COVID-19 on March 19, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

What is often overlooked in this story is the very fact that Jesus’ resurrected body bears the wounds of crucifixion. In John’s Gospel, Thomas recognizes Christ not in spite of but because of his wounds. Without the wounds, the resurrected one might be an uncanny apparition but not Thomas’ beloved master.

No contemporary Christian theologian has called attention to Christ’s wounds more persistently and creatively than Shelly Rambo. In her groundbreaking 2017 book, “Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma,” Rambo likens Christ’s abiding wounds to the ongoing pain of war veterans who have suffered trauma but whose lives allow for no neat and tidy resolution under the grip of PTSD. She rejects accounts that depict resurrection as an unblemished victory.

To take this feature of John’s Gospel seriously is to suggest that even God incarnate does not survive the world God created unscathed. Life in time and history, life as a finite and vulnerable creature, leaves its marks.

Tragically, those marks are unevenly distributed. As we are learning from the exorbitant death rates among African Americans, systematic racism continues to crucify some while others shelter in relative safety. To use the language of the liberation theologian Ignacio Ellacuría, some among us are “the crucified peoples of history” while others profit from crucifying structures.

A resurrected Christ who still bears his wounds is the only credible savior for our times. A Jesus who is no longer broken open to the world is a trivializing vision that fails to acknowledge the cost of life in a world replete with inequality. For those on the underside of this crisis, a Christ without the marks of his crucifixion would be unrecognizable. Resurrection gives us strength to bear our wounds, not erase them.

Sculpture of St. Thomas reaching out to touch the risen Christ from the medieval polychromed choir screen of Notre Dame de Paris. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

As for those who live in relative safety and privilege, Christ’s wounded body calls us to prophetic attention. Christians cannot claim to follow the crucified Lord while ignoring contemporary crucifixions. His broken body compels us to put an end to wounds still inflicted by racism, poverty and unequal access to health care.

Whatever new life will look like in the coming months and years, a genuine Easter hope will refuse the complacent longing for “a return to normal.” Who wants such normalcy when it has resulted in global failure at every level of common life, in politics, ecology, economy and healthcare? Only those who continue to profit from those broken systems.

To be tutored by the Christian resurrection story is to see through the hollow impulse to cling to an obsolete world. Genuine resurrection is no zombie resuscitation where old patterns return only to lumber along undead.

The deadliest of those patterns is the refusal to acknowledge our complex and precarious rootedness in nature. A virus, 120 nanometers in diameter, has brought human civilization to a grinding halt. It mocks our pretense that we can somehow survive while ignoring the natural word and without care for the fragile ecosystems that keep us alive. The wounded earth also awaits resurrection.

Call me a doubter, but, like Thomas, I, too, doubt any talk of Easter hope that dismisses the wounds of this historical moment. Nor will I believe if I see no signs of a new world that is kinder, more just and more resilient. No zombie normalcy for me, thank you!

Can such a world emerge from this crisis? I believe so. That confidence is what it means to have faith not just in Jesus’ resurrection but in ours.

(John J. Thatamanil is associate professor of theology and world religions at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He is the author of the forthcoming, "Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity." The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)