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A Buddhist Meditation on Good Friday and Jesse James

04/03/2015 02:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

I see how we have the confluence of a minor historical event in American history, the day that the outlaw Jesse James was shot and killed by Robert Ford in 1882 (no apparent relation, for those who care), and this year Good Friday in the Western Christian calendar, falling into the same moment.

The trigger for a connection to me is how my grandmother, a Missouri native, believed to the day she died that the James boys were driven to their crimes by the banks and the railroads and their crushing of the common people for profit. She, and I gather, many people from that part of the country believed Jesse and his associates were like Robin Hood, and stood for the little people who were being ground under by monopoly capitalism.

It was a streak that ran through my grandmother's very conservative Baptist theology that seems largely lost in contemporary fundamentalism. And that was that her religion was a poor people's religion. She was very clear on the primacy of the scriptural admonition that it would be easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. And she didn't truck with any nonsense about there being a low gate into Jerusalem that required camels to pass through on their knees. She knew it was the eye of a needle like the one she sewed clothing with. And she saw a camel once in a zoo. She knew no rich people, no rich people were getting into heaven.

And so Jesse James, and, as she called them, the James boys were heroes, and his death was the murder by the banks and the railroads of someone who was trying to protect the people.
History would differ. Well, in the main. James was a bloodthirsty criminal, and before that the worst sort of guerrilla fighter, what today most any fair observer would unhesitatingly call a terrorist. And woven into that maybe there was some help for the poor. Hard to say...

But history does describe the grinding down of the poor by the rich in that time. And today as our own country dissolves into another Gilded Age, another era of the rich crushing the poor on our relentless drive to become another third world country, it's hard for me not to notice why people might begin to look to people like the James boys as heroes.

In some ways I find the story of Jesus a little more palatable. I'm repulsed by the vicarious atonement theory that drives normative Christianity, where God so despises the world he created that the only way for the deity to not condemn all of humanity to endless suffering is to cause some part of himself to suffer on behalf of all. But, that's never been the only way people have seen the crucifixion. And of these alternative stories some create more resonances within my heart than others.

Among those is the story that Jesus preached a good news to the poor, of a kingdom where the rich were sent away and the poor for once had enough. Perhaps it is a dream world, but it is one that beckons to my heart. From my theology where I believe bone and marrow that we are all of us connected in a web of intimacy, and with that responsible for each other and actually the whole world (the answer to Cain's question is yes. Unreservedly, yes.) I see this as a description of how we can come to know that truth. The key to the mystery is that we must surrender all that which we grasp after. We can only enter the kingdom with open hands. Not precisely the low gate, it is about something more radical than humility, but definitely it is more in that direction than my grandmother's sewing needle.

And so for me Christianity, the Christianity that I can find any resonance with is more the religion Jesus preached than the religion that turns on his being arrested, tortured, killed in a horrible way, and then rising from the dead.

Although I think about that rising from the dead, and the value of that story as more pointing into the heart of the matter.

The oldest strata document that records the event was written down more than a generation after the events. From that clouded place the document says three women went to the tomb, where they found the stone door rolled away and inside a man dressed in a white robe saying he was not here, but that he had risen, and that they would see him soon. It ends with the women fleeing the place filled with fear, and saying nothing to anyone. Later people added more verses, but they don't exist in the earliest manuscripts and are clearly added by people who wanted something more, maybe needed something more.

What I find myself thinking about on this day when people recall Jesus' suffering and death, and before the strange story of his body disappearing and then other stories of his visiting with people (oh, I'm so with Thomas on that one...), on this day, on the day of suffering and death, I find how the world and my own heart can find a resting place.

The Buddha, blessings forever on his name, said the world and all things are characterized by suffering.

As I write these words my auntie who has lived with Jan and me for twenty-three years and who is my "little mother," who had a strong hand in my upbringing, is in the next room suffering her own dying. She might in fact die today. Although I suspect as tough as she is, she'll hang on a bit longer. Dying, it turns out, is hard business.

And there's a lot of suffering in it.

There's a lot of suffering in living, too.

I totally see how the Buddha can see everything is marked by suffering.

On a practical level this suffering, this hurt has to do with how we grasp at things that are in fact in flux, trying to hold that which is in motion, like holding on to the wind. The inevitable consequence of such grasping is hurt. But, and this is important, the healing doesn't come from not caring. It's something vastly different.

So, in some ways, at least as a symbol, at least as a gathering point for the heart and for our human longing, Good Friday isn't a bad spot to stop, to notice, what we actually need to do. Which is to open our hearts, and our hands, and to be present to that place where suffering and joy can in fact meet. It is also the place from which we need to act. Remember that solidarity with the poor. Remember we and the world are related more intimately than mother and son.

But the first step of the cure.

We open ourselves, and we discover, like one side of our hand there is so much hurt, and like the other side of our hand, there is so much beauty and joy.

And at this moment on the day that Jesse James was killed for the sake of the suffering poor, at least as some would tell the story, or in a better telling, on the day that Jesus was tortured and hung on a cross, again at least as some tell the story, if we open our hearts, we can see the confluence of it all, of everything, meeting here, in this moment.

Again, if we open up, if we don't turn away from the hurt, then we can see there is something else happening as well.

And maybe that's the Easter story.

But for the moment that's the future.

We need to stay in the moment.

The moment where my auntie lies in the next room, dying.

And see whether these stories are in fact pointing us somewhere, to something.

I believe they are.

I believe they do.

Bones and marrow.

But, you need to find out for yourself.

And so the stories, the real stories, the stories of true heart, not so much the one about Jesse James and his gang, although those stories a at least a little, and much more the ones like Jesus' suffering and death, rightly understood, understood as pointing to something about ourselves, about you, about me, are also an invitation.

And pointers.

For your own journey.

My journey.

And.

My wish on this hard Good Friday.

May you find that journey.

And may you find that journey a blessing.