June 15, 2008
Fighting for the resurrection.
While not unheard of, it's not typical for a CT writer to applaud the United Church of Christ for its theological stances. However, let's give credit to whom it is due.
Last month the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in a lawsuit filed by St. John's UCC in Bensenville, Illinois. The church is trying to prevent the city of Chicago from digging up the 1,400-grave cemetery in a plot right next to O'Hare International Airport. Since the summer of 2001, the city has been working to expand the overcrowded airport -- one of the busiest in the world and one to avoid at all costs during the summer and winter and any other time that weather tends to be inclement. (On top of that, it is the headquarters of the "Worst. Airline. Ever.")
Last month the Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling, which found the city's attempt to relocate the graves did not violate the church's First Amendment rights, "because Chicago's motive for relocating nearly 1,300 graves is strictly secular," reported the Chicago Tribune. Other cases are working their way through the courts, and they claim that moving the graves would interfere with worshipers' and family members' religious freedom.
One might dismiss the religious freedom argument. After all, plenty of people are opposed to expanding the massive airport. Bensenville Village President John C. Geils told the Chicago suburban Daily Herald "This is a clear case of discrimination and a denial of the deeply held religious beliefs of the church and the affected families." The village, and several others, is also fighting the expansion. So, cynics might argue the church is being used by local governments, or perhaps St. John's agrees with those parties that a bigger O'Hare means a bigger headache for local residents.
However, take a look at the lawsuit. Why are they suing? The lawsuit states:
Destroying the cemeteries not only "inhibits," but completely precludes Plaintiffs from fulfilling their religious obligation to care for their fellow Christians, and to ensure that their full participation in the Resurrection is not jeopardized by disturbance of the sacred ground where they were laid to rest until Resurrection Day.
While physically disturbing a grave does not jeopardize the corpse's salvation, the violation of a "sleeping" Christian has for centuries been a serious matter. Until the widespread use of embalming following the Civil War, in fact, disturbing the dead was a grave deed. Dead Christians were merely asleep as they awaited the resurrection, at which time, because God would return them to life just as he did Jesus, it would make sense to have all the bodily pieces nearby. Visit any old graveyard on the East coast (dating from the 1600s and early 1700s), and nearly every tombstone will say something about the body of the Christian beneath the ground awaiting its quickening on the last day. (See N.T. Wright for more on the theology of the resurrection.)
Perhaps St. John's UCC is using traditional Christian theology in order to keep its church and cemetery, but they've recalled a central belief that many evangelicals who claim the label of orthodoxy have forgotten, at least in practice. This UCC church is keeping "the sacred ground where [their brothers and sisters] were laid to rest until Resurrection Day."
Thanks be to God.