Lately, I’ve been thinking about some of the ironies, tensions, and outright contradictions connected with the way we Christians think about Easter.
To start, there’s the tribal god thing. The way we talked about the Bible in the churches I grew up in, one of the bit distinctions between the Old and the New Testament was who God was the God of. In the Old Testament, God was God of the Jews. I mean, obviously God works with humanity before the Jews come on the scene, like with Noah and Adam, and in a few other cases – Job springs to mind, and God’s sending Jonah to the Assyrian city of Nineveh – but for the most part the Old Testament is the story of a unique covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If you were born into that tribe, you had to convert or YHWH was simply not your God. Compare this to the New Testament, where Jesus explicitly reached out both to the margins of Jewish society as well as non-Jewish society (Samaritans and even the Romans), and where the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) explicitly said that Gentile Christians didn’t have to convert to Judaism.
(Out of fairness to Jews, I get that this isn’t quite the way they see it; most Orthodox Jews I’ve known don’t believe you have to convert to Judaism to relate to God, and some even point to the Noahide Covenant, which applies to all humans, comes in. But as a Christian I was taught that when Christians came on the scene and opened up the Gospel to all peoples, this was a new thing.)
Here’s the thing, though. On the one hand, Christians point to Christ’s ministry as the point in history when God was no longer a tribal God. He became open to everyone. But at the same time, Christians have used this ministry to set up a sort of new tribe. It’s not a genetic tribe, to be sure, but if you don’t affirm certain very specific beliefs, if you don’t express them in a certain way or worship in a certain way, the thought is you’re not “really” a Christian. Even if you’re trying to interpret and live out the same revelation, even if you’re interacting with the same community and history. I’m small time as far as blogging goes, and this means the people reading this blog almost all know me and are friends in some capacity or other. That means I’m less subject to the gatekeepers of Christianity (I simply don’t attract enough attention for it to be worth anyone’s effort to call me out on my heresies). But look at how Christians question whether liberal politicians are really Christian (Obama jumps to mind, but there are also the Catholics who have been denied the eucharist over being pro-choice) because of some policy position they take. Christianity has become its own tribe, bound by doxastic lines rather than genealogical ones, but it’s a tribe all the same.
Then there’s Christian teaching about the law vs. mercy. Jesus spent so much of his ministry railing against the legalism of the Pharisees, on how they would obsess over the speck in their neighbor’s eye without seeing the plank in their own. He chose to disobey the finer details of the law (like healing on the Sabbath) when doing so was warranted. Then at the Cross Christ is willing to die in order to satisfy the law’s demands. To hear some Christians describe it, you’d think that assenting to certain theological propositions – God exists; Christ is God; I need saving; Christ’s death saves me; etc. – is what matters, what gets us into heaven, more than the stuff Christ actually seemed concerned with in his parables and teachings, that is, helping the vulnerable. Moreover, in many quarters the true mark of being a Christian isn’t healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the widows and orphans, forgetting not the prisoners, or anything like that. Rather, it’s trying to get as many people as possible to go along with those same beliefs and claim the label of “Christian” as we possibly can.
I get why Christians focus on this. It actually comes out of a place of love, at least in many cases. If you truly believe that we’ll face heaven or hell after death, and our Christian credentials are our gate pass into heaven, then what could be more important than making sure those people that matter most to you are actually saved? And I also get why Christians are uncomfortable with saying everyone will be saved whether they want it or not, because that seems to take the choice away from people. But there’s something about this focus that just seems… off, somehow. It turns the Passion into a way to plug up the ultimate loophole: God wants to save us, don’t you see, but can’t quite manage it without Christ’s sacrifice, and without the appropriate password you can’t get past St. Peter after you die. It just seems to run against the Christ portrayed in the Gospels, outside of this one weekend of his ministry.
And finally, my personal bugabear: why is it that a death that was supposed to rob death of its sting instead makes so much of us more fearful of damnation than ever?
I remember giving my life to Christ at a friend’s church’s VBS (I must have been at most seven years old) and coming home and proudly declaring I was now saved. I then spent most of my teenage years alternately rolling my eyes at altar calls and having to sit on my hands to keep from raising them as someone who needed to accept God into her heart. And I didn’t come from a particularly evangelical background. You just get it hammered into you often enough that you’re nothing without God and that you’re hell-bound if you don’t believe the right things. Eventually I got to a point where I realized any God who would chuck me out in spite of my lifelong, sincere efforts to live well and worship Him, wasn’t worthy of my worship so I got over the obsessing over whether I was saved or not. But honestly, this focus on sin and salvation? It’s enough to give any impressionable, eager-to-please kid an inferiority complex.
On the flip side, though, one of the things I’ve always loved most about Christianity is the security it offers. Jesus says (in Mark 3:28-29) that we can be forgiven of literally anything except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Different Christians interpret this verse in different ways, but the way I read it, if you are capable of asking forgiveness that recognizes the Holy Spirit’s role in reconciling you with God. The only person who can’t be forgiven is the person who doesn’t realize they need forgiving. More than that, we don’t forgive people (or get forgiveness ourselves) because they deserve it; rather, we forgive them because we were forgiven when we didn’t deserve it. The Gospel seems to be about radical forgiveness and radical love and radical mercy – the giving people more than they deserve on their merits.
Now, I know there are probably answers to these points that make sense on an intellectual level but I’m not sure that’s what bothers me here. It’s more that the way Christians focus on the Resurrection, the way we focus on the Christian label and having the right beliefs presented in the right way… it all just seems like such a departure to what the living Christ was getting on about. This understanding of the Passion just seems like a distortion of Christ’s message to me, a perversion of Christian love.
What are the alternatives? If the Passion isn’t about ripping the Temple veil and taking away any need for sacrifice, any pretense that we can pay for our sins and make ourselves good, what is it about? That’s the question Tony Jones asked progressive Christians to write about, and which first got me thinking about these ironies. And true to form for a #progGod challenge, I find myself perfectly happy to reject the old but without having much of anything to offer in its place. It’s patently obvious to me that the old way of talking about the crucifixion – a glorified get-out-of-jail-free pass that lets Christians pass into heaven at our death while those who never prayed the Sinner’s Prayer get an eternity of hellfire and brimstone – is inadequate. I just don’t quite have the courage to offer up anything in its place. But let me at least try.
I once heard a story from a friend about some theologian explaining the resurrection. (I forget which one particularly.) The resurrection, according to this theologian, wasn’t about making us lovable; it was God’s way of convincing us that we always had been lovable. God was willing to die on a tree to show the doubters and the nay-sayers – and really, that’s all of us at times – that we were worth saving, even if it meant that God had to die on a tree. In its way, this goes back to Adam’s original sin: that there’s something missing if we don’t understand the nature of good and evil, that we need to improve on how God made us. Don’t get me wrong, I love the refinement-of-creation aspect of human nature, the need to understand. But the thought that we are incomplete as we were created, that we’re not good enough and that in our present state we’re not even lovable – maybe the resurrection is God’s way, once and for all,
Another possibility: it’s easy to look at God and think that He is so high above our situation that he couldn’t really understand it. The Resurrection gives us a God who not only died but died as a criminal, in one of the most cruel and shameful ways to execute someone in his time. Now, maybe God really didn’t know what it was like to die and be turned into such an “other” – He is after all God, and so while He might know every fact, this is an experience He could hardly have ever had. Or maybe it’s more subjective than that. Maybe we need to be convinced that God really can understand our these things, and having a God who is also a Suffering Servant drives home that point a bit: that while we may suffer, God really and truly does Get It.
And finally, maybe there really is metaphysical work being done here. Maybe God couldn’t forgive us humans without a perfect sacrifice. (Personally, I’m not sure – seems like an omniscient God should be able to forgive without such restrictions, or at least created a world where we wouldn’t get into this mess – but I’ll leave that point aside.) Even if the Passion really was necessary, does that mean we have to think about it like we do? I mean, is there a way to believe Christ’s death is necessary, even central, without turning Christianity into a new chosen people, a separate tribe from the rest of humanity?
I think so, if we keep in mind that Jesus’s ministry was so transformative to the culture he lived in. The widow with her two mites gave a greater gift than the rich and powerful who let their coins jangle as they dropped into the offering-box. Looking lustfully at the cute woman walking down the street is just as bad as if a husband actually had an affair with her. To have a new life you must be born again. (How the heck do you manage that, quoth Nicodemus.) You don’t just have to just love yourself and your neighbors but your enemies as well – and forgive them seven times seventy times, no less. And perhaps the most countercultural message of all: God could not only be born in a stable but could die on a tree. Even if the Passion was metaphysically necessary, even if true forgiveness was impossible without it, I still don’t think Jesus would recognize the way we turn it into an entry-exam for heaven as what he was trying to get at in his ministry.
But then, the disciples were first-class dunderheads at times, too, and that seemed to work out all right in the end. So maybe there’s hope for us moderns as well. I hope so, at least.
The word of God, for the people of God. All of them.