… Such has become the way that many of the world’s Christians have come to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter. We’ve allowed the ways of the world to infuse our beliefs and we end up fighting fire with fire. Employing the world’s ways against it.
Once our religion became the official religion of the Roman empire, followers of the non-violent Jesus (even Bill Maher concedes this much) started to assimilate imperial ways into our discipleship.
A blatant example of this is in our hymnody. I’m a United Methodist and I love the movement founded by John Wesley and his brother Charles—both of whom were excellent lyricists. It’s been said that for Methodists, “our hymnal is our 2nd Bible” in that it conveys and informs our theology. Many of the hymns that the Wesley brothers wrote are now standards in perhaps the majority of Christian denominations—especially on Easter.
The problem is that Christians started incorporating the ways of empire into their expression of their faith. From the most ancient of days, from warring tribes to the Roman empire—and on through the British and American empires—dominating forces sang victory songs and held grand victory celebrations and parades. Celebrating their conquests and might—as well as mocking and taunting their defeated foes. Pax Romana! Hail Caesar! Rome Rules! Long Live Caesar! Down with the Huns! The Greeks are sissies! Rule Britannia! Christ the Lord is Risen Today!
As a trumpeter, Christ the Lord, is one of my all time favorite hymns. Indeed, in someways, “it wouldn’t be Easter without it.” It begins innocently enough,
Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia! Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia! Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!
But then it goes on…
Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia! Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia! Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia! Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!
Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia! Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia! Once he died our souls to save, Alleluia! Where’s thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!
It (and numerous other Easter hymns) are essentially early versions of the songs that zealous sports fans sing to the opposing fans when their team wins, “Nah nah nah nah… nah nah nah nah… Hey hey hey, Goodbye!”
“Buddy you’re a boy make a big noise, playin’ in the street gonna be a big man some day; you got mud on your face, you’re a big disgrace
Kickin’ your can all over the place! We will we will rock you!”
And, ironically, “Always look on the bright side of life…”
Now it makes sense that Jesus’ earliest followers would’ve felt incredible comfort, vindication and outrageous joy upon their realization that even the worst that the Roman powers that be could dish out wasn’t enough to defeat Jesus and the Kingdom of God that he sought to usher in. They experienced an empty tomb and a risen Christ, confirming the truths and teachings that Jesus taught and showing that unconditional, vulnerable love is indeed the way, the truth, and the life—including loving our enemies. This (and the infusion of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost) emboldened them to continue on, and spread, in spite of severe hardship and persecution.
Over our first 300 years, the early Christians were brutally, harshly and systemically oppressed. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of them were crucified, torn apart by lions, or lit up as human torches along the city streets. Then, in 313 AD, Constantine ended the persecutions, converted to Christianity, (it’s debatable how fully however), legalized it, and eventually, it became the official religion of the Empire. In time, and arguably in part due to the spread of Christianity, the Roman empire collapsed and… drumroll…one could say that God had the last word and reclaimed for Him/Herself the titles that the Caesars had been claiming for themselves—including “God,” “Son of God,” “Savior,” “Divine,” “Lord,” and, even “Prince of Peace.”
And yet, it is that human impulse to gloat in the defeat of our enemies that’s the problem. You see, it isn’t what Christians are called to do. Relishing in the defeat of others isn’t what Jesus did or would do.
I remember feeling these same feelings upon seeing how most of my fellow, mostly Christian Americans responded upon learning the news that Osama bin Laden had been captured and killed. Instead of simply feeling relief that the alleged mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks was no longer a threat to us, they collectively beat their chests and cried their primal “yawps!” of victory and celebrated his death—with many wanting to be the first to dance and/or piss on his remains.
Scholar Walter Wink contends that the world’s first meta-myth is “the myth of redemptive violence.” In a nutshell, it’s the notion that violence is what defeats evil and that killing bad guys is the right thing to do and it is violence that is what saves us. It’s rooted in the Enuma Elish from ancient Babylon and it’s the basis of much of Western culture. Indeed, part of why Jesus was executed was because many of the Jews in Israel at that time didn’t see him fitting their exceptions for a kick-ass, Rambo-like knight in shining armor who would kick Roman butt and restore the Kingdom of Israel (though he was close enough as far as Rome was concerned).
Wink asserts that Jesus wanted to subvert that dominant myth of redemptive violence with a new myth of redemptive love, i.e., unconditional, radically inclusive, vulnerable love.
While many Christians (including, but not limited to, the Eastern Orthodox) celebrate Jesus’ resurrection as one where God proves that even the worst of the ways of the world cannot separate us from God’s love and can’t vanquish love. Might doesn’t make right, love does. Love wins—and the vulnerable, risky, seemingly foolish and naïve ways of Jesus, the way of the cross, are the real and best way to live.
And yet, the vast majority of Christians in the West celebrate Jesus’ execution. Heck Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ was a huge box office hit. It met people’s prurient need to see an innocent man’s ass kicked, lashed, stripped, whipped, and nailed to a cross in order to vicariously defeat the depths of their own perceived sin and wretchedness in order to save them. So rather than experiencing salvation through practicing Jesus’ nonviolent, radical, subversive, and counter-cultural ways, these Christians think that they’re saved by God dishing out “the wrath that is rightfully due to humanity” upon his son Jesus as our proxy, as our whipping boy, as our scapegoat. It’s no wonder that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians tend to not engage in mournful and somber Good Friday services—they relish and delight in Jesus’ crucifixion! In this logic, God was employing redemptive violence—and if it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for us.
Hence, most evangelicals and fundamentalists (and due to their influence, most American Christians) are fans of capital punishment and are believers in Constantine’s notion of “just wars.”
One of the songs that I think has done the most to distort and corrupt our faith is the evangelical praise song “Our God is an awesome God.”
“In a playful, yet perhaps insightful, way let me suggest that the motto of what I’m broadly calling conservative Christianity is “God is awesome and He’s the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” Worded another way: “Our God is an awesome God, He reigns from heaven above,” which is from a popular praise song. That sort of theological imagery is perhaps an unconscious reason why so many Christian conservatives supported President George W. Bush’s war of “shock and awe” with Iraq. Societies base their policies and actions upon the view of God that they embrace. A god described with the words, “When He rolls up His sleeves He ain’t just putting on the Ritz…There’s thunder in his footsteps and lightning in his fists… Our God is an awesome God” is a god who’s prepared to kick some butt. People strive to emulate the god they adore and if the popular view of God is vengeful and violent, then the people of that society will naturally be vengeful and violent as well.”
Rather than love their enemies, they prefer to engage in the theological version of over-excited football players who spike the ball in the end-zone and gloat with dances and taunts.
I don’t deny the reality of the resurrection, and I certainly enjoy a great Easter celebration—and consider every Sunday throughout the year as a “mini-Easter”—heck, everyday for that matter. I’ve experienced resurrection power in my life and have witnessed it in the lives of others.
That said, I’m not willing to pretend. I’m not willing to pretend that Jesus’ resurrection completely defeated evil—a quick glance at a newspaper will disprove that. And, I’m not willing to pretend that just because I’m a believing Christian, that I no longer struggle with sin or backslide into times of despair, grief, addiction and self-sabotage.
Even though I believe that God’s love will ultimately win-out in the big picture, on a day to day basis, there is a lot of shit that still happens. There is brokenness all around us—and if we’re being honest— within us.
I think songwriter Leonard Cohen has it right that “Love is not a victory march… it is cold and broken hallelujah.”
I feel little motivation to gloat or mock anyone—including the devil (if I were to believe in such a being). Indeed, if anything, metaphorically, I feel sympathy for the devil. I pity him. I love him. I see how I’m like him and I feel understanding and compassion. Jesus’ last words weren’t “F you!” Or, “I’ll be back!” They were “Father forgive them.”
Seems to me that it’s time to grow up and sing a new song. It’s time for us to sing songs that better match the teachings and ways of Jesus as well as better honor the reality of our on-going struggles to consciously choose to act in accordance to the resurrection or not to.
I waited until after Easter to submit this blog—as I didn’t want to rain on any of our parades—at least not on the day of them. I realize that my voice is a dissenting and minority one and that I may be shouting to the wind. Future Easter celebrations aren’t likely to change very much, but then again, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus weren’t very likely either.
Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor. He is the author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity. He blogs for Patheos, Huffington Post, and Elephant Journal and is an active member of The Christian Left Facebook page.
This post originally appeared at Elephant Journal and is reprinted with permission from the author.