A Kinder, Gentler, More Grown-Up Easter

In yo face Devil! Take that forces of evil!

Look whose laughing now! Ding Dong the witch is dead!

We fart in your general direction! Sike!

… 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.”

Hooah!

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”[1] 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.”[2]

Steve Muhandro

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 nominate The Cave by Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brother’s Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise for our consideration.

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.

In Christ,

Roger Wolsey

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.

 

About Roger Wolsey

Rev. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor who serves as the director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He's the author of "Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don't like christianity."

  • Mandy

    Roger,

    I cannot thank you enough for saying these words. I have so often wondered how many of our “Christian battle songs” are really fitting with the message of Christ’s Love. And as for the devil, I just can’t quite “boo” or “hiss” at him either. I often feel very alone when I express this, or even think it to myself. Thank you for posting this, and sharing your voice. Your voice may at this time be in the minority, but it is not alone!

    • http://www.progressivechristianitybook.com Roger Wolsey

      Thank you for that feedback. It is indeed good to know that there are kindred spirits out there. Blessings on your journey sister. : )

  • Russell

    Excellent piece. Fits in with my long-standing objection to the Christian men’s movement’s focus on men as warriors. Side note: I think you wanted “psych” instead of “sike.”

  • Dena G

    Thank you for saying this. My close friends all like to watch me cringe when we talk about singing “battle” songs like “Onward, Christian Soldiers”–they know how opposed I am to that mindset, especially in the middle of a body of believers gathered to worship the Jesus I solidly believe came to bring a different way. I’ll take either “The Cave” or “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” any day!

  • Jennifer

    Thank you for writing this thoughtful and incredibly timely article. I can’t thank you enough for putting into words what has driven me out of my own church. Although I, too, am a Christian, I have grown so disgusted with the “we are better than you are” antics of the members of the church I attend that I can’t bring myself to go back. This is my problem, in many ways, because I could theoretically take the good stuff and leave the warrior/screw you stuff at the altar for Jesus to deal with. But lately, I’m driven away from people who can’t or won’t see the hypocrisy innate on our faith because it makes me sad, sad for what we represent and sad for what our church has become. This really is a great piece of writing, logical and so well thought out. Thank you, I wish I could make more people read it (but that wouldn’t be very Christian of me, would it?) :)

    • http://www.progressivechristianitybook.com rogerwolsey

      Jennifer, re: “This really is a great piece of writing, logical and so well thought out. Thank you, I wish I could make more people read it (but that wouldn’t be very Christian of me, would it?)”

      Thank you for those kind words. I think I could manage to forgive you if you got a few people to read this by posting this link here and there. : )

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogerwolsey/2012/04/a-kinder-gentler-more-grown-up-easter/

  • Gloria

    Urban dictionary as a reference source? I like it. :)

    But seriously, this has been a great read. I cringe a lot more lately at our war bent mentality that doesn’t seem to see anyone outside of our local building as worth stooping to love, much less those in communities we know nothing about except how we are politically engaged with them whether as allies or foes.

  • Everett

    And for this reason the culture “war” was lost when it began.

  • Leanne

    You do realize that the words of that hymn are pure scripture?
    So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Corinthians 15:54, 55 KJV)
    Ephesians 5 urges us to realize we are in the midst of a spiritual battle, that the enemy is prowling about like a lion ready to attack and consume us. God plans to lock away Satan and evil for all eternity. He is not wasting any sympathy on the devil.

    It’s erroneous to assume that the warfare attitude is something created by men. I celebrate love and gentleness, not trying to be argumentative, just pointing out that God’s love and justice co-exist in a balanced equation. We have created God in the image we want… All love, missing some holiness. It can be hard just to read the book of Joshua- so much slaughter!! I don’t pretend to grasp this Almighty God, this supreme being, but based upon scripture you seem to be missing some of His attributes.

    • http://www.progressivechristianitybook.com rogerwolsey

      The Bible was also written by men and to some extent “created the God in the image we want.”

      Holiness doesn’t require violence. Neither does justice. Through Jesus, God championed restorative justice instead of retributive justice. peace.

  • Leanne

    I’m sorry, I just saw your parenthetical remark about the devil “were I to believe in such a being”. My comment was scripture based. If your theology is not, then it’s inappropriate for me to comment, as we aren’t really on the same page. Sincerely, no harm intended. I enjoyed hearing your perspective.

    • http://www.progressivechristianitybook.com rogerwolsey

      My theology is based upon Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. There is no such thing as a “Bible only” theology. One can’t read the Bible without interpreting it. Peace.

  • Susan

    What you had to say is truly inspired and thought provoking. I feel I am more of a passivist — anti-war minded.

    But the hymns you mention I sing with gusto! Now I will rethink them and the sentiments they espouse. Thank you.

    Also, I just have to say, an article that starts with a Monty Python quote rocks!

  • Elizabeth

    I’ve been on a long road from the militant right-wing Christianity, coming to a more peaceful, loving vision of Jesus. As I’ve been talking to my 5yo daughter about Easter, I’ve been stressing the love Jesus was showing for us, and how the people of the time couldn’t understand and didn’t like that, so that was why they killed Him. And that Jesus’ resurrection was showing Gods power and love :) . It saddens me that so many people are stuck in the militant view of Jesus, but gives me hope that so many are seeing the peaceful, loving Jesus. Thank you for this!

  • Vicki Evans

    Outstanding article. I was so pleased to find this posted. It is the way Jesus lived that saves us, not his execution. As far as we know, his life was one of total non-violence, healing and all inclusive love.

  • ccws

    “Might doesn’t make right, love does.” AMEN!

    “It is the way Jesus lived that saves us, not his execution.” AMEN!

    Thanks, Roger and Vicki! <3

  • http://www.progressivechristianitybook.com rogerwolsey

    “Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. The exact manner of how they executed Jesus (on a cross or not) and on which day of the week it happened isn’t the point. The point is the worldly powers that be did their best to stamp-out Jesus’ radically loving, all inclusive, non-violent, subversive and counter-cultural, (anti-)baselia (empire) movement. And God redeemed that violence by providing those heart-broken followers with an empty tomb and spiritual experiences of the risen Christ showing that Jesus’ teachings, values, and his Way weren’t vanquished or in vain, but give live – liberated, eternal and abundant – and always will. Happy Easter everyone!” – Roger Wolsey

  • http://www.progressivechristianitybook.com rogerwolsey

    We share more in common than you seem to think! “Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. The exact manner of how they executed Jesus (on a cross or not) and on which day of the week it happened isn’t the point. The point is the worldly powers that be did their best to stamp-out Jesus’ radically loving, all inclusive, non-violent, subversive and counter-cultural, (anti-)baselia (empire) movement. And God redeemed that inhumane violence by providing those heart-broken followers with an empty tomb and spiritual experiences of the risen Christ showing that Jesus’ teachings, values, and his Way weren’t vanquished or in vain, but give life – liberated, eternal and abundant – and always will. Happy Easter everyone!!” – Roger Wolsey – Happy Easter Everyone!! : )

  • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com Morgan Guyton

    We had a prayer vigil for Holy Saturday where we prayed through the psalms. There’s a whole lot of military imagery in them. When the word yashuah (salvation) is used in the Old Testament, it’s almost always a reference to heroic delivery on the battlefield. When I read through the psalms where the authors are asking God to pour out His wrath on their enemies and so forth, I thought about the Sandinistas and the Movemento Sem Terra in Brazil. When you associate the words of the psalms with people who are analogous to the ancient Israelites, then critiquing them for their militant imagery is akin to what the white clergy in Alabama did to King when he was in the Birmingham jail. He didn’t have to be “confrontational”; he could have gone “through the courts.” King’s movement didn’t just defend itself nonviolently; they actively provoked violence against themselves as a political tactic. So in a sense the violence of the segregationists was in fact redemptive because it exposed the evil of racism in raw, unequivocal terms. It’s all too easy to call it “non-violent” to oppress people through impersonal systemic means. Walter Benjamin writes (and I somewhat agree) that when the people riot, it articulates a divine violence that overthrows a tacitly violent social order.

    As Christians committed to the marginalized, we have to distinguish between bourgeois liberal attitudes about “violence” and principled cruciform ones. I’m not responding to anything in particular you’ve written here. I just think that sometimes “pacifism” is just one more mask for privilege. God did kick the Roman Empire’s ass by raising Jesus from the dead. What makes it farcical is when people who are the equivalent of Roman nobility conflate themselves with the oppressed for whom that’s actually good news. We’re the ones whose asses got kicked for our own good.


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