What happens if a culture is built upon the logic of Easter? That is, what happens if people become convinced that
a) God became a human person,
b) people killed that person,
c) but that person rose again and told his followers to love as he did?
One might argue that Western civilization is that cultural history, and that the turning point was with Constantine the Great's conversion to Christianity in the early 4th century. But I'm not so sure that's the most adequate way of looking at things. The main reason I think it's inadequate is that the most impassioned Christians—those that spent their lives meditating and living on the example of Jesus—were usually not people in power. They were men and women who embraced the gospel by heading off into the desert, or joining monasteries, or serving the poor, or toiling with pen and ink. I tend to think that Western history, at least that which makes it into history books (and into the crosshairs of the cultured despisers of Christianity), is the history of defections from the kind of radical call to love issued by Jesus.
What, then, would the cultural logic of Easter look like, stripped down to a basic response to this remarkable story? What would a culture built on love look like?
First: there would be a radical reverence for what it means to be human. Every human being would be recognized as having that which God himself chose to take on in the person of Jesus. There would be passionate advocacy for all causes that promote, protect, and enhance the basic gift of life. Historically speaking, that advocacy began with caring for victims of the plague that swept through Rome in the first century, and caring for widows and orphans. It extended to various forms of human service, like the founding of hospitals, the modern university, and even pawn shops to help the poor. It involved heroic self-sacrifice in caring for prisoners, the wounded, the outcast, the deprived, the alienated. Today, it looks like serving the poor around the world; healing the sick; visiting the imprisoned; and undertaking other kinds of acts of love traditionally understood as the corporal works of mercy.
Second: there would be a deep and abiding suspicion of what passes for justice in the world. A people whose hero and savior was legally executed would be very wary of trusting any government's small understanding of what justice entails. It is no surprise, then, that the earliest Christians were energized by the stories of martyrdom, because they understood that followers of Jesus would follow God's compass of justice even though it meant death for them.
Of course the antecedents for this attitude toward death are in the Old Testament: one need look no further than examples like the Jewish nobles in Nebuchadnezzar's furnace or the stories of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids. After the time of Jesus, figures like Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr represented the willingness to live the Easter logic to the death. Today, those who work to preserve human life in the face of social pressures toward abortion, euthanasia, grinding poverty, war, ecological disaster, and other social evils follow that Easter logic.
Yet here is a dark side to this fearlessness toward death. One who follows God's justice may be likely to baptize his own limited view of justice and perhaps even see his struggle as a war against evil. And while there is much in the history of the Crusades and the Inquisition that is misunderstood, still one can see with hindsight that those chapters of Church history are rooted in a sometimes limited and sometimes evil misunderstanding of divine justice.
Because of the danger of that dark side of fearlessness toward death, Christians do well to consider the way that power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton suggested. The goal of Jesus' ministry was certainly not world domination; if it was, he went about it very irresponsibly, not even leaving any writings. If, on the other hand, he was more interested in showing that eternal life is real and that death is not to be feared, then it would seem that he was not particularly interested in worldly power. Jesus had to die to show us not to abandon God's compass of justice even when death looms. But Jesus had to rise in order to show that God has power over death, and that the sins we perform to avoid suffering and death are, in the end, pointless, because they hinder our ability to enjoy the freedom of life.
4/25/2011 4:00:00 AM