Easter Sunday 2014 – Novelist and activist Arundhati Roy wrote: “Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Last week, we looked at the event of Jesus’ crucifixion and an alternative understanding of the Cross of Christ. I tried to convey Peter Rollins’ idea that we don’t take the Cross seriously enough. Jesus felt forsaken by his God on the cross. Rollins would say we need to face the reality that the “God of religion” has forsaken us. You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that message is a bit depressing…talking about how Jesus was…utterly forsaken by this religious God, not just temporarily sidelined for 3 days. And that we must let go of that God of religion, too.
If some of us – and we don’t all believe the same thing here – if some of us, do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose bodily from the dead…then that death was the end of his life forever, and he knew nothing of what came after. If this is true, on the cross Jesus despaired that not only his life, but his message of a different kind of merciful and inclusive God and a different kind of spirituality of love in action, was dying on that Cross. Rollins goes on to say that we, 21st c. Christians need to experience the death of our “religious God,” the view of God as our personal protector and refuge from the vicissitudes of life…the parental view of God as our security blanket, who delivers us from evil and despair, or – in a bait-and-switch scheme — promises that our suffering of disease, despair or violence will “work together for good for those who believe.” As if we were in some elite category of those who will be shielded from evil.
Think about the horrifying news from Syria, Central African Republic, Congo, Fukishima, cyclones and tsunamis, genocides and famine. Think about the hundreds of parents whose teenagers died on a ferry in S. Korea last week. At least one-third of the earth’s 7 billion people today, are not being delivered from the prevalence of evil or violence, disease or despair – and we need to imagine that experience of our brothers and sisters – we need to look in the face of their struggle — and we must know it could happen to us tomorrow. For why should we be delivered in our comfortable Western lands of peace and plenty, and not they? Hasn’t our religious God abandoned them, forsaken them, as surely as Jesus felt forsaken on that dark day? Millions of people – including women and children — just in our lifetimes have died because of evil and violence from which our “religious protector God” has not rescued them.
Thinking about those real people who are suffering today, what right do we have to say that Christ is risen, and all will be well someday? On this Easter 2014, what does “Christ’s resurrection” mean? Instead of resurrection, should we who follow Jesus be part of an insurrection?
By way of probing that question, I want to travel back in history.
It’s the 4th c. of the Christian church, the 300s C.E., in Alexandria, Egypt, and Antioch, Syria, and the soon-to-be-named Constantinople. And there is a battle raging among priests and bishops of the Christian community across the Roman and Mediterranean world. This was before the split between the Eastern orthodox and the West, before the Rome-centered Catholic Church that we know, was born. The drama … is a battle over theological doctrine – a battle that includes not only debate and excommunication, but physical violence, exile and execution.
Between the 310s and the 350s, this war of words was a test of orthodoxy, with each side accusing the other of heresy. The Emperor Constantine had come to power, and he had opinions on this matter – because he had embraced Christianity and made it the state religion of the empire – but he tried to stay above the fray. For him, church unity trumped theological niceties, because he sought political stability for the empire. And this church civil war threatened that stability. Both sides were using exile, assault and battery, rioting and even murder, as the battle see-sawed back and forth between the two sides for decades.
In the middle of this war — not at the end, as I had thought — Constantine called a council to convene in Nicea to settle the matter. So after weeks of argument, the council wrote the Nicene Creed, that we read earlier.) Constantine was there, and used his influence to settle the matter, so the battle and unrest would end. But the combatants weren’t ready to quit fighting. Even the populace got into it, organizing gangs to attack and harass those of the opposite view. Splitting hairs on theology often meant splitting skulls in the town.
The whole fight was over whether Jesus was the same as God, or fully human and only like God in that he earned deification. A priest named Arius was the leading defender of the view that Jesus was not equal with God, but that he was created before the beginning of the world and somehow deified because of his merits. His rival was Bishop Athanasius, who believed that Jesus was fully God but also a human expression of God, who was still the same as God.
So why am I taking this historical detour? Because the Easter tradition of Jesus’ identity and resurrection has an embattled history. From our perspective, 21 centuries later, it shaped the beliefs of the Western church for centuries. But perhaps more importantly, it set the pattern for Western theological battles: the pattern was that only one view could be orthodox, any other was heterodox or wrong…one was truth and anything different was a devilish lie. Either/or. It established the precedent of not allowing for difference of viewpoints to be peacefully included. And it was no accident that the quarrel was fueled by the Greek philosophical way of thinking: if one thing is true, then anything different has to be false and dangerous. In previous centuries, differing faiths and gods had coexisted without one crowding out the others. But this was a new day.
Emperor Constantine wanted uniformity and certainty. It didn’t really matter who won as long as everyone would coexist peaceably. In no time, the battle became about power, and personal competition, and winning the label orthodox. Anything but peaceable.
So what’s wrong with this picture? These theologians are arguing over WHO Jesus is instead of talking about WHAT Jesus wanted the struggle to be about. Nothing in this historical account mentioned anything about caring for the poor and hungry or welcoming the outsider or freeing the captives. Nothing in the account was about Jesus’ central message: loving your neighbor. Nothing in the account was about having the love to embrace “the other,” or the humility to acknowledge doubt, or the courage to say that I may not have the final truth after all.
This struggle set the precedent that, in matters of church doctrine – and on spiritual matters in general — you could not simply agree to disagree. Someone had to be right and the other wrong. And yet Jesus said you would know the faithful, not by their words or “beliefs,” but by their actions of loving by caring for those in need, standing up for the oppressed and welcoming the outsider. The Arian controversy said nothing about that.
Theologian Peter Rollins would say the Cross is a repudiation of that “religious God” kind of thinking – the God we create who cares about theological fights and whether we BELIEVE correctly. He says that our true beliefs are not what we “think” or “believe” in the abstract. Our true beliefs are only seen in our actions. Whether he escaped the grave or not, Jesus changed the world not so much by resurrection, as by insurrection, which he modeled by:
- Applauding the faith of a non-Jewish woman and a Roman centurion; and even as a Jewish teacher, he didn’t ask for their conversion.
- Slamming the clergy for demanding the letter of the law even when it hurt people.
- Healing the sick, welcoming the stranger, breaking the rules that were breaking the people and saying God’s mercy is free, not channeled thru religious systems.
- Excoriating those who drew a line, deciding who was in and who was out.
- And sayings that the whole law could be summed up in one sentence a child could understand: love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.
And yet, the Christian church, with its “religious God” has set the world ablaze with its “turn or burn” gospel and its prideful and culturally violent means of conversion.
But not every follower of the Galilean peasant has colluded with the religious system. I believe Christ is Risen means the Spirit of that Christ we know in Jesus is alive in the world. That Spirit among us has acted out a better way…and history has written that story, too….in orphanages, schools, soup kitchens and food pantries, advocacy for freeing slaves (both then and now) and marching for civil rights, campaigns to cancel third-world debt, health programs that save lives and much more.
They may be outnumbered, but there are the faithful who embody this Spirit in every denomination, every conservative movement, every liberal movement, every major religion and among the non-religious. Jesus said you will know them by their actions, not by their words. And for Christians, the Spirit of Christ Risen – the power of Easter — means the faithful in every place, are overcoming death in myriad ways, loving neighbors as themselves in action — not by parsing scripture and arguing doctrine….
No matter what we believe about resurrection, we are called to lead an insurrection…not by arguing theology…
We are called to be the children of God by imitating Jesus.