In spite of the lingering snow (or perhaps helped along by it), local Christians are looking forward to Easter. While society as a whole isn’t quite as affected by Easter as it is by Christmas, there’s still an awareness and recognition of it.
What might Easter mean for someone who thinks and practices faith from a liberal or progressive Christian perspective? It’s probably best to start with what Easter traditionally represents.
While “Easter” refers specifically to the day on which Jesus of Nazareth was raised from death, in most minds it also involves the events leading up to that moment – particularly Jesus’ trial and death by crucifixion, as well as his resurrection. (In church lingo, this series of events is referred to as Christ’s “Passion.”)
The dominant contemporary understanding of Christ’s Passion is that an angry God required the blood sacrifice of a representative human to “pay for” human sinfulness. Jesus’ death “bought” God’s forgiveness for humanity. And Jesus’ resurrection was like God stamping “paid” on the bill.
Drastically simplified, of course, but not all that far from the popular view.
And that perspective has always raised questions. Wouldn’t an all-knowing God realize that people would fail, make mistakes, commit sin? If so, why wouldn’t a loving God either prevent that, or at least, make a less graphically punitive arrangement?
And how can a God who willingly kills his own son expect human beings to love him freely, without feeling as if they are forced into an “or else” situation? Theologian Rita Nakashima Brock has called the idea of God the Father requiring the death of Jesus the Son “divine child abuse.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that many people have turned away from faith, just because of unresolved issues like these. But other people have retained their faith, working through the questions and doubts to discover (or reclaim) a different view on what it all means.
For me, one of the most transforming ways to understand Christ’s Passion is to view it with the world’s violent ways clearly in mind. Violence is the environment in which we live; evil-doers, whether cinematic or actual, are dispatched by officially sanctioned violence (capital punishment, military action, assassination by drone).
Jesus of Nazareth also lived in the midst of a violent environment, and his message was that God did not desire humans to live in that fashion. However, the ways of violence have such a hold on human society and psychology that Jesus became violence’s victim.
By dying an undeserved death, the innocent Jesus demonstrates God’s complete solidarity with the innocent and victimized, a notion that runs throughout Jesus’ ministry and is then, in some sense, ratified by God’s act of raising Jesus again from death.
So what might Easter mean in this sort of context?
First, it isn’t an opportunity to beat ourselves up over how terrible we are, how badly we’ve treated God, and how unable we are to make amends.
Second, I don’t need to “prove” certain facts about Jesus in order to validate his presence or role in the world. It seems to me that the continued survival of multiple churches that worship Jesus and try to perpetuate his teachings is proof enough of a life worth celebrating and imitating.
Third and most important, this approach invites us to re-commit ourselves to justice for the oppressed and abused and an end to violence and exploitation, in order to participate in the work of “raising” humanity out of its captivity to the ways of death and into the life we were intended to live.
If God seeks to be completely on the side of the abused, the oppressed, the victims of violence both physical and mental, and if God’s desire is for a world where those persons are not only cared for but the causes of their suffering are ended permanently, then whatever “new life” Easter brings is an opportunity to join God in standing with the victimized.
This is at least part of the reason why liberal/progressive Christians tend to be involved in issues of social justice, because we believe in being partners with God in demonstrating the ultimate weakness and worthlessness of the forces of oppression and violence and making visible another way of being human together.