Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter: Our Yearly Reminder That We Really Are Trash

Here we are again in the middle of Easter weekend, and throughout progressive Christian churches and circles you will hear sermons and read articles which try to shed a different light on the Jesus story. They will focus on liberation theology, how Jesus’ mission was to reach out to the marginalized, and how he was so inwardly free that he was able to give himself up totally, even to the point of death. Many of these sermons and articles will hold a measure of insight and truth.

But this isn’t that kind of article.

This evening a Facebook friend of mine who I attended a fundamentalist Bible college with posted one of those dreaded meme’s – you know, a cutesy or even powerful picture with an equal cutesy or powerful/insightful quote. But it’s holy week, so the flippancy and absurd nature of such meme’s have found their way into my Facebook feed. This particular meme featured a picture of Jesus on the cross, accompanied by a quote by the American Calvinist theologian and author R.C. Sproul. The quote reads as follows: “Why do bad things happen to good people? That only happened once, and He volunteered.”

There it was – the essential message of fundamentalist Christianity this time of year. In order to raise up Christ, we must naturally denigrate every single human being who ever lived or whoever will live. The rest of us are bad boys and girls who deserve a spanking – an eternal spanking at that. Fundamentalist evangelical Christian preachers and authors thus become bully-enablers.  Jesus is the most powerful person on the playground, and you must submit to his awesomeness at the expense of your own dignity.

I don’t know about you, but I’m so over the idea of original sin. Does anyone with a rational mind still believe that a long time ago in a place far far away (to most of us), a woman was given a piece of fruit by a talking snake, and that this woman then handed it to her husband, who upon taking a bite, ensured the filthiness and depravity of each and every person who would ever live from that time forward? (It was also probably convenient for the author of the creation myth to blame “Eve,” simply on the basis that she was the subordinate woman.)

Ever since this teaching of the fall of humanity became popular and then vastly accepted as traditional Christian doctrine, guilt and shame has been burned, etched into the psyche’s of those of us who were fortunate enough (tongue-in-cheek) to grow up within fundamentalism. “Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving!” as Bishop John Shelby Spong is fond of saying.  We are wretches, worms, unworthy of gathering up the crumbs from God’s table – that is, until the supposedly perfect Jewish Christ relented and finally granted the Gentile woman her wish after a clever reply that she managed to give.

This guilt complex has often invaded us at almost every level and in almost every instance at one point or another in our lives. Not only have we often heard from one or both parents that we’re a “bad boy” or a “dirty girl,” but it is reinforced with a divine devastation. We’re guilty of acts of commission, we’re guilty of acts of omission. We’re guilty for being sexual beings, we’re guilty for using our brains and questioning our pastors or a centuries-old worldview. We’re guilty for only praying for 15 minutes and not 20.

If we’ve had religious guilt pounded into our psyche’s and hearts by those we consider our holy leaders, it has seemed only natural that we turn to them for some way – ANY way – out of our dire predicament in order to escape this earthly guilt as well as eternal hellfire.

And so we bought into the idea of blood atonement. Many of us heard and sang about the blood of Jesus so much growing up that we were practically "brain-washed in the blood" of God’s only son. And it seemed like a perfectly natural idea, probably because it drastically reduced (at least for a fleeting time) our unbearable guilt complex. However, once we give up the notion that every person within every belief (or non-belief) system must be redeemed through what was originally an ancient Jewish atonement ritual, the grotesque and macabre nature of the crucifixion story begin to be realized. Growing up as a fundamentalist Christian teenager (the word Christian has been bastardized by others such as Paul, but I digress,) I joyously and fervently sang hymns like “Nothing But The Blood Of Jesus,” “Power In The Blood,” and “The Solid Rock (My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less).” I had no problem with the imagery.

Today it seems bizarre and, again, grotesque. The only way for all of humanity to be saved is to be “washed in the blood” or “cleansed by the blood”?  It sounds like something more out of the latest horror film than it does out of any sane and rational thinking. As Spong points out, Catholics drink the blood (with the official doctrine stating that when one partakes in the Eucharist, they are literally drinking the actual blood of Jesus,) while Protestants choose to immerse themselves in it.

Another disturbing element of the Easter story which I never questioned at all when I was a fundamentalist was the idea that God the Father sent his only begotten son to die on the cross for my (and the whole world’s) sins. Perhaps you are familiar with the popular modern hymn “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us." Its first verse reads: "How deep the Father's love for us/How vast beyond all measure/That He should give His only Son/To make a wretch His treasure."

Basically, God the Father loved me – ME – so much that he put his son in my place on the cross. Here are two questions: Is such a supposedly all-powerful and great God unable to forgive to the point where he needs shed blood to atone for sin? Secondly, is this not a dolled-up, glorified example of divine child-abuse?

The holy week, including the crucifixion and Easter may or may not be salvageable. Re-interpreting the symbols and language may be fulfilling for you.  A message which focuses on Jesus’ inclusive, compassionate, and loving nature may help a lot of people, as well as his penchant for a refreshing downward mobility. But for me, at least this year, the long-told stories only bring anger, as the “good news” of Easter only further excludes non-Christians such as myself, as well as those who Jesus may very well have died for.

For the fundamentalist, there is no room at the foot of the cross or at Christ’s table  for the untouchables. Those who are called the heathen, the whores, the sick, the queer - we shrug our shoulders and look for a welcoming home elsewhere.

Mark Andrew Nouwen