BY MARK JOHNSON
Easter poses a fundamental question to us: what god is it that we worship, into whose image we are then created? Too often we hear and read of the Gospel demeaned as a tool of violence and division, of how it is used by “us” against “them”, but only really succeeding in expressing a society “we” construct with the materials of lurid imagination and bitterness.
Easter is the barrier to our wilful culture-wars, and the crucifixion and Resurrection are in fact the vindications of a God not made in our own violent image and self-interest. Pride and anger may conjure a deity of violent righteousness to serve our purposes, but Easter does not provide the basis for this. In fact it is the weakness of God that is revealed, and our ambitions for triumph humbled.
Whether we like or not, Easter is a time in which we come face to face with the question of “who do you say that I am?” Am I the weaponry you adopt so to wield against the unrighteous and your own tormenting demons? Or am I that which commands all swords to be put away for ‘my Kingdom is not of this world’ and does not need your violence to safe-guard it?
Like Christmas, in which we then too are confronted with the deeply troubling event of God present in the incompleteness of humanity, Easter is that other disturbing season in which our will for power is again dashed. We cannot escape from the fact that the crucifixion was a shameful death, and that the early Christian communities had to endure, in many more ways than one, the humiliation of a death fit for thieves and insurgents.
The early Church was blessed by the double burden of having to realise and express itself upon the foundations of God being incarnate within the weakness and taint of humanity, and whose death was humiliating. Both foundations regarded with disdain by Roman Empire and Hellenic culture.
It was not a glorious death. It was not one readily able to be utilised for the purposes of empire or the sophistication of culture. It was other deity heroes that had overcome death and been adopted as suitable for worship by the forces of empire and the respect of culture.
Easter celebrates the unravelling of mundane hopes for glory.
Mithras was a deity more suited for empire. He was a warrior that defeated death: youthful, shining, pure and inspiring for those with an empire state of mind. This glorious deity was adopted and celebrated by the Roman legions. He was one that inspired and perpetuated the required military ethos, making violence both beautiful and heroic.
Another mythological deity celebrated for his overcoming of death was the gifted and graceful Orpheus. His descent into the underworld so to search for and bring back to life his beloved Eurydice celebrated in that mystery cult we know as Orphism. Heroic, beautiful, pure and gifted with the most extraordinary musical genius, he lulled the denizens of the underworld, and even Hades himself. Add tragic hero to the mix: with his adventure being thwarted, his love lost, and his roaming the world in grief playing music so exquisite that even the gods of Olympus wept (to the point that he was killed by a lightning bolt and raised to Olympus).
The historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth was of no service to lovers of perfection and violence. Empire would need a few more centuries to co-opt the cross as its banner, ensuring of course that the actual man was removed from it.
Violence has usually removed the actual man from the symbol so to make the cross a more ready weapon. The same happens when Easter is excised from the larger life of Jesus. But just as the cross is meaningless without the man, so too Easter isn’t just about one episode – no one’s life ever is. Rather, it is about the whole man, the whole of his life. His deliberately humiliating and violent death; his being at the edge of mainstream righteousness; his challenge to the trappings of religious, economic and political power; his ritual impurity, his dubious birth and childhood. In summary: in spoken word, actual deed, and manner of being, Jesus of Nazareth was the rejection of the discourses and practices of violence and the rewards it bestows upon those who wield them.
I cannot imagine what Gospel it is that people read so to find source for a god and religion of violence and culture-war, because such a figure does not exist in those Gospels which have been accepted by the Church as canonical. It was in fact violence which was employed so viciously against Jesus of Nazareth. Neither can I imagine what ambition is realised by those who in fact betray the hope revealed by that vindication we know as Resurrection.
If we choose to use the language that celebrates violence, power, perfection, and death so to proclaim the God of peace, weakness, transgression, and life, then all we are doing is in fact showing a text that is written within our own hearts of darkness, one that we ourselves have written.
Just like the entire life of Jesus of Nazareth, Easter is about life realised anew. It is not the domain of the ever youthful warrior hero or of the tragically beautiful, because these are the mere celebrity figures of violence. Nor is Easter the toy of the ritually pure, of the privileged few, or in fact any grouping of people that benefit from violence in its many forms. We should be very careful in our selection of what language we use so to proclaim that Life which raises us from the bondage of violence and death.
Mark Johnson teaches in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he is a PhD candidate.
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