As we approach another Easter, and prepare to tell again the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, what message will we give about the reasons for the events of that momentous week ?
For many preachers I suspect the temptation will be to turn to the familiar message that “God so loved the world …” and to avoid getting involved in the politics of the events of Holy Week. But I believe this would be a mistake.
My first reason for saying this is because I believe that, as Richard Rohr reminds us, in the events of the first Easter ‘Jesus was not changing God’s mind about us; he was changing our minds about God.’ The Cross is not a mechanism by which a wrathful God avoids punishing a broken creation but a demonstration of God’s love. In the events of Easter we see God experiencing at first-hand what it means to be a victim.
And so there’s much at stake in our Easter proclamation. Our view of the Cross affects our picture of God, and our picture of God in turn affects our dealings with others. If the Cross is indeed all about turning God from punishment to forgiveness we end up with a very different picture of God than if it is about demonstrating that in fact God has loved us all along. And this difference manifests itself in history, for as Rohr writes:
If God and Jesus are not violent or vindictive, then our excuse for the same is forever taken away from us. If God is punitive and torturing, then we have permission to do the same. Thus grew much of the church’s violent history.
My second reason for suggesting that we turn from over-spiritualising the Easter story is because I believe that it is not God who brought about the death of Jesus, but human beings. As Mennonite scholar J Denny Weaver puts it:
Jesus was not a passive victim, whose purpose was to get himself killed in order to satisfy a big cosmic legal requirement. Rather, Jesus was an activist, whose mission was to make the rule of God visible. And his acts demonstrated what the reign of God looked like … And when Jesus made the reign of God visible and present in that way, it was so threatening that the assembled array of evil forces killed him.J Denny Weaver, “Violence in Christian Theology” Cross Currents, Summer 2001
Whatever we may believe about the way that God relates to the events of history, there is no avoiding the fact that the death of Jesus was a result of human decisions. Yet it is very easy for social and political realities to be hidden behind religious rhetoric. When that happens, oppression becomes “sacrifice” and suffering becomes “duty”. This Easter, therefore, let’s be honest about the forces that led to the death of Jesus, forces that we continue to see in the world around us, indeed in ourselves, today.
The cross may not have been necessary for God but in human terms it was probably inevitable. To return to the phrase which I discussed in an earlier post: “Blood had to be spilt”. This, I believe, is a fundamental truth not about God but about human beings and human societies. No less in first Century Palestine than in twenty first century Australia, it would seem to be a fundamental truth about the human condition that we seek affirmation for ourselves in the pain of others:
But maybe, there was some need people had to hurt others, some horrible need, that hurting one … in some way might make others feel safe and good and happy.Richard Flanagan, The Unknown Terrorist, Vintage 2006, p. 206
There is a sense in much of the New Testament that the death of Jesus was part of an inexorable process, almost inevitable, certainly foreseen, not because of God’s planning but because that is what we do to those amongst us who are different, and whose difference poses a threat to us.
Look at the way blood is shed in our world today: women, people of colour, LGBTI, religious minorities, children, the list could go on. In his Easter suffering, the first century Jew Jesus of Nazareth stands in solidarity with them, and in his rising reveals to us that beyond even death there is hope.
In such a world, our Easter proclamation speaks not of a man who died because of a far-away divine decree but of a God-man who died as a result of the same social and political dynamics at work in our world today, where women and men are excluded and killed because they are different.
One of the most powerful expressions of the Easter message I have ever been part of was one year when a group of theological students decided to illustrate the traditional Catholic Stations of the Cross with pages from the week’s newspapers. Here, perfectly and profoundly illustrated, were the events of Holy Week seen in the people and events of our own time.
If, therefore, we are looking for the reasons for the events of the first Easter we need look no further than our own world.
You may also be interested in Peter’s earlier blog post on preaching Judas.
Revd Peter King is a Research Associate of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. He trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education.