31 March 2018

Easter 2018

"Christ is risen!"
"Christ is risen, indeed!"

On Easter Sunday in Christian communities all over the world, people will be uttering this phrase to one another. Some may do so with a polite smile on their faces, going along with the rest of the room. Others will shout it at their neighbors, nearly deafening them with loud enthusiasm. Yet still others will offer the greeting in whispers as they are overcome the weight of their words, allowing, instead, the sparkle in their eyes to communicate the intensity of the moment. And still there are many more ways to engage in this annual greeting (or more frequent greeting, perhaps, in some circles).

In all of the years I have participated in Easter services that include this greeting, I don't think I have ever experienced a half-hearted or disappointed response to "Christ is risen!" It's happy news; it's a declaration of life; it's victory over evil; it's good news. 

Easter has always been one of my favorite times of year: that mysterious ever moving holiday that marks the passage of time and the changing of seasons in a calendar that I did not know; that time that marked the end of my least favorite season (winter) and hinted at my favorite (summer); that morning spent hunting for a basket of candy before I needed to go to church (is it in the oven? on top of the pantry? in the clothes dryer?); that church service filled with songs we only got to sing once a year (Low in the grave he lay, Christ the Lord is risen today, always from the 1969 red hymnal even though they were also in the newer blue book); that afternoon hunting eggs in Grandma's yard, being told that no, there are no eggs in the neighbors field, but looking there anyway; that evening full of food and the most intense intergenerational game of Phase 10 in northeast Ohio.

And it is here, in Easter, that Christians encounter one of the two poles that dictate the entirety of their religious tradition; the events that organize the annual cycle of Christian life into periods waiting for these holidays, counting the days after these holidays, and counting down until we can start waiting for these holidays again (Christmas and Easter, if you weren't following). Beneath all the layers of rosy nostalgia, what was it that we have been teaching one another about this holiday, this second half of Christian identity?

Lent leads up to Holy Week (it is one of the seasons of waiting), and during this week, there is an opportunity for the Christian tradition to focus on a series of defining events that includes as its final episode the Resurrection. After Jesus entered Jerusalem, he did and said quite a lot about religious and political powers that manipulate, abuse, and exploit the people. He saw corruption, and he addressed it, emphasizing the value of the vulnerable and the exploited and condemning those with power and money. And it would appear those ideas caught on, and religious and political leaders feared rebellion.

Maundy Thursday recounts the Last Supper, where Jesus and twelve of his friends shared a meal together and talked about difficult topics, including Jesus' own impending capture; they know that they have kicked a hornets' nest. They talk about service, about humility, about resisting inequality, about countering narratives of hate with those of love.

Good Friday illustrates the response of the powerful to those who speak truth to them. Jesus is captured, questioned, tortured, and brutally executed. The message is clear: when you speak out against greed, exploitation, manipulation, cruelty, and injustice perpetrated by religious and political authorities, those powers will come after you and try to undermine you in whatever way they can.

While many Christians skip over this larger story and move directly to Easter, those that do recognize the story of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday often warp it to serve their own self-interest. Jewish people have been blamed for Christ's death, and the story of Jesus' life has been used to justify anti-Semitism, ignoring the fact that Jesus and his early followers were all Jewish, themselves, and manipulating a story that was supposed to encourage love for all people. Even as wield their faith as a sword to cut down all other belief systems (especially Judaism and Islam), Christians have also internalized and repeated the cycle of oppressing, manipulating, and exploiting other followers of their own religion. Friday night, my partner and I joined a conversation about the intersection of the Cross and the Lynching Tree at a local church. The pastor leading the discussion expressed a fascination that black Americans, such as himself, adopted the Christian faith of their white oppressors and made it their own, and continued to practice it even as white Christians continued to enslave them, and found all sorts of new ways to oppress them after slavery was legally ended. These white Americans were not only Christians, but used their Christian faith as a justification for the continued abuse of black people in America, and quite a few people still do to this very day.

Christians have also managed to use the story of Jesus' suffering and death to justify the suffering of others, or their abuse of others, as in the case of the serial abuser and prominent Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, among many, many others. People also use Christianity more generally in widespread attempts, both historical and contemporary, to rob women of their dignity, their autonomy, and their voice, and to exclude women and LGBTQ individuals from leadership. Queer people, where they are not driven out of Christian communities altogether, are often relegated to a lesser status, denied at the outset the opportunity to live freely and contribute fully to the life and mission of churches and church organizations.

Mennonite Church USA continues to deny LGBTQ people full recognition as equally loved children of God, even as they move slowly in that direction through actions such as the approval of Doug Basinger's nomination to the Leadership Discernment Committee. Mennonite Central Committee, as another example, recently reaffirmed its commitment to discriminating against LGBTQ people on its staff and extended that exclusionary policy to include members of the board as well. (by contrast, it is worth noting that Mennonite Mission Network does not offer a definition of "marriage" in its lifestyle commitments/expectations. That doesn't mean they don't discriminate, but discrimination doesn't appear to be written into their documents the way it is in MCC's. Please correct me if I am mistaken; Lifestyle Commitments; MVS Handbook)1

The tired Anabaptist discriminatory playbook continues to make its presence felt within these organizations as queer people and allies are asked to "go along" with this discrimination because of a "shared mission and vision," as a board member of one of these organizations said to me. At the same time LGBTQ folks are pitted against people of color and international partners, as if their interests are totally at odds with one another (in spite of the fact that people around the world learned homophobia from colonial European Christianity). In the end, we see religious leaders perpetuating attitudes of domination and manipulation, silencing people while trying not to make a scene (like the religious leaders who sought to silence Jesus without inciting a riot), through whatever means they feel are at their disposal. Time will only tell whether these stories are told, or, like the role of Anabaptists in the Holocaust or in the displacement of native peoples in North America, it will be blissfully ignored and dismissed by institutions that style themselves as "people of God's peace."2

So, now that my rant about Anabaptist institutions has concluded, what about the Resurrection? If the underlying forces from the Holy Week story continue to permeate Christianity, what role does Easter Sunday, play? In the midst of all of this rejection, heartbreak, and feeling of betrayal, there is hope. The Christian story we tell each other says (or can say) that religious and political leaders cannot silence the love of God; that we shall overcome; that one day we'll have a place at the welcome table; that the forces of shaming, exclusion, economic inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. will not triumph; that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And the story of Easter also invites us to participate in this work. This is what it means when we greet each other with

"Christ is risen!"
"Christ is risen, indeed!"

1 I am aware that it is not the explicit intention of these institutions to discriminate against people and to perpetuate harmful ideologies. However, the simple fact remains that, well-intentioned or not, that is what they are doing.
2 While these are extreme examples of Anabaptists oppressing others, the same impulse to denounce, exclude, and dismiss others runs through anti-LGBTQ policies in Anabaptist contexts, which contribute to a broader culture that denies the personhood of queer individuals and results in higher rates suicide in the LGBTQ community.

1 comment:

  1. Scott,
    The structure of this piece is perfect and its message timely.