After Easter

This year was the first Easter Sunday in my memory that I did not attend church. Not only Easter Sunday, but the whole of Holy Week and the whole of Lent, the only time I attended church was my farewell service on Holy Saturday. My connection to the entire season has been almost exclusively through Facebook posts, blogs and other internet posts. In spite of our moratorium on church, my husband and I have, true to form, had a number of discussions about Easter, and the theology, beliefs and practices usually associated with the holiday.

Four years ago at Easter I wrote a reflection on Holy Week services and their emphasis on the suffering of Jesus ending with this conclusion:

“My embedded theological understanding tells me that the repetition of the story of the Passion requires two responses: 1) great, possibly tearful, gratitude to the one who loved me so much as to die for me; 2) a feeling of emulation guilting me into facing my own trials and difficulties (carrying my own cross) with greater humility/willingness. This year I find for the first time that these embedded responses no longer satisfy me. I still feel that the remembrance of this story is very important, but I cannot help asking – what’s the point?”

As we discussed Easter, my husband expressed his frustration that the bleakness and despair of Friday and Saturday are so often trivialised or dismissed by a quick reminder that “Sunday’s comin'”. We weep at the cross because Jesus’ sacrifice is for our sins, but we console ourselves with the coming resurrection – it’s our fault he suffered, but it’s okay, he doesn’t stay dead. It seems to me that this narrative is more about ‘us’ than it is about Jesus. He died for me – therefore I must be tearfully grateful and inspired to change. He loves me – therefore ditto. He rose again – therefore I need not despair, but have hope to change.

But what if we’ve been looking at it all backwards? The theologian René Girard advocated a non-violent, memetic reading of the death of Jesus. What follows here is inspired by these ideas through my own thoughts and conversations with others. From this point of view, the narrative of the cross is that Jesus absorbed the violence of humanity into himself without retaliation. His death, brought on by human violence, holds up a mirror in which human beings see the reality of the destruction of violence.

Through his life and death at the hands of violence, Jesus demonstrated an alternative narrative of non-violence and positive living. By refusing to participate in the violent systems of his day, he offered a radically different way of life. Jesus’ death shows us our own desperate need for change – not just as sinful individuals, but as a depraved, violent and destructive societal system that scapegoats the innocent and kills the non-conformist. By his example we are called to step out of the system and follow the alternative narrative of his life, fully aware of the destructive end we may well face as a result.

In this narrative we are called to share in Jesus’ suffering, to see ourselves in the story – either as those who suffer at the hands of an unjust society or as those who perpetuate that society, sometimes as both. If the first, the story offers us solidarity, the knowledge that God himself has joined us in our suffering. If the second, the story calls us to see ourselves, and our society, with new eyes, and to seek to join the narrative of Jesus. (I see shades of Paul in Phil 3:10 in this idea).

If we approach the resurrection story from this angle, we find it does indeed offer hope – hope that it is possible to survive the violence and injustice of our society – hope to escape those destructive narratives and construct a life based on the positive life of Jesus – hope that comes from knowing that even if we suffer violence and injustice, we need not adopt the identity of victims. If we see ourselves in Christ and cultivate the life of Christ in us, we have the hope to live a positive life rather than a defeated one.

If this is how we approach Holy Week, we need Palm Sunday, the cleansing of the temple, the Last Supper, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday before we reach Easter Sunday. Not so we can dwell on “it was for me,” not so we can be loaded down with guilt, not so we can be inspired to a better life because Jesus died in fearful agony “for my sins.”

We need this story because we need to know that we do not suffer alone, God is with us. We need this story because we need to know that Jesus went to the cross with his eyes open, living in open opposition to the oppressive structures of religion and government that dominated the world in which he lived.

We need this story because we need time to live in Friday and Saturday, to live with grief and despair. We need this story because we must learn that the Christian faith is not triumphalist, not powerful, not violent. It is the story of God with us, who allowed himself to be victimised by the cruelty of society for the sake of justice, for the sake of the lowest and the least, for the sake of showing humanity that even God is not good enough for the rules of the religious – God was one of us, and we killed him for it.

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Costly Unity

Last Friday the Council of the Baptist Union of Great Britain released a statement concerning the contentious issue of marriage equality. The statement, initially sent via email to BUGB ministers (although not all received it on the day), was introduced as “a place where we can stand as Baptists Together.” A few days later this article  by writer and Baptist minister Mark Woods appeared. Woods offers a precise and fair summary of the issues involved in the formation and presentation of this statement.

Within hours Facebook was alive with argument, opinion and objections in relation to this statement. Many objected to the manner in which the discussion leading to the statement was carried out. Many others objected to the content of the statement, particularly in the following paragraph:

“In the light of this, recognising the costs involved and after careful and prayerful reflection and listening, we humbly urge churches who are considering conducting same-sex marriages to refrain from doing so out of mutual respect.  At the same time, we also humbly urge all churches to remain committed to our Union out of mutual respect; trusting that the one who unites us is stronger than what divides us.”

A third group of people seemed to find the content of the statement – reaffirming the “Union’s historic Biblical understanding of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and calls them to live in the light of it” – refreshing and self-explanitory and only found something to object to in the negative responses of other Baptists to the statement.

I have read the statement, dozens if not hundreds of Facebook comments, and Mark Woods’ article linked above. I have heard the view of a member of the BU council and the process by which this statement was formulated including input of information, plenary sessions, discussion and prayer. I have struggled with the conflict within myself and those I care about on this issue, and I continue to be deeply uncomfortable with this statement.

As a Baptist by conviction, I hold strongly to Baptist principles, including freedom of conscience and the priesthood of all believers. These principles clearly uphold the freedom of each believer, in the context of his or her local community of faith, to explore scripture, seek God and discern. It is true that Baptists also deeply value associating with others, and have, in the past grouped around unifying confessions of faith by mutual consent. This includes the current BUGB Declaration of Principle, which was originally worded so as to allow space for both General and Particular Baptists within the BUGB fold. This Declaration is something we hold in common, but it leaves space for each congregation to form their own beliefs in community, with prayer, based on the scriptures. Unfortunately, the statement recently released by BU Council goes beyond the Declaration of Principle, effectively imposing limits of doctrine and practice on BUGB churches and ministers without due process or the consent of all concerned.

Considering all this, I am baffled by this statement which seems to prioritise the unity of the Baptist Union above the freedom of conscience that should be granted to all parties without an imposition of restraint for the sake of that unity. I would have been much more at peace with a statement that affirmed the freedom of those in favour of marriage equality to practice their beliefs and those opposed to marriage equality to withdraw their membership from the Union if they could not reconcile their consciences to being in fellowship with those in favour, couched in terms that reminded both that it is at the core of being Baptist to allow others to discern and hold their own understandings of the message and person of Jesus Christ as revealed in scripture.

I am grieved by the pain suffered by so many people as this issue continues to burden believers. The pain of those opposed, as they feel the truth is being compromised. The pain of those in favour, as they feel their deeply held convictions are not respected. The pain of those individuals about whom we argue who are caught in the middle and de-humanised by the argument itself.

Unity at the cost of conscience is dearly bought. Too dearly in my opinion.