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.