Monday, April 16, 2012
When the cross came crashing down: The impact of bringing logic to Easter
I think it all went back to one experience I had on the evening of Maundy Thursday, (the day before Good Friday) about 20 years ago in Barbados . That evening I came down with a severe case of gastro-enteritis and ended up having to spend the night in the hospital. While I lay in the bed writhing in pain on Friday morning I remembered Jesus. I was able to reassure myself by thinking that my present anguish was nothing compared to what my saviour had to bear more than 2000 years before. I think that helped me to get through it. I even managed to convince myself that Jesus was bringing me through this agony on the anniversary of his death, in order that I may understand his own pain. After a while, I almost felt honoured to be chosen to carry Christ's cross with him that morning. It's crazy to recollect this way of thinking now, but it is amazing what mental gymnastics your mind can do in situations of immense pain, especially when you have the love of Jesus in your heart.
However, I think I was being quite rational when I smiled with relief realising I was missing Good Friday morning service. As many people in the Anglican church will tell you, Good Friday is by far the most boring service in the liturgical year. It's long, very long, the prayers themselves are everlasting. The music is deliberately set to be dead and dreary. There's no communion to give you a little nourishment to help you endure to the end. No procession to break the monotony and give your legs a stretch. To add to the dirge, everyone comes dressed in their most drab black outfits. There was just no take away from Good Friday that could help you get through what was an equally dour rest of the day. They call it Good Friday, but the only thing good about it, is knowing that when you walk out at the end, it will be another full year before it comes back. Recognising that the Lord had delivered me from Good Friday mass was enough evidence to convince me then that he was worthy of my praise.
Thankfully, by early afternoon I was fine to go home and on Sunday I was fighting fit again and ready for Easter morning church. I was in no way prepared for what greeted me. Apparently, it had been announced during service on Good Friday that I was sick and had to go to hospital. I arrived to people treating me as though I myself was the one who emerged from the empty tomb. All sorts of people in the congregation, some I barely knew, came up giving me huge hugs telling me how much they were praying for me and how amazing it was that God had delivered me that Easter morn. I was a bit taken aback. Yes, I had to spent a night in a hospital but it wasn't as though I had a life threatening condition. Still, it was an uplifting feeling to know that if I ever did have a real emergency that there was a community there to support me. I also had to remember that compared to two days earlier, I was in remarkably good shape. I had bounced back from a challenging experience and there was a lot I had to be thankful for.
After that year, Easter grew in significance to me. I even found a greater appreciation for Good Friday. I came to love Palm Sunday too. Palm Sunday was the day of the big procession on the Sunday before Easter. We would walk from the surrounding villages carrying palms in hand to symbolise Jesus's triumphant entry into Jerusalem. It was great from a personal perspective becomes many years I led the procession playing clarinet or saxophone and that provided me with a sense of worth. I began to see Holy Week as telling a story not so much about Jesus himself, but about the human experience. You have the Palm Sundays where everything seems to be going well, experience a setback on a Good Friday, but you overcome and celebrate your Easters at the end. That's the story of life. When you are up you have to remember that obstacles can come and you can trip or fall, but you can also take hope from the fact that however low you go you always have the hope of finding a way back up. So that's what the Easter story meant to me, the power of the 'comeback.'
So, it didn't matter to me whether Jesus actually rose from the dead bodily or not. It wasn't important. To argue over these things was to miss the point. " No Cross, No Crown" was the common phrase we would say and I firmly bought in to that. You had to experience the weight of the cross if you ever wanted to wear the crown of glory. Little did I know then, that the cross was soon going to buckle under its own weight and that the entire structure would come crashing down.
What if Jesus didn't bother?
The first sign that the cross's centre of gravity was shifting came one Christmas. It was one of those plays that we used to put on every year. As usual, I had my designated role of music leader, which inevitably meant standing at the ready to fill in with instrumental interludes as scripted, or in emergency if somebody forgot a line or didn't arrive on stage on time. In this year in question, the drama playing out on stage featured a typical family scene; children running around playing while putting up decorations on a tree, Daddy stumbling home slightly intoxicated after being out with 'the boys' somewhere and Mummy frantically trying to get the house prepared for the big day, sweeping vigorously and shooing everybody out of her way. At one point Mum says, " Man, I am so tired of all this Christmas work, I want to sleep, I don't think I'll bother to go to church for midnight mass." There was a dramatic pause of shock and horror and then the narrator's voice broke through, " Can't be bothered? You can't be bothered? Just imagine if Jesus couldn't be bothered to die on the cross!"
That line hit me with a jolt. "Yes, what would have happened if Jesus didn't bother to die on the cross?" It occurred to me at that moment that it would pretty much be nothing. Not a single thing in the world that we can observe would be different without a Jesus crucifixion. That's one of the main reasons why we can't determine whether the event even happened. I mean, what changed when Jesus died or came back in his new body? The laws of physics were not altered to make natural disasters less likely. The human body continued to be susceptible to the same diseases as it was before the divine bleeding. Men and women continued to be just as prone to do evil as they ever were. No technological breakthroughs or game changing inventions came after the veil was torn in two. No social norms shifted after Jesus was caught in the cross nails. Slaves were still slaves, women were still second class citizens. So what if Jesus didn't bother?
Physical pain for spiritual gain
I pondered on this some more in coming weeks. If there was no physical impact that death on the cross made, what really had this all been for? I recognised that if I put my thoughts beyond the physical dimension, the cross could be seen to have achieved many things. Salvation from hell, eternal life in heaven, forgiveness of sin. These things were all well and good but we have no way of testing whether we actually have any of these. Furthermore, if we do have them, we have no way of knowing whether we wouldn't have had them if Jesus didn't do his death and resurrection thing. Everything that the cross is said to have done for us is conveniently outside the realm of testability. Things were not looking good for the Jesus character now and his cross was beginning to look more and more shaky.
Apart from the unfalsifiability problem, it didn't seem logical that an action in the physical realm would be needed in order to achieve something in the spiritual world. It would stand to reason that a physical sacrifice would lead to physical redemption, a spiritual sacrifice would lead to spiritual redemption. That would be logical wouldn't it? If I want to get an apple tree, why would I plant cherry seeds? The cross was definitely in trouble now that I was analysing the material it consisted of in such great detail. It didn't take me long to realise that the cross was not only old and rugged as the song says, but brittle and breaking up along the edges. It seemed it would have little chance of standing up in the face of unrelenting logic.
I became by this time concerned about why a human sacrifice of any kind was necessary. As I said before, I knew that the resurrection itself may not have taken place as explained in the bible, but by now my issue was with whether the storyline itself made sense. It's like going to watch a movie at the cinema. You know it's fiction, but that doesn't stop you from going over the plot in your head as you leave the theatre to see if all the threads of the story hang together. If they don't, you have to conclude it was a second rate film and you certainly won't be going out of your way to recommend it to your friends.
Looking at it, the only context in which this sacrifice of Jesus could make any sense was in the Old Testament way of looking at things. In that world, shedding of innocent blood atoned for the sins of the community. In order for the story to hold together we would have to mentally transport ourselves back into the days we read of in the Torah, where humans walked side by side with a temperamental Yahweh who had a serious burnt offering addiction. Ok, maybe that could work, I thought. No, even if I made that concession, the tale of the cross wasn't hanging together.
The problem with going on Old Testament thinking is that it went counter to the idea of the new covenant that Jesus himself is supposed to have brought. How often have we heard Christians tell us that we should ignore all of the strange rituals and practices recorded in the Old Testament because Jesus brought a new covenant? But this new covenant only makes sense if viewed from the perspective of the outdated old covenant. Now the two lines of the cross were clearly tugging against each other, this could only lead to more disequilibrium, I thought. I was right.
If Jesus didn't die on the cross we would have to become vegetarians.
Once I put myself into Old Testament mindset, I realised the true horror of what we would need to do if we were to ever find out that Jesus Christ didn't die on the cross. We would have to get the knives out quick and start slaughtering like crazy. Without Christ's blood that has a 'sin compensation equivalent' of infinity we would have to kill animals from here to eternity in order to make up for what would be now more than two millennia of deficit Whether there would be a single animal left for us to eat would be doubtful. So, maybe that's the answer to the question in the Christmas play. If Jesus didn't die on the cross, we would have to become vegetarians. How I would love to wear that on a T- shirt and explain it to bewildered passers by.
I know this sounds like absurdity but it is what happens when you carry a ridiculous doctrine to it's logical conclusion. It is one of the most bizarre things that human beings have come up with, the idea that gods need to smell blood to be happy. I have too much respect for gods, even imaginary ones, to think that they would come up with a system like that. If you are going to insist that a physical sacrifice is needed why go to the extent of a gory death. Jesus could have just stumped his toe on a rock, and declared that through this all mankind is saved. This would be no less logical a connection to salvation than what we have from the stories in the gospels. If Jesus's blood has infinite saving power, a watch glass sample from the graze of a foot, should do the job just as well. No need for the several pints oozing out on the cross from every conceivable orifice. The more I thought about this thing the less sense it made. The cross looked like it was really ready to topple now. How much longer could it hold up?
Sacrificing himself to himself in order to save mankind from himself
Around this time I had taken to the internet to see whether others out there found what I was beginning to see in Christianity equally illogical. This turned out to be another big blow to the cross. I came across the description of Christianity that I have now heard or seen written countless times."God sacrificed himself on to himself in order to save mankind from himself."
When I first read this I laughed. Surely this was a caricature. You can't sum up the Christian doctrine like that. But, when I deconstructed it, I found the description to be bang on. Jesus, we are taught, is God. God made the rules for salvation and created the very hell he is supposedly saving us from. The cracks in the cross were very visible now, I could see a break coming, the final crash was not far off.
By now it was becoming very hard for me to feel any pride about the cross as I saw it in its weakened state, deteriorating before my eyes. It was obvious to me now that the entire Easter story was about God contriving a situation where he could appear to be the hero. This was not a 'comeback story.' This was the story of a man deliberately mutilating himself, then healing the wounds and making himself well again. Where is the power in that story? Where is the sacrifice? What had we been saved from? I was just left with a hollow feeling. I had long dismissed the story as not being literal, but where was the value in it? What was the metaphor? What was the moral within the pages of this allegory that I could take away?
Moral foundation giving way
Morals, morals, morals. That was the last thing that could perhaps save my cross. The logical threads had come apart in many places but surely there was a good message in the story overall, wasn't there? But I knew even as I asked this question out loud that there was no real message of love here. The God in this Christianity story was looking more and more like a snake-oil salesman. I was definitely seeing a crooked cross. The more I thought about this story the more I realised that this doctrine is not about us at all, it was all about Him. Everything is set up to make Jesus look like 'the man'. It starts with the horror of the crucifixion. We have already established it was not necessary to the plot, but it's the major part of the story. Why is it there? It's all about reeling us in emotionally. It's about gaining our sympathy not our salvation. It's a sentiment that's played on unashamedly by movie makers like Mel Gibson who make sure they let us witness every strike of the whip on his back, every drop of blood from his sweaty brow as he struggles to carry his cross. That's right, we are supposed to feel sorry for Jesus. But it doesn't end there, we are supposed to feel guilty too. It's our fault. We are the ones that should be going through this brutalisation. Look at what we made Jesus go through all because we are wicked, worthless people, an abomination in the eyes of God just for being human.
Then Jesus returns two days later, raises himself, and conquers death, and we are supposed to say thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you to the end of our days and then for eternity after that. Jesus conquering death? He is God, all he was doing on that resurrection day was turning back on his super powers. Returning to God 'business as usual.' He could easily have stopped the slaughter. What does he want after all this? He wants our worship. That just didn't make sense to me, that's not what a real hero does. The moral thing to do is not to demand gratitude, just accept it if it is offered, graciously. The satisfaction of knowing that the people you helped have benefited personally or collectively should be reward in itself. Who can forget Captain Sully the pilot on the Hudson river saving those passengers. Some came back to thank him, but he was almost embarrassed about it. After that thanking, people moved on to make the most of their second chance in life without harping back too much on that day. Sully saved them from a danger we could all recognise. Still, there are no Sully churches by the river, no Sully pilgrimages being embarked on, no Sully prayers being offered up.
Jesus, on the other hand, isn't that forgiving about being left out of the "Vote of Thanks." Recognising him is more important than anything that we can do for ourselves or our fellow human beings. He will not let us move on from focusing on this cross and what HE did.
The inevitable crash
Bang!! That was it, with the moral foundation now giving way under the cross, there was nothing left to keep it standing. It came crashing down and their was simply nothing I could do. I would be lying if I said I wasn't sad to see it go. I had hung on to that Old Rugged Cross for a long time.
I have to say that losing the cross in no way means that I think everything to do with Christianity, Christians or the church is evil or immoral. I recognise that for many Christians the doctrinal things don't matter much. It has often been said that many believers treat religious doctrine and creeds as they treat computer software licenses. They just scroll down to the bottom of the page and click, " I Agree."
Most Christians are in church to have fellowship, find ways to help others in their communities and try to follow the teachings of Jesus. I have recognised on numerous occasions the contributions of churches in the arts, music, poetry and architecture. At Christmas I wrote here about how much I enjoyed embracing the myth of Christ's birth. It really and truly is just the cross that I can no longer support.
So, this year at Easter as I reflected on the once lofty cross now shattered on the ground it was hard to feel the joy that used to come with that day. Easter is no longer that great 'comeback story.' It's not to say that I am miserable now as a result. I just go to other places for inspirational 'comeback stories.' Preferably drawing on accounts in the non fictional section.
Since my cross has fallen, I have had lots of offers from Christians to help me put it back up again. Shattered it may be, but they assure me I can still put it back together from memory. With the right people supporting me, my cross can stand up proudly once more. They might be right. I could probably reconstruct my cross if I wanted to. However, I am afraid it will topple again once the winds of logic hit it and I just don't want to waste my time or theirs.