Even an atheist could tell the story (which may be why there are so many atheists). God loved us, but we were all really rotten and naughty. He wanted us to go to heaven and sing in his choir, but He could not let us through the pearly gates until we paid for all our badness. God had a cosmic checkbook that needed balancing. We, of course, were too poor and stupid to pay up, so God was forced to send Jesus, His only son, to pay off our debt. He sent Jesus to die for our sins. Jesus gets whipped, trampled, and nailed to a cross, and we get forgiven. That’s how much God loves us. Really? Sounds like a third grader thought this up on the playground.
Has this ever sounded a little bit weird to anybody else? It always sounded strange to me. God, the all powerful, amazing, omnipotent Creator of the vast galaxies (“gosh we’re all really impressed down here,” says Monty Python’s priest) was really that put off by all our little indecencies that He needed to kill off His own son to balance it all out. Sounds a bit crazy; even kind of ungodly. Yet this is the prevailing thought for the meaning of Easter. Jesus died for our sins. I lied, cheated, and stole, so God had to off His son. Sounds more like The Godfather than God.
Theologian Walter Wink has a different idea. He points out, in his amazing book The Powers that Be, that before Emperor Constantine co-opted the Christian religion in about 300 A.D., and turned it into a tool for world domination, there was a totally different understanding of what the crucifixion and resurrection meant.
Jesus came to represent not those in charge, but those not in charge–the victims, the poor, those clinging to the underbelly of society. We all know it’s true. It’s right there in the Gospel: blessed are the poor, give away all your money, love your enemy, etc. And frankly, anybody sitting on top of the world (which is most of us Americans) with lots of loose cash and a strong sense of control over his or her life should be a little wary (I know I am). Walter Wink says that in a world of violence–violence against the poor, against the disenfranchised, against the helpless–Jesus came to end that violence. And Jesus’s last act was a culmination of this message. His unjust murder, complete with betrayal, false accusations, and an unfair trial, proved that the myth that we’ve built our world around is completely false: this is “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.”
Walter Wink says we have built our world around an ancient myth, the myth of redemptive violence. This is the idea, which is repeated over and over in TV and movies, that good must overcome evil through violence, through a show of power. Wink traces the myth back to the oldest known god stories from Babylonia and follows its path through religions and cultures up to today, where he shows how we have fully surrounded ourselves with it. Power comes through force, through violence, and it is the primary way to solve problems. Any super hero knows this. Yet we never notice that violence has failed again and again to make the world safe and end our troubles. In fact, we accept the myth as a part of life. We kill those who go against it (MLK, Gandhi). We say things like, “it’s just the way we are.” We believe the world is a chaotic and evil place that must be opposed by the forces of good, and a big army means a peaceful world.
The alternate version of Christ’s death and resurrection, the one that prevailed early in history, was that Jesus came to show us that “the reign of God means the elimination of every form of violence between individuals and nations.” Christ’s main message was a radical critique of society, and for hundreds of years Christ’s followers lived in direct conflict with the powers of the world; until those powers found a way to use the story to their advantage. Christ’s bold critique of society got deflated. Suddenly, instead of his death being a scandalous revelation of our violent nature, it became a confirmation of it. God was made to look just as violent (and idiotic) as us. God needed His own son tortured and gutted in order to stomach loving us. Violence was once again the cure, not the curse.
And so we continue to play out the myth in endless cycles of violence, against ourselves, our children, other nations, and the planet.
But still, the message is there for anybody to read, hidden in plain site. Jesus probably could have chosen to wear a big hat and sit in front of a large crowd giving orders. He specifically chose not to. Jesus could have rallied thousands to take up arms, but He specifically chose not to. Jesus could have hob-knobbed with the wealthy and famous, but He specifically chose lepers and whores.
What’s the meaning of Easter? Easter is a radical critique of our world. The death and resurrection of Jesus was meant to make you feel very uncomfortable. Jesus did not die for our sins. He died to change the world.
Give up and die, you’ll be glad you did.