Tonight is Easter Eve. Regardless of your persuasion–whether you are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, or secular Humanist–the season of Passover marks the remembrance of the violent assassination of a local activist whose practices and message went against the accepted authorities. Tonight would have been the second night after the painful, shameful event, a time of darkness and fear, a time when it seemed very likely that those in power–the one who believed in division, privilege, and serious limitations of basic human rights–had won a solid victory.
Most accepts that Jesus (pronounced like Joshua) bar-Joseph was an actual person. Then there are those who believe he was something much more. Members of this second set have been, since the second century at least, called “Christians.” But today, I write with the painful realization that many of those who invoke the designation most often and most loudly have as little in common with Christ as he–when living–had in common with the Sanhedrin, those who “tie up heavy burdens for other people’s shoulders, but are themselves unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matt 23:4). For these reasons, I have found myself struggling and frustrated over an identity that has been co-opted, a name that I now fear to claim.
We are warned at great length never to be ashamed of God. That we should be willing to face humiliation, slings and arrows. That we should be willing to be hated by the World. Frankly, to stand in the face of opposition would be noble. To brave death would have its own beauty, its own truth (even, I would think, in the eyes of those who did not believe alike). But I am faced with a very different case. In my life, I move in large often international circles. I work in universities and museums, among academics and curators. I myself have a masters and PhD; many of my friends and colleagues have them too–and MDs, and MPHs, too. If among them, my continued belief seemed silly, dated, a strange vestige of Anglican sentiment in an otherwise shrewd intellectual mind, I would not hesitate to call myself a Christian. But the reality is far more bitter. When I call myself a Christian, I am not aligning myself with a resurrected radical preacher who was bold to serve the poor, the outcast, the diseased, the shunned, the pariah. No; when I raise the banner of “Christianity” I am instead often aligning myself with those who are most in power. I do not mean those struggling minority churches who are working every day towards decency and against long odds. I mean the large-scale, well-endowed, generally white (and often male) juggernaut that has presumed to speak for all “Christians” in their attacks on gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans-people–in their assault on women’s rights–in their unreasoned disavowal of science and progressive education–in their blatant disregard and even hatred of other faith communities or those who profess no faith at all. I am ashamed to call myself a Christian, but not because I am ashamed of Christ. I am ashamed by the fact that the basic core of everything I believe about the message of Christ–love, acceptance, understanding–has been hidden and distorted by hatred, denial and narrow-mindedness. I am not afraid of being attacked because I am a Christian. I am afraid that others will feel I am, because a Christian, the attacker. We’ve become the bully.
I am beyond the point of anger. I have faced this wall of prejudice, reasoned with it, seethed at it, shouted, and begged and cried at it–until I have lapsed into something much more like mourning. I am deeply grieved. And I know there are many more like me, those who believe and are grieved. Those who want to apologize to the world somehow, to weep over the gay teen who has been cast out, the pregnant woman who has been attacked at the abortion clinic, the doctor who has been shot for the “right to life.” There are those of us who want to put arms around the Pussy Riot activists, who want to shield them from the horror of what has been done in the “name of Christ.” I know I do. There are not enough tears to cry for the horrors that have been carried out as “Christians”–and I do not accept the dissenting voices who claim as defense that “other religions are far more violent” (as if that would be any excuse). How can I take up this name, when it has been turned to hypocritical uses? When the same people who protest gay marriage don’t turn out in droves to support abused wives? Or when, under the same name, they protest abortion, but do not support free health care for teen mothers? I can give you only the words of Christ himself: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stoneat her” (John 8:7) and “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47).
The Pharisees called Christ a friend to tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. And so he was. That is the whole point of Easter. That is what got him killed, too. He broke the letter of the law to be true to something better. Today, when others do the same (Pussy Riot, Gay Rights Activists, etc.), they are attacked for their “crimes” by those who claim to be of Christ. This would be so anomalous to the apostles, cowering in a dark room on Easter Eve in fear and grief, that it would be beyond belief. Then again, they were not “Christians” yet; they were not members of a movement–they were members of the counter-movement. Re-enacted today, the 12 would have been Muslims, women, homosexuals–the outcast “tax-collectors and sinners” of our present. What has happened between then and now? I’m not sure. But somewhere between, the freedom fighters became the oppressors.
And so, I am sitting alone on Easter Eve, trying to imagine that original Easter. What would it be like to be part of the Way when it was new? When it was still honest, still trail-blazing a message of love that death itself could not over-master? I would stand in the gap. I would raise a banner. And we still can–but it requires something more than the discretionary label dealt us in tracts and shiny bound books behind the pews. It requires supporting GLBTA rights, being an ally, funding a Planned Parenthood clinic, fighting for the marital rights of a gay man who is not even allowed to visit his beloved on his deathbed in many a hospital. It means telling the unloved that they are lovable. It means being willing to join in a movement that, frankly, is fighting the one you technically came from. It means redeeming Christ by, at times, standing against “Christians.” Its terrifying, I’ll admit, because it often means standing against family, too. But that’s also in the handbook: “They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother” (Luke 12:53) and “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34).
On this Easter Eve, I want to be counted at the poor table of the outcasts, not the sumptuous feast of the Pharisees. Because that is where my master is. And for that, at least, I need not be ashamed.