By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Easter reveals a Christian paradox. It celebrates the resurrection of Jesus as the focal point of the Christian faith. The paradox of Easter is that a God of love and mercy would use a form of execution intended to cause intense suffering to sacrifice his Son as an atonement for original sin. That is how Paul’s atonement doctrine explains Easter, but the crucifixion of Jesus seems more an act of human depravity than an act of God.
It is understandable that Paul, a 1st century Pharisaic Jew, would consider the crucifixion a blood sacrifice for the atonement of sin. But that was the speculation of Paul and was not taught by Jesus. What if the resurrection meant something else—something taught by Jesus? What if the message of the resurrection was that God’s eternal word will never die?
The teachings of Jesus are God’s word—a word of love and mercy for all humankind. It is summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors—including our neighbors of other races and religions—as we love ourselves. It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike that can reconcile our religious and political differences.
The Christian paradox has subordinated the teachings of Jesus to belief in Paul’s atonement doctrine as the only means of salvation. Exclusivist church doctrines have trumped the moral imperatives taught by Jesus. That allowed popular evangelists like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Paula White to ignore the teachings of Jesus and urge Christians to support a demagogue like Donald Trump, who is the antithesis of Christian morality.
Shifting the focus of faith from following the teachings of Jesus to belief in mystical and exclusivist church doctrines has allowed Christianity to become a popular religion compatible with politics. Unlike Moses and Muhammad, Jesus never sought nor held political power. His teachings on altruistic and sacrificial love anticipated a spiritual, not a worldly, kingdom of God.
The entrance of Jesus in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (the week of the Jewish Passover) illustrates the Christian paradox. Jesus was welcomed by Jews who were looking for a messiah who would overthrow Roman oppression and restore the power and glory of ancient Israel. Jesus was not that messiah. A few days later the disillusioned crowds shouted “crucify him.”
The Christian paradox has produced two contrasting forms of Christianity: One that emphasizes following the teachings of Jesus as the word of God, or discipleship; and the other that emphasizes exclusivist Christian beliefs as the only means of salvation. The two variations of Christianity are not compatible, and a church/house so divided against itself cannot stand.
To resolve the Christian paradox the teachings of Jesus must be given priority over belief in mystical and exclusivist church doctrines. Emphasizing discipleship as the focus of the Christian faith may cost the church its popularity—Jesus said as much—but following the narrow way of Jesus is necessary—in Easter terminology—to resurrect Christianity so that it can promote a faith and politics of reconciliation in our polarized and dysfunctional democracy.
Notes and Related Commentary:
On Michael Gerson’s understanding of Easter as bringing the hope of pardon and peace, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-hope-of-pardon-and-peace/2017/04/13/b52b848c-2069-11e7-a0a7-8b2a45e3dc84_story.html?wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
On the evolution of evangelical Christianity from its roots in the teachings of Jesus as the word of God and in the libertarian values of the Enlightenment, to its current fundamentalist focus on exclusivist belief in the inerrancy of the Bible and rejection of advances in knowledge and reason, and the paradoxical consequences of the 2016 election in which Trump breathed new life in the cultural war waged by evangelicals, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-trump-breathed-new-life-into-the-cultural-war-waged-by-evangelicals/2017/04/14/6262ac10-04ff-11e7-b1e9-a05d3c21f7cf_story.html?wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1.
On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/01/the-greatest-commandment-common-word-of.html.
On promoting religion through evangelism: bringing light or darkness? see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/02/promoting-religion-through-evangelism.html.
On seeing the resurrection in a new light, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/04/seeing-resurrection-in-new-light.html.
On Jesus: a prophet, God’s only Son, or the Logos?, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/04/jesus-prophet-god-only-son-or-logos.html.
On balancing individual rights with providing for the common good, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/balancing-individual-rights-with.html.
On how religious fundamentalism and secularism shape politics and human rights, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/how-religious-fundamentalism-and.html.
On legitimacy as a context and paradigm to resolve religious conflict, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/legitimacy-as-context-and-paradigm-to.html.
On who is my neighbor? see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/01/who-is-my-neighbor.html.
On the politics of loving our neighbors as ourselves, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/01/the-politics-of-loving-our-neighbors-as.html.
On the relevance of religion to politics, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2016/04/the-relevance-of-religion-to-politics.html.
On religion and a politics of reconciliation, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/05/religion-and-politics-of-reconciliation.html.
On religion and a politics of reconciliation based on shared values, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/11/religion-and-politics-of-reconciliation_19.html.
On irreconcilable differences and the demise of democracy, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/11/irreconcilable-differences-and-demise.html.
On discipleship in a democracy: a test of faith, legitimacy and politics, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/12/discipleship-in-democracy-test-of-faith.html.
On saving America from the church, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/01/saving-america-from-church.html.
On the need for a revolution in religion and politics, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/02/the-need-for-revolution-in-religion-and.html.
On moral ambiguity in religion and politics, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/03/moral-ambiguity-in-religion-and-politics.html.