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A political interpretation of Easter

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2/25/2013 2:15:30 AM
Posted: 3 years ago
Was Christ a sacrificial lamb or a humanist- did he die to save us or to show us how to save ourselves?

Many biblical historians now see Paul as out of step with the other Apostles and their leader James, the brother of Jesus. These intimates of Jesus saw no redemptive value in his crucifixion and remained firmly wedded to Judaism after it. They accepted Jesus as a Messiah but believed redemption would only be secured by a second coming and that would not happen until real attempts were made to achieve "the final recovery of all things from sin" (Acts 3:21). In the meantime, they continued to observe Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. In the Acts of the Apostles, their priority seems to have been to carry on Christ"s humanist work- his compassionate care of the poor and his campaign against the corrupt religious elites based in the Jerusalem Temple. Professor JD Crossan is just one of many scholars who now see Jesus steeped in in this Judaic prophetic tradition, elevating a thirst for justice and compassionate activism as "the new cornerstone", the supreme commandment of Judaic law.

But while Paul"s Christology gradually prevailed over that of the original Apostles, it is this more humanist perspective that dominates the four gospels, even though they were written decades after Christ"s death when Paul"s influence was at its zenith. There is only one reference in Matthew"s gospel where Christ said he was shedding his blood "to forgive the sins of multitudes" (Matt 26:28) and Paul seems to have hitched his wagon to this verse. Yet when those words are placed in the historical context of Christ"s mission, they take on a very different meaning to the one Paul derived.

In Galilee where Christ focused most of his campaign, there were "multitudes" afflicted with widespread disease and rural poverty, often caused by the dispossession of their land. This misery was exacerbated by being connected with sinfulness, a stigma indelibly etched by strict "purity" rules enforced by the religious establishment. This "poverty of spirit"- a crushing burden of guilt at being Covenant outcasts- compounded their dire material condition and produced a deep yearning for forgiveness.

But in what sense was Jesus "shedding his blood" for these unfortunates?

The event that triggered Christ"s crucifixion was his assault on the Jerusalem Temple which was dominated by an extremist sect of Pharisees called the Shammaites. These fundamentalists who promoted the draconian purity laws, had forged an uneasy alliance with the corrupt priestly class, the Sadducees who imposed their own heavy religious taxes (tithes) on the countryside and accumulated vast land holdings by evicting small indebted farmers from their land. The guilt laden purity laws made this exploitation easier, especially when the Sadducees had a monopoly of on forgiveness of sins via the Temple. But Jesus threatened to smash this neat circle of oppression. His dispensation of sin went way beyond symbolic forgiveness. His healing miracles eradicated the sin altogether by actually curing people, re-empowering them and giving them new hope. Here was a competing power of forgiveness that had the potential to put "Temple Inc" out of business. Its priests arrested him and demanded his crucifixion.

Is this how James and the early Jewish Christians might have understood Christ as shedding his blood for "the sins of multitudes"? They knew that his purpose was not to earn us a free ride to heaven but rather to "take up our own crosses" and follow him, sharpening our compassionate awareness and our thirst for justice. James especially seems to have endorsed Christ"s declaration that "each person will be judged according to his deeds"- not according to his faith (James 2:17).

If this humanist perspective on Easter is correct, Christians might need to focus far more on this world and less on the next, if they are to find redemption in either.

Tom Drake-Brockman
Author of Christian Humanism: the compassionate theology of a Jew called Jesus