Apart from being one of the world’s great dramatists, Irish writer Oscar Wilde was also a renowned classicist. As part of his graduation from Oxford, he had to translate from New Testament Greek into English. He was given the Passion story by his examiners and read the words fluently. They were soon satisfied and told him to stop. He continued. They asked him again, but still he continued. Finally, they insisted that he be quiet. “Oh do let me go on,” Wilde pleaded. ”I want to see how it ends.”
In fact, it has just ended, with the conclusion of Holy Week. Christians believe – and I’m one of them – that around 2,000 years ago, Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. I realize that many, perhaps most, will reject that claim, some of them aggressively, and I can’t blame them. The authenticity or historicity of it all is not the reason (believe me, I’ve heard every argument and came to faith as an adult intellectually as well as spiritually) but that Christians have often done such a poor job of selling the central message of the faith.
Because if Christianity is about anything, it is about love. Unconditional, indiscriminate and absolute love. It’s the heart and soul of the Gospel message and if anyone tells you otherwise, they don’t know the first-century Palestinian Jew who grabbed the world and made it new. Christ’s demands that we love God and love others as ourselves, and that we treat people the way we would want them to treat us are the Easter story in all of its exquisite and terrifying simplicity. The rest, as it were, is mere commentary.
Yet, it is that commentary that has so dominated the Christian narrative in public life and often within churches themselves. Loud and usually unkind obsessions with sexuality and reproduction, an apparent support for the powerful rather than the powerless and what appears to be identification with Caesar rather than with the rebel Jesus. It’s an understandable if unfair image. Myriad Christians devote their lives to the marginalized and needy, and embrace progressive causes.
But the voices that roar are often the most raucous, largely because they are convinced that they possess exclusive and infallible truth. It’s such supernatural certainty that leads to intolerance and rigidity when faith should actually be a dialogue. For this Christian, it’s downright disrespectful to interpret the Bible as a literal guide to daily living or even as the inerrant word of God. It’s much greater than that, much more profound. It’s poetry, history and metaphor, as well as the revelation of God’s will and plan. It’s anything but banal, anything but facile, and anything but a dry text to be referred to like some manual for the aspiring moralist.
Easter is about a second chance, a lifeline thrown to humanity. It’s not about judgment but forgiveness, not about rejection but inclusion. The Jesus story, the Easter story, is revolutionary in its most intimate sense because it dreams of peace, equality and transformation. Today, such sparkling ambitions are cynically dismissed as “virtue signalling” or the words and works of the “social-justice warrior.” Signal away, signal away, in paschal confidence that hope for a better world is nothing for which we should be ashamed.
My friend Richard Coles, a Church of England priest, broadcaster and author – and former pop star – tells a story of a friend of his in Britain in the 1980s who was diagnosed as HIV-positive. Homophobia was rampant, AIDS considered a death sentence. He decided to take his own life by riding his motorbike into a wall. Yet, he survived and found himself lying in a pool of his own blood. The police arrived and their reputation within the LGBTQ community was particularly dark. As one officer approached, the young man said, “You have to know I’m HIV-positive.” The policeman knelt down, cradled him in his arms and said, “And you need to know that someone loves you.”
Someone does, and the Christian belief is that the death of Jesus on the cross was the ultimate proof of that love. It’s supposed to be a reciprocal relationship, a heavenly symbiosis and as such, requires specific actions on the part of the believer. Forgiveness, self-criticism and contrition, radical action to blanket the world with fairness, standing with those who need that love the most and seldom receive it. It’s not easy and wasn’t supposed to be. That, now and always, is Easter.