Springtime bursts on us with a flourish of daffodils, a hallelujah of dogwoods, and a vesper of leaf buds. A rainbow materializes to transform an evening commute into a highway of prayer, and irises pop from their cases in a pirouette of spangled praise.
Oddly, amid all the glory of spring, images of the bloody and beaten Christ proliferate. After Halloween, Easter’s Christian passion plays create the highest demand for fake blood from theatrical supply shops.
I know there are Christians who find instruction in the violence of the cross, an excruciating sort of inspiration in the pornographic lacerations laid on the shoulders of the carved or painted Christ or the tortured actor in Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.” These Christians tell me those scenes help them appreciate their own sinfulness more seriously and the deep love of Christ more fully.
But now that the crowds and pageants of Easter have subsided, I can’t help but fear that Christians who interpret Christ’s torture as an instrument of salvation can imbibe with that inspiration a kind of theological justification of cruelty. And I wonder if that is why evangelical Christians, as a group, can be tempted to think that other kinds of torture, such as the U.S. used in interrogations in the past few years, can become justifiable instruments of salvation of a different sort.
A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Organization found that about 10 percent more evangelical Christians than other groups agree that torture can often or sometimes be justified for use by American security forces.
That’s taking the link between theology and behavior to an extreme conclusion, but perhaps, amid the solemn meditations of these days before Pentecost, it’s worth considering what might be the cost of contemplating violence of any sort or of dissecting wholesale horror into portions deemed palliative – even on Good Friday.
For many Christians, scenes of crucifixion torture merely diagram the diabolical cruelty we human beings conjure when we betray the image of our loving God in which we were created. God engineered a miraculous Earth cantilevered between day and night, rain and sun, birth and death. God created us to be family to each other in a mutual system of inclusion and care. But we destroy the Earth, dismember each other and, when we get the opportunity, crucify God himself.
But still the beauty calls. Far beyond the primitive clatter of weirdly pagan interpretations of Christ’s death as placating a law-obsessed God or paying an arcanely unfair penalty, the wrens chirrup, the locust trees hang white lanterns along the roadsides, and a smiling Jesus escapes our pitiful viciousness to walk and talk again with his friends, calling them to dwell together in mutual respect.
Surely the message of Easter lies not in the fake blood and re-enacted beatings, but in the froth of azaleas and the giggle of children spotting a bunny hopping into green grass. Surely the message of Easter is not that we are forgiven because Jesus was tortured, but that we are forgiven because God loves us no matter what we do to the prophets God sends us – even when that prophet is God’s own son.
Surely the truest way to find the God of Easter is not through contorted extractions of retribution and atonement, but through joining in the divine work of nurturing the beauty of life, assembling the deep symmetry of true justice, and by remaining alert for the flashes of transforming, regenerative, irrepressibly un-tombable divine love shimmering all around us.
Kay Campbell is Faith & Values editor and reporter and an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) because, obviously, they’ll take anyone. Most recently, she was awarded the 2011 Award for Commentary from the Religion Newswriters Association. You can reach her via email at: [email protected]