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An Easter Message Beyond Belief

Photo by Waiting For The Word | CC BY 2.0

As a hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center for over 20 years, I observed firsthand the power of belief in enabling patients and their loved ones to face life-threatening illnesses, surgeries and death.  Like the 80-year-old man, who was dying of cancer and wanted to see the chaplain.  He said that he was “a believer, but not a good Christian” because he didn’t go to church.  Long ago, he wanted to be a minister, but as an African American, the segregated schools he attended in the South discouraged that aspiration.  Now, faced with a terminal illness, he asked to see the chaplain: “To get tight with God,” he said.  He took my hand, held it tight, and didn’t let go.  It was not my prayer, but what his belief in his god brought to my prayer, that led him to say at the end of my visit, “I feel much stronger now.”  Religious beliefs strengthen and comfort countless ill and dying persons

Faith-based beliefs also inspire just behavior.  Many acts and programs of caring are done out of the moral goodness of believers’ hearts.  Like faith-based sponsored soup kitchens and shelters for homeless people.   Immigration rights organizations.  Sanctuary churches and cities.  Refugee and settlement support groups.  Inter-faith peace and justice groups.  Faith-based health care centers and chaplains.  Disaster and other emergency relief organizations.

Here religious faith takes the form of good works.  The above named and numerous other humane faith-based programs are inspired by prophets.  One was recorded as teaching his followers to welcome strangers (Matthew 25: 35-40) and be peacemakers (Matthew 5: 9).  Another declared, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6: 8)

While religious beliefs lead to good works, beliefs are not to be equated with morality.  In fact, faith-based beliefs may be self-serving only, or justify oppressive, immoral behavior toward others.  Easter especially is informative here.

Easter climaxes the belief-centered emphasis at the heart of much of Christianity.  At Easter, belief overshadows behavior, faith towers above works, trust trumps truth, and certitude tops morality.  Easter is far more about the uniqueness and authority of Christianity, personal salvation and evangelism, than about equality, human solidarity and justice.

Along with the miracles Jesus is recorded in the New Testament as performing, there are the belief-inviting and credo -reinforcing supernatural events surrounding his crucifixion.  The moment he took his last breath on the cross, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”  And “the earth shook, the rocks split.”  Even “tombs broke open, and “the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” (Matthew 27: 51, 52)  That was enough to “terrify” those “keeping watch over Jesus,” and lead them to say, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” (Matthew 27: 54)

The climax was an empty tomb and a resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples and authorizing them to go into all the world and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 16-20)  And this other bottom line of Easter: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples . . . [and] these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20: 30, 31) It was about evangelism, not empathy, about converting people, not connecting with them.

Thus Easter is more about spreading the exclusivity of Christian belief than the inclusivity of justice and peace.  It is more about baptizing people in Jesus’ name than affirming and enabling them in their own name.  It is about gaining power over people, more than empowering them.   It is especially about the authority of believers, not the authenticity of non-believers.   It is about a closed tomb for those beyond belief, whom The Bible condemns as The Other.

A case in point is white evangelical Christians’ embrace of President Donald Trump.  Chief among them is Rev. Franklin Graham, eldest son of famed evangelist Billy Graham.   The former was quoted as saying that Trump’s election “was evidence that ‘God’s hand was at work.’ “  Graham explained about Trump: “In my lifetime, he has supported the Christian faith more than any president that I know.”  That support “involves deliver[ing] for evangelicals on every issue – from abortion, to religious freedom to vowing to abolish the Johnson Amendment that inhibits churches from endorsing politicians.” (“Billy Graham Warned Against Embracing a President.  His Son Has Gone Another Way,” By Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, Feb. 26, 2018)

Rev. Graham is actually talking about belief in the inerrancy of The Bible on which his “Christian faith” is based, and, most important, from which he derives his authority.  He is against “abortion” because The Bible says, “For you created me in my innermost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb . . . Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139: 13-16)

Thus President Trump’s appointment of pro-life judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court “supported” Graham’s and most other evangelicals’ biblically-circumscribed interpretation of “the Christian faith.”  And Trump’s selection of Pro-Life and anti-gay Mike Pence as his vice presidential running mate was “evidence” early on “that God’s hand was at work.”

Abortion is about the right to life.  That is a very short time: from conception to birth, around nine months.  What about the right to life after birth?  Here’s where the “religious freedom” of Rev. Graham and many other evangelical – and mainstream — Christians comes in.  They support President Trump also for promising to give them the “religious freedom” to discriminate against LGBTQ persons in the public square, which includes denying them jobs, housing, the purchase of a wedding cake or rental of a reception hall, access to public accommodations – and especially access to the pulpit by denying them careers in the ministry.  (See “Widespread Discrimination Continues to Shape LGBT People’s Lives in Both Subtle and Significant Ways,” By Sejal Singh and Laura E. Durso, Center for American Progress, May 2, 2017)

Such discriminatory “religious freedom” is licensed by The Bible, which declares, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18: 22).  Also, as Jesus said, “. . . at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ ” (Matthew 19: 4, 5)

Here The Bible is used as a weapon to oppress and divide people, rather than liberate and unite them.   How much more would white evangelical Christians want to persecute LGBTQ persons – and other “sinners” — if the Johnson Amendment were abolished and they could use evangelical-friendly politicians to fully impose their beliefs on society?

Donald Trump promised a “Pro-Life” Supreme Court Justice, which is why his “election was evidence that God’s hand was at work?”  Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund, provides a more inclusive meaning of “Pro-Life” than the Right to Life” belief held by Christian evangelicals like Rev. Graham.  In a column entitled “President Trump’s War on Children,” she calls Trump’s 2018 budget “immoral,” saying it “declares war on America’s children.”  She explains: “It cruelly dismantles and shreds America’s safety net laboriously woven over the past half century to help and give hope to 14.5 million children struggling today in a sea of poverty, hunger, sickness, miseducation, homelessness and disabilities.” She continues: “It slashes trillions of dollars from health care, nutrition and other critical programs that give poor babies and children a decent foundation in life to assure millions of dollars in tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires and powerful corporations who do not deserve massive doses of government support.” (www.childrensdefense fund.org, May 26, 2017)

President Trump is “Pro-Life?”   Along with his war on children, Trump’s immigration policy is literally tearing families apart.  A recently reported example is that of 39 year-old landscaper Jorge Garcia.  He was brought to the United States from Mexico by an undocumented relative when he was ten, had never been arrested, and paid his taxes.  After almost three decades, he was apprehended by Immigration and Customs Agents, taken to a Detroit area airport on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and deported.  The Detroit Free Press reported that airport scene with his family: “His arms wrapped around his wife and two teenage children, Jorge Garcia’s eyes welled up Monday morning as he looked into their eyes one last time . . .   His wife, Cindy Garcia, cried out while his daughter, Soleil, 15, sobbed into Garcia’s shoulder as they hugged . . . [while] two immigration agents kept a close watch nearby.”  (“After Living in the US for 30 years, Man Being Ripped from Family’s Arms Latest Look at Trump’s America,” by Jon Queally, Common Dreams, Jan. 16, 2018)

President Trump’s immigrant policy is that any and all of the 11 million undocumented immigrants here illegally are fair game for deportation, no matter how responsible they are as members of a community and devoted as parents and children.  Trump’s policy is so anti-life that the American Civil Liberties Union just “filed a class-action lawsuit Friday accusing the US government of broadly separating immigrant families seeking asylum.”  The ACLU is “ask[ing] a judge to declare family separation unlawful and says hundreds of families have been split by immigration authorities.” (“ACLU sues Trump to stop family separation,” By Norman Merchant, Associated Press, The Boston Globe, March 9, 2018)

“God’s hand was at work” in the election of Donald Trump?  Rev. Graham’s god chose Trump because — along with poor children, undocumented immigrant and LGBTQ persons — biblically-conceived “Right to Life” does not include Muslims.  Evidently Graham’s god approved when candidate Trump advocated the killing of the family members of ISIS: “ ‘The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families,’ “ and “said he would ‘knock the hell out of’ ISIS.“ (“Donald Trump on terrorists: ‘Take out their families,’ “ By Tom LoBianco, CNNPolitics, Dec. 3, 2015)  And seven months into Trump’s presidency,  Graham’s god knew he had made the right choice for president: as under Trump, “the U.S.-led coalition fighting . . . ISIS” was reported to have “killed more civilians . . . at least 2819-4529” than the total estimated number killed during President Obama’s three years of fighting the Islamic State. (‘TRUMP HAS ALREADY KILLED MORE CIVILIANS THAN OBAMA IN U.S. FIGHT AGAINST ISIS,’ By Tom O’Connor, www.newsweek.com, Aug. 22, 2017)

The belief that “God’s hand was at work” in the election of anti-Muslim Donald Trump is actually about Rev. Graham’s projection of his own Islamophobia heavenward.   After the 9/11 attacks against America, he charged, “We’re not attacking Islam but Islam has attacked us.  The God of Islam is not the same God.”  Then these hateful words: “He’s not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith.”  It’s a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion.” (“CAIR Urges Trump to Drop Franklin Graham from Inauguration Prayers,” Council on American-Islamic Relations, Jan. 12, 2017)

Thus Rev. Graham and the vast majority of white evangelical Christians enthusiastically supported President George W. Bush’s illegal, unnecessary, falsely-based invasion of Muslim Iraq.  Graham was quoted as saying that his relief agency, Samaritan’s Purse, was “ ‘poised and ready’ to roll into Iraq to provide for the population’s post-war physical and spiritual needs.  . . . ‘We realize we’re in an Arab country and we can’t just go out and preach.  However,’ “ he continued, “ ‘I believe as we work, God will always give us opportunities to tell others about his Son.  . . . We are there,’ “ he said, “ ‘to reach out to love them and to save them, and as a Christian I do this in the name of Jesus Christ,.’ “ (“Group to Aid, Proselytize in Postwar Iraq,” By Deborah Caldwell, abcNEWS, March 27, 2003)

“I do this in the name of Jesus Christ.”  How obscene!  Never mind the estimation that the U.S.-led war against Iraq resulted in the needless deaths of over one million Iraqi civilians, “1-2 million widows, 5 million orphans” and 4-5 million displaced.” (‘IN THE BUSH PRESIDENCY: HOW MANY DIED,’ web.mit.edu)  And the needless deaths of around 4500 American soldiers and the wounding of over 100,000 thousand more. (“Casualties in Iraq,” anti-war.com)

“We are there to reach out to them and to love them.”    Rev. Graham professes to love Muslims.  “ ‘I have been very careful to say that I love Muslim people, and I care for them,’ ” he is also reported as saying, and “adding that Islam won’t save your soul, and ‘it can’t keep you from the doors of hell.  It won’t open the doors to paradise.  I want people to know the truth.’ ” (“How Franklin Graham took the reins from his legendary father and created his own path,” By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY, Feb. 21, 2018)

For many evangelicals like Rev. Franklin Graham, the bottom line of Christianity is belief, not behavior.  At the funeral of his famous father, Rev. Billy Graham, he is quoted as saying, “The world with all its political correctness would want you to believe that there are many roads to God.  It’s just not true,” he said.” His next words: “My father would want me to share this with you today.  . . . Are you saved?  Are you forgiven?  Are you trusting in your Lord as your savior?”  Then: “If you’re not sure, there is no better time than at Billy Graham’s funeral.” (“As in Life, Billy Graham Draws a Huge Crowd as Thousands Pay Their Final Respects,” By Laurie Goodstein and Michael D. Shear, The New York Times, March 3, 2018)

The centrality of belief in Christianity is also voiced by David Brody, White House Correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network.  In an Op Ed page New York Times piece called “In Donald Trump, Evangelicals Have Found Their President,” he writes that, in President Donald Trump, God gave them “a bold culture warrior to fight for them.”  Brody says that “evangelicals . . . share . . . a desire to see an America that embraces Judeo-Christian values again rather than rejecting them.”  And “the victories are numerous: the courts, pro-life policies, the coming Embassy in Jerusalem and religious liberty issues, just to name a few.”  Similar to Rev. Graham, Brody asserts that Trump “easily wins the unofficial label of ‘most evangelical-friendly United States president ever.’ ”  Because he accommodates “the goal of evangelicals [which] has always been winning the larger battle over control of the culture.” (Feb. 24, 2018)

How revealing!  President Trump can constantly lie, boast about sexually abusing women, embrace white supremacists, belittle people, deny poor children basic necessities, split immigrant families apart, advocate and order the killing of the families of ISIS, and threaten to wipe 25 million North Koreans off the map.  And he “easily wins the unofficial label of ‘most evangelical-friendly United States president.’ “

For many evangelicals, Christianity is about their biblically-based authority and power over people, not morality.  It is about controlling people, not sharing.  About imposing, not extending.   About conforming, not confirming.  It is about being predatory, not participatory.  About being imperialistic, not democratic.

Not that evangelicals don’t care about people.  Many are deeply caring of others, and their caring is unconditional.  But the good works of many others are often paternalistic, self-affirming, with predatory Christian strings attached – which helps to explain the widespread support of so many evangelicals for imperialistic warmongers like George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

Actually, the centrality of evangelistic belief itself is imperialistic and rooted in The Bible’s Easter story:   “[so] that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that in believing you may have life in his name.”   But here, sadly, “having life in his name” means denying life to those who believe in another’s name – or in their own name.  Heaven, for believers, depends on hell for nonbelievers.  Their everlasting paradise is another’s eternal punishment.   “Life,” for them, means another’s death.  Segregation here, and segregation in the hereafter.   In light of this divisive sectarian belief, humanity needs an Easter message beyond belief.

Jesus himself is recorded as providing that Easter message.  When a lawyer asked him, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?,” Jesus stressed behavior, not belief.  He asked the lawyer, “What is written in the law?”  The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”   Jesus replied, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”  (Matthew Luke 10: 25-37)

But the lawyer pressed Jesus, asking, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus responded by telling the story of a man beaten and robbed on the Jericho Road, and left for dead.  When a priest and a Levite came by and saw him, they “passed by on the other side.”  But not a despised Samaritan, who, “moved by pity,” bound up the stranger’s wounds, took him to a safe place, and provided for him. (Ibid)

Jesus then asked the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  The lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”  And “Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ “ (Ibid)  Here, “eternal life” is about just behavior, not right belief.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. puts flesh and blood on the Good Samaritan story.  Speaking to striking sanitation workers and their supporters in Memphis the night before he was assassinated, King urged them on, saying, “We’ve got to give ourselves to the struggle until the end.  . . . And when we march, you need to be there,” he continued.  “Be concerned about your brother . . .  Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968, kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu)

Dr. King then used the story of the Good Samaritan as an example of that “dangerous unselfishness.”  Providing his own context for the story, King said, “One day a man came to Jesus and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life.  . . . He wanted to trick Jesus and show that he knew a little more than Jesus knew.   Now the question,” King went on, “could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate.  But Jesus pulled the question from midair and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho.” There, he continued, “A certain man fell among thieves,” and “a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side.”  Continuing to paraphrase Jesus, King said, “Finally a man of another race came by . . . and helped the man in need. “  King concluded: “Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man because he had the capacity to project the ‘I’ into the ‘thou,’ and to be concerned about his brother.” (Ibid)

Dr. King speculated that the priest and the Levite may have been afraid to stop and aid the beaten and robbed man because “the Jericho Road is a dangerous road.  . . . They could have asked themselves, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’  But the Good Samaritan,” King said, “reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ “ (Ibid)

Dr. King then applied the story to his audience: “That’s the question before you tonight.  Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?’  Not,” he continued, “ ’If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor.?’ “  Rather, “The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’  That’s the question.”  Then these words: “Let us rise up tonight with a great readiness . . . and let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America  . . . a better nation.” (Ibid)

An Easter message beyond belief.  Jesus did not die for the sins of the world, but because of the sins being committed against his Jewish world.  He died to liberate the Jewish people from the Roman Empire, which had violated their national sovereignty, occupied their country, and crucified thousands of Jewish “insurgents” and bystanders – for whom belief in a Messiah was grounded in the political realities of Jewish nationalism, freedom, justice and peace.  (For an authoritative analysis of the occupying Romans’ oppression of Jews and execution of would-be Jewish liberators like Jesus, see “Report of the  Ad Hoc Scholars Group Reviewing the Script of The Passion,” doclegend.com, May 2, 2003)  Jesus died because he declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor . . . freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed  free.” (Luke 4: 16-21)

Easter is about “develop[ing] a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” in solidarity with others, working on behalf of a just, inclusive, loving human community.  It is not about Jesus abstractly dying for “the sins of the world,” but about us joining others in seeking to rid the world of political, corporate, military and ecclesiastical sins that deny people their identity and rights on any Jericho Road.   Easter is about “Do this, and you will live.”

More articles by:

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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