The story that we are told about Easter is at the same time graphic, boundless in love, and powerful enough to launch a movement that has persisted for two thousand years. Jesus had a message of love and inclusion. He taught the peaceful subversion of power. In the stories where we see him choosing his twelve disciples or healing men and women of disease, he was giving them a sense of humanity that had been taken from them.
We can’t just look at Jesus how he is presented in the Bible and think that he had free reign to do what he wanted. He was calling out the political and religious establishment. If you read the stories, the oppression that the Jewish people were subjected to feels like a tag team effort between the Pharisees and the Romans. Jesus shows up in this context and doesn’t just tell people to love their neighbors and pray for those who persecute them. He also seems to give a new model for those at are oppressed to resist. To make a point.
To demand their humanity be acknowledged.
It’s easy to think outlandish thoughts about people when you ignore their humanity. It is easy to disrespect them or take advantage of them or use them however you desire when you don’t see them as a human and inherently valuable. There are plenty of commentaries that give light to some of the ways that Jesus taught those who were being oppressed to insist that the oppressors see their humanity. When Jesus says that you should turn the other cheek when someone hits you in the face, these commentaries argue that doing so requires a knowledge of customs that we simply don’t observe today. It is said that there were two widely acceptable techniques to hit someone in Jesus’ day: one would be used for people who were considered to be of lower status than the aggressor – think slaves, servants, peasants – and the other technique used when hitting someone of equal social status. After being struck, turning the other cheek was an invitation for your oppressor to do it again, but this time in a way that acknowledges your own humanity. Either the person does hit you and, in doing so, makes a step towards seeing you differently, or the person doesn’t, and and has to walk away feeling some sense of defeat without you ever having thrown a punch. Evidently, this was a deep-seeded social rule the same way that we know the that left hand lane is the fast lane or that double dipping is strictly prohibited.
There are other ways too. If someone – you should think Roman soldier – asks you to carry their stuff for a mile, Jesus says keep going. Soldiers were allowed to have anyone carry their packs for exactly one mile, so when Jesus says keep going, it’s an effort to turn the tables. All of a sudden the powerful Roman soldier is now pleading with that same peasant to stop. He faced punishment or a loss of salary if he broke those rules. It was a powerful statement.
I just can’t help but imagine a powerful Roman soldier, chasing a peasant around, whining and saying, “Awwwww, c’mon man, gimme back my stuff.”
Incidentally, Jesus also said that if someone asks for your coat – because you are unfairly indebted to them – you should basically strip all the way down to nothing in front of them. In those days, nudity was more embarrassing for those that were seeing it than those that were being it. The person taking their clothes off was making a statement and exposing their own humanity in a pretty powerful way.
Christians have just four books dedicated to directly telling the story of the Jesus. If you wanted, you could sit down and read everything in a matter of hours. We have a few hours of reading material drawn from somewhere around thirty three years. Two thousand years removed the setting that these stories were based in we can lose sight of the idea that Jesus was a human being. He grew up as a member of an oppressed group of people. His own humanity was formed by the things he saw, the things that he was exposed to. His story cannot somehow be surgically removed from any of this and made to be about something else.
Apparently his message was so offensive that his own people wanted to get rid of him. So they arranged for his arrest and turned him over to the very Romans that he had talked about before. The story says that he carried his cross – his heavy Roman pack – through the streets. When he couldn’t do it any more, another man was asked to carry it, a guy named Simon from a place in northern Africa. I don’t know if he had heard the teaching of Jesus but I wonder if he did. I wonder if, between the two of them, Simon and Jesus were challenging all of those spectators to see them as humans themselves. I’m sure there’s deeper meaning here than just a guy being willing to carry a cross.
Ultimately, of course, Jesus dies a pretty cruel death among criminals. It’s devastatingly horrific and impossible to describe. But the resistance was already born. Maybe those who aligned themselves with the things he had said were impassioned by what they saw on that day. Torture and death are what results when others refuse to see someone’s humanity. But those same images can burn ideas deep into our brains.
The stories say that Jesus was resurrected after a couple of days. In fact, the entirety of the Christian faith is based on the idea that a man who was dead was brought back to life – that he defeated death. It’s a far-fetched story that requires a ton of faith to believe when you think about it literally. Less far-fetched – believe it or not – is the idea that Jesus lives in the hearts and minds of people. In his book, I am a Strange Loop, Doug Hofstadter talks about how when his wife died, he realized that her ideas and quirks had become part of him. Somewhere deep in the recesses of his brain were structures that were formed because of who she was. There were circuits in his brain – physical memorials to her – that meant she would always be influential in his thoughts and actions. She would live forever in a sense because he had internalized her qualities. As he continued to live and move through the world, her influence would be seen in everything that he does.
Regardless of where you land on whether Jesus was divine and literally rose from the dead, Easter can be a time to reflect on the humanity of Jesus. The stories we have of him speak of the value of helping people restore themselves to a sense of wellness. He practiced a form of non-violent resistance and taught that way to others. He spoke of the value of compassion, of loving your neighbors, and of a faith that can bring a sense of purpose and meaning to life. His whole human experience was about reinstating a sense of humanity in those who had lost it. Maybe that’s at least some of what his death was about too. When we see Jesus as just divine – when we ignore his humanity – we can miss so much of the message of love, peace, and inclusion that was the hallmark of the movement his life started.