Resurrecting Easter

I originally intended to post this on Easter, but realized too many people would react negatively. So I waited a week, which, in America, means everyone will have forgotten the event for another year.

Christians around the world celebrated Easter last weekend, although the official holiday wasn’t until Monday. It wasn’t even a real “official” holiday. The Federal Government didn’t close down, most banks didn’t close, schools may or may not have closed for half-a-day.

In short, Easter is a “holy day,” not a holiday.

Why does Christmas make the cut and not Easter?

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Literal love

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve droned on about literalists, but I want to stress that I’m a literalist myself. At least when it’s clear the literal interpretation makes more sense than twisting the meaning and redefining words with meanings that can’t be found in standard dictionaries.

I first got in trouble for this in my high school freshman English class when I told my teacher that the rose in a poem could simply be a rose. (And this was before I read Gertrude Stein). Even in college poetry workshops, I felt that a poem that couldn’t be read literally first probably couldn’t support a meaningful symbolic structure.

So when I question the belief that every word in the Bible is to be taken literally, it’s not because I don’t feel literal interpretations aren’t important. In fact, I think it could be dangerous to ignore the literal meaning of passages. I simply believe that snipping verses and passing them off as “God’s literal word” can lead to as many problems as refusing to accept any basis of truth in the scripture.

Take the phrase “it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” There is a metaphor involved but the metaphor isn’t the point. It doesn’t really matter what the eye of the needle is or how hard it is for the camel to get through it. The point is the literal meaning, which is that rich people will have a hard time getting into heaven.

Even if we don’t understand the metaphor of “eye of the needle” at all, the context of the saying makes it clear. It follows a literal declaration making the exact same point with no metaphor whatever. “…I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” It doesn’t get more literal than that.

The syntax of the sentence (It is easier for A than B) makes the meaning clear as well. Take other examples: “It would be easier to split a rock with your head than separate something glued with epoxy,” or “It would be easier to survive water torture and electrocution than to sit through another Republican primary debate with Rick Perry involved.” When anyone encounters that structure in ordinary language, we don’t stop to reinterpret it to mean “this will be easy” (or in the case of Christian Republican theology, essential).

And yet I have sat through any number of sermons explaining why Jesus didn’t really mean it was hard for rich people to get into heaven. I’m not just pointing my finger at Baptists here (although most of the sermons I heard came during Baptist revival when giving was at its highest), but Episcopalians and Presbyterians as well.

I write this because I remember a long night spent arguing with a family member about Matthew 22. This family member, whom I won’t name, argued that homosexuals couldn’t be Christians because they didn’t obey God. In fact, she argued, no one could really be Christian if they weren’t in complete obedience. People who weren’t in complete obedience didn’t deserve God’s love or forgiveness.

So I quoted (or paraphrased) Matthew 22: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (This is the NIV version, but it isn’t too much different than the others).

She claimed that verse wasn’t talking about agape love, so we looked it up on the Internet and it was. Then she said, “but love means ‘obey.’ So the commandment is really saying that if we love god we will obey every commandment.”

Sadly, this kind of tunnel vision drives too much of Christian thinking. When the time comes to read a verse literally, we can’t accept it.

I’ve looked up every definition of love and agape on the web (and that includes a number of cranky sites) and couldn’t find one that defined agape as obedience. I’m sure, however, that this meaning has popped up in more than one discussion. It’s easier to redefine words when the dictionary isn’t in front of us.

Here’s my thinking. If the definition of love is to obey, then Jesus was really saying the the most important way in which we can obey God is to obey God. I don’t think Jesus was given to that kind of circularity. If anything, he was too much of an out of the box thinker for most Christians.

But if this is what he really meant, then we are left interpreting the second commandment to mean, “Obey your neighbor as you obey yourself.” I don’t want to discuss the linguistic twists that follow from this thinking.

More accurately, this is a case where we need to think literally. If we really want to obey God we will love him and love each other. Love, in essence, is a commandment, and that doesn’t mean tough love or doing what’s best for someone in spite of their desires, or denying them the love of God because we think they’re disobeying God themselves.

It’s tempting to walk away from such clear injunctions because they seem so trite and obvious. The Beatles said, “All you need is love,” so it must be more difficult than that. Who wants their most important imperative to be reduced to a jingle?

But in the case of Jesus’ followers, it’s an order. If you want to obey God, you will love him and everyone else. Homosexual or not. Unwed parent or not. Had an abortion and still believing it was the right thing to do or not. Planning on having an abortion or not. Or, in my case (and that’s what makes it so hard to love them) whether or not they believe in creationism (as opposed to creation), support the Tea Party, and think Obama is the antiChrist.

He is risen. Why bicker?

If the word on the street is true, and the rapture will occur on May 21, then today is the last Easter. Easter celebrates the anniversary of the resurrection of Christ with bunnies, easter eggs and enough sugar laden candy to send our children well on their way to early onset diabetes.

And it’s also the day of the year when I stop to wonder if he ever had second thoughts. After all, Jesus left his followers with one commandment, that we love each other as he loved us, and for the most part we’ve done a marvelous job of ignoring him or rationalizing that one commandment away.

The history of Christianity, for all of the good we’ve done (and, in truth, we’ve done a lot) seems more about “We’re right and you’re not” than loving each other. And it’s hard, I have to admit. After all, evangelicals think of Christians like me as condescending pompous stuffed shirts and we think of them as hillbilly retards. When the stereotypes are that well-defined, it’s hard to feel the love.

Here’s the thing. When I talk to Christians, truth seems to be a higher priority than love. With more fundamentalist Christians it’s truth, then obedience, then love. I became Episcopalian because they profess to be members of one catholic church (not Catholic, but catholic as in “one body united). Then the whole women in the priesthood thing pushed them to the verge of split, and the gay bishop thing sealed it.

The Catholic catholics will most likely undergo a similar split between orthodox and progressive wings and Neo-Catholics who align themselves with the religious right. It may be fifty years or more down the road, but the fissures are developing.

Baptists, who raised me, split at the drop of the hat and will most likely continue to do so until there are more denominations of Baptist than there are Amway distributors.

So here’s the thing. We have a month before the rapture and the first and possibly last official post of this blog. We can continue to harp on each other, bicker, and judge ourselves to be the only Christians who will make it while the others miss the ball. And, whether it’s May 21 or much later, Jesus can return to a trashed out planet with no one to welcome him but obsequious Christians waiting for him to declare them the official winners of truth.

And that is the doctrine of the rapture. Jesus is going to trash the planet and the sinners with it, so why keep it nice for him?

But a hundred years ago, before pre-millennialism and the doctrine of the rapture captured the evangelical consciousness, even evangelicals believed we were supposed to make bring this planet to perfection and usher in a thousand years of love.

So why not show him a circle of smiling faces with the message, “It doesn’t matter which of us got it exactly right, we all welcome you home?”