Finding the peace in easter
Rob Ritchie writes from the peace tradition with particular reference to our own land of Aotearoa, recalling the life of Archibald Baxter, and tradition of Parihaka
Have you ever been told that Jesus died “to save us all and put us right with God”? I’ve heard this many times: where the score with God is settled by Jesus taking the hit on our behalf. This idea has always seemed puzzling and somehow incomplete – until recently when I learned some historical background by which this claim about the meaning of Easter made sense.
Apparently, a week before he died Jesus organised a street parade to give the citizens of Jerusalem an alternative to watching a big military march-past, scheduled to happen in their capital city that same day. Resentment against the occupying Roman army brought out huge crowds of Jerusalem locals to support the Jesus-parade, instead of the Roman one. The local response was so strong that branches were torn off palm trees and some people stripped off their cloaks and threw them down in front of him.
It was a peaceful and daring political act which got a wildly enthusiastic response, with people shouting: “Yes, only God can save us!” (from these invaders of our country) Christians still remember Palm Sunday by making crosses out of fronds; but finding out Palm Sunday was a peaceful protest against Roman military-muscle – that’s new, for me.
With this background the “Jesus died to save us all’” version of Easter takes on new meaning. For example, I’d always had the sense that Jesus took the fatal hit from God, but it turns out the hit was put out by his religious and political opponents. Other citizens might have dreamed of the Romans being driven out and humiliated in war, but Jesus resolved he would die rather than fight to free his people from the Roman Empire.
When Jesus came riding past on a donkey those crowds were cheering the start of a peaceful uprising – so effective and tragic that its leader would be strung up before the week was over. By this defiant decision, however, Jesus freed his followers from slavery to any Empire in any time.
The tradition of making peace
This was fully understood by early Christians, who were known for refusing military service and a fearless and loving defiance towards the empire of Rome. The apostle John would write of it as: “The love which casts out all fear” (1 Jn 4,14). Within a few centuries, however, the empire had merged with the church, placing Jesus at the head of its army, and from there his effigy has overseen successive campaigns of violence, as one empire has given sway to the next.
It was the theologians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan who put Palm Sunday into context for me in their book The Last Week (2006). Reviving this part of the Easter story is momentous news because only being told “Jesus died to save you” has for centuries succeeded in keeping Christian folk in the dark about what this means. Meanwhile there’s been almost total silence about Jesus’ radically peaceful politics.
It’s not as if there isn’t plenty of other evidence in the Bible for Jesus being on a peace mission. Headlines to the Christmas story have always had Jesus being called “Prince of Peace”. But somewhere in the retelling of events between Christmas and Good Friday, Jesus’ sharply pointed act of peaceful resistance against Rome got lost from the Easter story.
Emphasising how Jesus has put us right with God, while leaving out the peace-politics of how he did this: that is really dodgy politics. Worse still it’s had consequences which have broadly ravaged the whole planet by clearing the way for Jesus to be claimed as Saviour by those who follow the Roman Empire’s example.
A bellicose tradition
Often, Christians have just looked the other way when injustices occur. As a result, for most of the last 20 centuries, Christianity has looked pretty monstrous, especially from the perspective of indigenous peoples. And over the last 60 years the indigenous communities of Palestine, some within a few kilometres of Jesus’ birthplace, have again been subjected to violent invasion, supported (to our collective shame) by a large bloc of Christians around the world.
Because of selective blindness and such aggressive collusions, we Christians now have this disastrous reputation for being an exceptionally bellicose people. Again and again this has confounded those who have been visited by the Bible and then the sword – especially when they have opened our Good Book and read what Jesus actually teaches. Surely it is a global tragedy that for nearly two millennia so many of those who love peace, and might otherwise have followed Jesus, have been driven away!
Signs of change
The Auckland writer C K Stead once attended a special church service during the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand by the all-white South African Rugby Team. A majority of New Zealanders had come out against what they saw as a racist tour, and many attempted peaceful actions in protest. Included was the performance of a drama, the centrepiece of the church service attended by Stead. At the end, the congregation was invited to say what they thought.
But because the drama took an anti-Tour perspective, some regular churchgoers were soon complaining loudly that such politics shouldn’t be brought into church. Stead stood up and disagreed. He said he’d really been moved by the performance, and as he watched it he started wondering why he hadn’t been to church for so long. Then he heard the complaints and remembered why.
Widespread despair about the silencing of Jesus’ peace-politics has been growing for a long time. Early last century the great Irish poet W B Yeats was moved to write a terrifying and deeply pessimistic poem called The Second Coming. In it Jesus is not mentionedInstead a monstrous creature returns, “…slouching towards Bethlehem to be born”. “Surely,” says Yeats, “some revelation is at hand?”
At the same time that Yeats wrote this, some signs of peaceful resistance by Christians were reappearing. Confined to a ship’s prison-cabin with several others, Otago farmer Archibald Baxter was shipped off to the battlefields of France, where in 1917, in an unsuccessful attempt to make him take military orders, he and his companions endured prolonged abuse by our military authorities. This included Baxter being tortured with the infamous ‘Field Punishment No 1’, referred to by the troops as “the execution” and described later in Baxter’s memoirs We Will Not Cease” (1937).
Since ancient times a strong mood for peace has always existed in these Southern Islands, passing from one generation to the next. For example in the year Baxter was born (1881) the Taranaki village of Parihaka was invaded by colonial troops and systematically wrecked, in response to one of the most creative campaigns of peaceful resistance of all time. Like conscientious objections against World War One, the resistance at Parihaka was inspired in part by the teachings of Jesus. At Parihaka, these and other Bible teachings were woven into local traditions of peaceful conflict resolution, including those established on Rekohu/Chatham Islands several centuries before the arrival of the Gospel.
With the true peace-politics of Christianity reappearing and joining with other ancient peace-traditions, perhaps some hopeful revelation is at hand? It certainly won’t do any harm to keep praying for it.
Kia mau tonu ake te rongo!