Friday, April 02, 2010

My thoughts on Easter

Up front, please understand that I'm not trying to take away anyone's happiness in their Easter holiday, whatever that means for you. I'm not saying you're a terrible person if you like Easter or if you have a Christian easter celebration, or you find bunnies soft and adorable, so please save your cries of "intolerant!" for the next time I display intolerance. You probably won't have to wait long.

But...Easter bothers me. Troubles me, like, viscerally.

Human sacrifice as a magical expiation of community guilt is a concept much older than Christianity, and it's immoral and gross. The story of Christ's martyrdom is no different from throwing a virgin into a volcano, which we all now find immoral and gross and, like, soprimitive and uneducated. Seeing normal otherwise reasonable people so happy about it and so accepting of allowing another to suffer and die for their benefits makes me cringe, every year, in a way that other religious messages and attitudes do not. It creeps me out, this Easter story.

Here's what I always end up thinking about on Easter: Sidney Carton from Tale of Two Cities.

Carton makes a sacrifice [SPOILER ALERT!] in going to the block for his cousin Charles Darnay. Some people would read this act as "Christ-like," but that would be an egregious misreading. Carton's choice does NOT involve an "innocent" who is tortured and murdered for the benefit of sin-ridden others; Sidney is not redeeming anyone but himself, because Sidney is not the innocent here, Charles is, and that's a major reason why Sidney makes his choice.

Sidney's epiphany is that Sidney kind of sucks, while Charles is a good guy who is about to be martyred in the French revolution's communal redemption that involves purging itself of the aristocracy. The book rejects that communal expiation of sin utterly, focusing instead on personal responsibility and actual moral and immoral actions by individuals, as opposed to magical effects that cannot be measured or observed and that apply to people who didn't even do anything wrong. The effects of Sidney Carton's sacrifice are obvious and objectively real: Charles will live and he and Lucie will escape France. Carton also imagines that someday they will have a child named for him, representing his awareness that his personal choice to go to the block for Charles, this "far, far better thing," is an attempt to repair his legacy, to give the people he cares about reason to remember him fondly.

In addition--and perhaps most appealing to me in this context--Sidney has to DRUG Charles to make this happen. Because Charles is a "good" moral character, there is no way he would ever agree to let Sidney do this, and Sidney knows it, and the reader has to know it or the character of Charles Darnay doesn't work anymore. How would we feel about him if Sidney managed to convince him to escape with his pretty little wife and let Sidney die horribly in his place? We would lose respect for him as a character, and rightfully so. He has to be tricked, they all do, or they're complicit in Sidney's death, which the book codes as immoral, as it should.

My point is, the novel correctly identifies zealotry and dogma as elements of a corrupt system under which people end up sacrificed and martyred, and though characters like Sidney can achieve dignity through suffering, it would still be better if the suffering didn't happen at all. The culprit is the corrupt system, and that system is the real Bad Guy. Why should we not look at the "system" that necessitates Christ's suffering in his story and conclude the same? Because that story ends up somehow affirming the horrific idea that violently shed innocent blood can wash away the sins of other people and is thus necessary, which is so morally repellent I am grieved that people find this okay, that they perceive it as moral.

Which is why I dislike Easter so much, I guess.

The moral compass of Tale of Two Cities is more moral by far than that of the gospels, and this has nothing to do with atheism and everything to do with why belief systems that valorize suffering and martyrdom bother me so much. Ugh. Why couldn't we have stuck with the fertility celebrations? We could've kept the eggs and bunnies and grass and gotten excited about the return of spring and left blood and death out of it.


At 12:48 PM, Blogger Kate Day said...

Just a probably useless comment to give you some understanding of why I at least choose to honor and ponder Christ's Atonement at Easter. I don't believe in Christ as a victim like the example you used of a helpless virgin being sacrificed as a scapegoat to make a community feel better about their sins. I believe in a literal son of God (one who had an advantage we don't because of his parentage) who had the power to save his life and didn't go to the cross as a victim, but chose to give his life as only He could.

But why give it, right? I guess it all boils down to what you believe is our purpose for being here, if we existed before, where we go after this life etc. If you have decided this life is it, and that finding happiness and purpose is all within your own power to bring about then yes, such a loving gift for someone 2000 years ago to sacrifice their life to help you somehow (that you don't even believe helps) would seem absurd and strange, you're right.

My belief is that we existed before and will continue to exist (Socrates has a pretty good argument for that point) and that this life is a training ground. A time to learn, develop and gain needed experience to move on in our progression that will continue throughout eternity. I believe it was this eternal view that Christ lived and died to teach us.

I've found there is this tendency we all have that we don't want to be wrong. We need to feel clean, too. We want to feel confident that the truth we believe is THE truth. We want to be loved by others and valued. This tendency is so strong that if we ever come to the point that we feel we aren't good, that we aren't mostly right - we try to end our life. So, there are infinite ways we remedy this problem. Most of them boil down to finding a scapegoat. OR - finding someone who has all truth, and who has the power to help us align with that truth, to sanctify us (because even knowing truth doesn't make it any easier to become a person OF truth, changed and aligned with truth to their inner core. Many focus on only the cross. That was not the part of the Atonement that made Christ most powerful in helping us, I believe. His willingly dying and then rising again was what made it possible for us to live again. Although his willingness to do that is essential and makes me grateful, I won't feel the effects of that part of the Atonement until I die. It was the part of the Atonement that took place in the Garden of Gethsemane that makes all the difference for me right now in this life. It was there that Christ forged a connection with each of us by experiencing the effects of sin, sorrow, pain, sickness etc. that we would each face in this life. This allowed him to have true empathy, and also somehow to have the ability to heal us. I wouldn't believe it was possible if I hadn't experienced it recently. Felt sorrow so deep that it consumed my life and then in a sacred moment of prayer and sobbing, had an experience where I could not doubt his existence because of the powerful feeling that came over me. This was followed by a complete healing. I've had it happen with physical trials as well. The conundrum is, you can't just have it for the asking - the benefits of what Christ did. So, you'll continue to be right (for you) that Easter is meaningless and absurd. That's what I realized and wrote about here:


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