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.

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