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Easter Week: A New Narrative

The profundity of Christianity is that nothing in it has but one meaning.

So it is with Easter Week.

One of its many meanings came into clear focus for me yesterday. I set up a couple of lectures at USC by Dr. Fred Luskin, founder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project and author of “Forgive for Good”. Fred developed an studied an efficacious system of training people to forgive. Not for the sake of the ones forgiven, but for the measurable mental and physical health of those who forgive.

The key to forgiveness, says Fred, is to re-write one’s narrative of the incident that resulted in hurt or harm. Every story we tell about our lives can be written in at least a thousand ways. Why do we choose one way over another? What if we re-wrote our narratives in such a way that we were no longer victims, but rather active, positive agents in re-building our lives after traumas? He says that the adoption of such an alternative narrative is the essential moment of forgiveness.

It’s Easter week. How to tell the story? Using the same elements and details, the early Christians could have come up with at least a thousand ways to tell it. The New Testament gives us four of those options. And then the early Christians embellished those mythical stories with further narrative interpretations.

One of them, upon which evangelical Protestants are fixated, says that we are all hopeless sinners, doomed by God to Hell for eternity unless we believe that God sent Jesus to be tortured to death to pay for our sins so we can be saved. This makes us victims of a capricious supernatural divinity that created us to fail to meet his standards of behavior. Say “yes” to these contorted beliefs and you’ll be forgiven by God for being ensnared in his bizarre scheme. Even if you say “I believe”, you’re still a victim when your religion effectively says to believe it or you will roast in Hell for eternity.

Christianity needs a new narrative based on the elements of the Easter week myths. Here is an option: Rabbi Jesus practiced and taught radical compassion to the people of Israel. This threatened the authority of the Jewish elite and the Roman occupiers, so they killed him on a cross – from which he forgave them. This unconditional love prevailed beyond his death and lived on in his followers, who regrouped and formed a new, compassionate community of faith. In this narrative, Jesus and his followers are not victims. Jesus was an agent of positive action, and so are we who follow him. The transformative power of this narrative inspires us to forgive.

For progressive Christians, forgiveness is not in the supernatural hands of a Guy-In-The-Sky God. Forgiveness is up to us. Just as it was up to Jesus whether or not to forgive the people who crucified him. The mythic narratives of Easter week speak for our souls as we recognize our pain, loss, and disappointment, and move from being victims to becoming active agents of positive personal and social transformation. Fred Luskin summarizes forgiveness as the release of our attachment to enforcing unenforceable rules we’ve constructed. We think that our HTOTB’s (How Things Ought to Be) really are the immutable laws of the universe. But other people in fact do get to make choices, even if they hurt us. And we get to make our own choices in the aftermath, as well.

Jesus’ fan club in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday had to make a choice after Good Friday. Could they forgive him for not being the Superman Savior who would drive the Romans out of their land? Could they forgive God for allowing their beloved Rabbi to be murdered? Could they begin to understand God as Love instead of as an omnipotent Ruler of the Cosmos? Would they scatter and skulk and whine about the horrible things that happened that week? Or would they get up, dust themselves off, gather together, forgive without forgetting, remember the divine Love that flowed from Jesus, and redouble their commitment to living it out as a community?

At Easter, progressive Christians celebrate something much more significant than a supernatural miracle. We celebrate the decision of Jesus’ followers to be the church – to stick together in the community of compassion in which we gather this and every Sunday. That’s what it means for the Christ to live within us. That’s what we mean when we repeat the ancient chant: “Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!” — “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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