Palm Sunday Sermon 2023, Glynn Cardy
At Easter time we Christians celebrate our major festival. In countries all around the world there are processions through streets following a cross, dawn services on hilltops, and festive gatherings as we remember and rejoice in the founding story of our faith.
One way of understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus is with the metaphor of freedom – freedom of the oppressed. Although he lived under an oppressive regime Jesus was free in his mind and spirit. Those affronted by such freedom, such ‘subversion’, killed him. But Easter celebrates that freedom actually can’t be killed.
When freedom – which is grounded in a belief in the sacredness of each person – is repressed it goes underground, only to emerge later in the lives and actions of others. The spirit of freedom we of faith believe is more powerful than all the machinations and weapons of human control and oppression. This is one way of understanding the hope celebrated at Easter.
The Bible contains within it a deep belief in the value of freedom for the oppressed. The founding parable of the Hebrew nation is one of freedom. The ancient Hebrews were allegedly a servile class in the Egyptian empire until a leader emerged to galvanise their yearning to be free and head their protest. Led by Moses they exited Egypt, supposedly without getting their feet wet, and embarked on a circuitous route towards Canaan. This parable – part history, part myth – is remembered still today in the rituals of both the Jewish Passover and the Christian Last Supper, extolling the values of risk, rebellion, and freedom.
If taken seriously this parable is not good news for the ruling and the privileged. For at heart, it is an egalitarian vision: good news for all, release for the captives, liberation for the oppressed. It is about taking seriously the sacredness of each and every person no matter what class, gender, race, or crime.
In the course of time the observance of the laws developed by the Hebrew community led to a new kind of slavery – enslavement to the written word of the law as interpreted by an ecclesiastical elite. At least that is how the early Christians saw it. The writers of the Christian Testament portray Jesus in conflict with the scribes and Pharisees over the issue of allegiance to a strict legal observance. Jesus, time and again, is said to break the rules – rules that kept men and women apart, healthy and sick people apart, Jewish and non-Jewish people apart. It seemed that Jesus’ belief in the sacredness of the excluded, weak, and despised, kept him questioning and challenging the existing power relationships and structures.
Paul the paramount author in the Christian Testament battled hard to uphold a freedom of spirit from what he considered the constraints of the Jewish Law. He urged his hearers, largely those on society’s margins, to stand fast in the truth of their experience of God, to risk the wrath of those who did not understand and were offended by their actions, and to live lives free of religious rules, being guided instead by the spirit within.
As the story of the Exodus led in time to an institutional religion with rules and regulations so the ministry of Jesus and the preaching of Paul led in time to an institutionalised religion of power, control, and a surfeit of rules. Once again, the spirit of freedom for the oppressed had been bound. In the 16th century Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and others broke free of that religion and suggested that access to God is possible without ecclesiastical brokers and their boundaries. Yet reformation freedom too was in time curtailed by another form of bondage – enslavement to the written word of the Bible itself, interpreted literally.
Despite the biblical support for the value of freedom for the oppressed in the last 2,000 years it has largely been regarded in the Christian world as a dangerous door to civil unrest, rebellion, and social chaos. It was firmly believed that people were not meant to be free. Rather they were created to be subject to authority – subject to God the Supreme Ruler in the heavens, subject to the monarch the Supreme Ruler on a piece of earth, and subject to the position in life that this God and monarch had allotted to them.
People were not even meant to be free to have their own thoughts, let alone express them. They were instead expected to think the thoughts prescribed by God through the Bible, the Church, and God’s ecclesial and secular chosen. The idea of each and every person being sacred, a being of sacred spirit, would have been considered deeply suspicious, seditious, and dangerous.
Freedom of expression by those with less or little political, social, or religious power is still today looked upon with suspicion and often antagonism by many political and religious authorities. Consider for example the attempts of some countries to control the Internet, or Rainbow minorities, or ethnic minorities. Yet the freedom of people to think for themselves and publicly express those thoughts led to the opening up of the modern Western world and led to a whole series of emancipations.
First there came freedom from absolute monarchy. Following the French Revolution gradually across the Western world the absolute rule of hereditary monarchs was replaced by democratic self-rule. Very few Western Christians would condemn democracy today, yet before the eighteenth-century Christianity was wedded to the upholding of royal authority and the ‘divine right of kings.’ It was believed that God ordained the power structures in society and any attempt to overthrow them was regarded as a direct assault on the ‘will of God.’
Secondly there came the affirmation of basic human rights. Up until that time the emphasis had been almost entirely on the duties and responsibilities owed to ones ‘betters.’ People had never been taught to believe they had any rights by virtue of their sacred humanness. So gradually over the last two centuries there has come the abolition of slavery, the rejection of racism, the emancipation of women, and the acceptance of people identifying as Queer or Rainbow. All these wonderful and hard fought for changes pitted their proponents against conventional Christianity.
These emancipations – and many of course are still a work in progress – have been made possible only because at the same time as the movements of democracy and human rights there has been a steady erosion of the unwavering belief in a supernatural Supreme Being whose revealed will was not to be questioned. This is the third emancipation movement. It is the rebellion against the notion of a Being who dwells above and beyond the earth, who directs the affairs of earthlings through vassals, and who dictatorially imposes His (sic) will. This God in all the monotheistic religions has been male, sovereign [which means unaccountable], paternalistic, and, on a good day, benevolent. This God, not surprisingly, is usually portrayed as a king or father, and humanity as subjects or children.
This God is framed in the language of power. The language for God has been dominated by metaphors of power-over, power from above, power that privileges some and not others. The hope for the language of G-o-d I think is in shifting to metaphors from below, beginning with recognising and listening to the inherent sacredness in every human being and life-form, including to planet Earth.
Belief in the God draped in the robes of power – a supreme unaccountable Godfather – has in the Western world largely broken down. It has broken down due to the critical analytical tools that have been brought to bear upon historic sacred writings. It has broken down because people have learnt that leaders and institutions wanting to preserve their power have created a God and a God-language to support them. It has broken down because people have had the temerity to ask questions and expect a response. Freedom for the oppressed has always been feared and hated by those with a strong desire to control others.
In the19th century historical and literary tools of analysis were first applied to the Bible. Today we are able to go further than those pioneers and declare that the Bible also can err. Inspiring though it is in many parts, the Bible also transmits the errors and prejudices of those humans who wrote it. As Lloyd Geering says, “In the light of these discoveries… to retain the traditional view of the Bible’s authority and inerrancy is to fall into the practice of idolatry.”
We now know that what our forebears took to be the divine voice, either in the Bible or in the church, turned out to be simply the voice of other humans like ourselves, but maybe with more influence and power. When persons are elected as moderators or ordained as clergy they remain as human and fallible as they were before. All church edicts and decisions are of human origin and open to error.
The human origin of what was long taken to be divine does not prevent us from learning much of value from it, just as we still value the advice of our parents and teachers even after we have reached adulthood and learned to live independently of them. The continuing adoration of a supreme unaccountable Being though enables people to unconsciously project their own beliefs on to a divine authority and then attempt to impose those beliefs on others in the firm conviction that in doing so they are simply obeying the divine will. This is delusional and dangerous.
Some would argue that the journey towards freedom – a journey that has included democracy, human rights, and a questioning of a Supreme Being – is dangerous in itself and needs to be controlled. Others though, myself included, would argue that the future of religion in the Western world will not be found in subservience to texts, creeds, and rulings but in finding, appreciating, and listening to the sacredness in every human being and life-form, including planet Earth.
Easter is a celebration of the hope of freedom for all who are oppressed. Our vocation, as followers of Jesus, is to work for an egalitarian vision: where the oppressed are freed, where all are treated equally and justly, and where all can share in the goodness and responsibilities of being a part of this planet. This is the hope of Easter. This is what the myth of Easter – the myth of a crucified man being vindicated, the myth of a defeater of death – points to. It points to the hope of freedom for the least, that hope which defines freedom for all.