Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Feminism and Christ Followers

I’ve never embraced the term “feminist,” but I think I’ve long recognized discrepancies in the treatment of men and women in our society. As mentioned in a prior post, the dictionary definition of “feminism” is “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.” If the gist of being a feminist is advocacy of equality of women to men, I am clearly a feminist.

But that dictionary definition is not the one everyone seems to intend when using the term. Indeed, I recently overheard a very conservative Christian woman I know state that feminists are “women who negate the importance of men in society.” To be clear--I’m not a chauvinist, I don’t think women are superior to men, and I don’t advocate the supremacy of women over men. I am unabashedly proud of my brilliant husband. I’ve also had many good male friends and mentors. I am not in any way “anti-male.” As a Christ follower, I simply think all human life is equally valuable, and accordingly all human beings should be treated with the same respect and dignity.

In one e-mail, the law professor, who invited me to affiliate with the feminist law professor group, shared her opinion that she thought Jesus was a feminist. I shared with her that I agreed. Honestly, I had never thought of Jesus in those terms previously. But heretofore, I also hadn’t really thought about the term “feminism” much. However, with my current understanding of the concept of a “feminist,” I think Jesus fits the bill.

Jesus’s ministry was remarkable in terms of inclusiveness. At a time when the prevailing religious values and cultural norms emphasized purity, Jesus went out of his way to befriend impure outcasts. For example, in his culture, women were nobodies. They were considered impure. Their presence in society was marginalized and undervalued to say the least. Yet we know that Jesus did not treat them that way.

Women traveled with Jesus and his disciples. Mary and Martha were among his closest friends with whom he could just relax and hang out. Women were also among Jesus’s most faithful followers. After Judas betrayed him, and even Peter claimed not to know him, women were the last to stay near Jesus as he experienced a torturous death by crucifixion. After his resurrection, as his disciples despaired at the apparent defeat of their leader, Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene.

My sense is Jesus inspired such loyalty in women because of his radical attitude in treating them as precious human beings. People don’t follow a leader who denigrates them and makes them feel worthless. Leaders who inspire and empower people inspire enthusiastic loyalty.

Most of the New Testament was written by Paul as communications to various Christian communities. Paul has sometimes been disparaged by some progressives as misogynist. But as I understand, modern biblical scholarship has actually shed doubt on Paul’s authorship of certain controversial passages on the role of women. Indeed, Paul’s own writing memorializes his respect for the leadership of women like Priscilla in the fledgling Christian movement. And it is Paul himself who instructed us in his Epistle to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 King James Version).

I think this oft-quoted passage from Galatians is indicative of the respect for all human beings that Christians profess to have. If we truly believe that we are all one in Christ, and if feminism is about advocating for the equality of women, then all Christians should fall within the scope of the term “feminist.”

Acts 18:18 (Today's New International Version)

Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the believers and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila.

Romans 16:3 (Today's New International Version)

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Is Feminism Still Relevant?

My sense is that some of the popular negativity towards the concept of feminism is generational. I was born in the waning months of the 1960s, was a child in the 1970s, but was a young adult in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Basically, I guess I missed the Women’s Movement. I dimly recall my mother being interested in the ERA, and being concerned with women’s rights. But the ERA never did get passed, and by the time I came of age, those issues seemed passé. As far as I could tell as a young adult, women seemed to be on fairly equal footing with men. Yeah, there weren’t a lot of them in leadership positions (e.g., principals, deans, politicians, law firm partners), but there weren’t a lot of men of color in those positions either. I vaguely figured it was just a matter of time, but both the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements were over because formal, legal barriers were removed.

In undergraduate school, in law school, and when I was a practicing lawyer, I often moved in circles with few women. At varying times, I seemed to have more male friends than female ones, and I never had the sense that my male friends treated me any differently due to my gender. They seemed to enjoy discussing coursework, politics, theology and various other topics with me. They seemed to value my opinions like anyone else’s.

But while I was in practice a variety of things began to happen subtly that led me to gradually realize that perhaps women had not made as much progress as I had previously thought. Certain comments were made by certain co-workers. Certain decisions were made about hiring, promotion and assignments. And certain patterns developed with respect to individuals’ workplace friendships. When I was in practice, for the most part I was blessed to have been placed under the authority of some very good human beings. And most of them were male. They were generous mentors, from whom I learned a lot, and to whom I continue to be very grateful. But there were a few other times when I was not as fortunate. And there were times when some male co-workers were frankly more hospitable than others.

Simultaneously while in practice, I developed a new-found respect for the value of female support systems. Prior to working as a lawyer, I had had so many male friends, perhaps in some ways I had undervalued the benefit of having a female network. In the eight years I was in practice, countless female colleagues reached out to me at various times to offer support at different milestones. It was really striking because there was such a gender imbalance in that context. Often women that I didn’t even know well would seek me out to offer congratulations, condolences or whatever was appropriate at those key times. For example, when an announcement was made about our family’s adoption of our first child, a normally stern woman I barely knew rushed to my office to give me an unexpected, speechless bear hug, and I received a slew of excited e-mails from other female co-workers.

Similarly, when my resignation was announced and word spread about my decision to enter academia, I had long, supportive discussions with so many female colleagues. And for days, different ladies took me out for congratulatory farewell lunches. I was excited at the new path my career was taking me, but I unexpectedly broke down into emotional sobs when I hugged my administrative assistant “good-bye.” For a long period, she was the only other woman in our work group. Her friendship and support had really helped me through some tough times; her camaraderie had made me feel less alone in the group. She and I couldn’t have been more different in so many ways. But it helped a lot just to have someone—another woman--to trade stories about our kids, to discuss the joys of mammograms and the fear of having to one day maintain a professional appearance while dealing with hot flashes!

I was recently asked by a law student about my experiences with “gender discrimination” while I was in practice. I reflected that it is typically very subtle these days. Obviously, American women in the twenty-first century don’t face the types of blatant gender discrimination that Sandra Day O’Connor and her generation faced. But in some ways such blatant discrimination would almost be preferable—it is easier to identify and fight. Subtle discrimination is insidious and can be much more difficult to overcome. This is particularly the case when many young folks are naive (as I once was) and don’t believe that gender discrimination still continues.

In light of these experiences, and these observations, I have come to the conclusion that yes, feminism is still relevant. Women haven’t achieved full equality in our society. There is still a need to work towards equality. Indeed, due to the subtleties of current discrimination, I think many of us need to be made aware that problems do continue to persist.

Psalm 45:4

In your majesty ride forth victoriously in the cause of truth, humility and justice; let your right hand achieve awesome deeds.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Perceptions of Feminism

Since this discussion with the law professor who asked me to affiliate with a feminist law professor group, I have been exploring perceptions of the term “feminist” and trying to reconcile them with the relatively tame dictionary definition. In this process, I’ve sought feedback from a number of friends inside and outside of the legal academy. I have purposely sought the perspective of people from many different walks of life—different professional experiences, different genders, different ages, different racial and ethnic identities, different religions, etc. Their insights have really been interesting to me. And I’m grateful to them for sharing time in their busy schedules to enlighten me.

Though I sought feedback from people with different backgrounds, there were commonalities shared by everyone I consulted on this issue. They were all well-educated professionals in the United States who currently enjoy a middle class lifestyle with some degree of financial security. Though I learned a lot in receiving their feedback, I recognize these are important commonalities that may bias to some degree the insights that were shared with me. Indeed, one person shared the perception that the feminist movement was primarily a concern of the more educated and economically advantaged in our society.

Another person I consulted grew up in a developing country that was originally founded by European colonialists on the exploitation of enslaved Africans. She shared that feminism is perceived in her homeland as a “western ideal” and an “alien concept.” She noted that any western ideology is typically regarded with suspicion, as “imperialism in new clothes.” She described the perception that feminism is an ideology based on an “individualistic lens” that is at odds with the culture of her homeland. She shared that “[f]or feminists in the ‘third world,’ power is measured in large part by a yard stick of familial progress. The family unit must realize its potential. The view, then, is that western feminists seek to divide the family – a concept that is almost heretical in most ‘third world’ societies.”

I also consulted several women who grew up in the United States. They varied in age from being in their twenties to their fifties. Some were lawyers in the academy, some were not. Indeed, one was not a lawyer at all, and another was a current law student. Some were white, some were women of color. These women were also all either married or were otherwise in long-term committed relationships with men. Some (but not all) were mothers. Interestingly, all of these women indicated their understanding of feminism in similar terms—as being concerned with the equality of women in the face of a long history of discrimination. They all seemed to be focusing on discrimination in the work place, as well as in public and private leadership roles.

These women all indicated that they thought of themselves as feminists, based on their own definitions of the term. However, almost all were quick to point out popular connotations of feminism are often quite different from their own definition. They noted the popular connotations are typically negative, e.g., feminists are anti-male. The term “bra burner” was mentioned several times, as well as the term “extremist.” Several of the women expressed that they thought the term “feminist” has been misunderstood and received a “bum rap.”

In the responses of several (but certainly not all) of the women I consulted, there seemed to be a bit of initial hesitancy to embrace the label “feminist.” That was interesting because the respondents all indicated a personally favorable impression of that term and a sense that they themselves fell within its scope. Some of the women seemed to be uncomfortable with labels more generally because they can be misunderstood, divisive, and can serve as a tool for exclusion. However, several of the women expressed a desire to see the term “feminist” reclaimed and the negative popular connotations challenged.

I also contacted a number of men to hear their views on feminism. They varied in age from being in their thirties to over sixty. They were all happily married to college-educated women, and they were all fathers. Their children ranged in age greatly: new-borns, adults, pre-schoolers, teenagers. All of these men were well-educated, but not all had attended law school. The men I consulted were of various races and ethnicities. They also came from different religious backgrounds.

I have to admit that each of the men I consulted share the commonality of being very sensitive to social justice issues generally. Even before contacting them for this blog post, I personally knew these gentlemen were all very supportive of women’s equality in the work place and in society more broadly. Before contacting them, however, I was not sure if that sensitivity and supportiveness would influence their perceptions of the term “feminist.”

I was surprised in a number of ways by the feedback I received from males. For example, I had initially thought their perceptions on this issue might be polarized along generational lines, but that was not actually the case. I thought perhaps some of the men who had come of age during the civil rights and/or women’s movement might be more inclined to embrace the concept of feminism. On the other hand, I suspected that those who are closer to my age and missed the women’s movement might tend to have more negative connotations. However, such trends were not evident. Some of the relatively young men embraced the term “feminist” for themselves, others did not. The same was evident among the relatively older men in the group.

Additionally, in several instances, I was personally surprised about individuals’ reactions to whether they considered themselves a feminist. Some men I personally thought might embrace the term actually rejected it out of hand. In contrast, some of the men I thought would reject the term embraced it. It was a very interesting set of responses.

Many of the men I consulted indicated they viewed a “feminist” as someone who was concerned about the equality of women and discrimination against women in society. I was intrigued that one gentleman defined the term even more broadly as someone who wants to advance gender equality, and is supportive of men and women who enter historically nontraditional roles. When asked if they were a feminist, the men with such egalitarian views indicated that they were feminists. However, it was interesting because not all came to that conclusion immediately. Several noted they had never really thought about the question, and for some reason several had always had an assumption that only women could be feminists. However, because the definition they provided did not mandate being female, these men did eventually indicate they thought they were feminists.

There were a few men who did not embrace the term for themselves. For example, one man (who was probably the youngest in the group and is a law professor) indicated he really thought of the term “feminist” as being primarily descriptive of a particular field of scholarship. He expressed a lot of respect for that discipline and was supportive of it. However, because that was not the field in which he did research, he did not believe he fit the definition of a “feminist.” Another gentleman, who was of a different generation, indicated that he generally had a negative connotation of the term “feminist.” Currently, he associated the term with people (usually female) who were “activists” on women’s issues, but in the distant past he equated the term with men-hating “bra burner[s].” He no longer thought of feminists in those terms and recognized that feminists were “very thoughtful people who are concerned about issues involving women.” And though I know this particular gentleman is supportive of women’s issues, he did not embrace the term “feminist”; he indicated he did not embrace “isms” of any kind.

1 Corinthians 12:22-27 (Today’s New International Version)

But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

National Organization of Women

As a follow up to the prior post, it seems that in conservative Christian circles I’ve often heard the concept of feminism linked to the promotion of abortion (and not just the de-criminalization of medical abortions). I’m not entirely clear about the source of this perception. Personally, I cannot imagine anyone actually wanting women to have abortions—let alone feminists who purport to have the best interests of women in mind. However, my own belief is that the perception is rooted at least to some degree in the fact that the National Organization of Woman has been an ardent supporter of the pro-choice position for many years. I know full well that “pro-choice” does not mean “pro-abortion,” but I think that some conservatives conflate the two, particularly when a person or a group (like NOW) seems to focus exclusively (or almost exclusively) on the issue of abortion rights.

These days it seems that NOW only makes the news with respect to abortion issues. A few weeks ago, I was watching Bill Moyers Journal and the current NOW president, Terry O’Neill, was invited to discuss the recent passage of health care reform. Though many progressives were rejoicing and exchanging high-fives that week, Ms. O’Neill was apparently not at all pleased. The interview began with her passionate critique of a lack of inclusion of abortion coverage in the bill that President Obama signed. She was so angry in the interview, she reminded me of Rush Limbaugh ironically enough.

This recent interview does not appear to be aberrational. When you go to NOW’s website, the group has a list of six leading issues important to its mission. The first issue listed is “Abortion and Reproductive Rights.”

I certainly don’t favor the re-criminalization of medical abortions. But I would take great offense to ever being labeled someone who is “pro-abortion.” That would be a cruel mischaracterization of my actual views. It is a topic for another post, but in my limited, indirect experience with the topic, I have come to the conclusion that abortion is never a happy choice. I have known women who struggle for years with a past decision to have an abortion. I would not wish that experience on any woman.

But the reality of the situation is that Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land for nearly forty years despite decades of hollow GOP campaign promises to overturn it. At this point, it is pretty entrenched law. Even if it were somehow overturned, I highly doubt there would be a widespread move in state legislatures to re-criminalize abortions. Maybe I’m naive, but that is my sense of where our society currently stands on that issue.

And I recognize that even if the legal status of medical abortions is not seriously threatened at this time, for a variety of reasons there are many logistical obstacles to getting abortion care. Fewer and fewer doctors are willing to perform medical abortions for a variety of reasons including nonviolent but harassing protestors, very credible death threats, and varied economic pressures. Consequently, in some parts of the country abortion rights are effectively compromised for lack of access—particularly for women in rural communities and in states with few or no providers.

Nonetheless, in this day and age in the United States, I just don’t understand how the highest profile women’s rights group still touts abortion rights as its top priority. Abortion is only even a possibility for women while they are in their child-bearing years, so the issue has the potential to directly affect only one relatively small segment of the female population. And not all of the women in that segment are even ever going to consider having an abortion. In my mind, there are a lot of other more pressing issues facing women--issues that are important to a much larger cross-section of the female population of our country.

Though NOW continues to be viewed by many as the preeminent voice of feminism in our country, I’m not sure how reflective the group really is of most women today or even the modern women’s movement. Indeed, as far as I am aware, I have personally only known one individual who was an actual member of NOW. That person was a lovely human being, but frankly he had some odd views. He was an aging hippy with a Ph.D., and an erratic work history. He had several failed marriages, and used to reminisce about the good ole days of the 1960s when people smoked marijuana and shared “free love” without being “up-tight.” Hmmm.

To be honest, I haven’t ever followed NOW closely. One of my biggest memories of the group was that Patricia Ireland was its president for about a decade during my young adulthood in the 1990s. The one thing I remember about Ms. Ireland was that she caused controversy when she took over the NOW leadership because of her admission that in addition to a husband, she also had a female partner (who was a long-time member of the Socialist Workers Party). In the base case, being a polygamous bisexual is a tough sell in many parts of our country. But if your partner is also a card-carrying Socialist, you might as well pack up your bags. Interestingly enough, however, that didn’t happen; Ms. Ireland was at the helm of NOW for a number of years. For this and other reasons, I think the organization seemed out of touch with many of my generation. As young people beginning careers and families, none of my friends rushed to join NOW. It just wasn’t on our radar.

In conclusion, I don’t think access to abortion is the most important issue facing women these days. In fact, it would not even make my short-list. Perhaps because of NOW’s overemphasis on abortion rights to the exclusion of other issues, I think that conservative Christians are not the only ones who seem to think that at least modern feminism is primarily concerned with access to abortions. In my opinion, that has not served the cause of women’s equality. I also don’t think that helps others embrace the term “feminism.” It drives many of us from it.

2 Corinthians 8:13 (Today’s New International Version)

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Feminism—What’s in a Name?

Recently I was in contact with a fellow law professor, who teaches at another law school. She has been in the academy longer than me, and is a well-respected teacher and scholar. She is active in a group of feminist law professors, and at one point kindly asked me to affiliate with them. Oddly enough, that was actually the first time I’ve ever explicitly or implicitly been asked if I were a feminist. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how to reply. Basically, I deferred and said I needed to think about it.

As I do frequently when I’m unsure how to define a key term, I consulted a dictionary. The dictionary definition of “feminism” that I found simply explains that the term means, “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.” That sounds pretty innocuous to me. In this day and age, in the United States of America, who would not support the notion that women should enjoy rights “equal to those of men”?

But despite a pretty tame dictionary definition, there seems to be a pretty negative reaction to the concept of “feminism” in many quarters. For example, in my daughters’ Girl Scout troop, a recent controversy erupted as a few mothers passionately advocated that the troop should affiliate with the American Heritage Girls. There were strong concerns that the Girl Scouts might be promoting a “feminist, socialist agenda.” Rumors that Planned Parenthood was somehow affiliated with the Girl Scouts’ website seemed to fuel some of these concerns. In that context, I understood the term “feminist” to be equated with locally unpopular concepts such as abortion and big government. I’m still not clear on the connection between feminism to these other concepts, but for some folks there is apparently a connection.

Somewhat similarly, the late Jerry Falwell famously blamed the tragedy of 9/11 on feminists among other outcasts. Speaking to Pat Robertson on the 700 Club right after the tragedy, Reverend Falwell provided commentary on the terrorist attacks, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’” From this statement in 2001, I understand that Reverend Falwell (and his followers) at that point equated “feminists” with abortion, homosexuality and a separation of church and state. Again, I’m not clear on how these concepts get linked in the minds’ of some, but they do.

In contrast, there are people like actress Patricia Heaton. (Ms. Heaton is probably best known for her role on Everybody Loves Raymond.) She has been outspoken on a number of political issues including the war in Iraq and the presidency of George W. Bush. (She strongly supported both.) Heaton is a conservative Christian who is passionate on “pro-life” issues. However, she is also affiliated with a group called Feminists for Life. Contrary to popular conceptions, not all who embrace the term “feminist” are in favor of abortion rights.

Luke 7:37-44 (Amplified Bible)

And behold, a woman of the town who was an especially wicked sinner, when she learned that He was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment (perfume).
And standing behind Him at His feet weeping, she began to wet His feet with [her] tears; and she wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed His feet [affectionately] and anointed them with the ointment (perfume).
Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw it, he said to himself, If this Man were a prophet, He would surely know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching Him--for she is a notorious sinner (a social outcast, devoted to sin).
And Jesus, replying, said to him, Simon, I have something to say to you. And he answered, Teacher, say it.
A certain lender of money [at interest] had two debtors: one owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
When they had no means of paying, he freely forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?
Simon answered, The one, I take it, for whom he forgave and cancelled more. And Jesus said to him, You have decided correctly.
Then turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, Do you see this woman? When I came into your house, you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
You gave Me no kiss, but she from the moment I came in has not ceased [intermittently] to kiss My feet tenderly and caressingly.
You did not anoint My head with [cheap, ordinary] oil, but she has anointed My feet with [costly, rare] perfume.
Therefore I tell you, her sins, many [as they are], are forgiven her--because she has loved much. But he who is forgiven little loves little.
And He said to her, Your sins are forgiven!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Guest Blogger Lisa Pope on Women in the Church

From Esther to Ruth to Priscilla, I grew up learning of the strong, inspirational women of the Bible. And looking around my Baptist church as a child, I saw women teaching Sunday school, directing the choir, preparing communion, leading mission organizations, and even serving as deacons. But I didn’t see them in the pulpit. Women often seemed to be the backbone of the church and many times were the spiritual leaders of their families, but never were they the spiritual leaders of the congregation. The women’s movement and its concerns may have seemed light years away from the Nation’s religious institutions, particularly as a conservative Christian mindset gained prominence in the 1980s and subsequent decades, but yes, even in our churches, we’ve come a very long way.

Today, as I continue to worship in the church where I grew up, I sit in the pew on Sunday morning and look up at our new female pastor. She is our pastor not because she is a woman, not because of the need to make a statement about change, but because she was the best person for the job. Because she makes people excited to come on Sunday mornings. Because she believes our church is open to all. And because even those who had opposed the idea of a woman pastor began to change their hearts and minds once they heard her preach and came to know her as a person.

To me, the most exciting thing about the change at my church is how natural it was. No one left the church. No one voted against calling her as pastor. And no one has protested since she began her ministry. By recognizing the talents and gifts of more than half of our population and opening the doors of ministry to them, our churches can only benefit. When today’s children sit in the pews, look up, and see a female face, it will be unremarkable. More than 40 years after the women’s movement entered our national discussion, that’s the best kind of progress of all.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Celebrating Easter

Some non-religious readers may wonder how Christians celebrate this most important of holidays. Of course, the secular celebration of Easter involves baskets of pastel packaged candy including chocolate bunnies, and hiding dyed eggs. As far as I know, that has nothing to do with Easter. Indeed, some Christians forego those activities altogether due to their pagan, non-Christian roots.

For many folks who believe in Christ but are not active in a faith community, Easter is one of the only times all year that they go to church. Some congregations have special services on Easter Sunday. Some have services on Good Friday too. Still others have special celebrations through out Holy Week, i.e., the week between Palm Sunday and Easter.

In some churches, the Thursday before Easter is a particularly important day. It is called Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday. It is the day we remember the Last Supper, when Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples. In the Gospel of John, after the meal, Jesus displays an act of great humility and love by washing the feet of his disciples, and instructing them to the same for one another. Afterwards Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot and arrested. At Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday services, these events are remembered and often reenacted.

Members of the congregation may wash the feet of others in the congregation. It is often a little awkward and can frankly be embarrassing for people to be in their bare feet in church and to have others come into physical contact with such a vulnerable, unattractive part of our anatomy. But oddly enough, it can also be a very moving ritual. As our pastor explained her understanding of Jesus's washing of his disciples feet, he was not just giving an example of humble servitude. Instead, he was showing us to love one another deeply, to take care of one another, and to be open to the love and care from others who make up the Body of Christ. As our pastor explained, Jesus wanted us to love each other so tenderly to be an example to the rest of the world.

At Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday services, communion is often shared to remember Jesus's Last Supper with his disciples. Communion in many Christian traditions is a very meaningful ceremony.

Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday services sometimes end with a stripping of the sanctuary to remove all adornments and to extinguish lights and candles. The congregation is left to imagine the emptiness and darkness that the disciples must have experienced when their beloved Jesus was arrested and taken from them. They must have been terrified, not knowing what would happen to Jesus or if the authorities would come for the rest of them as well. At our church this year, the service ended in silence--no music, no farewell greeting. We just filed out in semi-darkness, many of us moved to tears to think of the emptiness we would feel if Jesus were not in our lives.

On Good Friday, Christians remember with heavy hearts the crucifixion of Jesus. It is a heart-breaking day. Churches that have Good Friday services often read the passion story from the Gospels. We remember the physical agony Jesus suffered, as well as the humiliation and the abandonment. We mourn for his suffering, and we relate to the sorrow of his friends and family members who were powerless to help him.

After the emotionally draining experience of Thursday and Friday, Easter is a jubilant reward. We remember Mary Magdalene's confusion that Jesus's tomb was empty; she thinks someone has stolen his body. But then she encounters the risen Jesus, though she initially does not recognize him and mistakes him for a gardener. She runs to tell the disciples. Jesus lives among his friends for a period, not as a ghost but with a body. He walks and eats with his friends. He even makes them breakfast at one point. The suffering of several days ago is past and it is a time for rejoicing. Churches are often filled with decorations and flowers. Special, joyful songs are sung. It is the high point of the liturgical year.

John 21:12
Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." None of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What's the Big Deal About Easter?

It is probably understandable that the editor of a blog on Christianity has not had time to post anything in the last week! It has been a busy time for Christ followers.

When I was a little kid, however, I did not grow up in a household where we went to church regularly, and for many years I did not even realize the religious significance of Easter. I just knew the bunnies and the eggs. Where I grew up on the East Coast, I was also not really aware of Good Friday because it always coincided with our spring break so everyone was already on vacation. When I went to college in Texas, I was stunned that Good Friday was celebrated by so many; people did not go to class and offices were closed or closed early. Even at that time in my early adulthood, I still did not understand why Easter was such a big deal to Christians. As a result, I recognize that some readers of this blog may have the same reaction--what is the big deal about Easter? I thought I would take some time to try to explain.

Christmas is a great holiday, don't get me wrong. But there is nothing like Easter. Indeed, as I understand, the early church did not even celebrate the birth of Christ for a few centuries. Easter was its main celebration.

And even today, some Christian scholars debate the factual accuracy of the virgin birth. Of course, it is an essential tenet of the faith for many Christ followers. But it is not even mentioned in all of the Gospels. The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John (considered by many to be the first and last gospels to be written) begin their narratives with the ministry of John the Baptist when Jesus was already an adult. Apparently those Gospel writers did not think Jesus's birth to be of great theological importance.

I'm no theologian or biblical scholar, I don't know who is factually correct. But to me, it is actually not that important. I can appreciate Mark and John's greater emphasis on Jesus's teachings, the passion story, and the resurrection. After all, it is the resurrection that is the key to our faith as Christians. If we did not believe that Jesus rose from the grave, then his beautiful teachings would not have the authority they do. Instead, we would simply consider them to be the insightful teachings of a wise human being--like Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln or Oprah. But because we Christ followers do believe in the resurrection, we believe they are much more than just the teachings of a wise person. We put our faith in Jesus's teachings, we study them and we try our best to live them in our imperfect lives.

Some may ask why we Christians believe in the resurrection. That is a fair question. It is also a personal one that is bound to be answered differently by different people. An obvious answer is that the New Testament tells us that Jesus rose from the dead after three days in the tomb. But I can appreciate that that may not be enough for some folks.

To me, there are a couple of other things that really inspire my faith. First, something pretty impressive must have happened after Jesus's death because the disciples turned from utter despair (after the arrest and cruxifiction of their leader and friend) to an amazing, unshakeable faith. With that faith, the disciples (other than Judas) went on to organize the early church and to spread the good news of Christ to those who had not yet heard it. They sacrified mightily and suffered horribly to do that. Something very impressive happened to inspire that type of dedication in the face of all kinds of obstacles and dangers. In my mind, if they had not experienced the risen Christ, they would have taken a simpler path. I think Peter would have just gone back to a quiet life as a fisherman.

Another thing that convinces me of the factual accuracy of the resurrection is the life of Paul. Clearly, he was initially no friend of the Way, as the early church was called. Paul was a devout Jew, and was not keen on the followers of Jesus. Though he never met the pre-Easter Jesus, he did have a pretty impressive encounter with the post-Easter Jesus. It was so impressive that Paul did a 180, and devoted the rest of his life to learning about Jesus's teachings, trying to follow them, and bringing new people to the faith. Indeed, Paul wrote the vast majority of the books of the New Testament. None of us were on that road to Damascus with Paul, but clearly something pretty darned impressive must have happened to change his mind so drastically and convince him to sacrifice so much.

For those who believe in the resurrection of Christ, Easter is an amazing celebration. Like the disciples during Jesus's earthly ministry, we can be impressed by the wisdom and beauty of Jesus's pre-Easter teachings. But the resurrection shows us they were more than pretty words, they had divine authority to back them up.

And the resurrection is the ultimate victory. Jesus was betrayed, humiliated, tortured and abandoned, then he suffered an agonizing death. But despite all that suffering, he prevailed. No power on Earth could keep him down permanently. Even death, which seemed horrible and final, was not "the end of the story" as my pastor expresses it. The real end of the story is that like Christ we have eternal life with our Heavenly Father. If we no longer have reason to fear death, we are really liberated during our time here on Earth. That is the big deal that Christians celebrate at Easter.

1 Corinthians 15:55

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?