WASHINGTON — The Easter season is a celebration of deliverance and the liturgical calendar sets Easter Week up as a kind of catharsis.
Holy Thursday and the Last Supper have an ominous feel because they are preparation for Good Friday and the dolorous story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet two days later, the tale ends in triumph and resurrection. Whatever questions Christians may have about the meaning of that empty tomb, most of us have experienced a sense of joy when the words “He is risen, alleluia!” are shouted out on Easter Sunday.
Christianity, like the prophetic Judaism with which it is inextricably linked, is rooted in the idea of liberation, and I have long seen the Exodus and Easter as twin narratives involving a release from oppression and the victory of freedom. Thesepromises have left a permanent mark on the culture outside the traditions from which they sprang.
Yet even in the Easter season, it’s hard not to notice that Christianity hasn’t been presented in its own best light during this election year because Christians have not exactly been putting forward their best selves.
My colleague Michael Gerson wrote recently about the “crude” way religion has played out in the Republican primaries, including “the systematic subordination of a rich tradition of social justice to a narrow and predictable political agenda.”
Gerson is exactly right, but I don’t propose to use his admirable column as an excuse to pile onto the religious right. Instead, I want to suggest that what should most bother Christians of all political persuasions is that there are right and wrong ways to apply religion to politics, and much that’s happening now involves the wrong ways. Moreover, popular Christianity often seems to denigrate rather than celebrate intellectual life and critical inquiry. This not only ignores Christian giants of philosophy and science but also plays into some of the very worst stereotypes inflicted upon religious believers.
What I’m not saying is that Christianity should be disengaged from politics. In fact, the early Christian movement was born in politics, in oppositional circles within Judaism fighting Roman oppression. There is great debate over how to understand the relationship between Jesus’ spirituality and his approach to politics, but his preaching clearly challenged the powers-that-be. He was, after all, crucified.
But because Christians have a realistic and non-utopian view of human nature, they should be especially alive to the ambiguities and ambivalences of politics. The philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain captured this well in reflecting on Augustine’s writings. “If Augustine is a thorn in the side of those who would cure the universe once and for all,” she wrote, “he similarly torments critics who disdain any project of human community, or justice, or possibility.”