By Sam Amadi
Today is Easter. Today, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one they worship as the Messiah. Before he went to the grave, he first went to the cross. That happened on a day, Christians through the ages since Friday, April 3. 33 AD, have called ‘Good Friday’. What is really good about a Friday that a man was found guilty and sentenced to die in a horrible and degrading manner? This misnomer and misnaming of a horrible day that an innocent man was judicially murdered after a trial far more horrifying and hideous than Kafka’s The Trial, have produced a subliminal theology.
Literally, Jesus Christ was executed by a political authority for preaching a message that was both inciting and iconoclastic. If the arrest and crucifixion that happened at the outskirt of Jerusalem on that first Good Friday has happened in the 20th Century, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations would have criticized the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees for gross violation of the fundamental rights of an irreverent and oppositional political figure. Those who arrested and crucified Jesus Christ believed they were eliminating an impostor, a dangerous revolutionary who intended to either drag the Jewish and political authorities into conflict with Roman imperial power, represented by the Ceasars, or upend the institution of Judaism as a religious and social order that sustained a repressive aristocracy. No doubt, they reckoned him to be a religious charlatan. But more concerning, he was a dangerous ideologue and demagogue.
As a revolutionary and a religious iconoclast, Jesus Christ was guilty as charged. His claim that he was the Son of God, thereby equating himself with God, cuts straight to the heart of the Jewish monotheism and justified the charge of blasphemy. His indictment of the conspiracy, corruption, and cowardice of the Jewish religious and political establishment working together to exploit and oppress the people elicited the charge of incitement. But interestingly, he could not be found guilty in law on any of the charges. Pontius Pilate, after a careful review of the evidence, came to the right conclusion that Jesus Christ was legally innocent of the charges against him. But it does not make those charges frivolous. They were serious and were less about legalism and more about the stability of religious and political orthodoxy, hence the ruling elites mobilized the people to demand that he be executed. Guilty or not guilty, this guy has to go.
Since his death, Jesus Christ has remained a divisive figure in the world. Just as he predicted, he divides brotherhoods and communities, starting from the Jewry. The ceremonies of his death had not ended when the story of his resurrection filled Jerusalem. It would soon spread to Judea and the uttermost part of the world. Now, if truly this ‘imposter’ and revolutionary resurrected from the dead, it lends credence to the scandalous truth he had peddled, that he was the messiah that had been prophesied by the ancient prophets of Israel. That would meant he is the only one who would deliver Israel from its woes and restore the Kingdom of God. In a sense, the frightening truth would be that this iconoclast is the guarantor of Israel’s true and ensuring independence.
The story of resurrection has to be hushed. The peddlers have to be repressed by all necessary means. On this, the religious and political authorities found common cause. The public truth has to be that Jesus Christ did not resurrect. But the stubborn fact is that he appeared to some of his supporters. They saw him ascend to heaven. That puts a final seal of authenticity to his claim of divine kingship. The genie has jumped out of the bottle. The future has defined itself. It will now be a battle between irrepressible fanatics of the cult of Jesus and unrelenting protectors of public order and public truth. The Act of Apostle and much of what has become the New Testament are mostly citizen-reports of the battle to suppress and annihilate this scandalous truth, the truth that the nondescript ideologue and demagogue publicly executed at the outskirt of Jerusalem is the King of the Jews and the Lord of all mankind.
Till today, Jesus Christ has remained a divisive figure. As it was in the days he walked through the dusty vroads of Judea, he still challenges everyone to make up their mind who they think he is. He is too exacting. He does not make it easy for anyone to escape deciding whether he is a savior or a charlatan. He pressed his followers to make up their mind on whether they believed his claim or not. Peter, the leader of the group, spoke on behalf of all and declared he was ‘the Son of the living God’.
Professor C.S. Lewis, an atheist who was subdued by the evidence and became a disciple, put it in the typical Jesus’ ‘either-or’ form. According to him, it is nonsensical for anyone to say that Jesus Christ is a good man but not the Son of God as he claimed. Either Jesus Christ is what he claimed (the only Son of God, the Savior) or he is a hopeless liar. No man who makes the radical claims Jesus made about himself will be a good man if claims are false. It is the ultimate illogic to say, “Jesus is a good man, but he is not the Son of God”. So, there is no comfort here. Either he is what he said he is, or he is a chronic liar. Who do men say I am? Who do you think I am? Jesus Christ continues to ask all men and women to decide for themselves the answer to these questions.
So, what is the meaning of Jesus today? There is the political Jesus. This is the Jesus that is front and center in the liberation theology and other political theologies that appropriate Jesus’s passion for the poor and the oppressed and his clear advocacy for them and turned them into the meaning of Jesus. Jesus railed against the oppressive social order and those who uphold and sustain it. But he was very clear that at the heart of the oppressive social order is a deviation from the divine order of love. We are all contradicted in ourselves. This contradiction is sin. And the only remedy for our deep dysfunction is a coherence that comes from reintegration into divinity through obedience. We should fight for justice. But unless we are ‘born again’, that is, recreated and reconciled to God, our ‘justice’ will give birth to a new oppression. History has proved Jesus Christ right. All our victories over unjust social orders have ended up as pyrrhic victories. We continually forge the chains of our unfreedom.
There is the humanitarian Jesus, the one who was touched at the plight of the poor and hungry and could not send them away without finding them something to eat. The humanitarian Jesus cared for the sick so much that he transgressed religious ordinance to heal them. He could break ‘protocols’ to cure those who are afflicted of one illness or the other. He basically went about doing good. This is the Jesus we are asked to emulate. We are told that our vocation as those who celebrate easter should be to take up our stethoscope, our needles, our lawyer’s wig, and our food banks and go after the afflicted and oppressed and relieve them. In so doing we are becoming Jesus. But the man who was executed by the authorities did not just give food to the poor. He also asked them to believe that he is the anointed Christ. He also warned them to stop sinning so that something worse will not happen to them.
There is also the religious Jesus. Jesus was a preacher, a teacher of the law. He frequented the synagogue and accepted to be baptized by John in fulfillment of religious tradition. The religious Jesus could be harmless to the political authority. He starts from the fact that the whole world lies in wickedness and ends with my kingdom is not of this world. He pays no attention to the crushing blows of the social and economic order; he does not bother about those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; and he looks to the mountains wherein is true hope. The religious Jesus carefully picks his way through the marshes of politics and economics towards the altar, and trains his ears not to hear the wailings of mangled and abused bodies littering his way.
As we celebrate Easter, we are still asked the same question Jesus Christ asked his disciples two millennia ago: who do men say I am? Who is the man that the people asked to be exchanged for Barabbas, a common criminal? Who is the man who the religious and political authorities executed and buried, and who resurrected from the dead and ascended to heaven to sit on the right hand of God as a judge of all mankind? Is he, as C.S. Lewis queried, a savior or a charlatan? For Lewis, he was the Son of God, the savior of the world. You have to consider the evidence yourself and decide who he is.
But be sure of who he did not claim to be; not a teacher; not a good man; not a humanitarian or any of those sentimental things. He claimed to be the Son of God, the savior of the world, the one who saves us from our sins.
• Dr Sam Amadi is the Director, Abuja School of Social and Political Thought (ASSPT) and also the Coordinator, School of Christian Leadership and Entrepreneurship (SCLE) in Abuja. He can be reached on Samadi29@yahoo.com