Easter! Passover! Ramadan! Liberation! part 1

Today is a holy day in the Christian tradition. It’s Easter.

This week is a holy week in the Jewish tradition. Passover began last Friday evening and lasts until next Saturday evening.

And this month is a holy month in the Islamic tradition. It’s the month of Ramadan.

We have three great traditions overlapping, and each tradition offers us a story, redolent with meaning and possibility whether we are adherents of the faith tradition from which it comes or not.

At Community UU, our theme of the month for April is liberation, and our journey groups are exploring this issue, and looking at what sorts of things from which a person might need to be liberated.
  • There have been and are groups that are oppressed, beaten down. Liberation is about ending forms of enslavement, oppression and injustice. Liberation calls for dismantling the systems of colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy.
  • There’s also the issue of personal liberation – liberation from our own irrationalities, fears, bad habits, preoccupations, cravings, and ego defenses. These constraints may constitute a kind of prison -- though sometimes quite a comfortable prison -- even when there are no iron bars.
Let’s look today at how those two sides of liberation are addressed in the three stories: the Easter story, the Passover story, and the Ramadan story.

The Easter story has often been presented as a story of personal liberation – liberation from, in the Christian argot, the bondage of sin. In other words: we aren’t always our best selves. Heedless pursuit of passing desires can feel like a kind of bondage. Or our habits of self-protection constrain us from a more fulfilling joy -- and may lead us make moral mistakes. According to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, Jesus' suffering on the cross redeems us from all of that. Jesus suffered and died that we might have life (i.e., he substituted for us in order to atone for us).

Unitarians have been rejecting substitutionary atonement for centuries. As our UU Minute segments have noted, Fausto Sozzini in the 16th-century, Joseph Priestley in the 18th-century, and William Ellery Channing in the 19th-century were among prominent Unitarian thinkers to critically examine the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and find it unsupported by either the Bible or reason. The implication of substitutionary atonement is that real love manifests as complete submission and self-sacrifice. God required of Jesus -- and may sometimes require of us -- passive acceptance of violence. If that sounds to you like a dangerous and harmful theology, I agree.

The message of Jesus’ ministry was not an exclusive attention to individual bondage to sin. He speaks often of something generally translated as “Kingdom of heaven” or “Kingdom of God.” In Matthew, the phrase is usually "kingdom of heaven," while in Mark and Luke it's usually "Kingdom of God." (Neither phrase appears in John.) Jesus spoke Aramaic, and we have no records of his actual Aramaic words. What we have is the Greek in which the Gospels were written. The Greek word typically translated as “kingdom” is basileia. The basileia Jesus is talking about – the kingdom of God, or, better, the kin-dom of God -- is a siblinghood of radical acceptance, a social arrangement based on our universal kinship and oriented toward justice. Theologian Robert Goss writes of:
"the basileia, the reign of God which signified the political transformation of his society into a radically egalitarian, new age, where sexual, religious, and political distinctions would be irrelevant. Jesus acted out his basileia message by standing with the oppressed and outcasts of society and by forming a society of equals."
For Goss, the resurrection represents God’s endorsement and confirmation of Jesus’ basileia message. The resurrection reveals God’s orientation toward the excluded.

In Luke 17, verses 20-21, we read:
“Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (NRSV)
Other translations give, “the kingdom of God is within you,” and in this translational difference we have the two sides of liberation. If liberation is within you, the emphasis is on personal liberation from the psychological constraints of our irrationality, anxiety, ego defensive habits – bondage to sin; Jesus is saying you have it within you to break free from patterns that disconnect you from joy. If liberation is among you, the emphasis is on social liberation from forms of inequality; Jesus is saying that the liberation we seek is to be found in our togetherness, in the relationships of beloved community.

In fact, the original Greek preposition here is entos (“in the midst of”), which might suggest either within or among. A translator might reasonably go either way. In truth, it is both at once. The basileia is both within you and among you: within us each, individually, and among us, collectively. It must be both at once – neither the personal nor the social by itself will suffice. It’s our psychological bondage to counterproductive strategies of self-protection that creates and sustains structures of inequality. At the same time, it’s the sociopolitical structures of domination that create and sustain the bondage of irrational self-protection strategies. Reversing that feedback loop will require working on both sides at once. It will require doing what we can to liberate ourselves from clinging fears and attachments. At the same time, it will require doing what we can to dismantle the structures of social domination that engender individual self-constraining thinking.

A picture of the two sides of liberation at work is presented in the Passover story. We'll look at that in part 2.

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