It was G.K. Chesterton who wrote, with his customary pith, that Christianity was the only religion that had the guts to make God a rebel as well as a king. He was overstating: as a scholar of the Old Testament as well as the New, he knew that Yahweh was as much a temperamental artist as he was a Lord of Hosts. Yahweh chose as his earthly representative a badass in bondage whose first notable act was killing a slavemaster and running to the hills. The older and wiser Moses won’t kiss ass, either. He speaks truth to Pharaoh and becomes the instrument of divine justice against earthly power. There are hero-kings in the Bible, but by and large, they’re screw-ups, too — the amazing second Book of Samuel lays out David’s flaws in some of the most searing language ever put on papyrus.
Somehow, though, Jesus is different. Jesus isn’t a Robin Hood figure who wins some and loses some. He’s a righteous man who is utterly crushed and humiliated by the authority he defies. Jesus dies the most shameful death that the Roman Empire knew how to dish out — crucifixion, a punishment reserved for the lowest of criminals. Worse yet, Jesus dies alone, abandoned by his friends who scatter like squirrels when the boot comes down. Despite all of this, we’re asked to believe that Jesus is victorious. The stone is rolled away, and the tomb is empty. Mark, in his artistic wisdom, doesn’t give us any more than that; the other Gospelers, worried that we’re doubting Thomases, take greater pains to assure us that He is risen.
This is the essence of the Easter story — one that continues to resonate for readers and listeners, two thousand years after it was first told. In good times, it’s an indelible narrative. In troubled times, it’s essential, because there’s nobody on Earth for whom it doesn’t become personal. Even the Almighty, we are assured, had his moments of doubt, weakness, and self-pity. Even God was renounced, and despised, and misunderstood. His scourging and piercing, which is really played up in some of the more graphic Christian traditions, is a brutal but oh-so-effective metaphor for total rejection at the hands of the crowd. And total rejection, the Gospelers imply, is what life has in store for the man, or woman, who follows his conscience and acts with compassion and humility. If the Lord himself is incapable of avoiding a scoundrel’s fate at the hands of the powerful, what chance, really, have you?
The Gospels associate Jesus with the lowly. Beggars, prostitutes, foreigners, petty crooks, the destitute, the tired, sick, and weak: this is what his flock looks like. He says so himself — we are judged by how we treat the least among us, not by how we serve the powerful. We modern sinners find it hard to live by these words. We ignore the cries of those in pain, and slam the door on the immigrant, and hoard our wealth, and sneer at the abject, and celebrate the winner and dismiss the loser, and refuse to give a hand to the man who is down, even as we know in what’s left of our hearts that what we’re doing is wrong. The good news for us, today and on all other days, is that Jesus has ransomed our sorry asses. He has, the story says, stood alone, renounced and loathed, and faced his ordeal, and his rejection, without a buffer. In so doing, he provides an example that has stood for millennia: a reminder that we all will face solitary trials, and the righteous man is not the one who bends to the will of the crowd, but the one who keeps his eyes fixed firmly on heaven, no matter what the cost is. Grace is never found in numbers. Only the individual is holy.
As a typical annoying skeptic, I struggle with the supernatural elements of religion. But my faith in the power of literature is absolute. I have two scriptures: the words of the Hebrew masters recorded in the books of the Bible, and the verses of the poets who comprise the canon of hip-hop. I never cease to be astonished by the many ways that these writers, separated by time and culture and technology, always manage to say the same damn thing. On the best song on his best album, the prophet Kendrick Lamar sums up the Easter message in one tight couplet: everybody gon respect the shooter/but the one in front of the gun lives forever. Society will always celebrate strength, and force, and meanness, and domination; popularity will accrue to the brash, the hard-hearted and cruel. But if you’ve got what it takes to be humble, and grateful, and to stand bravely in front of the powerful armed with nothing but your conscience, you get to hold on to your soul. Without a follow, without a mention, the ultimate triumph is yours.