Easter message to Bathurst United Church in Toronto
by Rev. Frances Combs
Easter is the time when we Christians celebrate what it means to be a Christian, when we look at, or attempt to glimpse, the essence of Christianity in order to celebrate it.
In our Holy Land Service this winter, our speaker, Sheryl Nestle, called Zionism ‘Constantinian Judaism’. She was, of course, making a refence to Constantinian Christianity, the religion that emerged when the Roman emperor Constantine, in the 4th century, declared Christianity to be the religion of the Roman Empire after seeing a vision of the cross with these words, “In this sign conquer”. When Christianity became the religion of the Empire, it became a conquering religion.
It was certainly good for Christians to no longer be subject to persecution by the Romans. But what did the religion of Jesus have to do with this conquering religion? Jesus had taught non-violence, turning the other cheek. But conquering, taking power over others, necessitates violence. Becoming the religion of Empire had to affect the very essence of Christianity and cause terrible contradictions in its theology and practice and governance.
And why do this at Easter? Sometimes in the past the church has celebrated Easter quite separated from the life and teachings of Jesus and his crucifixion, and has celebrated Easter simply as the ‘triumph of our religion’, Christian triumphalism. I think of some Easter hymns, such as, “Thine is the glory, risen conquering Son. Endless is thy victory!”. And I think of Constantine’s vision of the cross with the words “In this sign conquer!”. When Christianity became the religion of the Empire, it became a conquering religion.
One of the things that conquering means is the invasion of and taking over land. I think that is what Constantine meant to do with the help of Christianity in the conquering of Europe. And we think of the Crusades, and of the crusades today, against Islam. And we think of the European invasion of Africa and of the so called ‘settlement’ of Europeans in the Americas. We see it in the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in Mexico and a little later of the Incas in South America. Europeans arrived and declared the land conquered or ‘discovered’ and thus belonging to the reigning crown of the conqueror or ‘discoverer’.
It is the mixing of religion with this raw aggression that gives it real power. The Christian conquerors can take over a country in order to bring the true religion to the natives and thus save them – the justification of colonialism.
I thought that looking at Zionism as Constantinian Judaism might help us understand more clearly what happened to Christianity following Constantine’s making it the official religion of the Empire, and also what is happening to Judaism. The use of religion to justify a violent conquering, as we see in colonialism, is an important part of Zionism. Zionists can take the land because God gave it to the descendants of Abraham 35 hundred years ago according to the Bible.
Zionism, as Constantinian Judaism, became a conquering religion when it conquered Palestine and violently drove out its inhabitants. I know that many Jews, and many others, thought that part of Palestine could be given to Jews to live in, peacefully, along with the Palestinians already living there. This was the idea of the United Nations in partitioning Palestine and creating the state of Israel. Included in the UN plan was that the Palestinians there would continue to live there in peace. When the Palestinians were driven out, the United Nations believed that Israel had failed to honour the partition plan agreed upon, and the UN has continued to insist that the Palestinians be allowed to return to their homes.
There were groups of Jews who ware planning, even years before, to take over Palestine violently. Some secret arms manufacturing facilities going back to the 1930’s have been discovered and shown with pride in Israeli tours of the country. And during the years of the British Mandate, there were Jewish terrorist groups secretly attacking the British, as well as Palestinians, even blowing up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. So when the UN declared the state of Israel, these terrorist groups immediately, quite overtly, began attacking Palestinians. These violent Jews soon became heroes, and their ‘conquering’ ideology became the ethos of Zionism. (For example, Menachem Begin, who was a member of the terrorist gang Irgun that blew up he King David Hotel and massacred a Palestinian village, was later elected Prime Minister of Israel.)
When we look at the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government, we see much more than just the raw aggression of stealing the land.
One of the things Israel has attempted to do is to erase Palestinians and Palestine. In Israel Palestinians are called, not Palestinians, but Arabs. Palestine is really a ‘bad’ word. Even the country of Palestine was claimed not to have existed. This has happened not only in Israel but in other places where Zionists have had influence, such as here in Toronto when Palestinians could not put the word Palestine in the names of their restaurants.
When we think of this ‘identity theft’, we, of course, think of residential schools, the product of Constantinian Christianity. Residential schools were an attempt to erase the language and culture and identity of Indigenous people.
When a people cannot simply be erased, they become ‘wild Indians’, or barbarians or simply ‘primitive’, – or, ‘terrorists’, in the case of Palestinians.
I know that many Jews lament the destruction that Zionism has brought to Judaism. As a student of the Bible and theology, I have developed a real love for Hebrew scripture and a deep respect for Judaism. And so I have felt quite devastated by the way Zionism seems to completely erase the work of the Hebrew prophets whose call for justice is quite basic for both Judaism and Christianity as I understand it.
As a Christian, I would like to lament the impact of Constantinian Christianity on the religion of Jesus. And to try to glimpse, this morning, something of the reality we are celebrating on Easter Sunday.
To turn Christianity into a conquering religion is to subvert the very essence of what Jesus was about in his life and teachings. To conquer is to have power over. Jesus was about empowering people. The power of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, is power with, not power over. The work of Jesus was to empower people by connecting them together into community. And what do we do together as a community? We share our resources with each other. We Eat together. Food is the basic resource that enables us to live and that gives us joy. Thus the communal meal, communion, then the mass, became the first basic ritual of Christianity. And the first symbol was probably a simple stylized fish, symbolizing the communal meal.
Speaking of symbols, what about the cross? The cross was the Roman instrument of execution, and it was not used as a symbol for Christianity for many years. But it must have come into use by the fourth century when Constantine became the Roman emperor. The fact that Constantine saw a vision of the cross with the words, “In this sign conquer”, makes me wonder about the use of the cross as a Christian symbol. I also heard from a Jewish friend that Christians forcing their way into Jewish homes or communities to carry out pograms against them, would carry a cross in front of the mob, thrusting it into the faces of the Jews they were harassing. The Ku Klux Klan would also carry crosses in approaching their victims. The cross has been used as a sign of power ‘over’. Perhaps it is time to abandon it as a Christian symbol.
And yet, the cross has been, over the centuries, a symbol, for many Christians, of God’s suffering with us. When we look at the cross, we can know, deeply, by faith, that when we are suffering, perhaps very intensely and quite unjustly, God is suffering with us – just as Jesus suffered on the cross. (I know that our Christian sisters and brothers in Palestine believe that God is suffering with them as they suffer Zionist persecution.)
So at Easter we are celebrating God’s presence with us, in our own suffering, even unto death. And, we are celebrating our faith that Jesus is still alive, despite his crucifixion and death. Thus, at Easter we are celebrating our faith that love, the power of our connectedness, is not overcome by death. I think of the assertion by quantum physics that when a butterfly flaps its wings, it is felt on the other side of the earth. Everything is connected, so nothing is lost. The power of love, of connectedness, cannot be destroyed. And a sign of our love and connection is eating together, sharing our food, sharing what gives us life.
I think it is significant that some of our very few resurrection stories involve eating together. In the Gospel of John, we see Jesus on the sea shore cooking fish, preparing a meal for his friends to have when they return from fishing. And in the Emmaus story, we see Jesus recognized in the breaking of bread. Thus, it is no surprise that the earliest Christian ritual was communion, a sharing together among equals of food and wine, bringing us both life and joy. And that an early Christian symbol was a fish.