The good news of Easter in the midst of the religion of consumption

At several moments in the past week, I have been reminded that Easter is no longer just a holy day for Christians.

  • This week’s edition of Waitrose Weekend, the free newspaper offered by the grocery store chain, lists “100 things to do this Easter.” On the list are such activities as make a robot, time for a spring clean, visit a beer festival, and get involved in the fun of a country fair. Not on the list: anything to do with attending church, marking the resurrection, or meditating on God’s great love for the world.
  • The grocery store Tesco had this new ad:
  • Last week, there was a kerfluffle when the National Trust changed the name of its annual Easter egg hunt to a “National Trust Egg Hunt” (which, incidentally, is one of the 100 things Waitrose thinks you should do over the long weekend). The Archbishop of York weighed in. The prime minister weighed in (rather incongruously from Saudi Arabia). Later in the week, I heard an interview on Radio 4 with an executive from Cadbury’s, the company that supplies the chocolate, who reassured the BBC reporter that “Easter will continue to be an important part of our marketing strategy.”

None of this is particularly surprising. In England, Easter falls in the midst of school holidays and a four-day weekend; families need things to do to fill the time. Ad-men are always looking for a new hook with which to flog their wares.

But the series of events was a reminder of how Christianity exists in a world of multiple faiths. We often talk about Islam or Judaism but rarely do we understand consumption as a faith. Yet that is precisely what it has become. It defines ethical norms (consume more) and sets the boundaries of our thought horizons (non-consumption is simply not an option).

And, as has happened many times in the past when different faiths interact, one is taking over the holy days and holy sites of the other. In the same way that the Christian feast of Christmas came to overwhelm the feast of Saturnalia in ancient Rome and in the same way that Christian missionaries once built churches on sites that had been sacred to existing religions, the religion of consumption (if we can call it that) is taking over Christian holy days. It’s easy to see how this has happened with Christmas. These recent events indicate the way in which it is true of Easter as well.

When that Cadbury’s executive said that “Easter will continue to be part of our marketing strategy,” I think he meant to reassure people who had protested at the exclusion of Easter. But I didn’t find it particularly reassuring. The trouble is that the deep-seated beliefs of the religion of consumption are diametrically opposite to the good news that is proclaimed on Easter day.

In the religion of consumption, you succeed by buying, acquiring, getting, claiming, and otherwise coming to possess things. One’s salvation, you could almost say, depends on what you have. The person who wins the (Easter) egg hunt is the one with the most eggs. Christian theology has a term for this: it’s called works righteousness and it’s the belief that what we do is what makes us right before God. In the religion of consumption, what we purchase and acquire is what makes us right within the framework of that system.

On Easter morning Christians proclaim that we are made right before God not because of anything that we can do but because of what Christ has done. God in Christ came into our midst—and we put him to death. Christ’s response was to rise from the dead and return to the very people who had denied him and say, “Peace be with you.” The good news of the gospel is that our efforts to make ourself right will always come to naught—but Christ’s work always will.

The religion of consumption (or whatever you want to call it) is exercising a greater and greater hold over society. But the vision of the good life that it offers will always be a mirage. By our own work, we will never be able to achieve it. That’s why the good news of Easter morning is so important. It is Christ who promises and delivers life abundant.

Crucifixion in Abuja, Nigeria

On this day, Good Friday, Christians commemorate one moment of crucifixion two thousand years ago—but we also reflect on all the other moments of crucifixion that continue to take place in our world even today.

One moment of crucifixion this week was the bombing of a bus station and market outside Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. It is a moment of crucifixion whenever innocent people are killed, whenever violence tears apart our societies and brings grief and suffering in its wake. When I saw this picture, I thought of the women with Jesus at the cross reacting to his death sentence and execution.

I was in Nigeria in June 2011 when a similar bombing happened at Nigeria’s police headquarters in Abuja. I was well away from Abuja but what I remember so clearly about that time was how on edge everyone was afterwards. It’s understandable. These kinds of killings make us question what we think we know about our safety and security.

I particularly remember all the rumours I heard in church on the Sunday after the 2011 bombing. One rumour in particular was making everyone nervous: Boko Haram, the Islamist group thought to be behind the attacks, had tried but failed to bomb a church in the town of Enugu, not far north from where I was. Not only for me, but for everyone else, this brought the terror home in a deeply personal way: was our church next? Would we be the next victims? And if not us, what about friends and relatives at other churches in the region? I never actually learned if the the rumour of what had happened at Enugu had any truth to it but it had clearly done its job: everyone was on edge.

An environment like this, so shaped by such pervasive insecurity, shapes one’s approach to the gospel and to church. Some months back, when a Nigerian archbishop was kidnapped, I posted an excerpt of my book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion, that reflects at greater length on how the Nigerian church is shaped by this context. In brief, however, people come to church looking for assurance, constancy, and steadfastness. They want to hear about a God who protects (when it seems no one else will) and who will defeat one’s enemies (when it seems no one else can). The result is a church that is about confidence, steadfastness, and fidelity to a particular interpretation of the Bible.

But what these holy days remind us is that this is not the only approach to crucifixion. Christ’s response to crucifixion was not to return as a vengeful, wrathful victim, seeking to inflict retribution on those who had wronged him. Rather, Christ’s response to crucifixion was to return to life as a forgiving, reconciling presence whose followers sought to create a new community that would include even those who had once put their leader to death.

Although the church makes the journey in a handful of days, it can take a long time to go from the crucifixion of Good Friday to the forgiveness of the risen Christ. Indeed, it is the journey of a lifetime. But it is the journey that all Christians are called to make, a journey that begins not in a place of strength but in a place of weakness and humility.

Crucifixions remain all around us in this world of ours. But Christians know that Good Friday is not the end of the story.

And that is good news.

Sharing the suffering on the way to resurrection

Some months ago, the radio show This American Life profiled Meron Estefanos, a journalist who gets drawn into a web of Eritrean hostages in the Sinai peninsula. Beginning with one call, Estefanos eventually ends up devoting a huge portion of her days to talking to hostages who have been captured by people-smugglers and are given mobile phones to call their families and ask them to pay ransom. Along the way, these hostages are left in horrific conditions.

When I heard the program, it was for me an example of Christlike action in the world. One lesson of the Incarnation is that Jesus comes to share our lives with—Emmanuel means “God with us” after all. In the crucifixion, Jesus shares the ultimate moment of suffering and agony—death—with humans. When people are suffering, we can be confident that God in Christ is in their midst because God in Christ has experienced the worst the world has to offer. When Estefanos calls these hostages, she is, in a sense, incarnating herself among them and sharing in their crucifixion.

Christians, therefore, are people who are called to share in the suffering that is present in this world. In the last few weeks, I have been acutely aware of the suffering in South Sudan in part because I’ve been calling various friends there to ask how they are. I want to emphasize that my few phone calls and blog posts are not even close to the total devotion shown by someone like Estefanos, not to mention Christ. But I’ve continued to call and to post out of the conviction that it is important both that we have some clear idea of what is going on in South Sudan—in all its difficulty—and also that people in South Sudan know that we are aware of their challenges. When St. Paul writes, “If one member [of the body] suffers, all suffer together with it,” (I Cor. 12:26), he is not speaking metaphorically. He really means it.

(I am also acutely aware of my own shortcomings in this regard. I know next-to-nothing about the suffering in Syria, for instance, or in the Central African Republic. But I hope that the full body of Christ around the world may hold the full weight of suffering in the world and that I have one small part to play in that.)

I have been reflecting on all this because I am aware that my phone calls will be on hiatus for the next little while. I have a long-planned trip coming up, which will occupy all my time and render the relatively inexpensive way I’ve worked out to call South Sudan inoperable. Does that mean I can just flip off this sharing of suffering? I think not. There are ways in prayer and action and advocacy to continue to share the suffering of our sisters and brothers.

We should finally note that sharing suffering is not the only thing Jesus did. His crucifixion ended in his resurrection. Following Christ, Christians are truly incarnate in the world, sharing the suffering of those who suffer, but all so that we may push and poke and prod and work towards the resurrected life to which Christ is calling us. Glory awaits—in this Christians can trust, even and especially when it seems almost entirely obscured.

In coming days, the Episcopal Church of Sudan and South Sudan will be releasing a proposal for relief, action, and advocacy in response to the violence. I encourage you to keep an eye out for out asa we listen to our sisters and brothers and move towards resurrection.