More than a year ago, I wrote here on TheNation.com that progressive opinion leaders should consider more seriously and consistently engaging in biblical and religious discussions as part of our political discourse. The goal is not to create half-hearted or cynically manipulative religious justifications for political or ideological positions but instead to take seriously the role of religion in the lives of so many Americans and to better understand how moral lessons gained from those religious traditions influence our political ideas.
Halfway through the holiest week in the Christian calendar, I am reminded again of the dangers and possibilities inherent in such a strategy.
Palm Sunday begins the Christian Holy Week with celebratory enthusiasm. As an adult I learned to love this Sunday best because it temporarily intervenes in the self-denial of Lent. Shaking off the mournful watchfulness of the month, it lets loose with joyful worship. It is a Sunday marked by Hosanna and Hallelujah! This year’s Palm Sunday was the first that I worshipped at my husband’s Catholic church in New Orleans where they observe the day with a brass band, enormous palms, a parade into the church and a spirit of enthusiastic reverence. There is no denying that Palm Sunday is fun.
But for all the excitement of the day, it is also the beginning of a speedy descent into the most meaningful, but also most painful, days of the Christian calendar. Christianity is all about this week that begins with remembering the enthusiastic crowds that welcomed and embraced Jesus of Nazareth and ends with the painful betrayal and bloody crucifixion of the same man. It is these seven days and the faith claims about what happens during these days and why it happened that defines Christian belief. Many lessons can be drawn from interpreting of the miracles, sermons and life of Jesus, but this week is the critical nexus of belief that defines the religion. So understanding how various Christian communities and individuals understand this week is central to understanding what the faith teaches about the world.
Which brings me back to the political possibilities of open, religious conversations.
Our country is in a precarious economic and political moment. News media tend to emphasize partisan divisions as pre-eminent concerns in political action: Republicans are pitted against Democrats in an epic battle taking the country to the brink of economic ruin and full shutdown. With our entrance into the Libyan conflict, it feels to many that we are deepening the attachment to international warfare into which we too hastily entered a decade ago. Neither the President nor the Congress inspires much confidence among most Americans. Neither the populist enthusiasm of the 2008 “Obama for America” campaign nor the 2010 Tea Party backlash appears sustainable. No one is singing “Hosanna” or waving palms for anybody in Washington these days, and it would be pretty tough to wring a “Hallelujah!” out of anyone making less than about $250,000 a year. How we understand our current political moment is informed by individual dispositions, by interpretations of political and economic history, by ideology and partisanship, but for some Americans it is also interpreted through the lens of their Christian beliefs.
Holy Week can be read as a justification for political quietism. For many, a faith in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus means that no political or social occurrences of this life are particularly important when compared with the focus on an eternal afterlife. This reading of the Christian story asks believers to simply meet their minimum obligations as citizens (pay taxes dutifully, follow the laws) but not to engage in politics because the only meaningful rewards are related to the eternal soul. Part of the challenge for political leaders is to overcome that quietism and encourage Americans not to disengage from the state in hopes that God will simply fix everything without human effort. In a crisis that might lead some to put down their voter registration cards and instead focus solely on other-worldly solutions, progressives would do well to acknowledge and address the interconnections between human action and concepts of salvation.
For others, this is a week of lessons suggesting that persecution is evidence of righteousness. The Gospels emphasize that Jesus was betrayed by a trusted ally, abandoned by most of his initial supporters and brutally beaten, publicly humiliated and viciously murdered by powerful leaders. Thus many Christians read into the current political moment a lesson that sustained attack on an individual is potentially evidence of that person’s inherent righteousness. The more outsized the attack on an individual, the more innocent that person may begin to appear. This is worth considering as the left shifts into high-gear attack of potential GOP presidential contenders.
For yet other Christians, Holy Week is a reminder to be optimistic even in the most hopeless of circumstances. For me, this is the lesson with the most exciting potential for our collective national lives. The daybreak of Easter is ever-present for Christians even as we descend from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the agony of Good Friday. One the most exciting elements of Christian theology is the idea that no defeat is necessarily permanent and that no suffering is without redemptive possibility. I suspect that harnessing the optimism of Easter is critically important to political progressives at this moment. In this story there is the possibility that with faith in something larger than ourselves, with willingness to forgive and with determination to hold together our community despite bitter defeat there is victory waiting just on the other side of suffering.