Triumph Over Earthly Power

Easter and Passover, signal celebrations in Christianity and Judaism, are linked through the calendar and through long tradition. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that they show other kinships, including some that might be surprising to some who are merely passive believers.

The most striking similarity is that both holidays represent liberation from and triumph over the powers that be in this world – the governmental/political structures of the times they commemorate – and, by implication, a sense of independence from the powers that rule this world in any era.

According to scripture, the people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for many years, but Yahweh raised up and inspired the prophet Moses to demand that his people be liberated and allowed to leave the land of bondage. When pharaoh refused, 10 plagues were sent to afflict the land and change the ruler’s mind, the last being the death of every firstborn son. In order for this plague to "pass over" the homes of the Israelites, they were instructed to kill a lamb and smear the blood above their doors. Thus began the liberation of the Hebrews as a people subject to God’s laws rather than rule by other men.

When Jesus was preaching in Israel centuries later, the land was ruled by the Roman Empire. Aspects of his message of love, his promise of a direct relationship with God, of sublime indifference to earthly powers and those who wielded them, were viewed as deeply subversive by the authorities. He was sentenced to death and hung upon a cross to die, a form of execution designed to impose agonizing humiliation. Yet Christians believe that after suffering that death, he rose to new life – a triumph not only over the arrogance of the authorities but over death itself, and a victory that contained within it the promise of eternal life for those who believe in him.

The implications of these stories taken at face value can be shocking. They suggest that to be faithful and obedient to God, people must be free of allegiance and, perhaps, of obedience to earthly authorities. They suggest strongly that the custom of human beings ruling and lording it over other human beings is repugnant to the deity.

Those in churches and synagogues today who want to nuzzle up to earthly authorities, who think they can use the coercive powers that be to promote their visions of morality and decency may be taken aback by such an interpretation. But it might be worth thinking about as these great religions celebrate their roots.

April 14, 2009

Alan Bock [send him mail] is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge and Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana.