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Easter and the humility revolution

by Natasha Moore
13 April 2017
RELIGION
Bunnies, eggs, holidays, humility, sacrifice… what’s the meaning of Easter? We spoke to The Centre for Public Christianity's Natasha Moore for an intro to the most important day on the Christian calendar.

Whether you’re sceptical there’s a man upstairs, are a lapsed Christian or have another faith, you’re likely to be celebrating Easter. You might swap church for chocolate and paid leave, but it’s a celebration nonetheless.

For people who believe Jesus is the Son of God, the next few days mark the most important time of the year. From Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday, Christians will reflect on the death and resurrection of Christ.

It’s a story that "transformed the world we live in" according to Natasha Moore, research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. Moore says some of the character traits we value so highly today have their origins in what is said to have happened in those few days in Jerusalem. She takes us through the significance of Easter.

Humility: "Your Lord and teacher has washed your feet"

"The big one is humility", Moore explains. "The fact that we today value humility and we think about leadership as service to those under your power – we trace that back entirely to Jesus."

This all stems from the central message of Easter and of Christianity itself: God became a man and allowed himself to be killed to redeem humanity.

This was revolutionary when you compare it to the prevailing ideas about power and leadership at the time.

"We have to think differently about hierarchy, privilege, power, service, leadership and all those things."

Before Christianity, there was no real sense that humility was a virtue. Although the Ancient Greeks had a sense of hubris – excessive pride that would be punished by the gods – there was still a firm emphasis on achievement, power and status as the ways to determine someone's moral worth.

"In the ancient world, humility was indistinguishable from humiliation ... it would be horrifying that someone with power would come down to the level of someone below them."

"If our god could submit to death and even a shameful death like [crucifixion] ... we have to think differently about hierarchy, privilege, power, service, leadership and all those things", Moore concludes.

Tonight, priests at local parishes all the way up to the Pope himself will try to recreate these lessons. They will humble themselves by washing the feet of members of their congregation.

"You see someone like the Pope doing that – power voluntarily lowering itself – and there’s something really compelling about that still", thinks Moore.

Reflections on humility, service and leadership today seem appropriate. In Australia there have been challenges posed to politicians around their use of entitlements and whether they’re being used to serve the community. We’ve witnessed populist political campaigns trying to take down ‘the elite’, suggesting the time is right for some deep thinking about what it means to lead.

Gratitude: "Give thanks to the Lord"

One of the more striking differences between the messages in the Easter story and our modern values is how people feel about being in debt. For most of us, debts are a bad thing. Whether financial or otherwise, we feel uncomfortable when we owe somebody for something.

Writer Erin Joy Henry gives voice to this tendency – declining any help when moving house and feeling completely overwhelmed: “I didn’t want to feel I owed anyone anything, and I constantly needed to prove to myself that I was completely self-sufficient”.

Easter is a time when Christians reflect and give thanks for a debt they could never repay. They  believe humanity could never redeem itself from its past sins. Instead, Jesus came to earth and "wiped the slate clean" on behalf of humanity. "That leaves us with a massive debt of gratitude", Moore says.

"We are completely interdependent on so many other humans and so many other human activities."

This state of debt runs deep for Christians. "If God has created us, if every breath we breathe is his air into the lungs he’s given us, we owe God from the start," Moore explains.
There’s a universal truth here. The idea of self-sufficiency is “by and large, an illusion”.

Despite the value we place on independence and autonomy, Moore thinks "we are completely interdependent on so many other humans and so many other human activities".

Instead of avoiding debts and trying to live independently, she thinks we should lean in to interdependence and be thankful for the support we receive.

"Gratitude is an impulse that makes us happier and healthier. It's how we’re made. I don’t think there’s a down side."

Non-violence: "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword"

"Jesus up-ended hierarchies but he also up-ended conflict ... Instead of responding to violence and hostility in kind, he counselled his followers to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile and to love their enemies", says Moore.

Although this seems "counterintuitive and incredible difficult to do" but there is some evidence to suggest it's effective.

In Why Civil Resistance Works, researchers Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth studied a range of activist movements between 1900 and 2006. Moore summarises their findings: "non-violent resistance is twice as effective as violence in achieving the goals of the campaign".

"Is there a way to respond to abuse and hostility online in ways that break that cycle of outrage and criticising and abusing one another?"

This non-violent approach has often been criticised. Many think by refusing to fight injustice we allow it to prosper. As Barack Obama said while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, "A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms".

For Moore, the evidence says soemthing different. "That sort of action can be really powerful and challenge injustice in a way violent resistance doesn’t necessarily achieve."

It also has important lessons today. We are increasingly hostile in dealing with disagreement. From debates around punching political opponents in the face to the general tone of online discussions, perhaps non-violence is the path forward.

"Is there a way to respond to abuse and hostility online in ways that break that cycle of outrage and criticising and abusing one another?", Moore asks.

"Jesus really offers a model – you have to break that cycle."

Reading the story today

"I would encourage somebody who isn’t religious to read the story because it’s so culturally significant", advises Moore. However, she cautions against seeing Easter as a fictional story. It matters historically and theologically that people believe Jesus was God.

"He wouldn’t have upended the hierarchies of the ancient world and made us think the poor and the despised and the executed are still people who are immeasurably valuable ... if we didn’t think he was God."

This doesn't mean we have to convert to the faith to get any meaning out of the story, but it might require us to be open to all possibilities.

"The story is open to anybody. It invites us to figure out what we think."

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