TO A SIGNIFICANT extent, what could be called the life of the spirit – the invitation to reconsider the world and each other through the eyes of love and fresh possibility – is a life of imagination. By that, I do not mean fantasy or wishful thinking, but rather the capacity to perceive, in and through the everyday and the mundane, renewed and renewing opportunities for transformation.
While I fully respect a certain Quaker tradition of not marking ‘times and seasons’, and instead finding the holy in the everyday, in my personal experience the two can go together and complement one another. A period of solid reflection in Holy Week is not about confining ‘the holy’ (the intimate otherness and sheer giftedness of life received in and through God) within a particular time, place and set of events. Rather, it is – or can be – about experiencing a particular time, place and set of events as a process of unveiling and enlightening which finally applies to, and fundamentally changes, how we see and respond to everything else.
Equally, what the Catholic tradition calls ‘the sacramental’ need not be about a division between what is considered holy and what is considered less (or not) holy, but a matter of intensification and revelation concerning the wholeness of life. That is, an opportunity and an occasion by which we recognise it as ultimately good, true, beautiful and love-filled, in spite of the scars, wounds, distortions, destructions, deaths and betrayals which are also and undeniably part of our experience, if we are not deluded.
Within this understanding, the journey through Lent, into Easter and beyond, poses a particularly sharp, specific and challenging question to those who would seek to embark on it. What on earth does it (or could it) mean to relocate our lives, and that of the natural world of which we are part, within the embrace of the God narrated in the history, death and risen life of Jesus of Nazareth? For that is what a Christian account of our human and evolutionary existence invites us to consider, seeing it both as a rejection of ingrained habits that degrade and debase, and as the gateway towards a qualitatively different and better life in communion with one another and with the created (gifted) order.
The starting point of this story, perhaps surprisingly, involves embracing the experiences of isolation, risk and abandonment. The Lenten season begins with Jesus in the desert, surviving by subsistence, and facing temptation. His aloneness, vulnerability and endurance is intentional and chosen. Only by confronting that which threatens to separate, destroy and overwhelm us – rather than avoiding it, or projecting it onto someone or something else – can we embark on a different path, “the road less travelled”. The temptations, specifically, are political power (seizing the citadels), economic power (bread), and magical power (escape). The new path consists in pursuing their exact opposites: community, sharing, and solidarity.
However, the path of community, sharing and solidarity inevitably leads to a further confrontation. Those who seek to rule by the imperial means and ends of coercive force, financial control and mystification cannot admit to any alternative. There is no other way, life or truth. Certainly not one which might strip them of dominance, wealth, and the capacity to deceive the people in order to protect their privilege. Such threats must be eliminated. In the gospel narrative, the theatre for this second confrontation is Jesus overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers in the precincts of the temple, and then entering Jerusalem, the seat of political power, on a donkey and to some level of popular acclaim.
Disrupting the economic co-option of religion and mocking the destructive concentration of imperial power is a politics of parody and protest. But from the imperial vantage point, it is also a potentially serious challenge. This upstart organiser must be destroyed. So the inevitable conclusion is a third and fatal confrontation. The impulse is clear: hate your enemies, curse those who question you, destroy those who try to do what is right (cf. Luke 6:28, Matthew 5.44). If your enemy is hungry, starve him; if he is thirsty, make sure he has no water (cf. Proverbs 25:21-23, Romans 12:20). All of these are, of course, part of the unfolding Passion story. So is the occasion of comradeship around the table, the moment of betrayal for financial gain, and further abandonment and dispossession by supposed allies in the garden of Gethsemane. Its culmination, crucifixion, is the empire’s established means of humiliating, crushing and curtailing insurrection, instilling fear and manufacturing consent.
All top-down earthly kingdoms secure, defend and justify themselves through their monopoly over the organisational and instrumental means of inflicting punishment and death. That is something they define as their right. The rebel Jesus clearly cannot ‘win’ on these terms. On the contrary, he is vanquished, dead and buried. Those who trusted and hoped in his message are in turmoil, loss and terror. They wait, but with their dreams of deliverance dashed. But precisely because the power Jesus embodies, shares and transmits is the antithesis of imperial death-dealing, the vindication of his way of community, sharing and solidarity cannot be through violence or coercion. Instead, it triumphs through a creative and invitational love which, because it comes from the unconditional capacity to give and re-give life, something that is God’s alone, cannot be ended by execution or seized by bargaining and bribery.
This is the gospel story, in all its deep threat and promise. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once expressed it, it is the lived conviction that what is decisive for our lives in the end is not the love of power (which can only end up destroying life), but the power of love (through which all divisions and injustices can be faced, ended and healed). To believe this is not to assent to a proposition, but to choose to be part of a new, liberating story about ourselves, the world and God. Learning to (re)inhabit this narrative, and to be inhabited and reshaped by it personally and corporately, takes a lifetime of practice, prayer and companionable assistance. A community, in other words.
In so many ways, the new story of the gospel seems counterintuitive, impossible, even ridiculous. It is a fragile light in an often dark-looking universe. It can only be cultivated through clear-sighted faith, determined hope, courageous love… and, yes, continually refuelled and reignited imagination. That is the journey through Lent, into Easter, and beyond. It is a revolt against the ‘good order’ of empire, a revolution in the soul, a recovery of connectedness, and a redistribution of power and possibility. It is what Graham Adams, in one of several books I am reading over Easter, calls Holy Anarchy (SCM Press, 2022, reviewed here). This is a subversive re-understanding of God which he recovers from biblical ‘texts in negotiation’ (Walter Brueggemann), energises through hymnody, prayer and catechesis, and explores practically as a multifaceted task: ‘dismantling domination, embodying community, loving strangeness’.
In terms of the specificity and historical and political intensity of the particular social, economic and cultural conflicts of first century Palestine, I am reading – alongside Graham’s fine treatise – an even newer one from biblical scholars James Crossley and Robert J. Myles, Jesus: A Life in Class Conflict (Zero Books, 2023). While the evangelical Trump cult in the USA labels itself ‘biblical’, its grasp of the gospel text is wafer thin, ideologically distorted by white supremacy and nationalism, and defiantly deaf to the Jesus who not only proclaimed an edict of divine reversal in opposition to the rule of Caesar, but promised a new order in the interests of the downtrodden.
Then, as something of a personalist counterpoint perhaps, there is the Easter (perhaps especially the Good Friday) revolution in the deep fabric of our lives, touched and indelibly marked as they are by tragedy. In his rightly acclaimed Faith, Hope and Carnage (Canongate, 2022), musician Nick Cave discusses issues of anguish and longing, belief, art, freedom, grief and love, all distilled from more than forty hours of conversation with journalist Séan O’Hagan. This is one of the best books about faith and its rediscovery in recent years, not least because it is shorn of the piety and evasion that is so often woven into such accounts. At the same time, it is startling in its re-evaluation and reintegration of the sting of mortality and loss, riven both by a “vast river of suffering” and a certain “spiritual audacity” emerging from that.
in a way, that sense of death being present, and all those wild, traumatised feelings that went with it, ultimately gave us this weird, urgent energy. Not at first, but in time. It was an energy that allowed us to do anything we wanted to do. Ultimately, it opened up all kinds of possibilities and a strange reckless power came out of it. It was as if the worst had happened and nothing could hurt us, and all our ordinary concerns were little more than indulgences. There was a freedom in that.
Last, but not least, I am re-reading a little classic from Richard A. Horsley, which frames the broader regime-change accents of Easter so well. Religion and Empire: People, Power, and the Life of the Spirit (Fortress Press, 2003) examines relationships between imperial power and religion, then and now. Horsley describes how ancient and modern systems of control – from Caesar to neoliberalism – subject people to their whims by co-opting their local religious or spiritual practices and attitudes, among other things. He then explores similarities among resistance movements, looking at how religion can either be a corrosive effect of, or a varied response to, particular domination systems.
These are issues I also pick up in my forthcoming book, Against the Religion of Power: Telling a Different Christian Story (Ekklesia, 2023). Like the journey through Lent, into Easter and beyond, it is both deeply personal and profoundly political. It is about the vital connection between our hearts, our relationships, and our public institutions and practices. It is through a realignment of these, galvanised by communities of experimentation and imagination, that a different future needs to be forged, not least in an age of ecological crisis and human fragmentation.
* See also: ‘Resurrecting hope: setting the present-future free’.
© Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia. Against the Religion of Power: Telling a Different Christian Story is due for publication in the summer of 2023. His columns can be found here (and archived ones here). Twitter: @simonbarrow.