BY DOMINIC PINO OPINION EDITOR
Today is Easter, the day that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ. The orthodox Christian understanding of Christ, since at least the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, is that He is totally God and totally man. At first glance — and even at second, third or four-hundredth glance — that is a strange belief. How can someone be totally God and totally man?
That question is too big for this article (and this entire newspaper, and all the newspapers, magazines, journals and books in the whole world). Suffice it to say, Christ being totally God and totally man is part of the Christian faith, and it’s not called “faith” for nothing.
You might not hold the strange belief that He is totally God and totally man. You might hold a different belief, or perhaps you just haven’t thought about it all that much. As you can probably tell from my usage of capital letters so far in this article, I believe that He is. But no matter where you’re coming from, give Jesus some thought today, even if you don’t any other day of the year.
Too often we get hung up on the totally God part of the equation. And for good reason: We meet people all the time, but encountering God is far less common. “Do you believe God exists?” is a question that divides people. “Do you believe people exist?” does not divide people — it is never even asked because the answer is so obvious.
As you think about Jesus this Easter, put the totally God part aside for a moment. Suspend your disbelief if it’s there. Think about His humanity.
Pastor and theologian Howard Thurman wrote a book called “Jesus and the Disinherited.” Published in 1949, it asks a perhaps uncomfortable question: Why does Christianity — a religion that started under intense persecution, whose central figure was executed by a colonial power, a religion that follows someone who said, “Blessed are the meek,” and, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” — why does that religion often seem to side with the powerful over the weak?
For Thurman that was not an academic question. He was an African American man writing in the United States of America in 1949.
We think of the years immediately after World War II as a prosperous time, and it was for the country on average. But for African Americans, even ones like Thurman (who graduated as valedictorian of his college and of his seminary, was an ordained minister at the age of 26, and was on the faculty of Howard University and later Boston University), being in the United States of America in 1949 meant living in a country that had segregated buses, segregated schools, segregated bathrooms and segregated drinking fountains — and nearly everyone called themselves Christian while attending segregated churches.
In “Jesus and the Disinherited,” Thurman looked at that world and considered his own experience at many points. He had the conviction to say we’d got it all wrong. He had the conviction to speak the truth about racial equality and our common humanity. But he didn’t conclude that the disparate outcomes in a predominantly Christian country indicated that the religion of Jesus was wrong. Instead, he joined a long line of saints throughout the ages by pointing out that our errors were the result of forgetting what Jesus actually taught.
In emphasizing our common humanity, he also emphasized that Christ is part of that humanity. Thurman’s work is an antidote to focusing too much on Jesus’ divinity, at the expense of His humanity. You can think of Thurman as italicizing “and totally man.”
Thurman emphasized that Jesus was a poor Jew living under a colonial power (the Roman Empire) who didn’t have the privileges of citizenship under that colonial power. “If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he would be just another Jew in the ditch,” Thurman wrote.
Jesus had to make difficult decisions about how He would respond to oppression and hardship. There were Jews who wanted armed rebellion against Rome. There were Jews who wanted to acquiesce to Rome. There were Jews who wanted to isolate themselves within Rome, not resisting but not participating either.
Thurman pointed out that Jesus rejected all of those options. Instead, He taught that the kingdom of God is within us. “Us” meaning His followers, but His followers are human beings, and He invites all people to follow Him. The kingdom of God being within us means that, again, the divine and the human are existing together somehow.
That’s a strange belief too, and it’s both comforting and scary. If the kingdom of God is within us, that means God is very close to us and is able to support us and care for us. But it also means we have tremendous responsibilities to serve God and conduct ourselves in a way that would please God — and since we are not God, we will always come up short.
Thurman’s point, however, is that if the kingdom of God is within us, then that should change the way we handle ourselves. Thurman wrote that Jesus “recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to his destiny.” Granting that permission is something we each control individually. Thurman wrote, “It is a man’s reaction to things that determines their ability to exercise power over him.”
Sharing in Jesus’ humanity, Thurman argued, is the great source of strength for the disinherited. The religion of Jesus is not a religion of the powerful over the weak.
On Easter, Christians celebrate the triumph of the weak over the strong. We celebrate the triumph of a poor Jew over the death sentence of a globe-spanning empire.
And we celebrate the triumph of the Son of God over sin. The tomb is empty, He is risen, and we can all share in His life today.