There are underlying reasons (not justifications) for everything, especially when it comes to religious belief and faith in God. If you realize you’re dealing with religious people in a religious situation, believe it or not, you can start to see why people take certain actions and do certain things. Devout people are predictable. For instance, I can tell you where many of the people I know are going to be on any Sunday morning at 11:00 am. It’s a better than average chance they’ll be in church. This is because they’re usually going by a sacred book or books and accepted faith traditions which determine their religious conduct.
If one reads these holy texts in some of the many ways they might be interpreted, one may form a good idea of what motivates them to do what they do. In my case, it’s possible to understand what drives them to make audacious claims about eating the body and drinking the blood of a dead Galilean carpenter. Far from an archaic practice which recalls an instance Greco-Roman cannibalism, we symbolically retell the story of how an innocent man died. And through this death, we’ve come to understand a fuller understanding of life in the present through something called the kingdom or community of God. This is because religious belief, faith in a God, has a habit of bringing out the best and worst in people. This type of behavior has occurred long enough and in enough religious traditions (especially the Abrahamic faiths), it becomes easier to predict and understand why people make both good and bad decisions in relation to their religious faith. Placed in one context, we think we understand how our sacred stories can help us be better people. However, these same stories can be can not be separated from the images of death and suffering where they found their origin. The idea of a righteous death makes good people, especially religious people, open to the idea of dying for God.
At the most basic level, Christianity is a faith built around the sacrificial death of one man, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus allowed himself to die. He permitted himself to be arrested, taken, beaten, tortured, and killed by the Roman authorities. The words “allow” and “plan” are part and parcel of our Christian vocabulary. Except for a few sermons in Holy Week, when a pastor may refer to Jesus’ desire to have the “cup pass from him”, there’s never any indication given that Jesus didn’t want to die. We love to talk about how Jesus wanted to die for our sins. Jesus committed suicide by allowing himself to be executed by the Roman army.
Modern Christians take this idea for granted. It makes us squeamish. Jesus, on the cross, becomes the first Christian martyr. He is martyred for the ideas, beliefs, and religious vision. Towards the end of the 23rd chapter of Luke, awaiting his death by martyrdom, Jesus tells one of the two thieves who is dying with him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” As a willing martyr, Luke says he awaits a place in paradise. We compose hymns about his desire to die. Palestinian mothers (perhaps from Nazareth or Bethlehem) sing songs today about their own sons who choose the path of martyrdom and death:
The martyr give us stone from his blood,
From his red blood thee rose becomes red
His mother trills for him in joy,
He has given his blood to the nation.
A camp meeting hymn by another name? It sounds almost Pentecostal, doesn’t it?
Are others killed when Jesus chooses to die on the cross? On that day, no. Will other early Christians eventually choose death, suicide, and martyrdom? Yes. Embedded within the creation our own Abrahamic faith tradition is the violent suicide by execution of Jesus of Nazareth. The glorification of choosing death would seem to be at the heart of what we believe and do. We appear to be more than at peace with this notion. We revel in our bloody past. We tell the stories. We read the books and now we show the videos.
Who would want to let anyone into the United States (or any other country) who held such strange beliefs? Surely, anyone who believed in symbolic cannibalism or suicidal death cult leader would be a threat to the good order of rural communities all over the United States. He believes in dying and going to paradise? Are there 72 virgins involved? That’s awful suspicious. Could Jesus be a “terrorist”? What if Jesus’ followers infiltrated the country and started encouraging others to commit suicide as a means of civil disobedience to unjust laws? He did it once before. We don’t know what he really believes because none of us have read the religious texts relevant his teachings. Who reads Greek or Aramaic? Certainly not the government. Perhaps, we should ban all Christians from entering the United States of America. We might need to get rid of the ones we have.