Does the Easter story of Jesus Christ offer anything for a conflict-ridden world? In some ways it might appear that the history of the Christian Church would answer no.
I'm reading an account of the Crusades by the British historian Christopher Tyerman. He calls his account God's Wars. The Crusades began with the recruiting drive of Pope Urban II through what is now France, beginning in the fall of 1095 in Clermont.
It collected from a wide expanse of Europe tens of thousands of "Christian" warriors who set out for Jerusalem; the first of them, under the German Peter the Hermit, began with pograms against Jews and continued their ravages by attacking and pillaging fellow Christians, pagans and finally Muslims. They said they were doing Christ's work.
A second crusade was instigated by the Abbot of Clairvaux, Bernard, who urged Christians to put on "the breastplate of faith... and with undaunted souls drive off the enemies of the cross of Christ." He was adapting an image that came directly from the epistles of the Apostle Paul, who had written, "Put on the whole armour of God."
In fact, the Apostle had explained elsewhere in his letters, "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power."
But, writes Tyerman, it was "a measure of the pragmatism, sophistication and sheer intellectual ingenuity of St. Paul's successors" that enabled them to "expound a doctrine of the Gospels (with) an ideology of Christian holy war at all."
This, especially if one considers that on the cross, Jesus spoke a prayer for those who put him to death there: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." Or that early in his ministry, he taught his followers, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" and called those "blessed" who were "peacemakers."
The Easter season may not arouse the same sentiments for many people as does Christmas, but in the Christian calendar it holds the central place. For those who accept the meaning given it by the church through most centuries, Easter represents God in his Son Jesus offering himself up to death at the hands of his enemies to reconcile us to himself. It is the act of a loving God who gives himself as a sacrifice to overcome the barrier that our rebellion and sin causes between him as Creator and ourselves as his creation.
The resurrection, as Christians understand it, confirmed for all time that what happened on the Cross was sufficient to bring transformation in all those places where evil and sin have held sway. Life can overcome death.
It was such conviction that encouraged Bishop Desmond Tutu's advocacy of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It was this that gave such powerful impetus to the forces that led to a virtually bloodless collapse of the Soviet empire, with key roles played by Pope John Paul II and many Eastern European Christians who met to encourage one another in churches. As journalist Barbara von der Heydt related in Candles Behind the Wall, they met in churches and chose to respond to violence and oppression with peaceful tactics.
In 1983, Benigno Aquino was assassinated on his return to the Philippines, where he had hoped to help remove the corrupt government of Ferdinand Marcos. His death ultimately led to its peaceful overthrow. During years of imprisonment under Marcos, Aquino read Born Again by Charles Colson, the Nixon-era conspirator. It led to a profound spiritual awakening and Aquino's commitment to non-violent change. Aquino became willing to risk his life without taking someone else's.
Canadian native leader Harold Cardinal once stated that there can be no healing without forgiveness. That's the essential message of Easter.
Colombian Mennonite pastor Angel Canon tells the story of the time militia entered the region where his family lived and murdered his 17-year-old brother along with a number of others from his community. The brother's abdomen had been cut open and when he tried to escape, he was shot through the head. Many others of that community were clearly tortured. Their crime? They didn't belong to the political party in power. Angel knew the people who committed the crime.
He says for years he nursed hopes of revenge. As he went through his school years, he planned what he might do and travelled to various places to figure out how he might escape. But as he came nearer the time when he would get his revenge, he says he entered such a deep depression he felt he was becoming more afraid of living than of dying. He had a gun and he thought of suicide. His hatred was destroying him.
At that "instant of crisis," he says, "a sentence came to my mind I had encountered in the Bible. It said, 'Show me, Lord, your way; I will walk in your truth.' " In his anguish he knelt down beside his bed and said, "Lord, if you really exist, change my life." He says he cried himself to sleep that night and when he woke, he was a changed person. His depression had lifted and a profound peace and joy had entered his life. More importantly, the emptiness and loneliness were gone and the thirst for revenge erased. Says Angel, "I was forgiven."
This is the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus in one person's life. But it is also the story writ small that has had a similar effect in countless other settings. I have before me stories of the Palestinian Archbishop Elias Chacour, who has practised a reconciling ministry among Palestinians, Jews and Christians, or of Gordon Wilson, whose daughter was killed by an IRA bomb in 1987, and who spoke with IRA leaders because, as he said, "I bear no ill will. It's part of a greater plan... and God is good. And we shall meet again."
They are only two stories of countless others -- because of Easter.
Harold Jantz is a retired editor and Christian journalist.