According to the New Testament, Jesus entered Jerusalem without any illusion about what lay in store for him: arrest, torture and crucifixion. Prophesying and calling for reform have always been dangerous, but undeterred by the risks, Jesus headed to the temple with his controversial teachings. Was he afraid? In the gospel of Mark, the oldest of the four gospels, Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane, where he became distressed and agitated. He pleaded for a reprieve. “Abba,” he said, “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me” (NRSV, Mk 14:36). Although among friends, Jesus was alone. Several times, he roused his sleeping disciples and begged them to keep him company, but their eyes were heavy and they did not know what to say.
Two-thousand years later, on the day called Easter, Christians sing hallelujah and Gloria to commemorate the brutal trials of this man who went willingly to his death.
How do non-Christians make sense of this commemoration?
Analogies to more contemporary events can help us make sense of the past. Even if we don’t accept the divinity of Jesus, or that he died for our sins, surely we can sing hallelujah and Gloria to commemorate and acclaim him just as we can sing hallelujah and Gloria to commemorate and acclaim others who willingly and willfully put themselves in harm’s way to speak truth to power. Joan of Arc, Mahatma Ghandi, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., are but a few of the well-known martyrs who, with just as much clarity as Jesus, knew the risks they faced but still kept on keeping on.
More recently, we have the martyrdom of Lasantha Wickramatunga, shot dead by two assassins on January 8, 2009. The editor of The Leader, Sri Lanka’s leading independent newspaper, Wickramatunga had written an editorial only days earlier predicting his own assassination by the government. Aware of the danger, he chose to answer the call of his conscience and to voice ideas some found distasteful. Aware of the danger, he kept on keeping on although he had a wife and three children. Should we not sing hallelujah and Gloria to commemorate and acclaim such a man’s life and death? If he was willing to die to improve the life of his fellow Sri Lankans, should we not honor the sacrifice he was willing to make on their behalf—and, by extension, because we are all part of the human family—on our behalf?
Why was Wickramatunga willing to die for our sake? In his own words:
“People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niemöller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold in Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was: it was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niemöller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niemöller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.”
God knows Jesus tried—this one of the messages of Easter. He sacrificed his life. He spoke out for the poor and the despised and the persecuted. And they came for him.
Which leaves us with the most haunting questions of all. Are our eyes heavy and we do not know what to say? Or do we speak out? Do I speak out? Do you speak out? Would we speak even if we knew they would come for us?
Reference: For a full transcript of Lasantha Wickramatunga’s editorial, see http://www.informationliberation.com/?id=26432.