In the many sermons preached from church pulpits this Sunday, expect lots of talk about the “true meaning” of Easter. One theme, however — perhaps the most urgently needed message of our time — will almost certainly be neglected. Whether the Easter story of death and resurrection is treated as allegory, fable, or historical fact, it represents a compelling argument for religious toleration.
Just consider the haunting tale of an encounter between two disciples and Jesus, shortly after his execution, as they made their way to Emmaus, a village outside Jerusalem. As described in the gospel of Luke, the pair began their journey in a state of grief and disillusionment. Other Jewish revolutionaries had suffered at the hands of Rome, but Jesus — so they believed — was the final prophet, the Messiah who would liberate Israel, destroy her enemies, and usher in the kingdom of heaven. His crucifixion, like that of a common criminal, meant that every hope they had placed in Jesus was either a lie or a wretched mistake.
As Luke tells it, the teacher suddenly appeared to them on the road to Emmaus and engaged them in conversation. Yet they were “kept from recognizing him,” perhaps because they had no mental category for a murdered Messiah, fresh from the grave. What transpired — a luminous exchange about God’s promises to the Jews and to the entire human race — transformed their doubt into deep conviction.
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In simple yet lucid prose, we get a glimpse of the nature of religious conversion. Here there is no place for compulsion or threats of violence; authentic belief depends on free will as well as divine grace. “Were not our hearts burning within us,” the disciples told each other, “while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” The Emmaus story, like the other accounts of spiritual awakenings in the New Testament, set the pattern for how the Christian message would spread — through an appeal to the heart, mind, and conscience.
#share#What went wrong? There is no greater stain on the Christian church than its eventual rejection of reason and persuasion in the face of opposition. The church of the martyrs transformed itself into the church of the inquisitors — all under the cloak of defending the Gospel. “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully,” wrote French philosopher Blaise Pascal, “as when they do it from religious conviction.”
If the medieval church were to abandon its policies of persecution — justified by minds as creative as those of Augustine and, to a lesser extent, even Thomas Aquinas — a fresh interpretation of the life of Jesus would be required. Thus the argument over religious freedom that began with the Protestant Reformation looked back to Him, to His death and resurrection, for moral authority. Every important Christian reformer — including Martin Luther, William Tyndale, William Penn, Roger Williams — appealed to the example of Jesus to defend the rights of conscience. “The doctrine of persecution,” wrote Roger Williams in 1644, “denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.”
Protestant Christianity contributed to one of the great achievements of liberal democracies: the capacity for citizens to live together with their deepest differences.
In the seminal debates over religious liberty, even early Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Pierre Bayle invoked the sacrificial death of Jesus as the trump card. We know from Locke’s private journals that he searched the Bible carefully for passages defending toleration — and found ample evidence in the story of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection. Thus, in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Locke challenged the custodians of European Christianity with biblical idioms that proved difficult to evade: “If, like the Captain of our salvation, they sincerely desired the good of souls, they would tread in the steps and follow the perfect example of the Prince of Peace.” Church authorities must adopt the methods of Jesus, Locke wrote, and replace their instruments of force with “the exemplary holiness of their conversation.”
The popular view of the rise of toleration in the West, that it was propelled by the secularizing forces of the Enlightenment, doesn’t do justice to the history of the church. The arguments of the reformers prevailed: Church leaders found a solution to the problem of religious intolerance — but not by rejecting the essential doctrines of the faith. Instead, they retrieved those doctrines and reinterpreted them to overcome the sectarian hatreds tearing their societies apart.
In doing so, Protestant Christianity contributed to one of the great achievements of liberal democracies: the capacity for citizens to live together with their deepest differences. For at its heart, the Easter story is an account of God’s relentless love for sinners — including the doubters and the disillusioned among us. In our own era of religious intolerance, saints and cynics alike can be grateful for its retelling.