Easter is a message of hope for the penitent, not for those who pronounce themselves innocent

Apr 16, 2019 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

There is something about the idea of “no-fault divorce” which goes beyond the issue of how to regulate marriage and family in the 21st century. It can also be seen as an illustration of psychological and spiritual self-management in a post Christian culture.

The argument which has won the day goes like this: few people nowadays believe that marriages should last forever; in reality relationships have a life span which when ended should allow people to separate with a minimum of hassle and cost. Currently, laws are in place to ensure that a divorce needs to have a reason such as adultery, abandonment or unreasonable behaviour; this leads to acrimonious legal bickering and dragging up past actions, when the best thing is surely to let bygones be bygones, separate, divide assets, move on with life.

The changes in law have come in for a lot of criticism from conservative commentators (for example here). They point out that making marriage like a temporary contract will be harmful on several levels. While those in favour of the new ‘no-fault’ system argue that children prefer their parents to be separate and happy than under the same roof and unhappy, this is not born out by the evidence, which suggests that ‘broken homes’, far from being a stigmatising and out of date concept for normal variations in family structure, in fact actually do harm child development. ‘No-fault’ provides no incentive for faithfulness or working through problems in a relationship. As one woman said when interviewed on the BBC recently, it will lead to the creation of a fiction, where everyone pretends that the husband (for example) who has had a series of affairs hasn’t done anything wrong, and the suffering party has no way of publicly expressing or recording her point of view. And is it really true that more people might get married if they can see a wide open exit door? More likely marriage is seen as increasingly irrelevant.

But beyond these specific issues, the concept of a ruling elite taking on themselves the right and power to declare ‘no-fault’, to absolve selfish adults from guilt, can be seen as a profoundly spiritual act with wider ramifications, especially in the Easter season.

My daily bible reading recently took me into the early chapters of Leviticus. These ancient writings offer a window into an alien culture, where a nation of tribes consisting of tight-knit communities were encouraged to live in awe of almighty God, in thanksgiving for his past rescue and daily provision, and in constant awareness of his all-seeing eye, his holiness, and the default alienation caused by human sin. Leviticus 5 shows how in various ways, people can become defiled unintentionally; chapter 6 gives examples of intentional wrongdoing. In both cases, because of God’s love for his people and faithfulness to his promises, provision is made for ritual atonement made through sacrifice (a mark of repentance), so that the sin can be forgiven and the guilt removed.

These systems carried with them potential for corruption.They could fill peoples’ lives with increasingly detailed and petty regulations, as with the teachers and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who lost sight of the life in all its fulness through relationship provided by a loving and gracious God. They could create a massive religious machine which enslaves and impoverishes the faithful, and enriches the providers of religious power – as in some examples of medieval church leadership, and contemporary animism or Christian prosperity teaching especially in parts of the global South. But at least these errors were, are, based on understanding the truth of the reality of the holiness and power of God, his judgement against sin, the need for atonement through sacrifice.

The approach of the secular West today is different. Where previous systems have tried to control the instruments of religion and ritual associated with dealing with sin and guilt, today’s high priests of the culture have not done away with the concept, but have taken on themselves the authority to redefine it. If there is no God (unless perhaps a God of pure “love”), then the idea of violating his standards of holiness is ruled as imaginary and pre-modern. So the writings of ancient Israel have no bearing on our lives today: the bible may say we have done wrong, but we can declare ourselves to be “not guilty” – as in no-fault divorce. But then, other categories of behaviour (for example publicly expressing the belief in the reality of hell awaiting unrepentant sinners, or questioning whether Primary school children should be encouraged to see themselves as gender-fluid), are seen as sins violating our own self-designed community standards for which there can be no atonement or forgiveness, just punishment – as famous rugby players and ordinary schoolteachers are discovering.

Who decides what is right and wrong, whether someone is guilty or not, whether there will be forgiveness or punishment? To which authority in the universe should we give our allegiance? Much of the final week of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem is focussed on these questions. Jesus is proclaimed King on Palm Sunday. He is specifically asked by what authority he performed the symbolic acts riding the donkey and rearranging the moneychangers stalls in the temple (Matt 21:23f). His parables (the tenants, the wedding banquet) are about a King and those who refuse his authority. Matthew records Jesus’ polemic against the religious leaders (Matt 23), who like the secular cultural leaders of today, “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to”. Matthew 24 and 25 show God as the cosmic judge, with the power to decide the eternal future of every creature.

But then the narrative focuses on one man and his tiny band of followers: “After Jesus had finished saying all these things [about the sovereign power of God the judge], he said to his disciples…the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified”. And so begin the dramatic events culminating in Calvary, and then the empty tomb. Why? Because we are alienated from God by our rebellion, and in desperate danger of judgement.

Absolving ourselves of responsibility and sin by declaring “no-fault” to one another, is a fiction which leaves us guilty and facing the hostility of the King. But, amazingly, gloriously, the death of the Saviour opens the curtain – all who acknowledge their sin, say sorry and believe are forgiven and restored, even those who deny him and run away in his hour of need. “No-fault” can never be said of human beings or broken relationships. Struggling marriages and the human psyche in general need the Easter gospel, not secular make-believe.

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