Both Christianity and Judaism remember their foundational stories at this time. For Judaism this story is the liberation of the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt when God freed them and brought them eventually into that land promised to Abraham and his descendents. This liberation revealed God as a saviour and deliverer, a God who is faithful to his choices and promises. But this liberation came at a cost – the cost of the lives of the Egyptian army that tried to stop the Israelites escaping. A friend who taught Judaism once said that the liberation of the people of Israel from Egypt was gained at the cost of ethnic cleansing. While it might not have been as extreme as that it seems, according to the account in the bible, to have led to the death of the Egyptian army that followed the Israelites and tried to stop them at the Red Sea – and no doubt the disaster influenced the economy of Egypt. The story is told each Passover in the context of a ritualised meal, not as something that happened in the past but as something that is a continuing reality, an eternal present so to speak that binds people again to their membership of the Chosen People of Israel.
For Christianity this story is also a foundation story but that story of the liberation from Egypt is now expanded and extended to a personal and spiritual liberation from sin which offers the possibility of living a life of love and service of others. This liberation too comes at a cost – the death of Jesus of Nazareth, a charismatic Jew who while faithful to the Torah encouraged a heartfelt and inner response to it rather than an intellectual or legalistic one. This approach brought him into conflict with the political and religious leaders of his time and eventually led to his death by crucifixion and then to his resurrection. Christians retell this story at their celebration of Easter but do so interpreting it and trying to make theological sense of it. The interpretation that has come to be expressed in the official liturgies of the church is that God freed humanity from a state of sinfulness but at a cost – and that cost expressed in terms of a ransom was the death of Jesus.
Both these stories can be and are for many people a source of spiritual inspiration, hope and renewed commitment. But they can also have a dark side which can lead to conflict and violence. The belief that the Jewish people have been brought by God into a land promised to them raises questions about the people who were in that land before them. This was the case in the past as the story of the history of Israel shows them conquering and being conquered, being ruled by foreign powers such as Rome, being sent into exile, the second of which lasted for centuries and was only ended with the establishment of the State of Israel. This is a good thing, and I am supportive of a homeland for the Jewish people, but it does demand some resolution of how the present-day people of Israel, can live in peace with those who also consider the land theirs. Unfortunately, at this moment when the festival of Passover coincides with Ramadan there has been a lot of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly in East Jerusalem at the Western Wall of the Temple and the Al Aqsa Mosque which stands on the Temple Mount. Both are places of pilgrimage for their respective faiths. The Western Wall is the holiest site in Judaism and the Mosque the third holiest place in Islam. The scenes of violence reported and seen on our television screens are so painful. They make a mockery of what our religions claim to be, especially those beliefs that claim peaceful co-existence and harmony.
In the past Christianity was caught up in its own violence at this time. In medieval times Christians attacked Jews because they held them responsible for the death of Jesus and accused them of deicide. The history of Christian antisemitism is something that we Christians are ashamed of, and many denominations have repented of it. As we listen to the scriptures and hear again the story of Jesus’ death, we must remind ourselves that Jesus was a faithful Jew, put to death as a common criminal because he upset the political and religious authorities of his day but not by most Jews of the time, many of whom were his faithful followers and certainly not the Jews of today.
It is easy for religions to celebrate significant festivals with blinkers on and not remember that there is a wider and perhaps greater reality. Remembering the massacre in Rwanda, with the evidence of how far we humans can sink in our hatred of others, and Pope John XXIII’s encyclical which calls us to work for peace could be a motivation this year for us to interpret our foundational stories and religious practices in a way that leads to the inclusion and benefit of all people.