The Power of Easter in an Increasingly Secular America | Opinion

The number of those who formally affiliate with a religion has been dropping precipitously in the United States, and indeed throughout most Western countries. In the early 1970s, roughly 3 percent of Americans would have claimed no religious identity, but today, that figure has skyrocketed to 26 percent. This problem persists across the spectrum of the mainstream religions, but it is particularly acute within the Christian churches—and worst of all in my own Roman Catholic Church. Recent surveys have indicated that for every person who joins the Catholic Church in America, six are leaving.

There has, of course, been much hand-wringing among ecclesial leaders regarding this state of affairs. Many different explanations—sociological, economic, psychological, cultural—have been proposed. Without denying the legitimacy of those explanations, I humbly suggest that the deepest reason for the decline is a theological one, and that the fault largely belongs to preachers, teachers, catechists and the institutional keepers of the religious flame.

I should like to indicate what I mean through a citation from Peter Maurin, the man who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement with Dorothy Day in the 1930s. Maurin said his co-religionists "have taken the dynamite of the Church, have wrapped it up in nice phraseology, placed it in an hermetic container and sat on the lid. It is about time to blow the lid off so the Catholic Church may again become the dominant social dynamic force."

What bothered Maurin was, in a word, the domestication of the Gospel. What was meant to be a world-changing power had been transformed, he thought, into something bland, culturally accommodating and toothless. And Maurin knew what all the saints have known: that the power of the Church comes from the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. When the Resurrection is watered down, explained away or turned into a harmless symbol, Christianity devolves into one more mythic system, or one spiritual self-help program among many. But when the Church proclaims the Resurrection clearly and unapologetically, it shakes the foundations of the world.

In order to understand the power of the Resurrection, we must first take an honest look at the cross of Jesus. We are so accustomed to seeing the cross as a religious symbol that it is exceptionally difficult for us to appreciate what it meant in the first century. The cross was such a horrifying method of execution that it was reserved for only the lowest members of Roman society or the worst enemies of the Roman state. Its tortures were so terrifying that Cicero, the most eloquent statesman of the period, would describe them only indirectly. Indeed, the English word used to designate the very worst kind of pain, "excruciating," is derived from ex cruce ("from the cross").

Easter Sunday church
People wearing protective masks pray during a mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral on April 4, 2021 in New York City. The annual Easter Parade and Bonnet Festival on Fifth Avenue is going virtual for the second year, while COVID-19 safety protocols will be in place for Sunday's Mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral. Jeenah Moo/Getty Images

That Jesus died in this awful way seemed the surest proof possible that his cause had failed, that the worldly powers he had called out—injustice, cruelty, hatred, violence, corrupt religiosity—had done him in. It appeared that he was simply, as Albert Schweitzer put it in the 20th century, one more idealist "ground under by the wheel of history," and that his claim to speak and act in the very person of God had certainly been debunked.

Therefore, when, on the Sunday following his dreadful execution, Jesus presented himself alive again to his disciples and friends, everything changed. Now his followers understood that God's love is stronger than any worldly powers—that in point of fact, all the forces that crushed him have themselves been crushed. When the risen Christ appeared, he typically did two things: he showed his wounds and he said Shalom ("peace"). The demonstration of the scars on his hands and his side is of consummate importance, for it constitutes divine judgment on our sin. Whenever we are tempted to exculpate ourselves of wrongdoing, we have only to look at the wounds of Jesus and the temptation should fade away. But in the Shalom of the resurrected Jesus, we know that our sins—as terrible and undeniable as they are—have been forgiven. As Paul put it in his Letter to the Romans, "I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, not height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." How does Paul know this? Because we killed God, and God returned in forgiving love.

All of this means that Jesus is the Lord. A watchword of that time and place was Kaiser Kyrios ("Caesar is Lord"), for the Roman emperor demanded final allegiance as head of a dominant order backed up by ruthless violence. With breathtaking boldness, Paul declared that one whom Caesar killed but whom God raised from the dead is now the Lord—that Jesus' way of being, what the Lord himself called the "kingdom of God," is breaking in. This was precisely the message, the good news, that the first Christian preachers declared.

Something that sets the New Testament apart from every other great religious text is the sheer excitement on its every page. The first Christians were not trading in philosophical ideas, timeless spiritual truths or familiar mythic archetypes. They were telling anyone who would listen that something had happened, something so new and so revolutionary that, in the wake of it, nothing would be the same. In light of these considerations, it is easy to understand why so many of the first Christian evangelists ended up in prison and why every Apostle of Jesus save one met a martyr's death.

An Anglican bishop from the last century, speaking sadly enough for too many Christians today, said, "When Paul preached there were riots; when I preach, they serve me tea." That staid Christianity, which tragically bores and alienates armies of people in the West, has forgotten the meaning of the Resurrection. If we want to reverse this trend of disaffiliation, it's time to blow up the dynamite of the Church.

Bishop Robert Barron is an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.