I was late when I walked through the door. I spotted him after a quick scan of the little clutches of coffee drinkers, sitting alone at the back of the room. He'd seen me right away, of course, and lifted his head slightly in recognition.
I purchased my drink and made my way to the table. He had his opening salvo ready and fired it before I'd had a chance to sit down.
"Did you order the Easter special? The blood-roasted Nicaraguan blend? I hear it's all the rage among Christians."
I smiled. And so it begins, I thought. Our third annual Easter discussion about Christianity is off to a good start.
"How are you, Aaron? It's good to see you again," I smiled.
"I'm well, thanks. And you look happy. But you should be. It starts tonight, doesn't it? Maundy Thursday? The arrest, the trial, the torturing of an innocent man? You Christians must be nearly delirious with the smell of blood in the air."
I took a sip of my coffee.
"Aaron, Aaron. You're always so shy about expressing yourself. Why don't you just come right out and tell me what's bothering you?"
Now it was his turn to smile.
"If you must know, it's the dissonance of this season. Frankly, it makes me ill. Mercy. Forgiveness. These are the things you talk about, Charlie. But in reality, Christianity is a death cult. It glorifies a vicious act of human sacrifice and blood atonement and tries to dress it up in Easter finery and disguise it with precious words like "love" and "mercy." How can you pretend the angry judgment of god on his innocent son is merciful? He committed filicide!"
I think I flinched.
"You're troubled by filicide, Aaron? You're pro-life now, I suppose?" I couldn't resist the dig.
He glared at me over the top of his glasses. "Cheap shot, Charlie. We're discussing the perfect and holy Christian god, not the imperfect realities of political policy."
"Right you are. The world we live in is not known for its justice. But God is just. The scales have to be balanced. Wrongs must be made right. Evil must be punished. There is no justice if there is no penalty for sin. The penalty can be forgiven, of course. The authorities can issue a pardon. But there has to be accountability for our actions."
He smiled. I knew he had anticipated this argument.
"So, god's anger must be placated. He must have the blood of a virgin to satisfy his need for justice. Really, Charlie, your god needs to go through some anger management, don't you think? Do you actually believe what you're saying, or are you just in denial?"
A few feet away, a man and a woman were talking about a new movie. I envied them.
"Denial? No, I don't think so. You don't believe in justice? In judgments against wrongdoers to satisfy their debts to society?"
"Charlie, Charlie. Justice I believe in. Brutality, no. Barbarism, no. Bloodthirsty vengeance and wanton bloodshed by a god who claims to love us? These are things Christianity must shed if it is to have any chance in the 21st century."
"Ah, but you do believe in barbarism and wanton bloodshed, Aaron. You ardently believe in the shedding of innocent blood. You and your progressive friends have the blood of millions of innocent children on your hands, something you definitely live in denial about. You claim that women have a right to free themselves of the consequences of their femininity by taking the lives of their own children, and yet, you pretend no blood is shed?
"Your hands are covered in blood, Aaron. And,... just let me finish... and so are mine. My conservative friends and I have encouraged this war in Iraq, costing the lives of thousands of innocent civilians. Since the day that Cain murdered Abel, we have all been accomplices in the shedding of innocent blood. I have my justifications; you have yours. Neither of us can escape the responsibility for those deaths, no matter how certain we are of their political necessity."
A flash of anger came across his face, but disappeared just as quickly.
"I don't accept your characterization of a woman's right to choose, Charlie. But even if I did, it would not be relevant to our discussion. We are talking about a supposedly holy being, merciful, loving, good, and yet a being who angrily demands innocent blood as a payment for sin. Leviticus 4 says that even unintentional sin must be cleansed by shedding the blood of a sheep or a goat. Since ancient times, this god of yours has demanded blood. And you act as if that is the most natural thing in the world. I find it disturbing."
"It isn't quite so simple as that, Aaron. You're right about Leviticus 4, but it is also true that God repudiates this bloody system in a number of other Scriptures. Isaiah 66, for instance: He who sacrifices a lamb is like one who breaks a dog's neck. Or Isaiah 1: I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats. Or Psalm 51: The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart."
"Which only proves that you worship a god who cannot make up his mind."
"Or, perhaps a God who realized that only a horrific and sobering symbolic act of atonement, something as terrible as the shed blood of an innocent animal, could give us pause, could make us think twice about what we are doing. We have become numbed by our long history of violence and bloodshed, Aaron. The shedding of blood for sin is not some arbitrary cruelty invented by God. It seems to me to be intended as a glaring reminder of how serious our guilt really is, and just how careless we are with the things most precious to God: life, love, obedience, holiness, faithfulness."
"A symbol? The problem with that theory is that the crucifixion was no symbol. It was very real, very painful, very bloody, and it was demanded by a god who demands slavish obedience, or else."
"Really? God demanded the crucifixion? I thought it was the Romans and Pontius Pilate. And the Jewish authorities led by Caiaphas. You don't mean to say that God suspended free will and manipulated history to force the brutal execution of his son, do you, Aaron?
"I don't see you going there. So, if the crucifixion wasn't instigated by God, isn't it possible that Jesus was just one more victim in that long and sad history of human blood lust?"
He smiled at that. Glancing at his watch, he gathered his belongings and the remains of his coffee and pushed back from the table.
"I have an appointment, Charlie. It's been interesting, as always. Same time next year?"
"I'll be here, Aaron. Christ is risen."
"That's a discussion for another day, my friend." He nodded and left me to finish my coffee alone.
Christ is risen, indeed, I thought, as I watched him leave.
Painting: "Upper Crust" by Bruce Ertle (click to see more of Bruce's art)