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Wall Street Journal: The Easter Message of Religious Freedom


Originally published in the Wall Street Journal.

The Bible’s resurrection tales show us faith based on peaceful persuasion.

As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Easter, they reflect on God’s purposes amid suffering and death. They look forward to the hope of the resurrection. Yet there is another aspect to the Easter story that should be as important to the skeptic as it is to the believer: its message of religious toleration. Whether read as history or allegory, the resurrection stories in the gospels offer an approach to faith that challenges the militant religions of our own day.

Consider the account in Luke’s gospel about two disciples of Jesus, just days after his crucifixion, fleeing Jerusalem for their home in nearby Emmaus. They are fugitives: Jesus was executed on the charge of sedition, after all, and it is not safe for his followers to remain in the city. His horrific death has cast them into a storm of grief and doubt.

Somewhere along the road to Emmaus, Jesus appears to the men as “a stranger”—they don’t immediately recognize him—and a conversation ensues. The stranger upbraids them for their politicized religion, that is, for thinking that Israel’s Messiah would be a military or political liberator. Rather, he explains, the Messiah was meant to suffer for the sake of his people in order to win them spiritual freedom: “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in the Scriptures concerning himself.” Finally, by the end of their journey—after talking and debating and sharing a meal together—the travelers recognize who the stranger is.

The disciples have been guided, not coerced, out of their skepticism. Their objections have been met with reason, not force. The stranger has described the world they were meant to live in, a world drenched in beauty, peace, justice and love. They are cut to the quick: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scripture to us?”

Realizing what has happened, emboldened by their new faith, the travelers rush back to Jerusalem to share the news about Jesus with their friends. Told with remarkable modesty and vulnerability, this account is one of the earliest conversion stories in Christianity. It helped to set the pattern for evangelism in the early church.

In all of the New Testament’s resurrection accounts, the method of Jesus for winning hearts and minds—his emphasis on peaceful persuasion—couldn’t be plainer. All depict the patience and kindness of God in the face of human doubt. Yet, in one of the tragic turning points in the history of the West, this biblical ideal was rejected. The church, imitating the Roman state under which it had suffered and ultimately thrived, soon endorsed the methods of Caesar: the use of imprisonment, torture or death to combat unbelief.

The church of the martyrs became the church of the Inquisition. Catholic thinkers as profound as Thomas Aquinas justified the use of violence to win converts and put down dissent. “Even if my own father were a heretic,” declared Pope Paul IV, “I would gather the wood to burn him.”

Protestants soon followed suit. Leaders such as John Calvin, with Bible in hand, used the power of the state to brutally enforce the new religious orthodoxy.

The advance of Christianity in the West brought with it many blessings: an ethos of compassion for children, the poor, the sick and the outcast. It established a basis for human dignity unknown in antiquity. Nevertheless, nearly everywhere the church went—whenever it encountered resistance or disbelief—a culture of suspicion and violence followed. Christian author C.S. Lewis once declared: “If ever the book which I am not going to write is written, it must be the full confession by Christendom of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery.”

Eventually, after a series of religious wars, the Christian church confessed its negation of Christian charity. By the late 17th century, a steady stream of tracts, pamphlets, sermons and books—disseminated by the explosive growth of the printing press—delivered a singular message about the sacred rights of individual conscience. Christian thinkers such as William Penn, Roger Williams and John Locke would help the church recover its older tradition of toleration, as old as the New Testament itself.

Indeed, a firm basis for religious freedom would be found in the Bible, supremely in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. “I did not come to judge the world,” Jesus told his followers, “but to save it.” Here is an Easter story—a message of the grace of God toward every human soul—for believers and doubters alike.

Mr. Loconte, a professor of history at The King’s College, is writing a book on the history of religious toleration.

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