Historian’s Secular Appreciation of Easter

Although not a believer personally, I celebrate Easter with an historian’s perspective. Christians reflect on the most substantial elements of their faith on that day, and it deserves to be honored by everyone as a recognition of the founding of one of the world’s great religions and a foundation of Western Civilization.
Christianity, since the 5th century, has been one of the defining elements of Western Civilization. In fact, until recently, Christendom was used as the common name for our civilization and its territory. Christianity, along with the concepts of rule by law, individual importance and responsibility, capitalistic free market economies, science and rationality, on a some-or-all basis, distinguish Western Civilization.

Built right into Easter is the basis for the Christian attitude toward human suffering that early made it stand out from ancient established attitudes and helped define the line between the Christian era and antiquity. The ancient world was an extremely brutal and cruel place by our standards. Jesus was one of thousands of people who were crucified by the Romans and one of millions who were put to death in deliberately cruel and agonizing ways for trifling and even contrived offenses over the millennia or for just being in the way. Rulers in the ancient world were often not satisfied to kill their enemies, they expended significant effort and resources into making them suffer as much as possible. “Safe spaces” and Teddy bears would have been more incomprehensible than moon rockets to everyone back then. Slow, incomplete, and tardy though it may have been in the quest, we owe Christianity an enormous debt on that score alone. For example, organized institutions for helping the poor (charities) and the sick (hospitals) were a Christian innovation. Medieval Christians also developed the idea that some acts should be forbidden even in war.

We should all reflect on how historically unique our era is, for all its faults and imperfections. I often wander into the “pain” sections of drug stores and contemplate how much pain there must be in our small community reflected in that inventory. We never think of the vast number of generations who endured pain with nothing but alcohol and placebos. This is just one synecdoche. Life in the past was pain; scarcity; violence; filth; disease; enormous injustice; hard and incessant work; humiliating subjugation and even slavery for many. Easter should remind us starkly of how brutal and cruel we would be to each other without the aspirations and fragile inhibitions our civilization has acquired.

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