The summer I was 19, I dropped out of college and moved to an organic wheat farm in Kansas to help start a radical conservative religious community. My motivations for doing this had more to do with restlessness and romanticism than with deep spiritual yearning, but even if I had been deeply committed I probably would not have stayed for long.
The community founder distrusted women, the body, physical pleasures and most of the received wisdom of the outside world, preferring to pore over Gnostic gospels and indulge in conspiracy theories and natural-food cures instead. Because I had a taste for the extreme, because this was what it took to be radical, I bought into it all and was even willing to accept, for a time, the denigration of my gender. Despite the unhinged ideologies of the leader, who called himself Brother Anthony, I remember that summer as generally peaceful.
It was my job to tend the gardens and make food, mostly from scratch. I even made flour by running our own grain through an electric mill. At some point during that summer Brother Anthony, with an impressive disregard for consistency, became convinced that the grains we were consuming, including the wheat we grew, were making us sick. He wanted a bread that had nothing to do with grain. Dutifully I began experimenting and eventually created a flour made from dried peas. It was a faintly gray-green color and smelled like old socks.
Unappetizing though this flour was, I used it to make a batch of rolls. They turned out like greenish stones or moldy golf balls but met Anthony’s approval, so I popped them into a paper bag and we took them as sustenance on our trip to see the pope for World Youth Day in Denver. As we traveled, in an orange van with a sunset painted on the back window, the pea-flour rolls grew harder, staler and more disgusting. Anthony went on eating them, but the rest of us reverted to the bread made with wheat flour.
Looking back on that summer, it seems that my dried, pea-flour bread was a good symbol for the spirituality we’d embraced, our distrust of the earth we walked on, our conviction that material pleasures must be eschewed in favor of transcendent glories. I had made a kind of alternative Eucharist, a bread that could not be broken or even bitten into. Unlike the bread Jesus shared with his friends at the Last Supper, these rolls were unshareable. Who would want them?
By the end of the summer, bored with cult life on the prairie, I bought a ticket and took a Greyhound back to Ohio, where I resumed my studies at a conservative university that has since been exposed for its ongoing legacy of assault, abuse and cover-ups. Those who defend the university and other institutions or individuals responsible for abuse, given the good that these individuals or institutions supposedly achieve, seem to believe that the harm done to victims and survivors is acceptable collateral damage.
This Easter I am pondering this variation of Christianity where physical harm and criminal abuse are tolerated for the sake of some higher spiritual good. I think about how, over the centuries, religious thinkers have twisted the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, reshaping it as a justification for inflicting more suffering and death. I am thinking about colonization, “holy wars,” pogroms. I am thinking about chattel slavery and Indigenous children stolen from their families.
Jesus cared for the living. He was concerned for their bodies as well as their souls. His first miracle was changing water into wine. Rather than chastising his friends and neighbors for fixating on unimportant pleasures like wine at a wedding, he sympathized and helped them. Throughout his three years of ministry, we see him not just healing the sick and raising the dead but also feeding the hungry. And he taught us that whatever we do to the most vulnerable among us, we have done to him.
On Easter Sunday, Christians celebrated resurrection. “We are the Easter people,” we said. How can we practice being Easter people without using faith in an afterlife as a license to ignore injustice on earth?
In times of tragedy, a quotation from Fred Rogers makes the rounds on social media: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” When I am angry with my fellow Christians, when Jesus seems conspicuously absent from Christian groups, I remember that the Church is not only the Church of the powerful. There is also the Church of the oppressed. Over centuries many have looked to Jesus’ promise of presence with humanity as a source of comfort and strength, and the promise of resurrection as a reason to carry on.
It is a temptation to excuse the bad actions of Christians by referencing the many heroes and saints who have labored for justice. I don’t want to do that. I don’t think we should ignore the horrors of colonization or the Good Friday pogroms, as though they are somehow canceled out by the work of reformers. The institutional church needs to repent and make reparations for these and many other iniquities. Apology is not enough. Promising to do better is not enough. Genuine remorse is needed.
Those of us who were steeped in a culture that taught suspicion of the body and instructed to justify the many evils the institutional church committed over the centuries may need to walk a little along this path, or at least sit for a while with the heavy truth that our religion has done harm.
When the hungry asked for a loaf of bread, we gave them a stone. When we saw Jesus in the poor or the immigrant, in those who are LGBTQIA+, in those who practice religions different from ours, we passed by on the other side of the road.
The institutional church needs to walk the way of the cross rather than laying heavy burdens on others. Then perhaps it can die to itself, die to pride and arrogance and the need to control. Then perhaps it can rise again.
This is my Easter hope and prayer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Bratten Weiss is a writer and academic residing in rural Ohio. She is the digital editor for U.S. Catholic magazine, and can be found at rebeccabrattenweiss.com.