Franke: The Salutary Effect of Religious Observance
by Mark Franke
It is Holy Week for Christians, that most profound of weeks, the pivotal point of the Christian liturgical year.
This year Christian Holy Week and Jewish Passover coincide, as they do most years. As well they should, since the first Good Friday and Easter occurred at the Passover. This was no coincidence if one reads the Gospels carefully and accepts their theological and historical claims. I am one of those, one who easily reconciles historicity with transcendent truth.
Christians and Jews share much including a large body of Scripture. Both trace their origins to the call of Abraham and the promises God made to him. It is no wonder that the Greek and Roman first century pagans viewed Christianity as a Jewish sect. Outside in, one can understand this misunderstanding. When viewed inside out, however, the difference is manifested in what this special week is all about.
What is somewhat unusual about this week in 2023 is that it falls within the major feast of the world’s third great monotheistic religion — Islam.
Think what these three religions share: monotheism, as mentioned above; theological descent from Abraham; the essentiality of revealed scripture; the centrality of faith; and the importance of charitable works as expressions of that faith.
No, we don’t all worship the same God. That is evident by our different collection of sacred writings. Even more important is the confession of a Triune Godhead in Christianity, something rejected in Judaism and Islam. This is not a matter of “let’s all sit around the theological campfire and sing Kumbaya.” This difference is real and can’t be sent to its metaphysical room as punishment.
That is at the epistemological level. There is a civic level as well, one that sustains our communities all week long rather than just on each religion’s established day of worship. What the devout of these three religions share with everyone else here in America is the freedom to observe their religious rites both privately and publicly. The Founding Fathers knew what they were about when they crafted the First Amendment to be a guarantee of natural rights as well as a recognition of the civic virtue such freedom fosters.
People of faith, and I hesitate to use this verb inappropriately, sanctify their communities by the public exercise of their spirituality. They make a difference in the orderliness and congeniality of their hometowns. To be sure, those of other faiths or even of non-faith such as secular humanists can have the same beneficial effect. What traditional faiths offer is a structure for things like works of mercy and positive neighborly activity. It is secondary to their higher calling but cannot be divorced from it. It is ever before them.
I trust most of us remember the political fights over posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses. Were these displays a fifth column for the establishment of a specific religion or merely a public reminder of our nation’s founding on a commonly accepted moral code? We used to call this the Judeo-Christian ethic but I don’t hear that term much anymore.
People of faith find the motivation for civic righteousness within themselves. It is reinforced in their church or synagogue by their shared teaching. They know what to do and more importantly know why they do it. The command to do it comes not from within themselves but from a supreme and objective authority.
So at noon on Good Friday, church bells will ring to mark the three hours of darkness which occurred at the Crucifixion. Some Christians will attend a Tre Ore service to mark this while others will attend a Tenebrae service of darkness after sunset. The weekend continues with Easter vigils on Saturday night and then culminates in sunrise services on Easter morning. That’s what we Christians will be doing to mark what for us is the decisive point of human history.
My Jewish friends will conduct their seder meals and perform other rituals to remember the Exodus from the slavery of Egypt. Note how Jews and Christians alike look to God’s direct intervention in human history to redeem His people. We point to different but equally real historical events.
Then we will go about our earthly business, living our lives as best we can according to those politically verboten commandments and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Maybe not perfectly, but not for a lack of trying. The expectation of our God is ever before us, even if we can’t go downtown to the courthouse to read a plaque spelling it out. But then, we never needed a public display to be reminded of what is written on our hearts.
Consider what this dysfunctional, materialistic and nihilistic world would be like without people of faith. I shudder to think about it.
Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.