Today is Easter. It’s also Cesar Chavez’s birthday. Google decided to put Cesar Chavez’s face on its search page today and all hell broke loose among the professional agitators who have made a career out of being offended. So now we have a “war on Easter” in addition to the “war on Christmas.” Because curious Google viewers could click on the bio of a Christian social justice activist whose life exudes the meaning of Easter.
As might be expected, unofficial Southern Baptist pope Al Mohler had something to say about it:
Honestly it felt random to see Cesar Chavez’s face on google after spending my whole morning getting people to shout “Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed!” But I didn’t feel oppressed or offended. Duke’s basketball team played on Easter today (and got destroyed by Louisville :-(). I was sad that the players’ Easter was disrupted, but I didn’t boycott the game and I’ll bet many Christians who tweeted their outrage against Google also watched one of the tournament games today instead of spending the entire day singing praise songs.
Cesar Chavez was a labor organizer who started the United Farm Workers in California in the 1960’s. He often mixed Christian spiritual practices with his political protests. Matthew Schmitz on First Things shares Chavez’s reflections about a 1966 march he organized under the slogan “Pilgrimage, Penitence, Revolution.”
The Delano March will therefore be one of penance—public penance for the sins of the strikers, their own personal sins as well as their yielding perhaps to feelings of hatred and revenge in the strike itself. They hope by the march to set themselves at peace with the Lord, so that the justice of their cause will be purified of lesser motivations.
If Google were trying to mount a secular protest against Christianity (which is what Al Mohler and the outragelicals seem to presume), then why would they have picked a guy who made “peace with the Lord” and “public penance” for “personal sins” the priority of one of his most famous political protests? I don’t think Chavez would be “profoundly insulted” as a Christian by Google’s choice to feature him on Easter. If he were still alive, he would exploit it as an opportunity to talk about Jesus. People who are truly humble don’t need to be theatrically self-effacing; they use the spotlight to testify about the cause they serve. I don’t think Jesus would be offended by Google either, because Jesus’ ministry constantly put the spotlight on people who were ignored and left out, like the migrant farm-workers Cesar Chavez fought for.
It’s a common piety within evangelical Christianity to say, “It’s not about you; it’s about Jesus.” That was how Jesus’ fellow 1st century Jews felt about keeping the focus on God for their weekly Sabbath. And that was why they get so offended when Jesus healed on the Sabbath. None of the people Jesus healed had life-threatening ailments that could not wait until one of the other six days of the week. By healing people not only on the Sabbath but smack in the middle of worship services, Jesus took the focus off of God and put it on the people who were being ignored and left out.
Can you imagine how disruptive it would be if your pastor stopped in the middle of a sermon to heal somebody with a withered hand? Jesus could have done it discretely, but he told the man to “stand in front of everyone” (Mark 3:3), quite literally making him the center of attention on the holy day that was reserved for God. Mark tells us that it was after this incident that “the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (v. 6).
When you grow up evangelical, you’re taught that the Pharisees were offended by Jesus because they were legalist rule-followers and Jesus came to replace their “religion” with a more authentic “relationship” with God. That’s not fair to the Pharisees, as hard as Jesus was on them. They were genuinely zealous about honoring God with a rigorous pursuit of holiness in their daily lives and they were genuinely offended that Jesus would take the focus off of God on the Jewish holy day.
What they didn’t see is that their “focus on God” was really a focus on themselves. When your understanding of holiness is disembodied of your relationships with other people and defined exclusively in terms of a spiritual “cleanliness” by which you sacrifice earthly pleasures to honor a God who cares about His “glory” more than the people you’re ignoring, then it’s impossible to avoid being poisoned by a self-righteousness which ironically mocks God more than the reckless, undisciplined, debaucherous sinners Jesus ate and drank with. One of the things that many of today’s evangelicals share in common with the religious authorities who crucified Jesus is the way that their piety is built upon pitting love of God and love of neighbor against each other. How dare you talk about farm-workers today! This is the day to honor Jesus (and me since I’m His most zealous defender!).
Jesus says very plainly that we honor Him by honoring the least of His brothers and sisters. There is a tremendous value to fasting and other spiritual disciplines by which we focus our hearts on God, but worship of God is a mockery if it is not entirely interwoven with hospitality to our fellow human beings. God doesn’t let us play either/or with loving Him and our neighbors. The God who makes it righteous to ignore the people who are left out (since we’re supposedly focusing on Him) is a God projected by our privilege, no matter how much we try to mask this with the meanness we attribute to Him. Soli Deo gloria; Deus invenitur inter pauperum. Jesus is not stingy about sharing His resurrection with all of humanity. Why would he be stingy about sharing Easter with Cesar Chavez?