Ethics, Politics, and Secular Easter

April 12, 2020 John Drabinski

One of my earliest memories is my grandfather Erwin Drabinski sitting out back of his house in Rosemead with me, quizzing me about what I knew about Easter. My parents, especially my father, were not only non-religious, but anti-religious, which played out as total ignorance on my part when it came to things like the meaning of Easter. I loved my grandfather, so I tried. A lot of stuff about bunnies being a part of Jesus’ entourage, eggs everywhere because people were hungry and needed food. Grandpa was kind and generous, so he played along and respected my parents’ non-religious thing (having already snatched me as an infant as my mother recovered from the c-section, dad was in Vietnam, and gotten me baptized … insurance policy, nicely done!).

He took me to my great-grandmother’s place out back, where she lived and used to host me when we came over. I don’t remember details, but I remember Busia’s face as my grandfather gave me details on Jesus’ life and death. Busia was not happy. To put it lightly. Being a Polish Catholic immigrant who had a grandson so far from Jesus will put a cross look on an old woman’s face. I also remember that being the time she had me eat cookies made from bacon fat, then told my father (who was a committed vegetarian my whole life). I now see that was some revenge. Lol. Love you, Busia, rest in peace!

I went to a Jesuit college. That was the first time I spent anything like substantial time around religious people who were not Mormons. Boise was just not that religious if you weren’t Mormon, especially in the LA hippie diaspora community we were a part of, and my family on both sides stayed super neutral about such things. I was out of the loop on religious stuff. Yet, in college, I did a ton of work in theology and most of it was Catholic theology. I always found the Bible fascinating, still do.

The New Testament is an amazing document. I still love so many things about it, even as someone who is not in any way remotely Christian, never has been, never will be. But I came to that testament to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection through liberation theology, Gustavo Gutierrez in particular. (This theology was still alive on campus in the late-80s.) That is such a compelling Jesus. It’s a reminder of what’s in the New Testament itself, rather than in the canon and all the Reformations: J.C. refused any and all political authority in the name of the poor, of the nameless, of those for whom there is no witness. Accepted death of the worst sort precisely to make the poor, nameless, and without witness visible to God and to us. He modeled witnessing and making visible for others. Or so he hoped (sad to see what two millennia have done to that model).

You don’t have to believe in God to think hard about that and what it asks us to ask of ourselves.

From that, I took a sense of politics and the political as a college student. And the simultaneity of sin and possibility of forgiveness to say, as it did for Gutierrez and many others, that our failures to witness and act are part of our very being, but that the move to witness and make visible is its own kind of redemption. Not of my self as a self (the Protestants perverted this so much), but of the world we share. We’re redeemed as a world as we make visible and reckon with the pain and loss that our lack of witness to the nameless, of having been consigned to the nameless, has made in the world. It’s a revolutionary idea. It’s a revolutionary command, a command to revolution. Liberation in theology.

I remember working with Prof. Jud Shaver. He was a quiet mentor in many things for me at Seattle U, especially around this stuff. He and I read Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s In the Parish of the Poor when Orbis first published it, at the beginning of my senior year. We talked on the phone about it over my first year of graduate school, too, because I didn’t know anyone interested in Aristide or liberation theology – all my friends were non-religious, and no one seemed particularly interested in exploring the meaning of theology in a secular context (one of the virtues of liberation theology, I would say). Forever grateful to Prof. Shaver for opening up these ways of thinking about religious thought for the non-religious.

Back to the beginning: my grandfather and I talked about this stuff on the phone from time to time. He wanted me to come to the church, in the kindest way. He definitely thought Seattle U would do that (but misunderstood how deeply the Jesuits embed skepticism … they want you to come to faith through doubt, not conviction), and did his part with quiet pleading. But he also told me this: the eucharist is a ritual repetition of that witnessing. And he himself, up until his death, helped bring these rituals to the homebound and those unable to leave nursing homes for religious services. If you believe in the power of symbols as a part of life, not an abridgment of it, then you can see what he means. It was for him the service of witness to the invisible among us – we really do forget about the aged in this country. You just disappear when you age. He didn’t want that and saw his church work as an extension of justice, making visible.

I try to think about this kind of thing on Easter mornings. Silent time to think and write a bit. So I wrote this on a quiet morning today, which is Easter.