Along with most Christians, I have been reflecting on the death of Jesus this Lenten season. How odd, it seems, that we now call the darkest day of history Good Friday, and that the cross, an emblem of brutal execution, has become the symbol of our faith.
By way of explanation, theologians propose various theories of the atonement, and point ahead to Easter as a template of how God redeems tragedy into triumph. Something else, however, captures my interest this year: the effect of Jesus’ death on history. As the Misfit in one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories put it, “Jesus thrown everything off balance.”
I once attended a retreat with a prominent Palestinian legislator, activist, and scholar. She introduced herself by saying, “I am quadruply marginalized. I am a feminist woman in a male-dominated society. I am a Christian from a predominantly Muslim society. I am a Palestinian, a people without a country. And here in the United States I am a racial and cultural minority.”
Soon after that retreat I came across the writings of René Girard, the late French philosopher who taught for years at Stanford University. Girard was fascinated with the fact that in modern times a “marginalized” person has a kind of moral authority. In our group, for example, the Palestinian woman’s identity gained her instant respect. Girard noted that a series of liberation movements—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, animal rights, gay rights, women’s rights, minority rights, human rights—had gathered speed in his lifetime. The trend mystified Girard because he found nothing comparable in his study of ancient literature.
Winners, not losers, wrote ancient history, and the myths from Babylon, Greece, and elsewhere celebrated strong heroes, not pitiable victims. Girard ultimately traced the phenomenon back to the historical figure of Jesus, whose story cuts against the grain of every heroic account from its time. Jesus took the side of the underdog: the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the marginalized. Indeed, Jesus himself chose poverty and disgrace, spent his infancy as a refugee, lived in a minority race under a harsh regime, and died as a condemned prisoner.
The crucifixion, Girard concluded, introduced a new plot to history: the victim became a hero by offering himself as a willing victim. In the words of W. H. Auden: “The idea of a sacrificial victim is not new; but that it should be the victim who chooses to be sacrificed, and the sacrificers who deny that any sacrifice has been made, is very new.” To the consternation of his secular colleagues, Girard converted to Christianity.
When Jesus died as an innocent victim, it introduced what one of Girard’s disciples, Gil Baillie, has called “the most sweeping historical revolution in the world, namely, the emergence of an empathy for victims.” Today the victim occupies the moral high ground everywhere in the Western world: consider how the media portray the plight of AIDS orphans in Africa or Tibetan refugees or uprooted Palestinians. Girard contended that Jesus’ life and death brought forth a new stream of liberation in history, one that undermines abusive power and injustice.
The Christian gospel ushered in a stunning reversal of values that went on to affect the entire world. The stream often moved slowly, and yet Girard concluded that the world’s care for the marginalized and disenfranchised came about as a direct result of the cross of Jesus Christ. It took centuries for that stream to erode a hard bank of oppression, as with slavery, but the stream of liberation flowed on. Wherever Christianity took root, care for victims spread. To mention just one example, in Europe of the Middle Ages the Benedictine order alone operated 37,000 monasteries devoted to the sick.
Even an outspoken critic of the faith, Bart Ehrman, admits in a recent book that Christianity was the first reform movement to champion and elevate the weak, to question a social order in which the strong have a right to dominate the weak. Today, if you Google indices that measure such values as economic freedom, press freedom, charitable giving, earth care, gender equality, quality of life, human rights, and lack of corruption, you will find that with very few exceptions Christian-heritage nations receive the highest ratings.
Modern activists draw their moral force from the power of the gospel unleashed at the cross, when God took the side of the marginals. In a great irony, the “politically correct” movement often positions itself as an enemy of Christianity, when in fact the gospel has contributed the very underpinnings that support such a cause. Sometimes Jesus’ own followers join the stream, and sometimes they stand on the bank and watch. Yet those who condemn the church for its episodes of violence, slavery, sexism, and racism do so by gospel principles, arguing for the very moral values that the gospel originally set loose in the world.
The liberating gospel continues to leaven a culture even when the church takes the wrong side on an issue. Advances in human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, minority rights, and disability rights have found success because of a widespread sympathy for the oppressed that has no parallel in the ancient world. Classical philosophers viewed mercy and pity as character defects; not until Jesus did that attitude change.
“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus told his disciples. God’s expression in Jesus took the world by surprise, and the reverberations have not stopped. In a culture that glorifies success and grows deaf to suffering, we need a constant reminder that at the center of the Christian faith hangs an apparently unsuccessful and suffering Christ, who died ignominiously.
The apostle Paul touched on a deep truth about Jesus’ contribution in his claim to the Colossians: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” A public spectacle it was when Jesus exposed as false gods the very powers and authorities in which good citizens take such pride. The most refined religion of the day accused an innocent man, and the most renowned justice system carried out the sentence.
Another French philosopher, Jacques Ellul, said, “We must always come back to this essential point, that God rules by love and not by strength”: an important reminder in a time when tribalism and the politics of division tempt us toward the opposite. These days, debates about immigration, race, sexuality, refugees, and health care feed that division. I cannot pretend to have solutions to those problems. As I ponder the example of Jesus, though, I pray for the grace-healed eyes through which he viewed the world.
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