How the cross subverts culture
Early start this morning – to join in with a family birthday. For once I will be singing “Happy Birthday” without lathering my hands. Birthdays, of course, are very special. We all have one, whoever we are and whatever our status. It’s a time for friends and family to come together and celebrate you! Birthdays are the great leveller and having just finished reading Tom Holland’s Dominion I would imagine that he would argue this, like so much in our culture, is as a direct consequence of an event in the Roman province of Judea, an event which was to radically change the world over history. The Romans themselves loved birthdays, especially when you reached L. But only, of course, for the privileged few. There is no evidence for such festivities among the lower classes and certainly not slaves. They simply didn’t count, merely – as far as the seminal philosopher Aristotle considered - “living tools.” However, Rome is where Holland begins his very readable book, with the building of its first heated swimming pool on land which had been previously used as a dumping ground for dead slaves, many of whom would have been crucified. “Exposed to public view like slabs of meat hung from a market stall, troublesome slaves were nailed to crosses,” Holland explains. “No death was more excruciating, more contemptible, than crucifixion.”
“To be hung naked, ‘long in agony, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest’, helpless to beat away the clamorous birds: such a fate, Roman intellectuals agreed, was the worst imaginable. This in turn was what rendered it so suitable a punishment for slaves.” And yet this is how Jesus died, nailed to a Roman cross. Humiliated, broken, deserted: a total failure. But, as Holland persuasively argues in his highly readable book, the cross has changed and continues to change the progress of history, beginning with the conversion of the Roman Empire in just three centuries. This is an historical fact and Holland writes as an historian. Where he excels is being able to stand back and see the big picture. Over 21 chapters he demonstrates how the cruel death of Jesus at the hand of powerful men keeps bursting into everyday events, upending the established order time after time. Each chapter begins with a geographical place, many of which I have never heard (but there again, who ever heard of Nazareth?). Holland argues persuasively that as the centuries accumulate so does the extraordinary reach of the crucifixion of Jesus. So today, he would argue, that so deeply embedded are Christian assumptions in Western thought that we don't even realise that they are Christian. Instead we wrongly think of them as universal, self-evident, a result of the Enlightenment or Greek philosophy. The book ends with the #MeToo movement. And this displays the truth that “any condemnation of Christianity as patriarchal and repressive derived from a framework of values that was itself utterly Christian.” I particularly appreciated his chapter on the beginning of human rights, deriving from how the what Spanish Conquistadors ravaged the indigenous peoples of the New World in the 16th century. Their cruelty was truly terrifying, another deep stain on the progress of history. And yet there were friars, Dominicans who were deeply troubled by the atrocities they witnessed, Bartolomé de las Casas for one. These people are not some sub-human species which stand between us and great wealth, he argued. “For they are our brothers, and Christ gave his life for them.” It’s quite a story and deserves to be told, how this Spanish colonist allowed the cross of Jesus to transform his understanding and commit him to the abolition of the ‘encomienda’, state-licensed slavery. The point is, as Holland argues repeatedly, such a practice would have been endorsed by Aristotle with other ancient philosophers. Only the cross of Jesus argues for the equality of each human being. Bartolomé de las Casas spent 50 years of his life actively fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples, especially by trying to convince the Spanish court to adopt a more humane policy of colonization. Today he is credited to be one of the first advocates for a universal conception of human rights. “Christ, by making himself nothing, by taking on the very nature of a slave... plumbed the depths to which only the lowest, the poorest, the most persecuted and abused of mortals were confined.” Such is the power of the cross of Jesus which subverts all our values and more, which keeps bursting through barriers and tackling evil head-on.
No wonder the apostle Paul can proclaim “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)