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Theology Thursdays: Crucifixion And The Conscience Of The West by Jack Miles

All mankind is forgiven, but the Lord must die. This is the revolutionary import of the epilogue that, two thousand years ago, a group of radical Jewish writers appended to the sacred scripture of their religion. Because they did so, millions in the West today worship before the image of a deity executed as a criminal, and – no less important – millions who never worship at all carry within their cultural DNA a religiously derived suspicion that somehow, someday, “the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt. 20:16).

The Crucifixion, the primal scene of Western religion and Western art, has lost much of its power to shock. At this late date, perhaps only a non-Western eye can truly see it. A Japanese artist now living in Los Angeles once recalled the horror most Japanese feel at seeing a copse displayed as a religious icon, and of their further revulsion when the icon is explained to them. They ask, she said: “If he was so good, why did he die like that?” In Japanese culture, “good people end their lives with a good death, even a beautiful death, like the Buddha. Someone dying in such a hideous way – for us, he could only be a criminal.”

Her perception is correct. The crucifix is a violently obscene icon. To recover its visceral power, children of the twenty-first century must imagine a lynching, the body of the victim swollen and distorted, his head hanging askew above a broken neck, while the bystanders smile their twisted smiles. Then they must imagine that grisly spectacle reproduced at the holiest spot in whatever edifice they call holy. And yet to go even this far is still to miss the meaning of the image, for this victim is not just innocent: He is God Incarnate, the Lord himself in human form.

Winners usually look like winners, and losers like losers. But thanks to this paradoxical feature of the Christian myth, there remains lodged deep in the political consciousness of the West a readiness to believe that the apparent loser ma be the real winner unrecognized. In Christianity’s epilogue to the God-story that is inherited from Judaism, the Lord God becomes human without ceasing to be The Lord and, unrecognized by all but a few, experiences the human condition at its worst before winning in the end a glorious victory. By losing to Caesar, he wins a duel with the Devil and defeats death itself. The Bible ends as the greatest comedies so often end: with a solemn and festive wedding. The creator of a new heaven and a new earth in which every tear is wiped away becomes the spouse of the entire human race. By losing everything, God wins everything, for everybody, and the last word he speaks, with his bride at his side, is “Come!”

One of many implications of this epilogue to God’s life story has been that in the West no regime can declare itself above review. All power is conditional; and when the powerless rise, God may be with them. The motif of divinity in disguise is not unique to Christianity; but the Christian motif of unrecognized divinity judicially tried, officially condemned, tortured by his captors, executed in public, buried and only then rising from the dead and ascending into heaven is, if not literally unique, then at least unique in the breadth of its political influence. Every verse in “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” a black gospel tune sung at Christmas, ends with the wistful line “And they didn’t know who he was.” As his executioners nail him to the cross, Jesus prays: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Wherever lines like these or the ideas behind them have spread, human authority has begun to lose its grip on unimpeachable legitimacy. In the West, any criminal may be Christ, and therefore any prosecutor Pilate. As the abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell put it:

Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne –
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

The above is an excerpt of Christ: A Crisis In The Life of God by Jack Miles

Jack Miles

Thursday, May 19, 2005

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