The Cross: a most unlikely victory

There’s a lot of focus on social justice and giving the victim a voice in our culture today. And that’s good. As I shared last time with the conversation between agnostic historian Tom Holland and Bible scholar NT Wright, they are making the point that these Western values come to us through Christianity.  And we see this power of the victim (suffering) illustrated profoundly with the cross of Christ.

But, as Holland stated, these ideas are so assumed and embedded into our Western culture today that we don’t realize how unusual it is, historically speaking, because it’s the water we’ve been swimming in for centuries.

To illustrate, host Justin Brierley asks (in the video clip below), “Just how strange would this idea of a God who was crucified have been in the Roman world that this message was being delivered into?” Here’s Holland’s response:

“Beyond weird! It would totally be beyond weird as Paul repeatedly says…that it’s foolishness…and he’s aware of this the whole time…. And that is the whole point. To suffer death on a cross is, you know, the worst death that the Roman state can inflict, but it is also shaming in the context of the Mosaic law, which also says that to be hung from a tree is to be [cursed].”

The master stroke that changed the world forever

Holland continues explaining how counter-intuitive and subversive this victorious power really was that Jesus is wielding, and how it represents a stark contrast to the way the Roman world understood power.

“And so what is happening is that it’s kind of like the ultimate judo throw, where you turn the strength of your opponent against him. The Roman power is affirmed by brutality. The governor of a province has the right to burn, to throw to beasts, to crucify anyone who he feels is a danger to Roman power, and governors did that absolutely at the drop of a hat. So what is happening with Paul’s proclamation of the one God in some way suffering this fate is to absolutely upend the very fabric and basis, not just of Roman power, but of power full stop. Because, of course, the assumption from reading the Jewish Scriptures was that God is a warrior and that God will, you know, the overthrow of Roman power, the establishment of the kingdom of peace will in some way be effected by the sword, and what Paul is saying is that actually the true source of power is to suffer, and that notion that to be a victim can somehow be a source of power is unbelievably subversive in the context of classical antiquity.”

Holland continues…

“You see all the time in the news at the moment that to cast yourself as a victim is to somehow give yourself power, and you would only have power by virtue of being a victim if you existed in the context of a society that was still in its fundamentals Christian. In the Roman world, if you said, ‘I’m a victim.’ they would say, ‘yeah, and…?’ ‘I’ll enslave you…” Or, ‘I’ll rape you, I’ll do whatever.'”

But this way of restorative justice (as opposed to retributive justice) is the revelation of God through Christ. His power is based in other-centered, self-giving love, not violence.  Jesus fights like a slaughtered lamb and conquers us with this benevolent love (Rev.5:6-10; 2 Cor.5:14-15). And this is how Paul describes this victory:

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
    and gave him the name above all other names,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (Phil.2:6-11 NLT)

This video contains the entire show but I forwarded it to this particular part of the conversation for your convenience.

About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 40 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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7 Responses to The Cross: a most unlikely victory

  1. jim- says:

    Just from some casual observation it’s pretty obvious Christian values came from the predisposition of peoples desire, not the other way around. It even continues today as the churches change with the demand of the people. On the flip side, when looking for a church, the majority look for something that already aligns with their belief and values. You can say it came from the church and we’ve been swimming it for centuries, but the obvious shows morality existed, religion packaged it.

    • Mel Wild says:

      It’s pretty obvious that you didn’t watch the video and are just opining here. It’s also obvious that you don’t know the history here. It was quite the opposite of what you are saying, the message of the cross was not anticipated at all by the religious community, in fact, it ran counter-intuitive to the culture at the time. It only makes sense to us after 2,000 years of “swimming” in it. However, you are right that the Gospel was appealing. But it was appealing because it offered real freedom to the human soul.

  2. “Beyond weird! It would totally be beyond weird….”
    LOL! It still is! It is way beyond weird, downright scandalous even. 🙂

    I like how he spoke of the way the definition of “supernatural” changed in the 18th century and how we moved into epicurism, more of this post modern thought where the supernatural is perceived as either false, or not a part of our world.

    Interesting point about a culture of social justice, victims, and power. Kind of strange, many people today have forgotten or don’t realize that MLK was actually a pastor, operating from within faith, his campaign for civil rights being born of Christian values.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Yes, there were so many interesting points made on the video. You bring up Martin Luther King. He actually championed the very values that Jesus taught. Actually, Gandhi was using these same values (He was inspired by Jesus, just not by Christians!) The abolitionist movement was propelled by the Quakers and the Christian convictions of William Wilberforce in England.

      The Roman emperor, Julian “the apostate” (331-363 CE), a convert to paganism from Christianity, tried to restore the ancient religion of Rome and failed miserably. He was forced to lament,” It is a disgrace that these impious Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well.” (Julian, Ep.22)

      It’s a shame that many Christians don’t understand what this agnostic does about the rich legacy of Christianity in the West. We only hear the cherry-picking of anti-Christians. Holland is writing a book about this which would be an interesting read.

  3. Great article. BTW the phrase “but of powerful [stop?]” is most likely but of power full stop” full stop meaning absolutely

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for the suggestion. I was trying to follow the Google translate from the dialogue and the phrase it came up with was unfamiliar to me (it said “powerful stop,” which didn’t sound right.
      I will go back and edit accordingly. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Some intellectual honesty on Western values | In My Father's House

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