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.”
“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:
6 Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
7 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,
8 he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
9 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.