Here’s the thing: no matter how appealing or fascinating we might find other cultures, no matter how alluringly they might present themselves to us, the fact is that people do not – by and large – change cultures. Our understanding of what culture is does not allow it. We do not possess a conception of culture as a dynamic construct to which we contribute, implying that membership is therefore determined by participation, not by birth; rather, we understand culture as a relatively static external force imposed upon us, which frames who we are. Because we understand – at some level – the profound role that others have played in shaping our own identities, a process we identify as “our culture”, we regard changing culture as a sort of betrayal – both of those who have been instrumental in forming us, and indeed also of ourselves. So while individuals may occasionally make a conscious decision to break free of their “roots”, it seldom happens (as a conscious choice, that is) en masse.
That is why, I think, the rise of Christianity is so interesting. Its rapid spread was due to thousands of people making conscious decisions to forsake their own symbols, rituals, routines and shared stories – their own cultures, in other words – for an entirely new one. Understandably, they struggled to make that transition. In Acts 10, for example, we witness Peter wrestling with the dietary laws, and with reconciling himself to eating at the same table as Gentiles. I have no doubt that in the stratified societies of the early Mediterranean world, having people of different classes meet around the same table or having women leading churches, would have been a difficult adjustment. But they did it. It must have been an extraordinarily powerful conviction indeed to have so overridden generations of socialisation.
Because so much of what we see of the story is told by Jewish converts, we tend to think of the story as essentially a Jewish one. But it is so much more than that. The appeal of the gospel transcends its Jewish origins. Wherever the gospel was preached, whether in Rome or Greece, Turkey or Ethiopia, the effect was the same: people gave up the known and familiar for a radically different way of being-with. This is the most intriguing aspect of the story for me.
Let me put it differently: the gospel does not only deconstruct 1st Century Jewish culture, it deconstructs culture in its entirety. When the cross reveals the violence at the heart of Jewish and Roman social structures, it is not only Jewish or Roman culture that is exposed: the problem of violence is ubiquitous. When, through his teachings, Jesus deconstructs the Jewish understanding of who God is and how to relate to Hen, it is not only the Jewish understanding of God that is critiqued: he exposes the problematic sacrificial and transactional mechanisms that undergird all religion. Jesus does not come to us only as a Jew, but as a human who happens to be Jew. And that is how he teaches us to relate to God: not as members of a chosen people who have special access to God’s favour, but as beloved children of God, who treat even our enemies – who are also beloved children of God – with love because that is what God does.
It is – to say the least – improbable that the traction that the gospel of Jesus found among non-Jewish communities in the first century was the result of some sort of large-scale recognition of how Jesus fitted into a Jewish metanarrative. It is far more likely that the gospel’s core message was completely comprehensible within the constraints of their own cultural frameworks, regardless of its Jewish origins, and revolutionised how they interpreted their own cultural stories despite its foreign origins.
Please do not misunderstand me – I do think that there is a great deal of value in attempting to come to an understanding of Jesus in his Jewish context. To fail to make the effort to do so is theologically negligent. It is why modern Christianity subscribes to a vision of the “Kingdom of God” that is largely otherworldy, and requires us to escape this one, whereas the Jews would have understood God’s Kingdom as a reality for this world. It is why we have been saddled with a doctrine of Hell and eternal torment, for example, which is not a Jewish idea at all. It is why we fail to interrogate our understandings of concepts like “sin”, “salvation” or “eternal” and blindly accept Calvinist understandings of these ideas as orthodox. To understand how the picture of God and God’s relationship with humanity that Jesus presented compared and contrasted with the ones that were being presented in his own cultural context is indispensable to good theology. But the danger is that we get stuck there. The story of Jesus is indeed a Jewish story. But it is also more than that. That is what the rapid growth of the early church demands we see: the story of Jesus is a universal one.
So the question we should be asking, my fellow seekers, is this: what did those early believers see in this Jewish story that resonated so strongly with them, from within their own distinct cultural paradigms, that they came to regard their own ways of being and relating as so irretrievably flawed as to demand radical change? What did they see in Jesus’s critique of his own culture and its conceptions of God and humanity, of identity and power, of righteousness and unrighteousness, that was equally relevant to their own cultures, that compelled them to a different way of living?
It is not explained by the idea that Jesus in some way fits a Jewish understanding of the Messiah or fulfils any number of Jewish prophecies. The Jewish understanding of the world would have been foreign and irrelevant to most of those early believers, and its prophecies largely inconsequential. Its sacred texts would have been unfamiliar and its prescriptions would have seemed odd. But they still believed. Why? The only viable explanation is that the impact of the gospel message is not dependent on any form of understanding of its Jewish roots.
Paul understood this more quickly, it seems, than the leaders of the church in Jerusalem did, who were mired in what Paul regarded as pointless debates around dietary laws and circumcision, and missing the essential point, which was that this was not fundamentally a Jewish story. If salvation came through Christ first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, it was only because the context through which the revelation – the life and death of Jesus – was made was a Jewish one.
So what kind of message has this kind of universal applicability? What critique could we find in the gospel message with revelatory appeal to all human culture? To answer that, we would need to understand what common human needs drove the evolution of culture in the first place, regardless of the specific ways different cultures evolved to meet those needs. And this is where the work of René Girard is seminal. All cultures have several common features: prohibitions and taboos, rituals, and myths. Girard’s key insight is that all of these evolve out of a need to control mimetic rivalry and scapegoating violence. Simply put, the common trait is that all culture relies on violence to achieve social cohesion: we maintain order by creating a unified identity, a unity that is forged through the creation (and expulsion) of a problematic Other.
To this end, our holiness codes, with their prohibitions and taboos, help us to define who is part of “us” and who is Other (and therefore dangerous). It is no coincidence that these taboos tend to centre on activities that generate or potentially escalate mimetic rivalry and thus which threaten to fracture unity: sex, food, property ownership. Holiness codes evolved as a way to keep the peace, but over time they also began to serve as a basis for determining who is included in the community and who is not. This provides those who would have power in a community the means to establish and validate their own positions, and to rid themselves of rivals. Religious violence and holiness codes are intimately linked.
I think that one of the universal applications of Jesus’s ministry is his critique of his culture’s use of holiness codes to marginalise and scapegoat. When he eats with tax-collectors and prostitutes, when he talks to the Samaritan woman at the well; when he dares to suggest that God will not smite the Roman oppressors; when he makes subversive claims like “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (see Mark 2:23 -28),or “it is not what goes into someone’s mouth that makes them unclean but what comes out of their mouth” (Matthew 15:11 ), or “the Father sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike” (Matthew 7: 45), or tells a parable about a Samaritan being more faithful than a priest, he is uncoupling God from religious violence based on holiness codes. An ideal society – the Kingdom of God – he implies, is one that does not require victims to sustain it. It is not exclusive.
Our rituals are also social mechanisms that exist to unify the group. Girard argues that these are modeled on original acts of collective violence which had a pacific effect on the group in times of social upheaval. The rituals are attempts to recreate the pacific effect without human bloodshed. Sacrifice is often at the heart of the rituals in some form or another, and all sacrifice is a substitute for human sacrifice. These rituals may not necessarily be recognisably religious in nature, by the way. Look at our judicial systems, by way of example. They are highly ritualised, with rules that govern the interactions – standing up or sitting down at prescribed times, referring to certain “priestly” officials by certain titles, participants adhering to the certain prescribed roles, and ultimately the expulsion of a scapegoat onto whom the sins of an entire community are placed.
The gospel writers construct the narrative around Jesus’s trial and crucifixion so that Jesus appears as a sacrificial lamb, in a sort of twisted blending of the Jewish Passover ritual and the rituals of Roman justice. And we see once and for all the rot at the heart of our rituals and their utter failure in bringing about any sort of justice. The lamb is innocent. The gospel writers go to great lengths to emphasise that. When we sacrifice the lamb, we confirm our own guilt through our complicity in the maintenance of these unjust systems. That, I believe, is what is behind the one key symbolic ritual of the early church: the Eucharist. All of the participants affirm their guilt in the consumption of the body and blood of the innocent lamb. By this admission that we are all members of the problematic Other, all unrighteous sinners, we become unified with everyone else and reconciled to the resurrected lamb, who has already pronounced Shalom. There is no longer a righteous “us” and an unrighteous “them”. There is only the Risen lamb reconciled to the forgiven “us”. God ends sacrifice at the cross.
And then there is myth. Our myths are the stories we tell in order to hide our scapegoats, because scapegoating violence only works to unify communities if they do not realise that they are engaged in scapegoating violence. We need to justify the violence, shield ourselves from the horror of the sacrificial act. So we demonise or deify our scapegoats. We make them kings, celebrities, gods. We remove them from ourselves through our stories, and when they are far enough away from us so as to no longer quite be human, when we cannot recognise that they are just like us, then violence against them seems right.
The gospel unveils our myths by humanising those we would consign to myth: lepers, the poor, the Roman oppressors, God. The gospel does not allow us to mythologise our exploitation of others, including God, in order to justify our treatment of them as more or less than human. One of Jesus’ most profound teachings is that we are to relate to all other people as if to God, and to God as if to all other people, and that is in love:
“Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me” (Matthew 25:40); The greatest command is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind and your soul (and an interesting side note is that Jesus modifies the original Deuteronomy 6 scripture to include “mind”. How do Biblical inerrantists explain Jesus’ free-handed approach to scripture?) and the second command, to love your neighbour (whom Jesus defines as anybody else) is – in Jesus’ words – “just like it” (Matthew 22: 35-40).
Whichever cultural framework you use to understand your world, the gospel exposes it as a lie. That, I think, is what the early believers saw; once you start to see God in those whom your society has marginalised, it is impossible to view your culture in the same way again. If you accept that God is a victim – and a forgiving, not retributive one – of human violence, how can you go back to living as you always have?
The gospel invites you to see the world from the perspective of the cross. And it is a perspective that I desperately hope that more people will come to see in a world that seems completely mad. Our holiness codes, whether in the form of sacred texts, political manifestos, scientific papers or philosophical ideologies, will not bring peace. They crucify it. Our rituals bring only temporary stability, and at a terrible cost – a cost from which, mercifully, our myths shield us. At Calvary the truth of who we are is lifted up for all to see. We can no longer hide from it. It is a truth that once seen cannot be unseen.
But the truth of who God is is also on display at Calvary. And it is not the God we expected. Quite possibly not even the God we wanted. Still, the light shines in the darkness, a light on a hill. And something becomes clear: all these things we do in the name of justice and unity and righteousness lead inexorably to a cross. To death. But the light reveals something more: another way opens up. As this godman hangs dying, and all the world stands judged and found wanting, he pronounces forgiveness. When his body is raised, and he returns bearing the scars of his murder, he breathes no word of vengeance or blood-justice, only “do not be afraid” and “peace be with you”. Jesus shows that there is a way that leads to life.
This road can only be seen from the perspective of the cross. Before we can find it, as Michael Hardin insists, our God concepts must die. There is no God coming from Heaven to vindicate the righteous and smite the wicked. Instead, God gives up God’s life so that we may understand that forgiveness and grace are the only way to achieve reconciliation and peace. God’s way of relating is not transactional: you do this for me and I will bless you, and if you do not, I curse you. God’s grace is freely given. “God with us” does not mean a Messiah descending from Heaven in splendor to inaugurate a benevolent dictatorship; “God with us” means recognising God in “the least of these” and establishing communities that are not bound by holiness codes or common stories or creeds, but by self-giving love.
I have no doubt that citizens of the ancient world found life to be difficult and confusing and brutal. But the early Christians saw something in the gospel story that made them question their cultural assumptions, something that compelled them to different, more egalitarian ways of configuring their worlds. They became, in Paul’s words, “new creations”. They lived in hope.
It is a hope this world so desperately needs. This Easter season my prayer for you is that you will be afforded a glimpse of the world through the lens of the cross. I pray that you will let the cross be lifted up as a symbol of the failures of human blood-logic, that you will look around at a world that is still confusing and brutal and realise that accusations and scapegoats are what brought us to this place. More of the same will not yield anything other than death and division. The gospel does not ask you to pick a side; it asks you to be a light – a peace-making, meek, poor-in-spirit, merciful light. The cross asks you to look out with compassion in those baying for your blood, to seek God in those you would rather ignore or expel. To pick up your cross and follow.