This is the fourth in a series of essays on Christianity as Anthropology. Read the previous entries here.
By the first century the entire world was under the power of the Roman Empire, the full embodiment of the domination system, the violent outworking of the fear of death. Israel, and its capitol Jerusalem, were a small glitch in this landscape of darkness.
But by this point, Rome was not only ruling over Israel, but hand-selecting the leaders of Jerusalem, drawing it deep into the machinations of the Empire. That influence permeated Jerusalem, to the point that the Jewish religious and political leaders had become deeply impressed with Rome’s power, enthralled by the civilization it offered, longing to participate in its strength. They positioned themselves in alliance with it, becoming part of the same matrix of power, violence, and lust that had controlled humanity since the beginning.
The city that was supposed to offer the world an alternative, had given in to the vast power of Rome. The city whose prophets had called it the “light of the world” had gone dark.
Many Jews saw this as deeply wrong. And so, on the outskirts of Jewish society, revolutionaries began to rise up, plotting to take back Jerusalem, planning to turn the nation back to its true identity. They believed that if they were successful, if they could restore Jerusalem to its true nature, then God would come to their side, and they would cast off the power of Rome. And then…and then, they would found a new empire, and rule the world from sea to shining sea.
They were the zealots, the wielders of the knife.
And when Jesus appeared, he was understood to be an insurgent just like them.
But Jesus saw something that no one else saw. Jerusalem had sunk into the worship of violence that controlled the entire world. And the insurgents were no better. They too lusted for the power that Rome exercised, they too wished to establish an empire built on violence, slavery, and scapegoating. They thought they were fighting for freedom, but they were still slaves to the system of domination. If they were successful, the new empire they founded would be just as evil as the empires before. And this time, there would be no one left to oppose it.
At night, Jesus carefully explained this to his followers. During the day, he stirred up the crowds with stories that provoked them to question the messages they were being fed.
He and his followers were walking a razor-thin line. As Jesus saw it, on either side lay the end of the Jewish nation, and with it, the end of humanity’s hope. And right in the middle, on his vanishingly narrow path, was the one possibility for unraveling the whole system of violence.
If Jerusalem was supposed to be the city to challenge the world, then Jerusalem would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. And that is exactly what Jesus set out to do.
But this new Jerusalem wouldn't be the same as the old one, seized by a violent takeover. This Jerusalem would be formed by the poor and the outcasts, the insurgents and the social pariahs, a city without walls or boundaries, a city capable of surviving the destruction of everything they knew.
This city would have no temple, no political structure, no hierarchy or domination, no point where anyone could exercise control. It would exist free from geography, free from buildings and armies, outside the grip of any conventional power.
As a city, they would have ways of dealing with disagreements and disputes. As a city, they would have ways of resisting any foreign occupation. But the ways of doing these things were unusual, creative, controversial. If sued, they would strip naked in court. If forced into carrying a soldier's luggage, they would refuse to turn it loose.
Instead of being victims, the powerless would seize control in the most clever ways possible, mocking the entire system, exposing their oppressors, opening the door for both parties to escape the cycle of violence.
Don't be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
No matter what, they would not be drawn into the cycle of violence. Facing inhuman aggressors, they would become still more human. They would refuse to let themselves be transformed into either aggressor or victim. This was the beginning of a new civilization, not based on violence, scapegoating, or victimizing, but on compassion, identity, and blatant honesty.
Jesus was leading a revolution, but a revolution unlike any the world had ever seen.
This “new Jerusalem” was on a collision course with the old Jerusalem. Although there was a lot of confusion as to Jesus’ exact intentions, it was clear that he was challenging the legitimacy of the institutions of Israel. If he wasn’t careful, he could upset the delicate alliance the leaders had in place, and bring Rome down on their heads.
This meant that the political leaders of Jerusalem had no choice but to begin thinking about how to quietly rid themselves of this problem.
But quiet wasn't Jesus' style. As Passover was approaching, and Jerusalem was filling up with Jews from all over the world, Jesus went into the temple and shut it down. He turned over tables, released animals, and ran off the bankers that were doing business there.
“You have made this place a den of thieves!“ he shouted.
He wasn’t just condemning the temple - he was condemning all of Jerusalem. He was reenacting the deeds of the prophets from centuries before, prophets who had testified against violence and oppression and exclusion. He was reminding Israel of their history and identity. They were supposed to be a light, but they had gone dark. They were supposed to offer an alternative, but they had given up their calling.
He didn’t have to wait long for their response. Before morning, he had been seized by a mob, and was being rushed toward execution.
The crucifixion was remarkable for several reasons. It was apparent that there was no good reason for Jesus' death, and no consistent charge brought against him. This was not a criminal case; this was an idealogical difference that could only be resolved through a show of force.
The system had one vision for humanity, a vision played out to the full extent in the Roman Empire, and one which the rulers of Jerusalem had completely bought into. Jesus had another vision, lived out in the communities he had generated, in his creativity and blatant truth-telling, in his steadfast determination to live from his own identity rather than one foisted on him. His was a humanity not built on violence, which did not scapegoat or victimize.
The system of violence had to remove this challenge to its legitimacy. And the crucifixion was how they would do so.
In exercising the power of death, the system could always guarantee two things: they would silence their victim, and they would destroy their victim's identity. The way it played out was always the same, as illustrated vividly by the thief crucified next to Jesus. Having been stripped of his dignity and humanity by the Roman forces, the thief doesn't lose faith in the system which put him there. Instead, he turns and begins channeling his rage and hurt onto Jesus, mocking him, looking for the one person he can still dominate. In his last moments, the thief has become fully possessed by the system which is destroying him.
In totally consuming a person's being, the system proves its own legitimacy. If even its victims operate by its rules, then there is no one who is free.
The cross was the battleground between these two systems; one which had held absolute dominion over humanity from the very beginning, and one which claimed humanity was something more, something only glimpsed and expressed fully by wild-eyed prophets, in ancient myths, and in one provocative Jewish insurgent.
And so the system of domination pulled its last trick, and watched as it completely and utterly failed. On the cross, Jesus refused to hide, refused to become something less than he was, refused to give in to the fear and hatred and desire for revenge.
Forgive them. They don't even see what they're doing.
With that, everyone around was forced to watch a clearly innocent man die without once bowing to the forces killing him. The system was exposed for the ugly, bitter, weakness that it was. The system was revealed to be powerless in the face of Jesus' identity. They had swords and spears and armies - and every one of those things looked helpless compared to Jesus hanging there, still determined to love his enemies.
The pain of that awareness was too much. The soldier involved in Jesus' death couldn't contain himself.
“This man was the son of God!”
This had to be the most blasphemous statement a Roman soldier could utter. His eyes had been opened, and he couldn't help but curse the very basis of his own existence.
And with that, the system lost. Not only had they failed to destroy this human being, they had shown that even if they could silence him, their own people would cry out.
A peasant went up against an Empire. And the peasant won.