Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2001
How are we to understand and explain the basic vocabulary of Christianity today? It is a truism that people no longer understand ‘Sin’ as our grandparents did – which means that ‘Salvation’ too becomes problematic. Told recently that ‘Jesus Saves’ my twenty-one year old sceptical son inquired ‘at what rate of interest? Most of his generation wishes above all to be saved from the saved – so we surely need to revisit the original story of salvation to understand what relevance it might have in the twenty-first century.
Richard Rohr, the American Franciscan, helps us part of the way by observing that in this era most of the deepest spiritual work is being done in the basements rather than the naves of churches in the US. There, closest to the earth, the twelve-step programmes for alcoholics, gamblers, compulsive shoppers, partner-beaters and every other kind of self-destructive addict are worked through. It is clear that we live in a deeply addictive culture that – in the media cliché – ‘ruins lives’. What is the root of this addictiveness, and how does it relate to ‘sin’ as Jesus might have understood it? And how does the invocation of a ‘higher power’ – the basic strategy of the twelve-step program – relate to what he taught?
Talking recently to a close friend who is working through such a programme, I was struck by his insistence that the invariable problem of the addict is low or even non-existent self-esteem. A childhood deprivation of parental care or affection, an experience of abuse or systematic bullying or humiliation in early life, an inability to keep a job or a partner – these and other examples of rejection, failure, derision or contempt keep cropping up. And the result in the addict is a pervasive sense of shame and fear, a chronic inability to love the self.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ What happens if we translate ‘poor in spirit’ as self-rejecting – bankrupt of self-esteem – rather than as simply poor in an economic sense?
Coming at this as an historian rather than a theologian I see the ancient world as everywhere a pyramid of esteem or worthiness. At its summit in Jesus’s time were Roman God-Emperors whose exaltation had usually emerged out of military rivalry and conquest. Essentially this applied even in the Jewish world view, where David, the Lord’s anointed, was archetypally a military hero, the boy-slayer of the Philistine giant Goliath and father of Solomon, builder of the first temple.
And it was Herod’s temple in Jesus’ time that was the focal point of the religion of most Jews, the place where sacrificial propitiation of the Deity took place.
But those who came to John for baptism must have been outside the temple system – and the key to this is to understand that temple sacrifice and expiation was a relatively expensive business, involving the hiring of religious lawyers for advice, the purchase of sacrificial offerings, and the making of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem – all seriously problematic for those at the base of the economic pyramid.
It followed from this that the poor were thus also usually the poorest in spirit, the lowest in self-esteem, the shamed, the sinners – the ones looking for an inexpensive route to ritual cleanliness and divine forgiveness. These were the people who followed John and Jesus. Peter’s astonishment over Jesus’ observation that the rich would have trouble entering his kingdom tells us this also: good fortune was interpreted then as evidence of divine favour; ill fortune as proof of God’s anger. This was the reason that Jesus’ forgiveness of sin – offered freely to those who sought his help, without any interrogation – was so astonishing to his disciples, and so bitterly opposed by the hierarchs whose power rested upon respect for the Temple system.
‘You are beloved of God’: this was Jesus insistent message to those who had felt excluded – and this is the Good News. It follows that Jesus was overturning the pyramid of esteem of the Ancient World – and that this was the fundamental reason for Christianity’s growth within the Roman Empire also in the early centuries. Evangelisation was the doorway into divine esteem for those who thought they could never enter. And it was also an entry into the church as community.
‘You are loved by God’ was not, however, news at all to those who already held position in the older Pagan and Jewish pyramids of esteem. They felt sure of it already.
How then did Christianity become in the end so often associated with social respectability, coercion and sexual fear; and salvation a hypothetical eternal life insurance – pie in the sky by-and-by?
History again provides the answer. Christianity’s own success was eventually noticed by one of the many upwardly mobile military adventurers of the ancient world. “In this sign, conquer” – this was the message conveniently seen by Constantine underneath a fiery cross on his way to the battle of the Milvian bridge. Most Christian hierarchs tragically swallowed this gambit whole – as an offer they couldn’t refuse – and the result was a marriage of Christianity with the state that was to persist for more than fifteen hundred years. Augustine’s identification of sin with wayward sexuality rather than social unworthiness allowed the upper classes (of which he was a member) to retain their social eminence as well as their sense of chosenness. Conversion usually became a matter of attaching first the rulers of kingdoms rather than their subjects – these would soon follow out of deference.
It followed inexorably that Christianity would become associated with respectability and coercion, and that gradually the meaning of the story recited in the creeds – would become lost. In particular we lost the meaning of Jesus’ social descent as an expression of divine solidarity with the ‘losers’ of the ancient world. Medieval theology came to explain the crucifixion as the price exacted by a divine system of justice which insisted that God’s ‘honour’ demanded satisfaction by nothing less than the death of his son. Thus the ruling classes of the Middle Ages redefined God in their own image, scapegoating him for the death of Christ, and thus eventually making ‘salvation’ wholly unintelligible. It became merely inclusion in a scheme of divine providence that must wait upon the death of the one ‘saved’. It followed also that it need not mean full inclusion in the benefits of community on earth, and so became valueless to those who remained excluded from it.
But in our own time when the educated classes have mostly followed the Enlightenment in concluding that Christianity was nonsense, this opened the way for the retrieval of the meaning of the crucifixion by those at the base of our own pyramids of esteem in this era. The ‘junkie’ – the one discarded – is the very image of the stone discarded that became the cornerstone of the early church. The crucifixion is essentially not about the physical pain of Jesus, but about acceptance of the obverse of glory – ultimate shame and humiliation – and this can now be recovered when the socially esteemed can find no meaning in it.
The implications of this for evangelisation, and for how we think of ‘church’, are profound. In particular those who wish to revive Christianity in the third millennium must understand that social vertigo is the greatest barrier to success. We need to advance on two fronts – attacking the complacency and the intellectual assumptions of those at the summit of our own pyramids of esteem today, and learning to lose our inherited prejudices towards the socially outcast, the ‘losers’ of the world.
It must surely be obvious that if we organise life as a race, losers must outnumber winners. It follows inexorably that the root cause of failure is nothing other than the worship of ‘success’. Even a meritocracy involves judgement and rejection, i.e. crucifixion. That the UK’s chief executive should be both an enthusiastic meritocrat and an avowed Christian shows how far we need to go still in disentangling one from the other. All pyramids of esteem inevitably create shame at their base.
For on what Christian grounds should we declare that some are entitled to esteem, while others are not? If the answer is that those who don’t work don’t deserve esteem, why then do we tolerate those who live on nothing other than shrewd investments? For their shrewdness? If so our kingdom is for the shrewd only – and our world becomes an intellectual pyramid of esteem, deadly for those whose gifts may lie in other directions. Is this intelligent? More important, is it wise? Most important, is it Christian?
For me, the essence of Christianity is the assertion of the eternal and equal value of every single human person, irrespective of race, intelligence, gender, wealth or whatever. It follows logically that everyone is equally important, equally to be cherished. And that the cult of celebrity must be a target of a revived Christianity also. No-one ever was, ever is, or ever will be, more ‘worth it’ than anyone else.
It follows inexorably also that churches cannot be pyramids of esteem. As a lay Catholic I am now totally alienated from the papal system as it has been exercised in this overlong pontificate. The Pope’s own invitation to the church to reconsider how this office should be exercised should be accepted with alacrity, for celebrity Popes cannot undermine pyramids of esteem without attacking celebrity per se. The notion that you can re-evangelise the west by elevating a single individual to semi-sacred status, upon whose every word we all must hang, is the residual myth of a bankrupt Christendom. It ignores the patently obvious fact that by loading spiritual dignity onto one individual you withdraw it from the rest – the root cause of the sense of spiritual inferiority and incompetence that afflicts many lay Catholics today. It is also spiritually obtuse and abusive, for it deprives even the ordinary Christian of the gift given by Christ – a sense of our own dignity as brother or sister of the Lord. No title can bestow greater honour than this – not even Pope.
Remarkably, one of the essential characteristics of the twelve-step process is the absence of hierarchy, the complete equality of all participants. All acknowledge their own brokenness, so none can claim precedence. Equally, no-one can be shamed or rejected. Yet the need for repentance – for taking full responsibility for all the hurt one has caused to others – is emphasised as an essential part of the process.
“Which of us is the greatest?” This insistent question from the disciples warns us that pride afflicts pastors also. Jesus’s response tells us that the essence of Christian community is nothing other than moral equality.
To the objection that only hierarchy can protect truth there is a simple answer. The creeds hierarchies protect have virtually lost their meaning in the very creation of ecclesiastical hierarchy, including the altogether scandalous notion of ‘princes of the church’. As history proved time and time again – for example, in the Crusades – it is perfectly possible to recite a verbal formula summarising the love of God one moment, and to disembowel someone the next. The urgent task of all Christians is to recover fully the meaning of the creeds. The only recoverable meaning that can change our world for the better is that God in allowing his son to be crucified renounced his own hierarchical privilege in favour of reclaiming those at the base of all worldly hierarchies. If hierarchical Christianity cannot rise to the challenge of such a God, it is unworthy of Him, and deserves to die.
On the other hand, it is the addict’s recognition of his brokenness in that of Jesus on Calvary that suggests that not even the Constantines of this world can prevail in the end. It is the shamed – the most prodigal sons and daughters – who can speak with greatest understanding of the love of the one who scans the horizon for their return, and even sends them his most precious son to meet them at the moment of their own ultimate humiliation.