Scattering the Proud – Chapter IV

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The Kingdom

The purpose of the downward journey is, first, to subvert the pyramid of esteem by showing solidarity not with those who maintain it, but with those who suffer from it. That pyramid is the product of all the selfishness in society, the desire to ascend, so it is this selfishness that is challenged by the downward journey. In this sense, when we pursue thoughtlessly the upward journey, no matter what rank we occupy, without considering those at the base of the pyramid of esteem, we are complicit in their subordination. So the crucifixion challenges us all.

Yet there is even more in this event. The upward journey skews wealth and power towards a minority, disempowering and impoverishing and always disappointing a majority. It follows that most are deprived of freedom, self-esteem and economic security. This is less true today than in the ancient world, but still largely true even in the wealthiest societies. Political freedom is no substitute for freedom from hunger and self-contempt.

It follows that the deliberate downward journey is intended to bring the gift of self-esteem to all, by changing the direction of human ambition from ascent, accumulation, self-empowerment, to service of and concern for the disadvantaged. A man who chooses to make this journey, and travels it to its terrifying conclusion, has issued a challenge to all men, particularly to those who doubt his divinity. For if he wasn’t God he was a ‘mere’ man relying upon purely natural human resources. For all of us, no matter what our faith, race, or level of education, this journey becomes a challenge, once we understand it.      

The Kingdom Revealed

What would happen to human culture if many began the downward journey? From the life of Jesus we get glimpses of this, and from many of the lives of the saints.

First, and most important, the pyramid of esteem is upended. All people are esteemed, particularly those who tolerate poverty without complaint. This is what Jesus meant when he said ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’. When in 1208 CE, Francis of Assisi donned his coarse habit tied with a rope he stepped into the kingdom of God, dignifying poverty and simplicity. This was an outstanding intuition of the downward journey that helped to redeem his era, which was also the era of the Inquisition. Throughout its ambivalent history, the church can point to such people as exemplars of the life of Christ, even though at its summit the church provided often a contrary example.

Secondly, conflict is no more, for it is the upward journey that pits people against one another in envy and jealousy. When esteem is the monopoly of a minority, most people must fail to acquire it, and this is a formula for resentment and violent crime. And it is the upward journey of states that for the same reason leads to oppression and international conflict.

Thirdly, psychological problems related to the upward journey are undercut. For example, the belief that only certain rare physiological characteristics can be described as sexually attractive is the basis of the ‘beauty’ pyramid maintained by the media on behalf of the entertainment, cosmetics and fashion industries. It is also the source of much adolescent self-hatred, self-starvation and addiction. The beauty pyramid is just another pyramid of esteem that destroys people. Variety of appearance should be seen as the necessary basis of individuality, not an undesirable deviation from an arbitrary norm. In the kingdom, all are beautiful, because they are different. This example can be replicated in all other social pyramids.

Fourthly, whereas in the world only a small minority are recognised, in the kingdom everyone receives the recognition of the Father, as Jesus did at the Jordan, but through those already in the kingdom. For each of us has been made by him with loving care, over aeons of time. This recognition can be communicated by loving Christian communities treating all their members, and all they meet, with equal respect.

Fifthly, a world that condemns most of its citizens to failure in their own estimation can become a kingdom in which all succeed by the development of their own talents, equally esteemed.

Finally, we can be ourselves, rather than the persons we believe the world wants us to be. To pursue this we need to understand the idea of repentance.

Repentance

This term has always had doubtful connotations. Christian fundamentalism tends to portray repentance simply as the acknowledgement of guilt, an abject kneeling and self-accusation, an acknowledgement of one’s own moral failures before a perfect God, a surrender of self-respect and freedom. And ‘conversion’ tends to mean surrender also, the rejection of the self, a submission and capitulation, an acknowledgement that God has won our soul and we have lost our freedom.

The reality is different. It involves a recognition of God, a realisation that he is not what or whom we thought. And a rediscovery of the self.

From adolescence we humans unconsciously try to be the person we admire, not the very different person we were intended to be. This is especially true because of the pyramid of esteem — we esteem ourselves less than those we perceive to be above us in the pyramid, and so set out to suppress the unesteemed self in favour of those others we envy. So we become dependent upon others for our self-respect, which makes us very vulnerable to rejection. The problem is that those others are usually playing the same game, and are therefore also alienated from themselves, and unable to give us the recognition we desire. The child who meets contempt from other children, or from an adult, will often suppose she deserves it, and may then try to suppress whatever behaviour or mannerism they sneer at. An accumulation of such attempts becomes the personality she shows the world.

This process can be called the wearing of masks – the gradual and unconscious substitution of an altered personality for the real personality in order to achieve recognition, or to deflect contempt. True repentance involves a realisation that we do not have to do that any more. For there is nothing we can do to earn the love of God. That love is implicit in our creation. God loves us from the beginning, and will always do so. It is the world, the pyramid of esteem, not God, who deprives us of that knowledge. And it is part of the purpose of Jesus’ downward journey to give us the strength to pull away the mask – that which conceals our real self. For the thing that separates us most from God is self-dislike, and God has gone to great lengths to deprive us of that. To understand this we need to understand another aspect of the cross.

Humiliation and The Cross

Let us suppose that we want to humiliate someone – to destroy totally any respect anyone may ever have felt for them, before killing them. We want to destroy the soul, the sense of self-worth, before destroying the body. That was the cross. The victim was stripped entirely naked, nailed or bound to this gibbet and then raised aloft so that all could sneer and jeer. To the agony of physical pain was added the agony of total shame and humiliation, and days could pass in this double suffering. At the base of the pyramid of esteem, people are stripped completely of self-regard as well as life.

And this is why those at the bottom of the pyramid may suddenly, seeing the cross, break down and weep. At a level much deeper than the conscious mind, they suddenly experience the meaning of the crucifixion. It is the living God joining them on their cross. It is the solidarity of the Father with the least of his creation. It is his acceptance of humiliation as a means of making contact with theirs. In this realisation also, atonement occurs, for our search for a person without flaw is over. He lives, and he loves us for who we are.

And so we are also released from the mask. For since we are loved so totally for our real self, there is no need ever again to try to be someone else. And then we realise that the Father is not what we thought he was — that aloof judge who records our every fault. He has instead felt every slight we have ever suffered, and joined us in that pain. And then we feel for him, and weep. And he responds with what the saints call grace, and we weep uncontrollably for ever having doubted him. We may often do so again thereafter, for there is no complete recovery from this moment.

And in this process there is also the rediscovery of the child we once were, before we set out upon the upward journey. For we realise that we do not ever again need to compare ourselves unfavourably with others, that we can be our true innocent selves. We can be as children again. This is repentance.

Conversion

When we discover God and ourselves in the process of repentance, love of God will follow. If we allow it to, this love will change our lives completely. We rediscover the Christian ethic as something designed to set us free, not to deny us happiness. This change is called conversion.

The discovery of God changes everything. We do not need to be afraid. We are no longer trapped by the pyramid of esteem because we are no longer dependant upon the approval of others for self-approval. And we are no longer locked in conflict with those around us, for we know the upward journey is futile and unnecessary. The realisation of the inalienable love of God is a rock-solid foundation for self-esteem, and we long to share this realisation with others.

In particular, we long to share the knowledge that there is no such thing as a failed, or ruined, life. We have discovered that the moment of deepest despair is also the most likely moment for the discovery of God, and are gripped by the desire to pass that realisation on to those we love, at the precise moment this message becomes a matter of life and death.     

There is even more in the downward journey, however. At the base of the pyramid of esteem is the victim, the person from whom everything is stripped, including life itself. The crucifixion of the 6,000 by Crassus was an attempt to restabilise the Roman Empire through ultimate violence. There is a compelling argument that another purpose of Jesus’ journey was to expose the role of this ‘scapegoating’ violence in founding culture.