Religion on the Level: #3
What is the Use of Jesus? [Continued]
"Release yourselves from that bondage", the voice on the cross says, "lay down
the burden of hatred, forgive; lay down the burden of guilt, accept forgiveness,
and the future will be a new country".
Though I am still a bit baffled about where people find the grace to
forgive in the kind of horrifying circumstances we have been thinking
about, it is increasingly clear how important forgiveness is to a healthy
private life; even more importantly it is essential in political life,
especially in situations of chronic conflict.
Who could ever pick their way through the ancient antagonisms of Northern
Ireland and produce an accurate check sheet of the rights and wrongs of that
tragedy? It can never be done. The accounting mentality simply destines the
tragedy to continue unless there is forgiveness, something that the peace
process is slowly working away at.
Fortunately, there is s good example to hand of trying to make political
forgiveness work. South Africa is a country whose history is drenched in blood
and hatred, but a remarkable experiment took place there called the Truth
Commission. Here we see the politics of forgiveness at work. It seemed to them
that the only way to bury that terrible past was not to forget it but to forgive
it, so the Commission guaranteed amnesty for those who owned up to their
offences, and so created the very circumstances in which the full horror of the
past could be owned by both the agents and the victims, so that all could move
on into the future.
Great emphasis is being placed on the healing of memories, but that healing
cannot happen if the truth of the past is not acknowledged and confronted. The
report of the Truth Commission is full of examples of this process at work
as South Africa tries painfully to heal its past by the radical political
application of the dynamic of forgiveness.
Denis Healey wrote that you never reach conclusions in politics, but you have
to make decisions, you have to get on with things. The instinct for political
forgiveness is close to that insight. It knows how complex our sins and mistakes
are, and knows how impossible it is to draw up a balance sheet. Forgiveness
gives us the courage to draw a line under the past, so that we can walk away
from it at last, and move into the future.
The centrality of forgiveness in the teaching of Jesus is entirely
appropriate in someone who came to set people free and make their lives more
abundant. It was that passion for enlarging the lives of those who had been
diminished and beaten by life that is the other element in the teaching and
example of Jesus I want to look at tonight, by reflecting on some aspects of the
birth narratives. Let me begin by reflecting on the nativity of the current
President of the United States of America.
Not many people had heard of a small town in Arkansas called Hope, till Bill
Clinton, who was born there became President of the USA. However, the town of
hope in Arkansas will, for citizens of the USA, have a particular historical
significance from now on, no matter what they think of the current resident of
the White House.
Becoming President of the USA confers fame upon the place from which his
journey to Washington started. And the legends start building.
"That's the desk he studied at and those are the boots he wore when he walked
every day to the old school house, six miles there and six miles back. He had
his first fight over there, behind Kelly's bar; and he kissed Darlene Chisholm,
the night of the school prom, on the back seat of this here Pontiac station
wagon, belonged to her dad; you can still see the scorch mark right here on the
The technical term for this process of reading legends back into the
early years of historic figures is called retrojection. It is a natural
instinct to read back a person's greatness into the early years; to look for or
invent signs of what was to come. The precise detail of the stories doesn't
matter, as long as they are consistent with what we know of the later life. They
have to fit the theme of the life, express something of the nature or history of
the famous person.
This is how we ought to approach the stories of the birth of Jesus. The
question we should ask as we hear the stories of the nativity is not, "Is this
really how it was?" but, "What do these stories tell us about the meaning of
life?" In other words, we should go for the spiritual or theological meaning,
not the historical, because that is no longer available to us.
Luke is in no doubt about where the significance of Jesus lies, and loads his
birth story with that meaning. He was born in Bethlehem, the least of the cities
of Judah. Shepherds, the travelling people of the day, mistrusted and feared by
the settled, were the first to hear of his birth. And he was placed in a manger
in the part of the house where the animals slept because they were probably
staying with relatives who, though poor themselves, welcomed them under their
Luke at the very beginning of this boo places Jesus at the bottom of the
social pyramid. And pyramid it was.
The economic setup of the time was a domination system, a social pyramid, and
the whole structure was designed to serve the needs of the people at the top.
Until fairly recently most societies were domination systems, and there is a
certain logic in that. In the struggle for life it is the strong who come out on
top. That wouldn't be so bad if they were honest about it and told us that they
liked being on top and would fight to stay there, but they do more than that.
They develop theories and theologies to justify their privileges. They say,
"God put us here, because this is the best way to run the world; we are really
up here, not for our own sake, but for everyone else's; it is for their sake
that we have accepted the burden of privilege and leadership". The powerful
always do this; they justify their privileges with theories, but they hold on to
them with their muscles.
One of the most powerful arguments against Christianity is that it has often
leant its support to whatever system was on top and anointed it. It preached
resignation, not revolt. The strange result is that by preaching
self-denial to the people at the bottom in order to justify the privileges of
those at the top, it has given the impression that Christianity is a religion of
world-denial and repression.
We are against pleasure and fun; we are against the instincts and sheer joy
that says yes to life and grasps it with both hands. That is why the papers love
all those ministers that come forth every December to denounce the exuberance of
Christmas. Our history is filled with that kind of denial of life and its
energies and joys, like the American fundamentalist sect that wanted to ban sex
because it might lead to dancing.
But all that crawling, creeping, breast-beating, "we-know-our-place" kind of
Christianity is profoundly contrary to the spirit and example of Jesus.
The thing that offended them about Jesus was that he refused to conform to
the system himself and he denied that it had any divine legitimacy. It was a
human not a divine creation and should be challenged and overthrown in the name
of the God who longed for justice. He preached what he called "the kingdom of
God"; he wanted things done on earth as they were in heaven, that is, with love
and mutual kindness; and he told the poor that the revolution would start with
Interestingly, he was the original example of a political phenomenon that has
often been remarked on. Aneurin Bevan, the great Welsh socialist, was dismissed
as a "Bollinger Bolshevik" because he enjoyed the good things of life. He
replied that there was no contradiction in his enjoyment of the privileges of
the rich because he wanted everyone to be able to share in the world's good
And Jesus was no pining ascetic either. They called him a wine-bibber and a
glutton, and he did not deny the charge. Life was a wedding feast and guests
don't fast at a wedding; but this feast was for all, and he had come to compel
the outcasts, those we now call the excluded, to gatecrash the party.
That is why following Jesus is both joyful and serious. It is about the
enjoyment of life and all its colour; it's a banquet, a bash, a cosmic party.
But it's one to which everyone is invited and that means work, sometimes
dangerous work, because there are many people at the party who don't want to let
anyone else in and would, if they got their way, get rid of some who are already
Jesus came to raise people up, not to exclude them. That is why those who use
the example of Jesus not only try to practise forgiveness but try to learn to
look at people differently, to practise imaginative compassion, to see the world
as it ought to be and not simply to accept it as it is. Seeing it that way round
is to see it the way he saw it; and if enough of us start seeing it that way,
why it might even come to pass.
2 December 1998
� Professor Richard Holloway: This publication may not be
in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author