Paul reports that Christ crucified is a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. I’m beginning to wonder if the Jews and Greeks had a point. Everything that is most destructive about Christianity comes from the Cross — the fetishization of suffering as an end in itself, the valorization of sheer obedience as somehow morally salutary, the conformism that stems from the instinctive embrace of the “necessary evil” as the ultimate good. In my darker moments, I wonder if Christianity was always heading inexorably toward Constantine, just as I wonder whether the Civil Rights movement was always headed toward ritualized protests where people stay in the “free speech zones” and line up to be arrested in an orderly fashion.
In famously convoluted syntax, Paul declares, “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). In practice, the power of God has been the power of his own self-vindication, the satisfaction of his wounded honor or his desire for vengeance against a rebellious race, and the wisdom has been the opaque wisdom that trusts “God’s will” in an open-ended, incomprehending way. For Paul, though, at least in my reading, the power was God’s ability to dethrone the demonic powers and the wisdom was his ability to hit them precisely where they thought they were strongest — in their ability to terrorize, torture, and murder. God sends his messiah to be crucified under Roman law, with the complicity of the co-opted Jewish authorities, and in so doing he exposes the naked illegitimacy of the Roman order.
As with the emergence of the strategy of martyrdom under Antiochus Epiphanes, however, a necessary concomitant is the energetic development of a new form of life. The Maccabees chose the route of armed rebellion to reestablish an always-embattled theocracy. Paul, facing much greater firepower from the demonic worldly powers, chose the more indirect route of establishing little avant garde communities in as many Roman cities and provinces as possible — communities that do not rebel against the law or seek to overthrow the powers in order to replace them, but live in simple indifference to them.
Neither strategy proved durably effective. The Maccabean kingdom was ultimately reabsorbed into the imperial system, as were the successors to the Pauline communities. But at least they tried! At least they were able to conceive of a meaning to suffering and oppression other than the need to continue to submit to suffering and oppression as an end in itself. There’s such a narrow window within which something like the Cross can counter the Powers rather than simply reinforcing them — all the moreso in that so much contemporary theology, at least among my fellow white men, seems addicted to the “contrarian” gesture that enthusiastically submitting to the powers that be is the most subversive thing of all.
What has me thinking along these lines is my sense that the “hands up” gesture of the Ferguson protestors is a distant echo of the early Christian stance toward the Cross. And I see in mainstream white responses to protestors a repetition of the taming of the Cross, in the insistence that protest much be completely “peaceful,” in the refusal to recognize police violence as violent and the tacit view that it is natural and necessary, etc. I don’t know what conclusion to draw. I’m more gesturing toward the potential usefulness of thinking through past examples and trying to figure out where they went wrong — including apparently very distant and foreign examples.