Who killed Christ? When you see the image of the man nailed painfully to the cross, the worldwide image of Christianity, it provokes that question in the viewer. In this icon human violence and cruelty are not hidden but placed where they cannot be ignored. Christian teaching is a teaching about evil. It is about the power of evil and how that power is broken.
Love and rationality are vulnerable. Those we love can be tortured and the truth of what is real can be hid behind lies. Though often we are able to exercise our will to love and to truth in their defense, there are limits to what we can achieve. These are hard sayings. We want to be able to say god is love and god is superman, that love conquers all. We want to be able to say that in the end the truth always wins out, that truth will always have its day in court. We want these things but this is not the way it is in the experience of life as it is actually found.
Teachings are our ancestors gifts to us, giving us what they could about what they learned about the life a human being is fated to experience. Christianity is one of those teachings. It was an opening of the mysteries to the masses at a time when the global crossroads of the ancient Roman Empire had brought the formerly isolated pagan communities together. Priests and scribes from literally hundreds and hundreds of traditions were finding themselves talking past one another. Eventually thoughtful people began recognizing similarities in the midst of their better teachings. The marketplace of ideas was offering a welter of confusion for the very real needs of the Jewish people going through the collapse of their way of life with the fall of the temple. Eventually the whole Roman Empire would collapse and sweep away the gentiles as well. It is in this context of social collapse and upheaval that the Gospels at the heart of Christianity were written. That “writing” process took place over a century or more.
The Gospel of Mark is the earliest of the Gospels with an authorship date of maybe 70 CE. Mark provides much of the source material for Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of Mark is actually a very carefully crafted literary document. It uses numerous stylistic techniques to channel readers attention towards what is most important, even as clues to how the reader should be interpreting what they are reading. It uses numerous terms and images that would have been immediately understood by its initial audiences but leave us with little more than a fairy tale for children if we do not understand them today. For example, in Mark when Jesus casts demons into swine, the word used for the demonic horde is ‘legion,’ an extremely odd use of a Roman word. That word has no precedent in the Judaic texts nor is it an idea in use among temple or synagogue. Still, the readers of Mark would not have been at a loss to understand what he was talking about. No literate person would have missed the allusion to the soldiers of the Empire, the Roman Legions. Another very pertinent example is the use of the white robe at key places within the narrative. Readers in the ancient world would have recognized the allusion to the initiate of the mystery religions who was said to wear a white robe in their initiation. Both of these images, the robe and the Empire and its martial powers would be taken up in the book of Revelations. That apocalyptic book gives a view into the drama of Mark’s story as if it were seen from the inside, as it were. We will be looking at Mark and Revelation a bit later as this investigation into the mythology of the West proceeds.
This might be a good time to remind my readers what we are doing and why. It is my position that there is a rampant abuse of Christianity in the modern world. It runs a spectrum from sexual abuse in churches to magical thinking in the halls of governmental power. The time is late and the guilt of our generation is weighing heavily on us, more so than we consciously seem capable of admitting. Look at our actions – we are not resisting that which is seeking to kill us. There is a disconnect, something has gone wrong in the evolutionary imperative to survive and protect our children. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this but one stands out. In our pride we invented the corporation as a way to privatize profits and dilute financial risk by spreading it among the public. Thinking we were so clever inventing these personal wealth maximizing machinations, we find today that these corporate entities are powers no individuals are able to control. They do things that no human being can stop. Or so it seems. So far. We are in a fight against the “principalities and powers,” not a few evil men here and there. This is the lesson of the scapegoat, the mystery the Christ revealed openly to the world.
Christianity’s teachings include how to effectively go about fighting exactly these kinds of Empire powers. It finds they are fed through the desire human beings have for god-like magical skills. Christianity is said to have separated religion from magic. It is about how seeking a magic god, one all-powerful to grant you your wishes, leads to an anti-god. That superman god cannot be found because that god does not exist. Love and truth are vulnerable, at least for a time, at least for the “three hours of darkness” in which the crucifixion is said to take place, or the “hour of our death” for which Catholics ask Mary to pray “for us.” Us, all of us together. What we, the human species, the whole human family, have to work with is what we see in our day consciousness. The rise and fall of civilizations and our species ongoing cultural evolution has all taken place in this part of our psychology. We do not control dreams. We are not responsible to try and evolve or improve the unconscious, the night consciousness that is also a part of the psyche. In the great mythic theme of night and day we are meant to be creatures of the day. In Christian terms we live in the resurrected life after “coming to Jesus.”
What does this mean? I am going to suggest that it means accepting that the world is already “saved” or, to say the same thing from another point of view, that you personally are not responsible for all the evil in the world – and dealing with it. What is it this Christ is said to accomplish with his dying on the cross? He tears the veil of the sanctuary, revealing to all, and in public everyday in the ritual of the Eucharist, the contents of the Holy of Holies, the innermost altar in the innermost room of the temple. Not the temples made by human hands in our various religions but the temple of the human body. What is accomplished on the cross, what is this revelation? It was said to be the defeat of the devil and the harrowing of hell. The Christ kills the devil and frees those under his power to become children of god. To believe in this is to be able to pray the Our Father. This is the central teaching of the Christ, this prayer (along with the Beatitudes). One of the most telling characteristics of this prayer gives the whole show away. Have we heard it too many times to really hear what it is saying? It is addressed to god, not the devil, and asks god “not to lead us into temptation.” Wait, isn’t that the role of the devil? What is going on here?
There is an understanding BC, before Christ, that is not the same as the understanding AD, after death. The Western world enshrined this comprehension of its own mythology in the calendar with its use of BC and AD dividing all of human time into the before and after of this encounter. It was a collective symbol of what individuals also have a chance to encounter in the Christ. Jesus was a Jewish teacher, the Christ is an anointing, not a last name. The Christ is a light of truth larger than what could be captured exclusively by any story, including the Jesus story. It’s the star that guides the wise men from the East, the grace of truth in all the poetic myth and prosaic prose of all people of goodwill throughout all times. It still guides us today. It is the living logos: the ability of our words to carry truth and meaning. It is exactly this power of the Word that is now suffering at the hands of PR, spin, sales, fake news, and magical preaching. It is also the cause of the suffering of most dysfunctional families who use language to tell lies about that-which-shall-not-be-spoken. Just as healing comes to the abused once they are able to speak, so healing comes to the broken soul when it is able to accept that it really is vulnerable and depends on the kindness and goodwill of others. Coming to the cross involves struggling with how love and truth have died in your own life.
As the Roman Empire gave up its hundreds of cults, and the whole menagerie of con-men that accompanied them, for Christianity it seemed, for a time, that the age of living under the destructive power of superstitious thinking had ended and mankind had entered a new era, a new eon, in which day consciousness would have its proper place. We were to live no longer driven and haunted by nightmares of our own imaginations and all the visions of gods, devils, angels, demons, heavens and hells that formerly lead us to dismiss the value of earth life just as it is. It was a blow to the whole Gnostic idea that this earth is hell and spirituality is all about escape. The revelation of god as love, not as a satanic destroyer, was to put an end to all that. That is what the teaching of the calendar was meant to convey.
One objection to the whole Christian mythology is, of course, that the world does not at all look like one in which the powers of nightmare are defeated. If Jesus was actually the Christ, how could that be? That, however, might very much depend on one’s own point of view, be it BC or AD. There are two truths here, just as we find in Buddhism. The Christ was said to have removed the fear of death, the devil and hell for those who found in him the truth. Buddha was said to have removed the burden of the caste system and reincarnation for those who found in him the truth. The Buddha was said to have taught us how to be a genuine human being. The Christ is said to have taught us how to be genuine creatures, children of god. Both had a message that the other paths being offered, the ones that claim to lead to men becoming gods, are lies. The divine pharaoh and his attendant priests does not like that message. They did not like it then and they do not like it now.
Jesus is a personality. That is what the Gospels are sharing, the story of a person in enough detail that an image of an individual comes through. That individual is one that countless people over the centuries have come to love and in that love established a “personal relationship with Jesus.” American religion is so overwhelmingly evangelical that phrase tends to invoke the idea of a true believer talking with Jesus in their head all the time. Quite a special person to be getting constant advice from the creator of existence for their every doubt and decision. . . That is not the type of relationship I think the Gospel stories offer. The stories were here before you were born and will be here long after you have gone. You as an individual confronting these collective stories have a choice about what they are going to mean to you. That is the relationship. If you were born in a country that has a Christian past, of necessity you will establish some sort of a relationship with the myth of your people. This becomes your “personal relationship with Jesus.”
This is not to say you must become a believer in any sense a preacher might use. It is pointing out that there is no real choice in the matter. Once you see the crucifix and hear the story, you are confronted with the question: who killed this man? Why has he hung there over the centuries, as Bowie sang in Next Day, “not quite dying”?
One answer to this question of who killed the Christ is that the devil did it. This is the scapegoat role for the torture victim. Frazier’s Golden Bough is a study in the slaying of kings or priests, or very often their substitutes, for the good of the crops and the community. Rene Girard’s anthropological study Violence and the Sacred adds important insights into what these actions meant to the communities that took part in them. He explains how the external enemy unites a fractioned society. Leaders have long known how an external threat quiets domestic squabbles (something I expect we will be seeing here again soon in this fractured America). The concept of the devil is the ultimate outsider and the ultimate threat.
Beside the scapegoat answer there is another possibility. The scapegoat is innocent but bears the weight of the community’s trespasses. The cross was used for killing criminals of the worst sort. Perhaps that man is hanging there because he deserves it. This is closer, I think, to the truth of it. Here is the one that “takes on the sins of the world.” To believe that, doesn’t that mean to see there fallen human flesh and blood? The evil that has caused people so much suffering is finally getting its due. That corpus on the cross is representing the serial rapist killer, the sadistic death camp officer, and all the other human beings whose lives have inflicted the most viciously cruel violence on other people. God’s justice is being served. We would all gladly pay our thirty pieces of silver to get our revenge. Yet each of us, we too are sinners. This interpretive door opens the way into the war that lives in the human heart. For the believer, faith brings peace to that war through an act of grace. Something happens when the divine love comes and sweeps a human heart away into the embrace of the mystical marriage personally. The archetypal rearrangement of the individual’s psyche, if you will, lasts for the rest of the believer’s life. It involves an act of the will accomplished through intention and accomplished once and for all; just as the death on the cross is said to have satisfied divine justice once and for all for each individual who accepts it. These believers know they will have the ordeal of their own “hour of death” still to deal with, but an hour is a light burden to shoulder compared to a lifetime spent ruled by anger and revenge fed by superstitious shadows and fears.
The day and night mythology has guided humans since before the time of Stonehenge. The solstice return of the increasing sun at the very nadir of the dark season has been celebrated universally since time out of mind. Merry Christmas indeed. What the mono-myth of Christianity, as the culmination of the mysteries, is offering is this same ancient teaching distilled into the most inspired form our ancestors were able to create. The path to psychological maturity and the accumulated wisdom of the elderly are here. The maturity, however, is complex and is only found by embracing our painful vulnerability on the one hand, and forgiving those who blew out our flickering light of faith on the other. Those who brought us to the dark night, those in our own hearts who hurt us when we loved them the most, how are we to truly forgive them and end the war inside? To forgive is not the same as to forget. In order to forgive, first the truth must be spoken. Part of that truth is understanding that there is no magical ‘I’m sorry’ spell that makes everything all better. Forgiveness is not simple, it never has been.