In reading the gospels, it is difficult to separate the person Jesus from the images and stories that have been built up in our own memories and readings. It is hard to shell, to un-husk, the historical account from the gloss that our re-readings and re-tellings have rendered. It is impossible not to heroize with story the death and resurrection of a man who is also God’s son. To make His crucifixion the Crucifixion.
But to do so, as (our conference speaker!) Francis Spufford says here, is to miss the point of Christianity’s unique position on the everyday tragedies of life, the quiet waste of suffering and loss that we grow accustomed to assuming. After all, the crucifixion was a routine kill, a low fate for a common criminal. What, then, does this forgettable tragedy say about the God who endured it? This comes from the Et Cetera chapter of Unapologetic.
Like a tragedy, it stirs up pity and terror in us. Like a tragedy it requires us to contemplate the world’s darkness. Like a tragedy, it draws attention to waste. It shows us a life that need not have been extinguished being extinguished, without particular malice, by the normal processes of the world. It shows us that accident, injustice, spoilage, are all standard, all in the pitiably usual course of things. Here it’s important that Jesus’s death was an obscure one, when it happened. He’s not an Oedipus or a Prince Hamlet, someone falling from greatness. His death belongs beside the early cutting-short of the millions of lives of people too poor or too unimportant ever to have been recorded in the misleading story we call history; people only mourned by others as brief as themselves, and therefore gone from human memory as if they had never been. Jesus dies like a migrant worker who suffocates in a freight container, like a garbage-picker caught in a slide, like a child with an infected finger, like a beggar the bus reverses over. Or, of course, like all the other slaves ever punished by crucifixion, a fate so low, said Cicero, that no well-bred person should ever even mention it. Christians believe that Jesus’s death is, among other things, a way for God to mention it, loudly and with no good breeding at all, a declaration by the maker of the world, in pain and solidarity, that to Him the measure of the waste of history is not the occasional tragedies of kings but the routine losses of every day. It is not an accident that Christianity began as a religion ‘for slaves and women’. (Nietzsche—he thinks this is a criticism. It’s a compliment.) It is not an accident that, wherever it travels, it appeals first to untouchables. The last shall be first and the first shall be last, said Jesus. You’d have to turn the world upside down to do justice to God’s sense of the tragedy of it.
And when the story does turn the world upside down, or the order of nature anyway, by telling us that Jesus lives again, it isn’t suggesting that he didn’t really die, or that he won’t really die. The happy ending makes a promise sized to the utmost extent of our darkest convictions. It says “Yes, and…” to tragedy. It promises, bizarrely enough, that love is stronger than death. But it does not promise that death is imaginary, that death is avoidable, that death is temporary. To have death, this once, be reversed is to let us feel the depth of our ordinary loss in it, not to pretend it away. Some people ask nowadays what kind of a religion it is that chooses an instrument of torture for its symbol, as if the cross on churches must represent some kind of endorsement. The answer is: one that takes the existence of suffering seriously.