The Greatest Contribution of Christianity

Nearly 15 years ago, I had the chance to ask Christopher Hitchens, one of the world’s most prominent critics of religion, a simple question: “What do you think is the greatest contribution of Christianity, either writ large in terms of society or writ small in terms of individual lives?”

To which Hitchens, an atheist who grew up as a nominal Christian, replied, “The greatest contribution of Christianity in my life is the reminder of the complete ephemerality of human power, and indeed of human existence—the transience of all states, empires, heroes, grandiose claims, and so forth. That’s always with me. And I daresay I could have got that from Einstein—I would have—and from Darwin, too. But the way I got it and the way it’s implanted in me is certainly by Christianity.”

Hitch was onto something. Good Friday, which commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus, and Easter, which celebrates his resurrection, are very good occasions to reflect on faith, human power, and its ephemerality.

Christianity’s relationship with power is complicated and in many respects counterintuitive. On the one hand, politics can have profound human consequences. It matters whether the state is a guardian or an enemy of human dignity, and history is replete with people of faith using political power to advance justice.

On the other hand, Jesus, upon whom the Christian faith rests, was not the conquering Messiah many expected. He came as a servant, not a king. He was born in poverty rather than privilege. He never led a political movement; neither did his disciples, who did not have, in worldly terms, status or influence.

Jesus was drawn to social outcasts and the “unclean,” the persecuted and the powerless. His conflicts were not with prostitutes, reviled tax collectors, or sinners, with whom he spent time; they were with the religious and politically powerful.

Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world. The last shall be first. The meek shall inherit the Earth. And the greatest in heaven will be the lowliest on Earth. His words were an extraordinary inversion of expectations. But the greatest demonstration of anti-power—the antithesis of worldly power and worldly victory—was the crucifixion of Jesus.

Crucifixion was among the cruelest forms of execution ever devised, delaying death, sometimes for days, in order to maximize pain. The cross was a symbol of anguish and indignity. Jesus, mocked on the cross, with a crown of thorns on his head, with two criminals on either side of him, cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He cried out one more time in a loud voice, and then “gave up his spirit,” in words found in the Gospel of Matthew.

It’s little wonder that the apostle Paul would describe the cross as a stumbling block for some, foolishness for others. The crucified God is not an easy concept for anyone to wrap their minds around. Frederick Nietzsche was contemptuous of the cross for glorifying weakness; Ayn Rand, for sacrificing “virtue to vice.”

For those of us of the Christian faith, the death of Jesus is not a symbol of powerlessness—though in some respects it was that—but rather an act of selflessness and sacrificial love. In Christian theology, sin needed to be judged by a just God; there needed to be an atonement, a concept that Christians share with Jews. But the way Christians believe it played out is that Jesus—“the Lamb of God who was slain”—took on himself the sins of the world so that others may live. In that sense, Ayn Rand was correct; it was the sacrifice of the ideal for the non-ideal. But what repelled her has for more than 20 centuries won the hearts of followers of Jesus.

Yet there’s more to it than simply that. For Christians, the incarnation and (especially) the events on the cross mean that God doesn’t just have sympathy for those who suffer; he enters into suffering. He is not a distant God. He has entered into the human drama, and he didn’t escape without wounds.

I have taken comfort during my own times of grief and pain in believing that God can empathize with my experience. It’s reassuring to believe that heartbreak and suffering, even tears, aren’t alien concepts to Jesus. This doesn’t repair what is shattered; it doesn’t reclaim what is lost. But it does make the loss more tolerable. I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s a sense of feeling known, a kind of solidarity in suffering.

That, of course, doesn’t answer why an all-good and all-powerful God would allow suffering to exist rather than eradicate it. Christianity doesn’t provide an explanation; what it does is place pain into a larger narrative, one in which the crucifixion of Jesus gives way to his resurrection. Death gives way to life. Fractured lives are repaired. Restorative justice happens.

“Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumph of Easter,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1956. “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but one day that same Christ will arise and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”

THE POWERLESSNESS OF GOD, as understood through the prism of the New Testament, shouldn’t be confused with a lack of influence in this world. Quite the opposite, in fact. The movement started by Jesus and a handful of his followers had, within three centuries, changed the world. This wasn’t because the adherents of that movement gained control of the kingdoms of this world; it wasn’t because they rallied around leaders who would exact vengeance, even leaders who claimed to do so in the name of Christianity.

They changed the world because they sought to serve rather than to be served. Because they were known for their mercy, their forbearance, their kindness, and their grace. Because they were peacekeepers and justice seekers. And because they cared for those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” What you have done for them, he said, you have done for me. When Christians have lost sight of that, as they very often have, they’ve gotten into trouble.

My friend Christopher Hitchens was right about this: Human power is ephemeral; all states, empires, and grandiose claims are transitory. But love is not. The story goes on. And all things will be made new again.

The Atlantic