Paul’s Imprisoned Perspective on Jesus’ Triumph
The apostle Paul made a sweeping claim about Jesus in the book of Colossians. “and having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15) To Paul, Jesus’ death offers the unforeseen advantage of triumph. Skepticism rears up on reading that claim: sure, Paul. Look around you. Does this world really resemble one in which God has triumphed over “the powers”? But Paul wrote these words while under arrest in Rome, and hostage of the greatest power of his day. Soon, probably under Nero, he would join Jesus in the gallery of martyrs.
We know from other passages that the apostle staked his life on his belief that what God accomplished in his Son’s resurrection, defeating the ultimate destructive power of death, he would accomplish for the entire groaning planet. In this passage in Colossians, however, Paul says nothing about the resurrection and keeps his gaze fixed on the cross. To what triumph could he be referring?
Jesus Takes the Side of the Marginalized
In recent years a French philosopher and anthropologist named Renee Gerard has explored that very question, exploring it so deeply, in fact, that to the consternation of his secular colleagues he converted to Christianity. It struck Gerard that Jesus’ story cuts against the grain of every heroic story from its time. The myths from Babylon, Greece, and elsewhere celebrated strong heroes, not weak victims. In contrast, from the very beginning, Jesus took the side of the underdog: the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the “marginalized.” Indeed, Jesus chose to be born in poverty and disgrace, spent his infancy as a refugee, lived in a minority race under a harsh regime, and died as a prisoner, unjustly accused.
Jesus admired people like a Roman soldier who cared for his dying slave; A tax collector who gave away his fortune to the poor; A member of the minority race who stopped to help a man accosted by thieves; a sinner who prayed a simple “help!” prayer; a shunned woman who reached out in desperation to touch his clothing; A beggar who ate crumbs from a rich man’s table. He disapproved of religious professionals who refused to help the wounded for fear of soiling themselves; A proud clergyman who looked down on sinners; The rich who offered only crumbs to the hungry; A responsible son who shunned his prodigal brother; The powerful who lived on the backs of the poor.
Empathy Emerges for Victims
When Jesus himself died ignominiously as an innocent victim, it introduced what one of Gerard’s disciples has called “the most sweeping historical revolution in the world, namely, the emergence of an empathy for victims.” Nowhere but in the Bible can you find an ancient story of an innocent, yet heroic victim dragged to his death. To the ancients, heroes were heroic, and victims were pitiable.
According to Gerard, societies have traditionally reinforced their power through “sacred violence.” The larger group (say, German Nazis or Serbian Nationalists) picks a scapegoat minority to direct its self-righteous violence against, which in turn bonds and emboldens the majority. The Jewish and Roman powers tried that technique against Jesus and it backfired. (The high priest Caiaphas expressed the scapegoat formula perfectly when he said of Jesus “it is better for you that one man die for the people then that the whole nation perish.”) Instead, the cross shattered the longstanding categories of weak victims and strong heroes, for the victim emerged as the hero.
The apostle Paul touched on a deep truth about Jesus paradoxical contribution in his claim to the Colossians. A public spectacle it was when Jesus exposed as false gods the very powers and authorities that men and women take such pride in. The most refined religion of the day accused an innocent man, and the most renowned justice system carried out the sentence.
As one of Flannery O’Connor’s Southern characters comments, “Jesus throws everything off balance.” The gospel centered on the cross ushered in a stunning reversal of values that went on to affect the entire world. Today the victim occupies the moral high ground: witness recent Nobel Peace Prize awards to a black South African clergyman, a Polish Union Leader, a Holocaust survivor, a Guatemalan peasant woman, a Bishop in persecuted East Timor. That the world honors and cares for the marginalized and disenfranchised, concluded Gerard, is a direct result of the cross of Jesus Christ.
Women, the poor, minorities, the disabled, environmental and human rights advocates—all these draw their moral force from the power of the gospel unleashed at the cross, when God took the side of the victim. In a great irony, the “politically correct” movement defending these rights often positions itself as an enemy of Christianity, when in fact the gospel has contributed the very underpinnings that made possible such a movement.
God’s expression in Jesus took the world by surprise, and two millennium later the reverberations have not stopped. In a culture that glorifies success and grows deaf to suffering, we need a constant reminder that at the center of the Christian faith hangs a suffering Christ, dying in shame.
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Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey