You have probably figured out that violence profoundly concerns me.
It haunts some of our most powerful stories and beliefs: Anzac and Good Friday.
These accounts, as we receive them, render violence acceptable as a means to an end.
While these stories engage me intensely, in the end, they don’t satisfy.
The meanings they communicate are what I call ‘smooth.’ The distress and trauma, the rough edges have been rendered pleasing, even rubbed out.
Last week, I watched Abandoned Britain. Michael Portillo visited Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot where Dr Harold Gillies undertook pioneering work for soldiers who had suffered terrifying and obscene facial injuries during WW1.
Shown before and after pictures, the healing power of Gillies’ new surgical techniques was evident. Naively, it occurred to me that there was a much better solution: stop firing weapons at other people.
When I read the New Testament, similar issues arise: how could the pivotal event of Good Friday be good?
These concerns have been brought to my attention again as I read Christ Actually: The Son of God for this Secular Age by James Carroll.
He notes that violence overshadowed the life of Jesus and the gospels. While aware of this, I soon recognised I had not comprehended the scale of it.
For example, when Jesus was very young, there was a revolt against Roman rule in Galilee. It spread to Jerusalem where, according to Josephus, the Romans crucified two thousand Jews. (They also carried out extensive reprisals in Galilee.)
The trauma of such public torture must have impacted Jewish culture and shaped the world in which Jesus grew up.
In the uprising against Rome, AD 66-73, the Romans crucified at least ten thousand rebels outside the walls of Jerusalem. Josephus suggests an overall death toll for the rebellion of one million!
All four gospels, which detail Jesus’ passion, were written in the shadow of this horror. As Carroll notes, reading the story of one crucifixion, Jesus’, against the background of ten thousand changes the way that Jesus’ suffering is interpreted: he didn’t suffer on behalf of others; he suffered alongside them.
Nonetheless, over the centuries, a ‘smooth’ story emerged which highlighted the unique atoning sacrifice of Jesus. It permitted believers to extricate themselves from the widespread cruelty inflicted by imperial authorities, and the memory of that trauma encoded in culture. The doctrine of vicarious atonement is a smooth abstraction.
Albeit unwittingly, it codifies violence as a divine means to an end.
Living many centuries later, in a country blessed with peace, we need to be very wary of such stories.
In fact, we should go further and craft different meanings for these stories. Even better, let’s seek out alternate, gripping stories that eschew violence.