Jesus set out for Jerusalem, knowing full well that he would be marching straight to his death. And the standard Christian interpretation of this, is something along the lines of – yes, he wanted to save humanity from the eternal damnation every individual deserves, so he entered Jerusalem, and died to pay the penalty that a wrathful God had imposed upon an otherwise irredeemable humanity. Good news eh – Jesus loved you so much he died on your behalf, to ensure that you have access to eternal bliss. There is, however, a more biblical interpretation of this sequence of events.
My first boss in the Air Force was a senior officer who used to call me ‘Perrers’, who had never learned to smile, and whose entire persona was summarized in the poster that hung from his office door that read: ‘Life’s a bitch, and then you die, and then someone else gets all your stuff.’ Now that poster was far more consistent with the Biblical narrative of Jesus’s love-driven journey to the cross.
Because if you read Scripture as a whole, it is consistent with an honest engagement with the world as it really is. That the universe, the world, and the daily life of human beings is a violent, tragic, cosmic litany of disaster after disaster. Horrible stuff happens to people, all the time: death is everywhere and inescapable, life is unbearably fragile and intolerably short and human beings have an innate capacity to make things worse for one another in the quest to make things better for themselves. Life’s a bitch, and then you die, and then someone else gets all your stuff. The real world can be cruel, and barbaric, and viscous, and will crush you if you let it.
There’s nothing necessarily gloomy or nihilist about this… and if you don’t think the world is a horrible place, it’s probably because – for whatever reason – you have yet to experience it properly: maybe because of a culture of trying to protect young people from the world instead of prepare them for it, maybe because of luck, or privilege, of denial, of distraction – but sooner or later, the real world as it is – in all its cold and unsympathetic fury, will impose itself on you. The world is brutish, and violent and cold. And the only thing standing between you and the abyss is something called civilization.
Civilization is the system that enables humanity to salvage some kind of order from the chaos of the universe. It is the basic narrative of the book of Genesis, the creation accounts which show a means by which humans learn to co-exist in the midst of infinite and eternal chaos and meaninglessness. The Old Testament as a whole narrates the story of a particular people group, with a particular form of civilization which enables them to embody a particular way of being that values human life without shrinking from what the world really is. But by the first century, things were not looking great for this particular civilization. The Jewish people had become an oppressed minority, with no influence, intoxicated now by the sheer power, ideology and culture of the world’s dominant civilization: the Roman Empire.
The Jewish worldview was in danger of being engulfed, losing its distinctiveness, its identity, and its unique means of calling forth order from chaos.
Jesus had spent recent months, reinvigorating the Jewish people groups of Palestinian territories. He had reawakened their tradition of a living and vibrant scripture – that placed radical, political love at the centre of their civilization.
A love that generated a civizilation in which the least is valued no less than the greatest.
A love that manifested itself radical, self-giving love for the other.
A love that sought the wellbeing of others, regardless of the social cost, or the emotional cost, or the financial cost.
A love that could be weaponised, disarming oppressors and bullies and cyber trolls without recourse to physical or emotional or verbal violence.
A love that reached into the chaos buried in depths of the human psyche to establish an order of infinitely greater magnitude than self-interest can hope to glimpse.
A love that unlocks unknown dimensions of the self, only by abandoning self-interest.
A love that generates a fully human civilization.
A love that Jesus had taught, and embodied, and that would not halt at the gates of human chaos. That is the kind of love Jesus sought to generate, the kind of society he sought to establish, the kind of civilization he sought to create – when he marched into Jerusalem. Knowing that he was marching to his own fate, fully aware that life’s a bitch, and then you die, and then someone else gets all your stuff.
But Jesus didn’t have any stuff.
And death is no defence against a love that generates civilization.
And life is a bitch, but maybe that’s not all it is.