At the Foot of the Cross 2009

Nails - The Point Is

"The point is" and "What is the point?" are two ideas at opposite ends of the spectrum; by the time we reach "the point is", we have made up our mind and are trying to persuade others; if we ask "what is the point?" we are on the verge of stopping something or deciding not to start it. A point is a highly focused idea, intellectually and physically; we have crossing points and turning points, points of view and points of contact, points on salary scales and points for sports scores. Because a point in geometry has no area, occupies no space but is simply a notion, we expect any point to be tiny and, if it is given physical expression, in a knife, a needle or a nail, we expect it to be sharp. But the nails used to crucify Jesus were probably not sharp at all. Our only Gospel evidence for Jesus being nailed to the Cross comes from John (John 20:24-29), and then only in a post Resurrection scene where Jesus invites the doubting Thomas to inspect his wounds. those wounds are often represented as rather neat and tidy but the crude nails used for common criminals were shattering rather than piercing; murder was not a work of art it was a common, civic necessity.

I was brought up in a deeply ideological world, as a Roman Catholic socialist in the days of Aneurin Bevan and Pope Pius XII.  The only real difference between politics and religion were the buildings; the Knights of Saint Columba walked as a body from Saint Joseph's to the Weaver's Institute. The atmosphere was tribal, the arguments circular; the 'left' was as hostile to its nearly 'own' as was one Christian denomination to another. I continued to live in this strange world right through university; books were making my mind ever more open and flexible but the real world was harsh and combative. For the record, I was always hostile to 'far left' groups, was uncomfortable about strikes and demonstrations but regretted the need for them more than the events themselves. I never believed that ideological politics would work: then there was Prague, then the miners' strike, then the Berlin wall came tumbling down; and Francis Fukuyama famously and, prematurely as it turned out, wrote about the end of history. Then there were twenty golden years of unbridled, unideological exuberance; then there was the internet bubble, the credit crunch and the banking collapse. The use of the term 'unideological' is, of course, ironic. One ideology had simply triumphed over another.

Ideologies are intellectual and religious nails used to secure objects; they are used, literally, to nail things down. Jesus was killed by the twin ideologies of conservative Judaism and military imperialism: no seminar, no debate, no room for manoeuvre; just nails.

Today, our ideologies are less blatant and perhaps more subtle but we have ideologies of education, child rearing (most applied to the children of other people), immigration, punishment, social worth and the distribution of the fruits of an intensively inter-dependent society. But we must be careful because no matter how reasonable we think our stance may be on any issue it can so easily become difficult to see past ideology to people; just think about the way in which ideologies supposed to secure greater human happiness have killed millions of people; what is the point of an ideology that uses cruel means for a benign end?

The crucial point is that the exaltation of an ideology over loving our neighbour is the strongest possible symptom of psychosis. Jesus was fundamentally non-ideological; he would not judge; and where he was confronted by harshness for the sake of ideology, he condemned it. That is not to say that he did not have core values, that he did not have very deep beliefs, but his belief centred on the ultimate indispensability of God and the primacy of love; and, contrary to popular prejudice, love is not a matter of doing things to people, of spreading a kind of personal ideology through assertion, it is valuing other people for what they are in themselves and allowing them to express themselves; love is getting out of the way; of emptying the ego, of learning how to take.

And, ultimately, this difference of approach, of cultural and moral temperament, brought Jesus into cosmic conflict with humanity. Jesus was content to explain, to understand, to see everything in terms of the ultimate essence of God's love but we, made to choose, could never accept any maxim so simple. Because we are made to choose we weigh options and look for patterns; and when we find a pattern that fits our temperament and our times we take security in it and exalt it above our own selfishness by calling it a belief, an ideology, a code. And it is not the actual code that matters all that much; there is less difference than we would like to think between Nazism and Stalinism, between socialism and capitalism, between Christianity and Islam; we are all marching around with our hammers and nails: a poster here; an opinion there; a judicious piece of patronage; a paragraph in the papers; a smile or a frown; we all make thousands of decisions and without some kind of framework we would find this impossible; and so would other people who want to know in advance how we will react to proposals or pressure. But, again, the problem is not the pattern or the predictability but the divorcement of the pattern or process from people; and the irrational intensity of faith in the pattern.

We can see the fundamental difference between the perfect humanity of Jesus and our humanity; we cannot survive without a measure of ideology but as a necessary adjunct to our createdness as imperfect creatures, we should simply see that as a tool for dealing with complexity and shock, not as a something more important than the creator out of pure love.

I am, of course, asking for the impossible; but not really. When I was getting ready, as the first ever member of my family to go to university, my grandfather, the Catholic socialist par excellence, told me that the world had quite enough clever people but not enough good ones. We can afford to take the risk, to take people as we find them, to love them freely, to create space for our neighbour and the world will not fall apart; there will still be enough grafters out there; we might be laughed at and even insulted but those are tiny inconveniences compared with what Jesus suffered for who he was. It is too easy for us to adopt a mid-way position in our religion, somewhere between the Pharisees and Jesus; on the one hand, they were extreme, on the other, Jesus is just too good to be true. Yes, we know that God is love - it says so at the beginning of the Marriage Service - but we have to temper love with judgment; we have to temper mercy with justice; we have to be cruel to be kind; if we spare the rod we will spoil the child. But the mistake we keep making is introducing necessary civic measures, necessary simply because we are imperfect and liable to do things which harm our neighbour, into the religious sphere. Nobody doubts that we need policemen and judges but that does not mean that God is a judge in command of a host of clerical policemen. Every time there is a prospect of a new openness to love, a sense of untidiness, or things 'getting out of hand' we need our hammer to find the offending loose end and nail it down. There is a proverb which says "cleanliness is next to godliness" but I often think the more dangerous assumption is that "tidiness is next to godliness"; all our major theological disputes are between the tidy and the powerful on the one hand and the approximate and not so powerful on the other; and that is an interesting set of antitheses because Jesus was, in the world's terms, neither tidy nor powerful; and the saints who break open the idea of love and scatter new seed are suspected by the tidy and the powerful. Because we need patterns, we value tidiness; but there is surely something fundamentally untidy about love because it is permissive rather than assertive; if love is creating space in which others can operate freely, the last thing that we would want to do is to give the receiving space a sharply defined shape, for that would defeat the object of allowing freedom. Put another way, the major debates in the history of Christianity might be seen as conflicts between love and power. Love says: "I want to let Jesus into my heart"; but power says: "But to do that you need to have a set of characteristics which I will define for you".

It is no coincidence that the cross is our logo; it is very sharp and very simple; but we have precisely inverted the brand values of the logo. The ultimate brand value of the Cross is human weakness, the vulnerability which is a necessary precondition for love. If there is any triumph in this it is a paradoxical triumph, the triumph of the non triumphant, the victory of the anti-king. The metaphor we like to use is that in his Crucifixion, Jesus saved us from our sins but I would rather put it that he saved our capacity to love by showing that it was possible to love, no matter what odds there are against it; and that conflict of the capacity to love and the odds against it are both factors in each of us; this is not a war between the wicked and the loving; it is a war within ourselves. And it is a war that is timeless. It afflicted  and enhanced the Jews just as it afflicts and enhances us; and the reason why we need to be here today, I suspect, is that we know that if we had been there when Jesus lived that things would have turned out no different; we would have stuck to the ideology, voted for tidiness, been frightened of tomorrow, been over-faced or out-faced by the simple, living, non judgmental person that told us to cast the first stone.

I think that that line of Jesus was his killer. There must have been two people taken in adultery but the man was let off and the woman was framed; and then the processes, built on centuries of misogyny and prejudice, were ridiculed by this man from Galilee. In the films of Frank Capra such heroism always won through, in the real world of Jesus it led to the nails which secured him to the cross.

There is a widening of human flourishing which is made possible by the adventure of love, by the movement of the hand and the heart to open; in the essence of our imperfection it is not pattern seeking that is wrong - as I have said, it is necessary - but it is only the open mind, the open heart, that can see new patterns that broaden our understanding. Jesus was not denying the paradigm of Judaism, he simply wanted to put it into a wider context, into a new pattern; and we are surely called upon to do the same. It is time to put away the nails, to live, against our inclinations and convenience, with a great deal more untidiness; only then will there be the freedom in which each of us can find new ways to live, new ways to be more like Jesus.

Prayer. Lord Jesus, it is only at this point of contact between the nails and your sacred hands and feet that we can bring ourselves to shudder at what we have done and what we have failed to d; when we, who were given free will, have become slaves to prejudice and ideology. May we learn from your love, generous and particular in its constancy, how we may love each other; and grant us the grace to see ourselves as fellows in your suffering, as well as those who drove in the nails or watched them being driven, so that we may be true creatures of our Creator.