Our culture has largely domesticated the cross. We have been conditioned to approach Jesus in quite a curious manner. We view his death with praise and thanksgiving, pointing to his incredible love that manifested itself in humility. We, however, never take a second to recognize humility for what it truly is.
In the cross, we see power, we see strength, we see the greatness of a King who provided the perfect sacrifice, and we see the conquering of sin. The cross, in antiquity, was an instrument of Rome’s brutalizing power to humiliate. It has been well established that “humility” was not a virtue in Greco-Roman ethics. Rather the word (humilitas in Latin, or tapeinos in Greek) meant something closer to “debased” or “crushed.” It was a term reserved for failure and shame. The ancient Greeks considered the 146 maxims of the Delphic Cannon from the 6th century BC to be the substance of the ethical life; there is no mention of the word, let alone the theme, of “humility.” Rather, it praised philotimia, “the love of honour.” It would seem that building one’s honor and reputation would prove to be far more advantageous than completely debasing oneself.
I am currently taking a class that focuses on Pauline letters in the context of the prevailing Roman Imperial influence. Probably, one of the best known expression of love-of-honor is the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (The Achievements of the Divine Augustus), written by the emperor himself and inscribed by his order onto bronze tablets set up in front of his monument. Copies of this were distributed throughout the empire, and it provided a catalogue of the emperor’s activities. However, more importantly, it provides a glimpse of a world-view so different than our own where a sense of boastfulness was accepted and associated with power.
So where does humility enter the picture?
If we glance through Jesus’ teachings, we find:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. ”
“Love your enemies. ”
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Jesus seemed to be subverting the ancient notions of greatness and servitude, but it was not his teaching that was responsible for the prevailing notion of humility; rather, it was his death. Crucifixion was the ultimate punishment in antiquity, reserved for political rebels and slaves. Among the three official method of capital punishment, crucifixion, decapitation, and burning alive, crucifixion was seen as the most brutal and most shameful. Victims were scourged with a leather strap embedded with meta and pottery, stripped naked, led to a public place and nailed to a large wooden beam, where they could spend sometimes days of excruciating pain, often dying from asphyxiation. This is the death that our King faced. The most perfect man was brought to the lowest place the Roman world could construct.
Yet, in his debasement, we find glory. We also find the motivation behind our own humility.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:3-8)
It is hard and quite counter-intuitive to accept the beauty of such ethics as humility when one refuses to accept the one who was responsible for their beauty.
John Dickinson so aptly puts it, “That is the influence of a story whose impact can be felt regardless of whether its details are believed – a story about greatness that willingly went to a cross. Our culture remains cruciform long after it stopped being Christian.”