I was listening to the Diane Rehm Show Thursday and the subject of the first hour was the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. One of the guests brought up the fact that President Johnson knew that passing this law would lose the solid South that the Democrats had controlled since the Civil War. He was in effect committing political suicide as was his party. And for what? For a moral principle. The same was true of the Speaker of the House, a Republican from the same district as today's Speaker, John Boehner. He wanted the passing of the law to be bipartisan and having achieved it, he lost his speakership the next year. And the guest said, “Call you imagine a politician today doing the same?”
Sacrifice is one of those things we like when it is done by someone else. We like others making sacrifices that benefit us. But when it is our time to make a sacrifice, we often balk, at least if the sacrifice is more than a few minutes of our time or a few extra cents per product or a minimal amount of effort. And certainly we would object to anything that makes a permanent negative change in our lifestyle or income or position or power.
Now if there is a threat to someone we really love, we might be willing to make a sacrifice. Parents may sacrifice themselves for their children. True parenthood is a form of sacrifice: you give up sleep, you give up a lot of your time and your money for your children. Not every parent does, however. In fact, there are people who give up their children in deference to their spouse or lover. My wife and I briefly took in a teenage girl whose mother chose her boyfriend over her daughter when the 2 came into conflict. And men often sacrifice their time with their children for the sake of their job or for a new relationship. In my work at the jail I have seen parents burn out on bailing out their offspring repeatedly and just give up on them. We expect parents to make sacrifices for their kids but in the real world that is not always a given.
A person may sacrifice him or herself for a spouse or lover. A woman may give up her dreams, her preferred career, her friends, her family, her hopes of having children for a man. It can work the other way as well. Some sacrifice in the form of compromise is necessary in a relationship. But it can be one-sided. Again as a chaplain I have seen people go to jail for a lover.
Would you be willing to give up your life, though? For your children? For your lover? Would you die for them? Would you take a bullet? Would you give up a limb? Soldiers sacrifice themselves for their country though most hope, as Patton said, to make enemy soldiers die for their country.
Outside of war, giving up your life voluntarily and rationally to save another is rare. So much so that when someone like Sgt. 1st Class Danny Ferguson dies using his body to wedge a door shut against the shooter at Ft. Hood, thereby saving a room full of his colleagues, everyone takes notice. That is not ordinary behavior. It is normal to run and hide. Most people in a crisis are either victims or victimizers. Unlike the movies, the cops and EMTs usually don't arrive in time to stop the disaster or even mitigate it but later, to help the survivors, clean up the aftermath, and figure out what happened.
9 times out of 10 when a person sacrifices himself in order to save others it is a split second decision. It's not like they knew what was coming and deliberately put themselves in harm's way. But Jesus did. Whether he foresaw it because he knew that anyone upsetting the status quo was likely to end up on a cross, or because the Spirit let him know in no uncertain terms, Jesus saw what was coming. And he could have stopped it. He could have had the other disciples seize Judas before he slipped out of the upper room. He could have hightailed it to Bethany, 2 miles away from Jerusalem, where Lazarus, Mary and Martha lived. They would have hidden him or gotten him out of Judea. Jesus could have disarmed the accusations leveled against him, denied who he was and toed the party line. Heck, he told Peter that he could have called legions of angels to save him. But he didn't do any of those things. Something more important was at stake.
In a movie, if a character sacrifices himself, it is for someone he loves. Usually just one person. Movie people rarely die merely to save millions or for a principle. Too abstract. We like to keep it simple and relatable. If Hollywood were writing the story of Jesus, he would die primarily for one person, his true love. And he wouldn't be crucified, he'd go down fighting. Actually Hollywood did make that Jesus film; it's called The Matrix.
Hollywood understands that dying for the whole world is hard to make immediate and emotional. And they're right. In the 3rd movie, when Neo, the Christ figure, dies to reconcile humans and robots, there is no emotional catharsis as there was in the first. Neo has no relationship with all of humanity and all the robots. How could he? He's just one human being. Instead of the big emotional ending, we get dialogue between 2 sentient programs on a bench, explaining what just happened.
In straightforward Jesus movies, the emphasis is on the physical suffering, not his atonement for the sins of the world. Because they can show the physical stuff. But how do you show Jesus dying for everyone in the world, past, present and future? You really can't.
But he did. He died for all of us which means he died for each of us. But how is that possible?
A human being really can't have any kind of meaningful relationship with more than 150 individuals. That goes back to when we lived in tribes and extended families. It is still a psychological limit. You may have a larger group of people in your school or company or town with whom you occasionally interact but they are neither family nor friends nor acquaintances you could recognize on sight or with whom you would ever chat. There's a reason for this. Where would you find the time to get to know hundreds or thousands of folks?
But God lives outside of time. He inhabits eternity and has, so to speak, all the time in the world to devote to each person. He can study each person, listen to each thought, hear each word, observe each action. He can hear every prayer and communicate with each individual, if that person is receptive. So in his pre-existent state Christ made and knew and loved every person who ever existed. To him, his mission to save the whole world was personal, done to save his beloved but in a way it could never be for someone who is only human.
Every slice of the whip, every blow from the mocking soldiers, every prick from the thorny crown, every stumbling step made under the weight of the crossbar, every scraped knee from a fall, every blow from the hammer driving home the nail, every shooting pain as he was raised into place, every shudder as the cross fell into its slot, every agonized gasp for air he endured for you. Each and every one of you. And, yes, me as well.
Jesus suffered for every cruel thought we ever had, every cutting or untruthful word we ever uttered, every selfish or harmful act we ever made, every time when we said or did nothing when someone needed to speak up or step up and help or protect someone. Every awful thing we did to others we did to him. Every supportive and comforting thing we withheld from others we withheld from him. It should have been each of us who was made to carry our cross through the jeering crowds to Golgotha. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole and by his bruises are we healed.
You may say, “I have never done anything that merits crucifixion.” Not knowingly perhaps. You may not know the damage your childhood insults about the fat kid in class did to his or her fragile psyche later in life. You may not know what further terrible thing happened to the young woman whose black eye and bruises you chose to ignore. You may not know how your not contributing to that church disaster fund affected people in that devastated country. You may not know how your indifference to a politician's badly thought-out policies hurt real people. You may not know that the food you eat or the electronics you buy are supporting virtual or actual slavery in the third world country that produces them. We know we are responsible for the evil we do. But are we automatically absolved from the evil done on our behalf or the good we do not do? Isn't that rather too close to the excuse of the low-level Nazis who said, “I was just a small cog in the system?”
Small things can have a very big impact. The eating of a monkey in the Congo in the early part of the 20th century led to the AIDS epidemic 60 years later. If a tiny virus can initiate a cascade of biological events that sickens millions, might not the cumulative effects of all the tiny evils we do or decline to stop contribute to the moral disease affecting our world? Didn't we see in 2008 how interdependent the whole world is, so that the financial sins of a few destroyed the jobs and pensions and home-ownership of millions? The human race is one family, all sharing the mitochondrial DNA of one African woman and the Y chromosomes of one African man, both of whom lived more than 100,000 years ago. If we share a common biology, why not a common morality? If our shared physical makeup allows us to pass on physical contagion, why can't our shared spiritual nature allow us to pass on spiritual corruption?
In Jesus' day half of all children died before their fifth birthday. Vaccines have drastically reduced and even eliminated some diseases that used to kill great numbers of people. Sadly some of these childhood diseases are reemerging because of misinformed people not vaccinating their kids and those children are spreading these germs to others.
Can it work the other way? C.S. Lewis spoke of Christianity being a good infection, spiritual healing spread by getting and maintaining close contact with Jesus. He is patient zero and the good infection of his Spirit first spreads to the twelve and spills out of Jerusalem at Pentecost to pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire. Everywhere they go there is a breakout of the good news. The apostles spread faith in Jesus as far as they can. In 300 years Christianity takes over the Empire. The pagan Germanic tribes conquer Rome but faith in Jesus conquers them. It spreads to the New World, to the East and the global South. And while some mutations arise, the original code of the Incarnate, Crucified and Risen God teaching love and forgiveness reasserts itself whenever we get too far from the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
And it all starts on the cross. Which seems unnecessarily messy. But so is physical birth. So is life-saving surgery. The body is penetrated; blood is spilled; there are scars. And the paradox is that out of this messy painful process comes miraculous new life. We feel it shouldn't but it does. The God of love comes to earth and we do the unforgivable: we kill him. That should be our damnation as a species but God turns it into our salvation. He forgives us. He nullifies the evil done to him and then that nullification gets spread to us and the evils we do to others and ourselves. All it requires is embracing Jesus and letting the good infection inside. Let him rewrite your spiritual code. Let it manifest itself in how you think, how you speak, and how you act. And then carry this good infection to others. It means you will have to get close to others. It may get emotionally messy. There may be pain. It will take sacrifices. But that gives way to real health, a mending of body, mind and spirit.
If one new life only comes through painful labor, what did the new lives of a whole world cost God? A world of pain. But he thinks it was worth it. To save you. Each and every one of you. And even me.