Our leaders should listen to this man of monstrous ideas
The challenges Christ set may be daunting but, in a country where Christianity is on the wane, we need to rise to meet them
In spite of centuries of confident talk about him, a halo of mystery still surrounds Jesus, whose birth we celebrate tomorrow. A great theologian of the early 20th century said of him: 'He comes to us as one unknown, without a name.' For Albert Schweitzer, whose words these are, what he finally encountered in Jesus meant the end of theology and the beginning of practical action. He tells us that after years of laborious research into his meaning and identity, he decided to become a doctor so that he might be able to work without having to talk. It has to be admitted that this is an uncommon response to the Jesus enigma, certainly within the church, which is why EM Forster sighed over 'poor, little talkative Christianity'.
The one who comes to us without a name continues to provoke torrents of language, much of it aimed at rival interpretations of his identity. Anyone who has read this newspaper during the last year will have picked up a lot of information about the current rows in Christianity, the recent big issue being gay clergy. But to ignore Jesus because of the verbal promiscuity of his followers is a failure to encounter one of the most challenging characters in world literature.
I have put it like that, because whether or not Jesus existed, and whether or not he was the son of God, he is undeniably present in a book through whose agency he can still disturb our consciences. If we can leave his metaphysical status to theologians, what is it about him that is worth paying attention to, especially if we ourselves are more than slightly allergic to religious talk?
I think there are three powerful elements in what we know about his teaching that are enduringly important and have lessons for us today. The first was his attitude towards the laws and customs by which we have chosen to organise ourselves. He did not believe they should be afforded absolute, unchanging authority over us. They were created to assist us in leading the good life, but he knew that if they were not held lightly, and with a shrewd appreciation of their provisional nature, they could easily became stupid and tyrannous.
He wanted us to be on the alert for the moment when human welfare was served not by conforming to, but by abandoning such codes. This was the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan, who violated a central prohibition of his religion by going to the aid of a Jew who had fallen among thieves.
This is a simple insight, but it has profoundly radical consequences for public life. For example, if it were being applied to Britain's misguided drug laws, five young women from Ipswich would be alive today. Forcing addicts to sell their bodies to feed their addiction, when we could prescribe them heroin and help them manage their lives better, is to accord higher value to an arbitrary law than to the sacredness of human life itself. This was the kind of cruel folly of which Jesus was witheringly critical. Historically, it is the most vulnerable members of society who have been the traditional victims of this kind of theoretical intransigence, and contemporary Britain affords many examples of its continuing power over us.
Even more difficult for us to deal with is Jesus's plea for us to love our enemies. George Steiner is particularly moving in what he says about this sublime impossibility: 'The profoundly natural impulse to avenge injustice, oppression and derision do have their place in the house of Israel.
'A refusal to forget injury or humiliation can warm the heart. Christ's ordinance of total love, of self-offering to the assailant, is, in any strict sense, an enormity. The victim is to love the butcher. A monstrous proposition. But one shedding fathomless light. How are mortal men and women to fulfil it?'
How, indeed? Yet we are witnessing the increasingly awful consequences of our inability to fulfil this monstrous proposition of love. What Steiner calls the profoundly natural impulse to avenge injustice has trapped us in a relentless cycle of violence that threatens to spiral into global conflict. The call of Jesus to love our enemies may be a human impossibility, but the paradox is that by failing to heed it, we can end up destroying ourselves along with those we hate.
Graham Greene pointed out in his greatest novel, The Power and the Glory, that hatred was a failure of the imagination. It is by failing to imagine ourselves into lives and cultures that are foreign to our own experience that we risk pulling down the house of our common humanity round our ears and burying ourselves in the rubble. One of the most poignant and tragic ironies of our time is the failure of George W Bush and Tony Blair, two of the world's most prominent Christians, to hazard this act of cultural imagination by reaching out to their enemies.
It is our inability to respond to the monstrous proposition to love our enemies that makes the third element in Jesus's teaching and example so moving. He knew that power always corrupts us, that it burns away our frail moral sense. We have discovered this ourselves over centuries of misgovernment and have tried to erect checks and balances against our fatal addiction to power. With very mixed results. Jesus's mistrust of power was so total that only the truly destitute are able to fulfil it: another monstrous proposition. Yet part of the tradition about him, and one that continues to announce itself in world literature in our day, is his compassion for those who find themselves in positions of power and who are inevitably corrupted by it.
The most perfect expression of this is found in Dostoevsky's legend of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. During the Inquisition in Spain, Jesus comes to Seville. People instinctively recognise the man without a name and seek his counsel. The Grand Inquisitor has him arrested and comes to visit him in prison. He delivers a monologue in which he points out that people do not want the freedom Jesus brought them. They want the security of a power system, including all its necessary corruptions. They will never be able to follow Jesus's path of freedom and compassion. At the end of the old man's monologue, Jesus says nothing, but he steps forward and kisses him 'gently on his bloodless, aged lips'.
What we have here is an understanding of human nature that is both fiercely challenging and tenderly forgiving. It is why many people are still drawn to the man without a name, even though they have long since abandoned the institution that carries his memory. Thousands of them will turn up at churches throughout Britain at midnight, not quite sure why they are there, almost against their will, but responding instinctively to something they don't have words for. George Mackay Brown, who understood the fascination, probably put it as well as anyone can:
Who is the man in the last light,
At the fire-glimmer, on shore stones
Poaching fish in a pot?
It is the man they hooked
On the dead tree.