How Do We Explain Empathy for the Downtrodden?

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René Girard [was] a French philosopher and anthropologist whose brilliant career culminated in a position at Stanford University. Girard became fascinated with the fact that in modern times a “marginalized” person assumes a moral authority . . . Girard noted that a cavalcade of liberation movements—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, animal rights, gay rights, women’s rights, minority rights, human rights—had gathered speed in the 20th century.

The trend mystified Girard because he found nothing comparable in his reading of ancient literature. Victors, not the marginalized, wrote history, and the myths from Babylon, Greece, and elsewhere celebrated strong heroes, not pitiable victims. In his further research, Girard traced the phenomenon back to the historical figure of Jesus. It struck Girard that Jesus’ story cuts against the grain of every heroic story from its time. Indeed, Jesus chose poverty and disgrace, spent his infancy as a refugee, lived in a minority race under a harsh regime, and died as a prisoner. From the very beginning Jesus took the side of the underdog: the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the “marginalized.” His crucifixion, Girard concluded, introduced a new plot to history: the victim becomes the hero by being a victim. To the consternation of his secular colleagues, Girard converted to Christianity.

When Jesus died as an innocent victim, it introduced what one of Girard’s disciples has called “the most sweeping historical revolution in the world, namely, the emergence of an empathy for victims.” Today the victim occupies the moral high ground everywhere in the Western world: consider how the media portray the plight of AIDS orphans in Africa or Tibetan refugees or uprooted Palestinians. Girard contends that Jesus’ life and death brought forth a new stream in history, one that undermines injustice. It may take centuries for that stream to erode a hard bank of oppression, as it did with slavery, but the stream of liberation flows on.

Sometimes Jesus followers join the stream, and sometimes they stand on the bank and watch. Yet over time the gospel works its liberating effect. (You can see the contrast clearly in societies that have experienced little Christian influence.) Women, minorities, the disabled, human rights activists—all these draw their moral force from the power of the gospel unleashed at the cross, when God took the side of the victim. In a great irony, the “politically correct” movement defending these rights often positions itself as an enemy of Christianity, when in fact the gospel has contributed the very underpinnings that make possible such a movement. And those who condemn the church for its episodes of violence, slavery, sexism, and racism do so by gospel principles.

-Philip Yancey,
What Good is God

How Do We Explain Such A Life?

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“The most consequential life in human history was lived 21 centuries ago in the eastern portion of the Roman Empire by a person who never traveled 100 miles from his birthplace, never held public office, never write a book, and died… in his early 30s.”

–George Will

“It was reserved for Christianity to present to the world an ideal character, which through all the changes of eighteen centuries has inspired the hearts of men with an impassioned love; has shown itself capable of acting on all ages, nations, temperaments, and conditions; has been not only the highest pattern of virtue but the strongest incentive to its practice; and has exerted so deep an influence that it may be truly said that the simple record of three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and to soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists.”

–W. E. H. Lecky (1838-1903),
History of European Morals

How Do We Explain Jesus?

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A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

–C. S. Lewis

A Higher Source

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It is of no use to say that Christ, as exhibited in the Gospels, is not historical and that we know not how much of what is admirable has been superadded by the tradition of his followers… Who among his disciples or among their proselytes was capable of inventing the sayings ascribed to Jesus or of imagining the life and character revealed in the Gospels? Certainly not the fishermen of Galilee; as certainly not St. Paul, whose character and idiosyncrasies were of a totally different sort; still less the early Christian writers in whom nothing is more evident than that the good which was in them was all derived, as they always professed that it was derived, from the higher source.

—John Stuart Mill

Overwhelming Evidence

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I think the evidence is just so overwhelming that Jesus existed, that it’s silly to talk about him not existing. I don’t know anyone who is a responsible historian, who is actually trained in the historical method, or anybody who is a biblical scholar who does this for a living, who gives any credence at all to any of this.

—Bart D. Ehrman,
Agnostic scholar

The Greatest Men in History

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To millions of persons,
Jesus is more than a man.
But a historian must disregard this fact.
He must adhere to the evidence
that would pass unchallenged if his book
were to be read in every nation under the sun.

Yet more than 1900 years later a historian
like myself who doesn’t even call himself a Christian
finds the picture centering irresistibly around the life
and character of this most significant man.

We sense the magnetism that induced men who had
seen him only once to leave their business and follow him.
He filled them with love and courage.
Weak and ailing people were heartened by his presence.
He spoke with a knowledge and authority
that baffled the wise.

But other teachers have done all this.
These talents alone would not have given him
the permanent place of power by virtue of the new
and profound ideas which he released.

His is one of the most revolutionary doctrines that
has ever been stirred and changed human thought.
No age has even yet understood fully
the tremendous challenge it carries . . .
But the world began to be a different world
from the day that doctrine was preached . . .

The historian’s test of an individual’s greatness is,
“Did he start men to think along fresh lines
with a vigor that persisted after him?”

By this test, Jesus stands first.

–H. G. Wells
Three Greatest Men in History