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Human Dignity Was a Rarity Before Christianity

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In my theological writings over the past twenty years, I have often (some might say tediously often) returned to two episodes from the gospels that never quite lose their power to startle me: that of Peter weeping in the early light of dawn over the realization that, contrary to his fervent protestations of the night just past, he has denied Christ before the world; and that of Christ’s confrontation with Pilate (especially as recounted in John’s gospel). After so much time, one might reasonably expect that the fascination would wane, or at least cease to have the quality of surprise. But nothing of the sort. Recently, as I was preparing my own translation of the New Testament for Yale University Press, I found myself drawn to both episodes yet again, with the same old familiar feeling that they contain something at once momentous and uncanny, something somehow out of place and out of time. Something is happening in these passages, homely as they may seem, that never happened before.

We speak today very easily, if not always sincerely, of the intrinsic dignity of every human person. For us, this is merely a received piety, and one of immemorial authority. And yet, if we take the time to wonder just how old a moral intuition it is, there is a good chance that our historical imagination will carry us only as far back as the “Age of Enlightenment” and the epoch of the “Rights of Man.” But our modern notion that there is such a thing as innate human worth, residing in every individual of every class and culture, is at best the very late consequence of a cultural, conceptual, and moral revolution that erupted many centuries earlier, and in the middle of a world that was anything but hospitable to its principles. And I am tempted to think that the nature of that revolution became visible for the first time only in the tale of Peter’s tears. We cannot quite see it, of course. For us, it does not stand out as an extraordinary moment in the larger narrative. We expect Peter to weep; more to the point, we expect the narrator to record the fact. After all, Peter’s humanity is our own, and so we do not hesitate to recognize his grief as ours also. It is all quite obvious to us: Peter’s shattering realization of the immensity of his failure, his hopeless devotion to his beloved master, the certain knowledge that he will never have a chance to retract his words or seek Christ’s forgiveness for his cowardice. To us, the story would probably seem incomplete if this detail were missing. But that is not how things would have seemed to most of the contemporaries of the evangelists. At least, among the literate classes of late antiquity, to call attention to Peter’s grief would more likely have seemed an aesthetic mistake; for Peter, as a rustic, could not possibly have been a worthy object of a well-bred man’s sympathy, nor could his sorrow possibly have possessed the sort of tragic dignity necessary to make it a suitable subject of either a poet or a historian. If a peasant’s weeping possessed any interest at all, it might be as an occasion for cruel mirth. Tragic dignity was the exclusive property of the nobly born. It was the great literary critic Erich Auerbach, many decades ago, who perhaps most powerfully called attention to the singularity of the story in the context of late antique literature. According to his Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, when one compares this scene to the sort of emotional portraiture one finds in great Roman writers, comic or serious, one discovers that only in Peter can one glimpse “the image of man in the highest and deepest and most tragic sense.” Yet Peter is a peasant from Galilee, a rural backwater in an obscure and barbarous colonial territory. This was not merely a lapse of good taste; it was an act of rebellion.

Not that the evangelists necessarily intended to be especially provocative. Still, in this story we see something beginning to emerge from darkness into full visibility, arguably for the first time in our history: the human person as such, invested with an intrinsic and inviolable worth, an infinite value. Actually, even our blithe willingness to assign personhood in the fullest sense to everyone who comes our way is the consequence of that ancient revolt. Originally, at least in many very crucial contexts, “persons” were something of a rarity in nature. At least, as far as ancient Roman legal usage, one’s person was the status one held before the law, and this was anything but an invariable property among all individuals. The original and primary meaning of the Latin word “persona” was “mask,” and may well originally have indicated the special distinction of belonging to one of those patrician families entitled to preserve and display wax funerary effigies of their ancestors. To “have a person”—habere personam—was to have a face before the eyes of the law, to possess the rights of a free and propertied citizen, to be entrusted to offer testimony on the strength of one’s own word, to be capable before a magistrate of appeal to higher authority. At the far opposite end of the social scale, however, was that far greater number of individuals who could be classed as “non habentes personas,” “not having persons”—not, as it were, having faces before the law or, for that matter, before society. The principal occupants of this category were, of course, slaves. These could call on no privileges or rights before the law, apart from a few meager protections; they were not even usually trusted to offer testimony before a court apart from a judicious application of torture. And, as part of the peasantry of a subject people, Peter would have possessed scarcely any greater “countenance” in Roman eyes.

It is practically impossible for us today to appreciate the magnitude of the scandal that many pagans naturally felt at the bizarre prodigality with which the early Christians were willing to grant full humanity to persons of every class and condition. But we can certainly hear the tone of alarm in reading the anti-Christian polemics of Celsus, or Eunapius of Sardis, or Porphyry, or the Emperor Julian. Perched as they were at the vertiginous summit of the social hierarchy of their time, the church’s pagan critics could only look down on the Christian movement, and could see it not as the liberation of deep but hitherto unexpressed human longings, but only as something monstrous and degenerate, threatening the very order of the world. In his Against the Galilaeans, Julian lavished his contempt on the vicious, disreputable, contemptible individuals that the Christians had from the earliest days invited into their ranks, and admitted with no more than a ritual bath—as if, he huffed, water could cleanse the soul. Eunapius confessed his revulsion at the “base gods” venerated by the church, by which he meant the saints whose relics the Christians preserved and honored: all of them, he said, men and women of the most deplorable sort, justly tortured, condemned, and executed for their crimes, but glorified after death as martyrs of the faith, and accorded the devotion once reserved for the divine spirits reigning from on high. Not even the most morally admirable of the pagan philosophical schools, Stoicism, made so great a spiritual virtue of indifference to social station as did the followers of Jesus. Indeed, such was the sheer perversity of the Christian movement that the inversion of “natural” rank—this insistence that the last be first and the first last—became something like its chief moral value. We see this, for instance, in the Didascalia, that very early manual of Christian life, which requires a bishop never to interrupt his service to greet a person of high degree who might enter the basilica, and yet, on seeing a pauper enter the assembly, to do everything in his power to make room for the new arrival, even if it should mean giving up his own seat and sitting instead on the floor.

One should not, admittedly, exaggerate the virtues of the early Christians here. Perfection is not to be found in any human institution, and the church has certainly always been that. Even in the early days of the Church, certain social distinctions proved far too redoubtable to exterminate; a Christian slaveholder’s Christian slaves were still slaves, even if they were also their master’s brothers in Christ. And, after Constantine, as the Church became that most lamentable of things—a pillar of respectable society—it learned all too easily to tolerate many of the injustices it supposedly condemned. But neither should we underestimate how extraordinary the religious ethos of the earliest Christians was with regard to social order, or fail to give them credit for the attempts they did make to erase the distinctions in social dignity that separated persons of different rank from one another, but that they believed Christ had abolished. In truth, the pagan critics of the early church were quite perceptive—perhaps more than the Christians themselves—in seeing this new faith as something deeply and disturbingly subversive. Christianity may never have been a revolution in the political sense, attempting to replace the general social order with something altogether different; but, for just that reason, the change it brought about was not merely a local and transient flirtation with enchanting impossibilities (as most revolutionary movements are). The Christian vision of reality was nothing less than (to borrow a phrase from Friedrich Nietzsche’s) a “transvaluation of all values,” a profound revision of the moral and conceptual categories by which human beings understand themselves and one another and their places within the world, one that took root and grew principally in consciences rather than in political arrangements.  And it was most definitely (again to use Nietzsche’s words) a “revolt of the slaves in morality,” but paradoxically a slave revolt “from above.” As Paul said in Philippians 2:6-10, it had been accomplished by one who had willingly exchanged the “form of God” for the “form of a slave,” and only in that form had overthrown the powers that reigned on high.

Just as striking as the tale of Peter’s tears, again, is that of Christ’s arraignment before Pilate, especially in the fourth gospel’s telling. And once again we are separated from the age in which the story was written down by an immense historical abyss. Nothing makes us more insensible to the utter oddity of this story in its own time and place, and to the metaphysical and moral implications of that oddity, than our own habitual sympathies. To many of its earliest readers, the entire episode would have seemed perversely out of joint. On one side of the tableau (so to speak) there stands a man of noble birth, one moreover invested with the full authority of the Roman Empire, endowed with the sacred duty of imposing the pax Romana on a barbarous people far too prone to religious fanaticism. On the other side there stands a poor and quite probably demented colonial of obscure origins, professing unintelligible beliefs and answering the charge that he thinks himself “King of the Jews” with only enigmatic invocations of some “kingdom not of this world” and of some mysterious “truth” to which he feels called to bear witness. No sane and educated person of late antiquity could have failed to grasp the ridiculous imbalance in this scene, or to recognize which side of the picture represented the “truth” of all things. In the great cosmic hierarchy of rational powers—descending from the Highest Divinity down to the lowliest of slaves—Pilate’s is a particularly exalted place, a little nearer to heaven than to earth, and illumined with something of the splendor of the gods. Christ, by contrast, is no one at all; he has no natural claim on Pilate’s clemency, and certainly no rights; simply said, he has no “person” before the law. The one figure, then, commands total sway over life and death, while the other no longer belongs even to himself. And this wild asymmetry becomes even starker (and perhaps even more absurd) when Jesus is brought before Pilate for the second time, having been scourged, wrapped in a soldier’s cloak, and crowned with thorns. To the ears of any educated person of the late antique world, Pilate’s question to his prisoner now—“Where do you come from?”—would probably have sounded like a sardonic reminder to Christ of his lack of pedigree and of Pilate’s patrician origins; and this difference in status would only have been confirmed by Pilate’s still harsher reminder to Christ that “I have the power to crucify you.” Christ’s riposte, however, that Pilate possesses no powers not given him from above would have sounded, at most, like comical impudence on the part of a lunatic. Could any ancient witness to this scene, seeing how fate had apportioned to its principals their respective places in the order of things, have doubted on which side the full “truth” of things was to be found? After all, what greater measure of reality is there, in a world sustained by immutable hierarchies of social privilege, than the power to judge and kill another person? This may, as it happens, have been the deepest import in Pilate’s earlier, tersely rhetorical question to Christ: “What is truth?”

We, however, are not ancient men and women. Something far vaster and more indomitable than a mere span of centuries separates us from their vision of the world. We simply cannot see Christ’s broken, humiliated, and doomed humanity as something self-evidently contemptible and ridiculous; in a very real sense, we are destined to see it as embracing the whole mystery of our own humanity in its deepest fathoms: a sublime fragility, tragic and magnificent, pitiable and wonderful. Even the worst of us, who are capable of looking upon the sufferings of others with indifference or even contempt, have arrived at their callousness only through a prior violence to their own consciences. Raised in shadow of the Christian world, inheritors of its moral grammar and imagination, we no longer enjoy the luxury of a capacity for innocent cruelty. Living as we do in the long aftermath of a revolution whose effects linger deep in our souls and natures, we cannot guilelessly look away from the abasement of the victim and fix our eyes in admiration upon his persecutor, no matter how grand the latter might be. Hence, we lack any immediate awareness of the radical inversion of perspective unfolded in this tale. Seen from within a certain pre-Christian vision of reality, Pilate’s verdict is perfectly just, not because it imposes a penalty “proportionate” to the “crime,” but because it reaffirms the natural and divine order of reality. In consigning a worthless man to an appropriately undignified death, and in restoring order through the destruction of the agent of disorder, it proclaims once again that the order of the state and of the hierarchy of social power is nothing less than the order of the gods transcribed into its appropriate terrestrial expression. The Gospel of John, however, takes an entirely contrary approach to the confrontation between Christ and Pilate. It sees the whole scene entirely in the light of the risen Christ and from the vantage of the empty tomb. This alters everything. God, it would appear, not only refuses to approve the verdict of his earthly “representatives”—whether gentiles or Jews, whether emperors, kings, generals, or judges—but goes so far as to reverse their judgment. Further, indeed: he vindicates and restores to life the very man those eminent authorities have “justly” condemned in the interest of public tranquility. This is an astonishing realignment of every perspective, a reversal of all the ancient values, a rebellion against “reality.”

In any event, the new world being brought into being in the gospels is a world in which the grand cosmic architecture of prerogative and power has been superseded by a new and positively “anarchic” order: one in which the glory of God can reveal itself in a crucified slave, and in which, therefore, we are forced to see the face of God in the forsaken of the world. In this shocking and ludicrously disordered order, everything is cast in a radically transforming light, and comes to mean something entirely new and perhaps unsettling. We do not laugh at “the man of sorrows” draped in a mock robe and pierced with a mock crown and jocosely hailed as a king by his persecutors. For us, this figure possesses a grandeur that would have been quite invisible to our more distant ancestors, an ironic beauty that entirely and irrevocably reverses the mockery.  It is not he who is absurd, but rather all those kings and emperors who preposterously celebrate their pedigrees, and who rejoice in their power to command and to kill, and who are therefore unaware that the pompous symbols of greatness in which they drape themselves are nothing more than rags and thorns. In a sense, the figure of Christ being mocked, and yet somehow impregnable to every indignity, is the perfect emblem of what can only be called a “total humanism.” In him, we are afforded a vision of humanity in its widest and deepest scope, one in which the full nobility and mystery and beauty of the human countenance—the human person—wholly resides in each unique instance of our common nature. Seen thus, Christ’s descent from the “form of God” into the “form of a slave” is not a paradox at all, but an altogether apt confirmation of the indwelling of the divine image in each soul. And, once the world has been seen in this way, it can never again be what it once had been.

Editorial Note: Throughout the month of October Church Life Journal will explore the sanctity of life and the hospitable imagination. What we mean by the hospitable imagination is the ecclesial formation of a way of seeing the world that is more spacious and welcoming. It is a way of seeing that recognizes the inherent sanctity of life and seeks to heal the perceived division between life issues and social justice issues. Catholic Social Teaching teaches us that a radical hospitality for life at all its stages and solidarity with the weak is cruciform. As our authors explore the various dimensions of the hospitable imagination (please click the link for a list of the posts), we invite you to think along with us. 

See also: Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan’s meditation The Dignity of a Human Person: A Catholic Doctrine

Featured Image: Giovanni Bellini, Blessing Christ [Detail], 1470; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 

David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart is author of a dozen books and roughly 750 articles, and is currently associated with the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. His translation of the New Testament was released this month by Yale University Press. He is exceedingly fond of dogs.