Radical new ideas could not be tolerated. Traditions had to be maintained and power balances preserved. The wealth, which the Pax Romana’s enforced stability brought with it, really benefitted everyone, didn’t it?
Actually during the time of Herod the Great, from 37 to 4 B.C., Rome’s compliant, client king governed over a Judaea that had seen rural farming communities like Nazareth increasingly impoverished. The widening gap between rich and poor created a dangerous divide. Soon after death removed Herod’s heavy hand, rebellion broke out.
Sepphoris, the administrative hub of Galilee, only about seven kilometres northwest of Nazareth, became a centre of resistance. Roman legions and auxiliaries under Varus, the governor of Syria, had to march south and crush the insurgency. Captured rebels were crucified at the crossroads, the city burnt and survivors sold into slavery.
Likely Joseph, the father of Jesus and a carpenter by trade, would walked from his home in Nazareth with his tool kit to find work helping to rebuild Sepphoris under the new client-king Herod Antipas. Certainly Jesus would have known the reality of war, poverty and the injustices that continued to plague his divided society. Eventually, his energetically nonviolent vision would come to fundamentally challenge the bloody, oppressive status quo of his day.
Would the Romans have crucified an itinerant Galilean preacher on that hill outside Jerusalem’s walls we call Golgotha or Calvary if his only message called on poor peasants to love their enemy? On that first Good Friday, sometime around 33 A.D., the Romans and the elites that co-operated with them sought to end his call by nailing him to a cross.
What was that dangerous call? Paul speaks of a radical egalitarianism in his Epistle to the Galatians, a Celtic population in what is now Turkey. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Luke also talks of a leveling of social hierarchies. “But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant.” Did Jesus’ teaching of the Beatitudes just create too much of a dissonance with a prevailing socio-political reality based on force, fear, greed and extortion?
Over and over again across history, humanity has fitfully stumbled towards an awareness of that other possible world pointed to by Jesus. Countless unnamed prophets during their own generations have repeated his call and continue to urge us towards a life-affirming ethic. Are we able to hear this message any better than in previous times?
War, poverty, and glaring social divides heightened by environment-destroying economic dictates still plague us. Christopher Hedges, the war correspondent and author – who holds a Master’s of Divinity from Harvard – wrote in his Truthdig.com column a couple of weeks ago: “War perverts and destroys you. It pushes you closer and closer to your own annihilation – spiritual, emotional and finally physical. It destroys the continuity of life, tearing apart all systems, economic, social, environmental and political – that sustain us as human beings.”
Yet we continue to war against each other, against nature and to force-march the poor, the disenfranchised, the other – however they are defined, up their own Golgothas. In doing so, we ultimately prepare our own Calvary. Can we contemplate, on this coming Easter, the resurrection of that long-ago vision proclaiming that another world is indeed possible?
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.