Tearing a Hole in History

Jesus and the Freedom from Needing Power

David Clay / 7.22.21

The Romans who ran first-century Palestine must have known that their Jewish subjects viewed them as nothing more than divine punishment for national unfaithfulness, to be removed the instant that the people got their collective act together. To this, the Romans might have responded with something like,

Well, maybe. Or maybe it’s just that we’re a lot better at doing things than you are. You can’t administer an empire that spans the Mediterranean basin. Nor can you train and equip anything remotely as effective as a legion. You can’t even build a decent aqueduct, for Jupiter’s sake. Actually, you’re not much good at anything except squabbling over your weirdly intolerant religious law (and seriously, the whole “only one God” thing isn’t winning you any friends).

For their part, the Jewish residents of Palestine argued amongst themselves over the best way to get God to get rid of Rome. For their part, the Romans rolled their eyes, hunted down fanatical bands of terrorists in the hill country, collected taxes, built a nice road infrastructure, and basically went about business as usual in this strategically important but culturally insignificant province. If anything, the Romans were pleased with the various Jewish factions; they were easier to control that way.

Such is the setting of the Gospels, and, consequently, of the breakout hit series The Chosen. One episode has the local Roman praetor, a bald and rather excitable careerist named Quintus, haul Jesus in for questioning. It’s extra-biblical, but plausible enough: a provincial praetor would want to make sure that a fledgling popular movement didn’t get out of hand. Also attending the impromptu hearing is Atticus, a seasoned member of a special police force that reports directly to the Emperor. Originally arriving in Palestine to ferret out Jewish zealots, Atticus is now investigating this Jesus character, who is no zealot but who is also clearly up to something

That something remains elusive. Jesus is no would-be freedom fighter; he’s not a crazed, bug-eating desert prophet and he’s certainly no self-regarding Pharisee. He’s … kind of hard not to like. He’s self-collected and polite. He’s got a finely ironic sense of humor. He’s not sputtering with rage, and he’s certainly not cowering. If anything, he seems ever so slightly bored. In any case, Jesus doesn’t seem particularly interested in Rome, one way or another. 

Quintus alternately tries to threaten and cajole Jesus into toning down his preaching ministry, but he botches the job and eventually has to let this Nazarene go with a warning. Atticus can barely contain his impatience with the noisy bureaucrat. The veteran cop senses that Jesus is indeed a threat to the present order of things — perhaps a far more profound threat than the one posed by any zealot assassin — but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Whatever it is, it’s asymmetrical. It doesn’t fit well with the ordinary logics that govern the world. 

The Romans, the zealots, Herod’s cronies, and to a certain extent the Pharisees were all trafficking in roughly the same goods: cultural and political superiority. Jesus was completely aware of the complicated power dynamics in first-century Palestine — he just didn’t care all that much. What he had come to do was to tear a human-shaped hole in the fabric of history,[1] to show a way out of the endless cycles of strife and dominance. Let the “rulers of the gentiles” worry about who has the bigger armies and bank accounts, Jesus once told his followers. You, on the other hand, will measure greatness by how much of yourself you can give away to the poor and weak.

It was a nice thought, but Jesus angered the wrong people and eventually got himself killed by the “rulers of the gentiles.” This was inevitable, really. Just ask Socrates: you can only defy the way the world works for so long before the world’s tolerance turns to annoyance and then murderous outrage. The Roman official who executed Jesus had quickly realized that he wasn’t the run-of-the-mill insurrectionist his enemies claimed he was — but you don’t keep order in an unruly district by being overly scrupulous. There are political realities that have to be respected. That’s just the way it goes. 

Then something weird happened. Jesus’ former associates were soon going around telling everyone that their master was alive again — and, what’s more, that he had somehow pulled off his project of opening up a new way of life, one free from compulsively trying to grab more and more for yourself before you die. You could participate in this new life, they said, by believing in Jesus and getting baptized in his name. 

I think they’re right. Plenty of non-Christians see the value in gaining freedom from obsessive cravings for power, physical beauty, money, status, recognition, even security. They tend to suggest techniques, like transcendental meditation, to get free of these cravings. That would never work for me. I’m sloppy and undisciplined and anxious. But those cravings nevertheless slowly loosen their grip on my heart as time goes on, and that’s not because I’m discovering that what really matters is spending time with the people you love or some garbage like that. I still very much want to be a ruler — just not as much as I used to. And that’s because of my association with Jesus of Nazareth, who is forever leading [pulling] me through that hole he tore in history, into freedom that I know I could never have found on my own.