The Crucifixion, the primal scene of Western religion and Western art, has lost much of its power to shock. At this late date, perhaps only a non-Western eye can truly see it. A Japanese artist now living in Los Angeles once recalled the horror most Japanese feel at seeing a corpse displayed as a religious icon and of the further revulsion when the icon is explained to them. They ask, she said: "If he was so good, why did he die like that?" In Japanese culture, "good people end their lives with a good death, even a beautiful death, like the Buddha. Someone dying in such a hideous way--for us, he could only be a criminal."
Her perception is correct. The crucifix is a violently obscene icon. To recover its visceral power, children of the 21st century must imaging a lynching, the body of the victim swollen and distorted, his head hanging askew above a broken neck, while the bystanders smile their twisted smiles. Then they must imagine that grisly spectacle reproduced at the holiest spot in whatever edifice they call holy. And yet to go even this far is still to miss the meaning of the image, for this victim is not just innocent: He is God Incarnate, the Lord himself in human form.
Winners usually look like winners, and losers like losers. But thanks to this paradoxical feature of the Christian myth, there remains lodged deep in the political consciousness of the West a readiness to believe that the apparent loser may be the real winner unrecognized. In Christianity's epilogue to the God-story inherited from Judaism, the Lord God becomes human without ceasing to be the Lord and, unrecognized by all but a few, experiences the human condition at its worst before winning in the end a glorious victory.
One of the many implications of this epilogue to God's life story has been that in the West no regime can declare itself above review. All power is conditional: and when the powerless rise, God may be with them. The motif of divinity in disguise is not unique to Christianity; but the Christian motif of unrecognized divinity judicially tried, officially condemned, tortured by his captors, executed in public, buried, and only then rising from the dead and ascending into heaven is, if not literally unique, then at least unique in the breadth of its political influence.
Every verse in "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," a black gospel tune sung at Christmas, ends with the wistful line, "And they didn't know who he was." As his executioners nail him to the cross, Jesus prays: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Luke 32:34). Wherever lines like these or the ideas behind them have spread, human authority has begun to lose its grip on unimpeachable legitimacy. In the West, any criminal may be Christ and any prosecutor Pilate..
The great Western myth is designed to raise a second, more profound and more disturbing question, however: If God had to suffer and die, then God had to inflict suffering and death upon himself. But why would God do this?
Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardoner, the French say: To understand everything is to forgive everything. Every perpetrator was first a victim. Behind every crime stretches a millennial history of earlier crimes, each in its way an extenuating circumstance. But to whom does this infinite regression lead in the end if not to God? The guilt of God is certainly not a Christian dogma, and yet it is an emotionally inescapable implication of the Christian myth, visible and audible in countless works of Christian art.
The pathos of those artistic enactments--those masses and oratorios, passion plays and memorial liturgies, and above all those paintings and sculptures in which the unspeakable is left unspoken--is inseparable from the premise that God is inflicting this pain upon himself for a reason. "The real reason," as Albert Camus wrote in his haunting novel, "The Fall," "is that he himself knew he was not altogether innocent."