Jesus was not crucified by just one person; he was crucified by a social system. The Gospels and the apostolic preaching in Acts show clearly how hostile social systems in Jerusalem came together to create a larger social system that was united solely by the agreement to put Jesus to death. By quoting from the persecution psalms, these sources suggest that persecutory social systems have always been a part of humanity. René Girard has demonstrated how mythology covers up and yet still points to this same persecutory mechanism. It is such social systems that Paul calls the “principalities and powers” of the world. These principalities get their power from the collective cohesiveness of persecution. This collective power is overwhelming to the individual within this system. Hence the transcendent power they have for Paul. However, Paul also says that the principalities and powers have been dismantled and nailed to the cross by Jesus. The forgiving victim is gathering a radically different social system that not only does not require the sacrifice of the victim but totally precludes such a thing. Paul says that if the principalities and powers had known, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. Because they did, we have some ability, by the grace of God, for seeing the fundamental signs of a society that is still run, at least in part, by the principalities and powers and for seeing what are the signs of the Kingdom that the Risen and Forgiving Victim has opened up for us.
A society run by the principalities and powers is punitive. Some people may think that is a good thing, but in a punitive society, somebody must be to blame whenever anything goes wrong or even seems to go wrong. That is, somebody must be punished. When a society needs to have somebody punished, then this need takes precedence over justice. It is better for an innocent person to suffer than for the corporate rage of the society to suffer for lack of an object of that rage. It follows that the Law of Tit for Tat reigns. There is no room for mercy. Every offense must be met in equal measure. As long as this Law reigns, there is no end in sight to the spiral of retaliation. In Jesus’ Kingdom, restoration of relationships is the corporate desire when things go wrong. The pain of this restoration might feel like punishment for some, but the pain is remedial, moving toward reconciliation.
In the society of the Principalities and Powers, somebody is always expendable. Caiaphas’ dictum that it is better that one person die than that the whole nation should perish is “gospel.” Collateral damage is an acceptable price to pay for objectives deemed good to those who are running the show. Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep that the shepherd seeks until he finds it and brings it back to the fold shows that in Jesus’ Kingdom, nobody is expendable.
The society of the Principalities and Powers is dualistic. There has to be an “in” group and an “out” group. The society’s identity is based on what is wrong with those people, the enemy. If we are to love our enemies, as Jesus teaches, then enemies do not define us in any way.
Most devastating of all, the society of the Principalities and Powers is mendacious. The need to cover up the truth of collective violence in primitive societies carries over to the most sophisticated of modern societies. Part of this mendacity is to blame the victim. The blame that many US politicians cast on women who are raped is a particularly grisly example. Victims of lynching, too, were blamed for what happened to them.
Here is the choice. Where is our treasure? Where is our heart?