Why Supremacy Never Delivers Freedom: Recovering the True Meaning of the Cross

Why Supremacy Never Delivers Freedom: Recovering the True Meaning of the Cross August 3, 2020

by guest writer Sean O’Conaill

(This is the follow-up to the previous essay, How White Men Lost the Meaning of Redemption)

Honor, Shame, and Crucifixion

This person’s life does not matter: that, surely, was the message that Rome had always intended to convey by crucifixion.  Empires built on military conquest are always also pyramids of honor and shame in which the least honorable must always be kept in their place.  This, surely – the imperative to avoid shame – was why Peter had taken his master aside to remonstrate when warned of what was to happen in Jerusalem.

And this was also why news of the Resurrection became the foundation of the church: for believers this news destroyed utterly the greatest power of Rome – the power to make anyone feel ashamed simply by brutalizing them. For the first Christian generation that world was truly ‘passing away’ – because Jesus had indeed ‘overcome’ a world that attached honor to conquest and cruelty rather than to compassion, to self-giving and to mutual service. (John 16: 33)

That this world did not pass away with the speed originally expected, and generations of Christians suffered under later Roman persecution, helps to explain why, after the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE, Christian bishops approved the tale told by the victors: that their Caesarian leader, Constantine, had received before battle a heavenly sign of the favor of the God of the Christians, in a vision of the Chi Ro symbol and the legend ‘In hoc signo vinces’.  (In this sign you will conquer.)

Tragically it is also clear why this new alliance of cross and sword would leave the church reliant upon a military elite – and lead in time to a European imperialism that would attach greater honor to the most militarily successful Europeans.  Henry II’s Anglo-Norman perception of the Irish as culturally and spiritually backward by the twelfth century was shared by the popes of his era – so the European  perception of dark-skinned Africans as in even greater need of ‘Christian civilization’ followed easily in later centuries. Horrifically, their enslavement could all too easily be excused by their captors in the name of ‘Christendom’ and the bogus cause of ‘saving savages from Hell’.

Quite obviously by then the ancient Roman pyramid of esteem had been replaced by one that was nominally Christian yet was also awarding shame and honor differentially – in clear contradiction to the letter attributed to James the apostle (James 2: 1-7).  The feudal pyramid of the middle ages was also a shaming pyramid of dignity and deference, with greatest honor accorded to kings – to whom any erring subject owed satisfaction for any insult, especially any hint of rebellion. In that context, the Anselmian reframing of the Crucifixion as a redemption of the human sin-debt to the Father added divine sanction to that same pyramid and to that understanding of honor and shame. The God described as ever-forgiving father in the parable of the Prodigal Son had been re-made in the image of a medieval monarch, ever-jealous of his impugned honor.

The implications of this for the meaning of baptism are obvious.  Born into a society that taught them, as Julius Caesar had been taught, that honor was to be acquired from the world, how were Christians now to understand that equality of dignity – i.e. of honor – had already been received through Baptism? Necessarily that sacrament now had trivial significance in comparison with Ordination, the gateway to the church’s own aristocratic pyramid of dignity.

That this left the merely baptized in pursuit of honor via military, or later, mercantile effort, was to place less militarily advanced societies outside Europe in the greatest possible danger. When Christendom came to Africa the cross and the bible were all too often accompanied by the sword, the gun and the shackle – a clear betrayal of the Lord who had died rather than kill or imprison and had summarized the Gospel in a single great commandment of love.  Africans were seen by the greediest as ‘black gold’ – valuable merely as a commodity.

Little Dorrit and the Paradox of Dominance

And yet, although far too many considered themselves free to behave in this way, the elusiveness of ‘freedom’ for Europeans themselves, even for the most ‘successful’,  was grimly obvious to some by the mid-1800s – the century of greatest European global power. Nowhere is this more brilliantly illustrated than in Charles Dickens’s novel Little Dorrit (1855-57). Set mostly in London (then the world’s busiest commercial hub) the novel illustrates especially the paradox of the Victorian empire ‘on which the sun never set’ – an empire resting squarely on the wealth acquired in the slaving era.

In this story Amy Dorrit,  the daughter of William Dorrit, has been born in the Marshalsea prison, London, for debtors – where her ‘ruined’ genteel father has languished for decades in the waning hope of release by a relative. She has no personal sense of shame over this circumstance, but this is not true of William. Amy sadly watches her father delude himself with the fantasy that he has somehow become a ‘somebody’ again as he is paraded to visitors as the prison’s longest serving and most venerable resident. From these he looks for small ‘tokens’ of esteem – money gifts – much in the manner of Queen Victoria graciously receiving jewels or perfumes from distant parts of the empire.

When it is discovered by one of those visitors that William Dorrit is in truth heir to a vast fortune, trapped until then in the London legal labyrinth, the Dorrits are all released to a life of splendor – and soon they undertake a continental tour in the most genteel fashion of the era.  Eventually, in a rented Venetian villa, William Dorrit is eager to know who else from England may be in the city – so that he can receive them as witnesses to his newly proven grandeur.

Suddenly, already wearied by her father’s attempts to ensure that she is properly ‘polished’ for the role known these times as that of the ‘socialite’, Amy awakens to this insight:

“A perfect fury for making acquaintances on whom to impress their riches and importance has seized the House of Dorrit… It appeared on the whole, to Little Dorrit herself, that this same society in which they now lived greatly resembled a superior sort of Marshalsea.”


In this short passage the reason for the elusiveness of true freedom in any modern society is unveiled.  If we can only become ‘somebodies’ in our own eyes via the attention shown to us by others, we must always be at the mercy of those others, never finally free of the fear that we are nobodies – the fear of shame1.  It is this, Dickens hints here and elsewhere, that is our true prison, the true root of all evil – for the wealth that William Dorrit thinks he needs to establish his own importance is obviously the wealth that had come to London from an empire that had enslaved millions.

The Fatal Flaw of MAGA

Donald Trump and too many others in our time are all too clearly bound hand and foot by the very same mistake.  At the root of all money addiction and attention-seeking lies the mistake of supposing there is no other route to self-respect than the winning of the approval and admiration – or at least the servility and fear – of others. As Trump’s own daily routine attests, that admiration must constantly be kept ‘topped up’ by the claiming of yet further achievement and the denial of all fault or failure – even while the toll of Covid-19 is falling heaviest on the same African American community, disproportionately exposed to infection in the most vulnerable sectors of society, often without any health insurance cover.

Those who think celebrity and domination the only safe route to freedom need to ask themselves what Ancient Rome accomplished by crucifying 6,000 enslaved followers of Spartacus, along the Appian Way, c. 71 BCE – and how within a century that means of winning freedom from fear was to be overthrown by an entirely different understanding of the Kingdom of God.

And if in our own era and context our young people are telling us that Christian faith and practice are ‘irrelevant to their lives’, what then is it that our Christian schools are teaching?

If those younger generations are  truly at the mercy of the Internet – in pursuit of ‘likes’ or ‘viral recognition’ or the ‘killer app’ –  or heading toward depression through fear of academic failure – or troubled by trolling or bullying (i.e. shaming) or ‘ransom porn’ – what reason have we to suppose that we have conveyed to them what the earliest uneducated Christians understood from the very shortest version of the Creed – that by our Baptism the shaming power of the world – i.e. of anyone else or any circumstance imposed upon us by others – has been broken, and that it is to retain that sense of our own inherent and equal dignity – entirely irrespective of our economic status – that we share and practice a Christian faith?

If we cannot be sure of the answer to this question – and are apparently afraid to find out through systematic research2 – what reason do we in Ireland have to believe that our faith schools are in truth still governed by a Catholic or Christian ethos rather than by the dominant ethos of the unredeemed secular and Trumpian world – the mindset in which by default we start out as ‘nobodies’, ever-worried that our lives will be ‘ruined’ if we are somehow cheated of media-awarded ‘success’?

And if, in some Christian schools, any racial or other minority is being insulted and bullied, is that not a further reason for questioning whether those who have mentored the bullies have themselves fully understood ‘Redemption’?

Given that the cause of Black Lives Matter has justly found welcome among so many young white people everywhere, including Ireland, is it not time for older generations to reflect on the extraordinary power of the Gospel to sustain and uplift an oppressed people, despite the very worst that we white Christians have done?

The arc of history will indeed bend again towards justice if Christians everywhere can in that way rediscover the earliest understanding of the Cross and the Creed. A world that awards dignity unequally to winners and losers is always also a shaming world and therefore mistaken, unredeemed and passing away – even if it calls itself Christendom. Our adventure is always to affirm and realize together the equal and infinite dignity of all. Why else would the Creed insist that it is the living Lord who judges us, not the world that calls us ‘losers’ until we have jostled our way to the top of something, or ‘gone viral’,  to prove otherwise?

So much is to be gained from an hour or so of pondering the miracle of African American trust in, and restoration by, the Cross – and then from further time spent on deepening our understanding of that story! It will always be the oppressed who read the Bible correctly.  Those who flaunt it without reading it, in pursuit of supremacy, are always the most foolish of all, for the future lies with the opposing spirit of humility and service – that Spirit that is too rich in consciousness of God’s equal regard for everyone to ever be in need of global media acclaim.




  1. See, for example, ‘imposter syndrome’ – the fear of exposure as frauds that many successful people are subject to, without apparent due cause.
  2. S O’Conaill, Faith Formation and Fear of Shame, The Furrow, Ireland, July/August 2017 [also at https://seanoconaill.com ]


image credit: 1200px-Donald_Trump_Rally_Evansville_Indiana.jpg

About Sean O'Conaill
Sean O’Conaill is a retired teacher of History in Catholic schools in Ireland. As a member of the Association of Catholics in Ireland he campaigns for open discussion of the crisis of lay Catholic alienation from the clericalist culture of the Irish Catholic Church – especially evident among the young. He is active at acireland.ie and has his own blog site at seanoconaill.com . You can read more about the author here.

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