The self-sacrifice of Christ is the model for Western ethics and values – Gavin Matthews

The concept of altruism as the ultimate expression of goodness would have been alien to the Greco-Roman world. That changed with Jesus’s crucifixion, writes Gavin Matthews

It’s people who embodied Christ’s values who changed the ancient world and set us on the trajectory we celebrate when we applaud the NHS (Picture: Michael Gillen)

When Catholic priest Father Giuseppe Berardelli’s life was cut short by Covid-19, early reports suggested that he had given up his ventilator to allow a younger patient to live.

The subsequent debate about his motives aside, everyone agrees that if someone gave up their life for another it would be the epitome of virtue, and a thing of profound beauty. To all the commentators on this event, the concept of altruism as the ultimate expression of goodness seemed self-evident.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

What makes that assumption so remarkable is that for great swathes of human history, such a view would have been seen as foolishness. So, where did we get the view that costly altruism is to be celebrated, rather than mocked? Why do we stand in silence, to honour those who have given their lives in the NHS; when so many of our Greco-Roman intellectual forbears would have decried such actions as naïve at best, and stupid at worst?

Historian Tom Holland argues that the values that we celebrate today are irreducibly Christian. “To live in a Western country is to live in a society still utterly saturated in Christian concepts and assumptions,” he writes. However Holland’s view is that it is not Christianity in general which frames our ethics and values but the crucifixion of Jesus in particular. The idea that greatness of God might be displayed in this ultimate act of self-giving is the root of our shared ethics. Until then, “Divinity was for the very greatest of the great: for victors, and heroes, and kings. Its measure was the power to torture one’s enemies, not to suffer it oneself.” The result according to that most scathing of Christianity’s critics Friedrich Nietzsche, is that giving to the weakest and most vulnerable is now held up as the greatest good. He railed against this saying, “the higher must not degrade itself, by becoming the tool of the lower”, blaming “this Jesus of Nazareth” for our ethics.

So today, as we prioritise life over economic performance, and the strength of the nation is rallied to the cause of the weakest; it’s appropriate to consider the bloody execution of the Galilean carpenter to whom we owe so much of our frame of reference. Space allows but three brief comments:

First, the New Testament accounts emphasise the humiliation of Jesus, more than his physical torture. Crucifixion was agony, but it was also a slow and public way of robbing the dying victim of any dignity – as their body hung naked in the midday sun. Christ is seen as forgoing the privileges of deity to reach down to humanity. In the wake of that, any cost to help the weak is glorified.

Second, Christ’s death is redemptive, in that he suffered to achieve something for us; not merely to make some grandiose masochistic statement. The Bible insists that Jesus died in our place to atone for our sins so that we can have eternal life. This provides people who put their faith in Christ with a transforming hope, which outlasts death. When two great plagues hit ancient Rome, those with means fled to safety. However, not fearing infection and death, the Christian communities stayed and served the plague victims in Rome. This hope beyond death and an embracing of humility led to “the reshaping of the classical mind”.

Third, Christ’s death was exemplary – in that Jesus calls people to follow in his pattern of self-sacrifice. The first free public hospital in Europe was established by Fabiola, a Roman noblewoman, who on becoming a Christian put all her wealth into healthcare. Healthcare throughout the following centuries was provided for by the churches, until the NHS was founded in the 1940s, devised by Aneurin Bevan and funded by Chancellor Stafford Cripps whose budget was “religiously inspired” – the culmination of his decades of Christian commitment.

The result is that today the figure on Calvary’s cross remains relevant and powerful. As such we dare not water down his message into some kind of baptised version of ‘be nice and keep washing your hands’, when he said things like, “repent and turn from your sins” , “no greater love has any man than this, than that he lay down his life for his friends”, and “take up your cross and follow me”. It’s people who embodied Christ’s values who changed the ancient world and set us on the trajectory we celebrate when we applaud the NHS and seek to serve the weakest.

Gavin Matthews for Solas


Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.