Last year saw the release of Who's Bigger: Where Historical Figures Really Rank by Steven Skiena and Charles B Ward, a book that no doubt provoked as many arguments as it solves.
Julius Caesar or Charles Darwin? Michael Jordon or Errol Flynn? Coming up with a ranking system that relies on the integration of a diverse set of measurements, the authors say they can reasonably compare the significance of historical figures of different eras. The top 10 includes some biggies – Napoleon, Lincoln, Hitler and Shakespeare.
Heading the list, however, is a one-time carpenter executed by the Romans for sedition, Yeshua Ben Joseph, better known as Jesus of Nazareth. With over two billion followers 2000 years after his death, “Jesus is an incredibly successful historical meme,” said Skiena in Salon Magazine, perhaps conscious of the lovely irony that it was Richard Dawkins, Jesus' most formidable foe today, who popularised the term “Meme” (a self-replicating idea, on the pattern of 'gene').
With Christmas upon us, it's worth examining how the story that lies at the heart of that “meme” has left its mark on the world. Heaven knows it can be hard to recall, when these days that part of the story is easily overwhelmed by the screams of advertisers, grasping consumerism, frantic dashes to malls filled with bad seasonal music, and the stress of the looming family lunch.
But take, for instance, the two biggest names of 2013: Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis.
There are some obvious echoes of the life of Christ in the narrative arc and content of Mandela's life. Raised in rural poverty herding cattle, Madiba endured struggle, persecution and gross injustice to become a great leader and figure of reverence. He made immense sacrifices on behalf of an oppressed people and forged a path towards an unlikely peace. As president with the power to crush the enemies who had humiliated him and his people, he chose instead forgiveness, mercy and welcome. He replaced what would be much more natural and human – the desire for revenge – with the counter-intuitive, yet somehow more grand and beautiful, offer of freedom for the oppressor.
All of this profoundly resonates with the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, one that was the inversion of all that could have been expected: where the first would be last, where the humble would be lifted up and the proud and powerful brought low. According to Jesus, the blessed ones in God's sight are the poor, those who mourn, the persecuted, the merciful, and the peacemakers. To align ourselves with this kingdom is to forgo revenge, to renounce greed, and love even our enemies.
The potent symbolic gestures and open-hearted magnanimity of Mandela served to avert the expected bloodshed in a deeply divided nation and usher in a period of reconciliation. Take for example the invitation to his former jailer to attend his inauguration. The lavish hospitality offered to the leader of South Africa's far right, General Constand Viljoen, who had organised armed resistance units to spearhead the 'white freedom struggle' as apartheid crumbled, was another. Viljoen, like plenty of other enemies of the country's new leader, was eventually won over and, according to biographer John Carlin, came to “adore” Mandela.
The influence of the Jesus story on Mandela is undeniable. In 1994, at a large Christian gathering, Mandela spoke of “our risen Messiah … born like an outcast in a stable, and executed like a criminal on the cross.”
Our Messiah, whose life bears testimony to the truth that there is no shame in poverty: Those who should be ashamed are they who impoverish others.
Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being persecuted: Those who should be ashamed are they who persecute others.
Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being oppressed: Those who should be ashamed are they who oppress others.
These sentiments could easily have come from the lips of another man of humble beginnings who has risen to the highest office. Former janitor, nightclub bouncer and literature teacher, now Pope Francis, was the most mentioned topic on Facebook in 2013 – overwhelmingly those mentions were positive.
Time Magazine's 'Person of the Year' is loved around the world for shunning the elaborate trappings of papal power, and promoting a church that exists for the sake of others rather than itself. Images of him embracing and kissing a horribly disfigured man in St Peter's Square in November captured what is attractive about this Pope. Francis has become known as the leader who walks among the poor, lives in humble surroundings, and has an active love for those on the margins; the weak, the oppressed, the marginalised. A critic of globalisation and unregulated markets, Francis is regarded as a spokesperson for social justice who is willing to challenge and offend the powerful in order to speak the truth.
But as Elizabeth Tenety writes in the Washington Post, “Without Jesus, there is no Pope Francis.” Francis is merely trying to enact and reflect the example of the one he follows. The life of Jesus has reverberated through our culture in profound ways, not the least of which is our dislike for those who are proud and the way we honour the truly humble. You don't do much better in the humility stakes than God himself becoming a human child, as the Christmas story claims. In Jesus the low point becomes the high point. He urged those who wanted to be great to become the servant or slave of all, much like he did, employing his strength in the service of others. That Pope Francis does a pretty good rendition of this goes a long way in explaining his popularity.
Those who feel a stirring in the soul when confronted with the lives of these great men may benefit from looking again at the ancient 'meme' of God being born as a baby 2000 years ago. Historians and statisticians, if not an incredulous Richard Dawkins, now attest: this life has impacted the world like no other.
Simon Smart is a director of the Centre for Public Christianity and the co-author with Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein and Rachel Woodlock of For God's Sake: An Atheist, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim Debate Religion.
This article originally appeared at The Drum