Note from one Christmas Baby about another Christmas Baby. . .
I am not anti-religious, anti-faith, anti-Christian or anti-Jesus. And I’m certainly not anti-Christmas. . .at least I’m not against the light and good will of the Best of that holiday (who needs to focus on all the Worst?). I prefer to “celebrate” the change of seasons, the Solstice, the wonders of Winter. So I like some greenery and candles and fresh-air walks in the forest near rivers, lakes or waterfalls (as I do throughout the year). Giving a few gifts seems a good way to honor the Gifts of Nature right now.
Anyway, I am not anti-Jesus. Why would I pick on a little homeless refugee child born to poor, unmarried teenage Palestinian-Jewish parents a very long time ago? That’s part of my point, my neverending point, about the baby and the man: he probably wasn’t anything like the Man or the Lord we’ve been told about all these years. His homelessness, his sense of basic human kindness, his commitment to justice and inclusion. . .all this brings him down to earth as someone to admire. That he inspired the leadership of Gandhi, MLK, Dorothy Day, Thich Nhat Hanh and Mandela is enough. That seems worth much more than all the preaching of his “divine nature.” As I say on these pages and in Life After Faith, Jesus does not belong to Christians and he would no doubt never be welcomed in any Church (are homeless people? are people who ask disturbing questions? are people who radically re-interpret the Scriptures? are people who challenge the clergy and threaten the order of the State?).
I have great respect for the adult human being the Bethlehem Baby grew up to be, the Wisdom Teacher known as Jesus of Nazareth. Neither atheists nor theists, non-believers or believers, can take that respect away.
Seth Andrews and how non-religious people can also celebrate Christmas (hint: it’s not owned by Christians)
Christmas: Behind the Curtain (Youtube)
Why does it take a comedian to tell the truth? Why doesn’t the Church teach this? Why wasn’t this taught in seminary? I consider this a kind of Secular Taking Back Jesus. . .
My wife went to a Christmas Eve service at a local church this year. I used to enjoy these traditions. . .until I didn’t enjoy them any longer. Anyway, she came back a little mystified and I was amused for a minute. There was something about dancing the same liturgical dance twice, but then there was an invitation to take Communion! At Christmas? That really threw me too. But, actually, it makes sense. Strange as it is to say this, some Christians can’t feel Christian enough without the Lord’s Supper. And, for me, as weird as it sounds, it appears that many can’t wait to get the Baby Jesus born so they can Eat Him! Holy Christmas Cannibalism! Sorry, but this is really very strange.
Excerpt from the essay,
“Jesus Was Not and Never Could Be a Christian
The Greatest Untold Story”
Questions for the Path
Who is the model for the Christian, the example of true faith? Is it not the “first Christian” who was no Christian himself? If this Jesus called the Christ is indeed the model for emulation by the faithful who seek “his way” then what was that model in the real world, in real time, that is, what is it about him that can be modeled (lived, evidenced)?
We are now given a great challenge and the biblical “experts” in their vast horizons of interpretation give us a wealth of accessible information. Personally, my only credentials for addressing these monumental concerns is a lifetime of staring this image in the face, exploring the bible in depth and a score of years as an ordained minister and chaplain who has served, at least in part, “in his name.” So, with that caveat, I will take a closer view of the “model of faith” that I discover in the record and in my experience. Be forewarned, I will not be “prooftexting,” rather I will be assuming a certain level of basic biblical knowledge in the reader. This brief sketch of the “issues” clearly is drawn from my long-held perspective that the bible says nothing but for our interpretations. There is no “Thus says the bible.” It is a very old book understood in countless ways by innumerable people in an array of times and contexts. All this is to state what is undoubtedly clear to most who will read this.
To restate it again, if this Jesus is the “supermodel” for Christian faith what is it that a person can model or “follow?” The answer to this primary question is particularly troubling to the person who identifies a practice (active model) of faith with certain “essential” forms. Take the following list of accepted aspects of “being Christian” and put them alongside a cursory response from the “new” testament (which is now, very old):
1) One is a Christian who assents to particular creeds developed in Christian history.
Our model, Jesus, does not fit this model since he did not have the benefit of the deliberations and votes of the Church Fathers. He offered no creeds or statements to assent to. He was never quoted as saying an “I believe” statement.
2) One is a Christian who believes what Jesus believed and “believes in” him.
This is deeply problematic. It seems clear from the record that Jesus had a worldview and practice of daily life that focused on the Jewish God of Israel. What he believed is difficult to ascertain. He left no manual listing the essentials of his personal perspectives. It would be both tragic and comic to claim he was yet another “new age” thinker who believed, above all beliefs, in himself.
Believing “in” him is an even more disturbing bucket of worms that I will hold off discussing here.
3) One is a Christian when they are an active member of a church.
Unfortunately our paradigm for faith fails this test hands down. Beyond the obvious fact that did he not even know what a church was, he never used the word. Even more troubling, it seems his experience with anything resembling a church presents a picture of someone completely uncomfortable and obviously angered by the whole experience of religious gatherings! As a (rebellious) child we hear of him challenging the elders in the temple. Next, we see him standing to read from the prophet Isaiah in the temple (the words quoted at the head of this essay). His rendition of the passage so enrages the congregation that they attempt to throw him out of town or even kill him. Lastly we have the famous image of Jesus enraged himself, storming into the temple with a whip he had made, sending the treasurers scrambling as he overturned the holy furniture, screaming out to the “den of thieves” in the ancient words “My temple should be a house of prayer!” The only other reference I recall was the day he walked passed the great temple in Jerusalem and told his disciples to “tear down this temple.” The gospel writer interpreted this to mean the temple of Jesus’ body, though for some who overheard this it could only be heard as a sacrilegious terrorist threat!
So overall we find the practice of churchgoing incompatible to say the least with the practice of The Model.
4) One is a Christian who reads, studies and believes the words of the Bible.
Sorry to say, Jesus fails this test as well. It is not known that he was a student of the sacred scriptures at all. Most of what we “know” is based upon a foundation of assumption and tradition, but not fact, or even the biblical record. The handful of times he is portrayed quoting from the only bible he knew, the Hebrew torah scrolls, the same passages were apparently known by every schoolchild and he could well have memorized them without reading (it is intriguing to compare those in lands other than Arabia who have the entire Qur’an memorized and can recite the whole sacred text without knowing any Arabic!). One wonders if those who use this bible-test for true Christians ever realize that Jesus only knew the “old” Hebrew testament/covenant and of that large body of literature chose a few select passages for his outdoor teaching. What he chose however is in itself instructive. I will say more below.
5) A Christian is one who preaches the good news to those who are not Christians.
Jesus never preached in any way similar to our modern conception of preaching. To preach is to proclaim, to expound a message based on biblical text and experience. The “message” preached by the Christian Church is fundamentally proclaimed utilizing texts never known to Jesus–the gospels and the epistles of Paul. Of course, many preachers employ the simple homiletic style of telling stories or giving personal interpretations based on personal study and understanding of the texts (Hebrew and Christian) and the “text of life.” Yet most historic preaching has been to “preach the gospel” and “save sinners.” One needs only hear the contemporary outcry “Don’t preach at me!” to feel the result in the popular mind. Here again I will defer more comment until the following section.
6) A Christian is one who lives a comfortable, successful life.
This is rarely spoken openly, yet I feel it is often a central critique of one Christian for another–especially of course in God’s chosen and “exceptional” country: America.
Taking a wide overview of the life of our Model we see something so completely antithetical to this point that it baffles understanding. Jesus seems to have had little comfort from the day he was born! Throughout his life (who knows what happened in those 18 years of silence) we see him without substantial, permanent housing, little money to speak of (Judas held the wallet for the entourage) and no tangible possessions. Further, his constant debates with the “authorities” over matters of religion and government as well as his continual gypsy lifestyle provided no basis for personal or professional comfort. He had no stability of steady income or work. He certainly had no retirement plan! As for success, he fell far below any regularly accepted standards for our day and no doubt for his own. We might say that he was indeed “successfully poor!” It would not be far afield to describe him as a homeless insurgent and certainly an uncertified teacher with no classroom.
7) A Christian regularly prays with others, asking for spiritual and material gifts from God.
No, Jesus does not meet this standard either. On perhaps one occasion he is recorded as looking up and thanking his “Abba” before a crowd. Interestingly, the famous event of the “Lord’s Prayer” seems not to have been a prayer at all! He said, “pray like this,” recited the prayer and did not end with an Amen. And, I would quickly add, there was never a mention of tacking on “in Jesus’ name.” So, there is really no indication that Jesus ever prayed in a group, and certainly not in a congregation of any sort. It was said that he went up once to the hills to “pray by himself” and though he was alone in the Garden before his arrest somehow someone wrote down that he prayed “take this cup (of suffering) from me.” A natural plea for someone facing arrest! No, Jesus was not what some would call “heavy into prayer.”
. . .
Spiritually speaking these concerns are far greater. If one’s god or godlike figure turns out to be very different than what the followers of that god claim, and those same followers die in the name of that god or kill in that name, we have a grave situation. Yet that is precisely what we have with the religion called Christianity and those who claim to follow the very non-Christian Jesus, those who proudly call themselves “Christians.”
2008 Chris Highland
Was Jesus a Pacifist?
Are the teachings of Christianism (Christianity) at heart non-violent or less violent than the sacred lessons of any other religion in human experience? If past history and current events do not present a quick and ready answer to this question, I will here and now offer one disturbing response. No, the Christianist religion in general practice and teachings is not non-violent. In fact, the life, teachings and death of Jesus of Nazareth, claimed as the heart of the traditional Christianist message, are inherently, essentially violent in nature and no less violent than the heart or hand of any other religion.
In our time the sharpened and blood-stained edges of religion are so graphically clear that we cannot escape the glare or the danger of the blades. Unfortunately even all good intentions and reformist tendencies of the “progressive movement” in small religious circles cannot seem to dull the edges honed by history or offer any defense against the extensive, pervasive use of every aspect of religion as weapons, weapons wielded against body, mind and soul.
One immediately thinks of the un-mediated conflicts of middle eastern wars. Age-old divisions, modern fences, urban tensions and threats of technological weaponry make political failures inevitable and obvious. The daily news and the internet circle our minds around the globe as we see so-called “sectarian” violence in regions from Northern Ireland to Sri Lanka, India, Afghanistan and rough landscapes of Africa. We can no longer ignore the equally glaring religious and political sectarians who directly or indirectly fight for power and control in the streets, schools, courts and legislative chambers in virtually every state in “Red” and “Blue” America. The serrated blade of religion is wielded so consistently that we often become numb to the harm done by those who would cut and divide every community into a more powerful Us and a weaker Them.
The opening words of Emerson’s first book, Nature (1836), still speak for the present time. He says that our age is distracted by retrospection, by our emphasis on the thoughts, beliefs and even tombs of the past (note the vast resources directed to our monuments and memorials). With a clear eye Emerson focused on our presbyopia, the vision of the elders, noting that we honor the viewpoints of those in ages past forgetting that we too can “see God and nature face to face.” What I am concerned with in the present discussion is the more profound loss of vision caused by our refusal to open our eyes wider, to see that even what we believe the “elders” before us really saw is blurred, distorted. We need some spiritual optometry (if not laser surgery).
I was listening to a public radio program on which a writer for a major magazine repeated something I have heard for many years and rarely challenged. The writer’s comment was made in the context of a discussion of the Pope’s visit to Turkey. While responding to the violent reaction of some Muslims to the Pope’s recent incendiary words toward Islam, the writer said, in effect, “We can see how Christians might say those violent demonstrations proved the Pope was right. After all, the peaceful teachings of Jesus never condoned violence.” I had to shake my head at the ignorance. It is an ignorance perpetuated by the Church and many outside the Church who want Jesus to be a rather benign, gentle, passive shepherd with a smile and warm touch. At least this magazine writer acknowledged crusades and other violence done in the name of Christianity (for example, the destruction of indigenous cultures, slavery, and teachings against birth control that generate greater poverty and hunger). Yet, I can no longer simply let these easy, popular myths be passed on and preached year after year without staring down the glaring errors.
For many years I counted myself among those who quite confidently proclaimed the pacifism of Jesus. He was, for us, the paragon of compassion, peace and non-violence. In fact, he was so gentle and loving as to be a kind of prissy spiritual eunuch, an emasculated ghost of a man whose only charisma, his only strength, was in whispering bible verses into our ears. Sure he was the “Lord” and commanded respect and obedience; his throne was on high. But always his authority was based on how much our Commander sweetly cared for his faithful troops. He walked beside us through gardens of roses with no thorns.
With time, experience and a bit closer reading of the text (what was conveniently not seen in those texts) I came to a clarity about the Nazarene. He was not nearly as peace-loving as many would co-opt him to be.
While I still see his basic message as one of a rough lovingkindness and almost brutal truthfulness, I think a cursory scan of the Christianist scriptures presents another side to the story, nearly the diametrical opposite of the sweet-eyed, peace-sign wearing Jesus.
Basic refutations to claims for the total pacifism of Jesus can be presented in the following way. I have modernized some of the story to show the offensiveness that has been glossed over and softened by tradition. The language is intended to make the stories more understandable for contemporary ears.
1) The story of his life begins, ends and is marked by acts of violence. Mary, his teenage mother, is essentially raped by God who tells her she is most favored. At his birth, Herod’s fear of terrorist insurgents leads him to massacre Palestinian children. Jesus and his family escape as refugees seeking asylum in North Africa. Next we hear of the young twelve year old debating with the elders in the synagogue. This was but the beginning of his years “picking fights” in conflict with clergy and other religious authorities. He was arrested, tried, tortured and executed by the state. Most of his fellow revolutionaries followed him into martyrdom, violent death.
By itself, the first point does not prove this man was not a person of peace. Others in history, who have attempted to challenge political and religious power, have suffered. Yet this opens our other eye, it takes a hard look at the flipside or “underside” of the story we usually hear preached by the Church. The life and teachings of this man have been greatly oversimplified by those who ought to know better. He is made to appear solely interested in un-earthly, “spiritual” things, heaven, or his own connection with the divine however that is interpreted. Myopic “leaders” have hoodwinked their flocks into a truncated gospel of half-truths, untruth. Many seem never to have actually read their own holy scriptures, conveniently overlooking uncomfortable passages that do not support their own narrow theologies.
2) Jesus’ chosen message, his “good news,” was a provocative, revolutionary message inviting immediate confrontation. He was savvy enough to know that what he said would raise organized, powerful and violent opposition. He was anything but a pacifier. He was a committed troublemaker and agitator. A wide-angle view of his entire career can leave no doubt or surprise at the ruling parties and their reaction to what they could only interpret as insurgency.
3) Throughout his ministerial career (if violent insurgency can be a ministry!) the rebellious, self-proclaimed rabbi deliberately offended people, stirring up their anger and revenge. He called them names (“vipers,” “tombs,” “evil doers,” “devils”). He threw scriptures at those who disagreed with him or challenged him, he condemned them, ridiculed them. He did not set up a command operation or a monastery in the desert to send his forces into the cities against the enemy. He took his battles to the street, put himself squarely in the public square, in the face of those he felt were wrong. Instead of avoiding problems or issues, he forced the issues by disrupting the order of things, the comfort zones of whole towns, entire communities. One could imagine a gatekeeper’s words, “Oh no. Call the police. Here comes that troublemaker from Nazareth again!”
4) Early in his confrontational “ministry” (at least according to his close associate John), at one of the holiest shrines, at one of the holiest times of the year, Jesus grabbed some rope and wound it tight into a whip (John 2:13-16). Like a madman he broke into the holy temple in Jerusalem and chased out the bingo players, the accountants, the secretaries and janitors. He pushed over tables and whipped people. He shouted, “My temple should be a house of prayer!” He accused them all of being thieves. He felt he was exposing corruption in the center of religion. One wonders if he paused to pray quietly after chasing everyone out.
5) He was not always so kind to animals and plants either. As a marginalized Jew he was certainly involved in religious practices of his day that included sacrificing birds for blood offerings in the temple. He certainly wolfed down the slaughtered lamb for Passover. For his dramatic one-act play riding into Jerusalem he sent disciples to “borrow” a donkey. He told them that if the owner asked them they were to say “The master has need of it.” However the animal felt being taken from home by strangers, there was no courtesy or question allowed for their actions.
In one of the most magical stories in the gospels Jesus is unhappy that a fig tree has no fruit for him to eat (Mark 11:12-14; 20-24). He curses it. The next day, as they are leaving town, the disciples notice the tree has withered and died. No tree-hugging here.
6) The self-described “Child of Humanity” (son of man) spent a great deal of time and effort speaking of God’s Judgment. God was going to get back at all those who did not listen and obey his (Jesus’) words. The Great Judge would condemn most of the world to fire and horrible suffering and destruction. An eternal place of punishment was “prepared” by the God of Jesus for those who did not take the narrow path to heaven. This God really loves us all but in the end “Our Father in Heaven” whose kingdom is coming will butcher and burn any and all who do not fall down before Jesus.
Now that’s a loving, non-violent God!
7) The very influential German Lutheran minister and professor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis for his role in an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life, wrote that Jesus’ fundamental message was “Come and Die.” If you follow this man, you will die, because God wishes you to die. To die to “self,” to “the world,” the “flesh.” Bonhoeffer understood the offensiveness. This was not a call to non-violence. The call of the Crucified God (written of extensively by Bonhoeffer’s fellow countryman and theologian Jurgen Moltmann) was to crucifixion. Yes, resurrection too. There is hope on the other side of execution. But the main role of a Christian is to suffer and die in order to be resurrected to new life.
This is the very graphic “Theology of the Cross” or the “Atonement.” Central to Christianist philosophy the theology of crucifixion has been drilled into the minds of believers throughout the history of Christianism. Countless people have died with this belief, this image, in their sights. It can never be forgotten or overlooked: the central symbol of the religion of Jesus is his mode of execution, the Roman cross–an instrument of brutal slaughter, slow, painful, bloody, asphyxiating death. Now, children wear it as jewelry, stars wear it for fashion, women wear it between their breasts. And of course every Christianist meeting place on the planet hangs the symbol of torture and death. The “empty cross” of Protestants is the same. A cross is a cross. An electric chair is an electric chair. Death, death, death. Suffering. Pain. A God who wants it, watches it, encourages it, causes it.
8) At his arrest for insurgency Jesus was “sweating blood” in the garden of Gethsemane on a hill outside of Jerusalem where he had willingly come to die. The shock of his arrest was made even more shocking by an act by his close friend Peter who jumped up, drew a sword and used it violently against an innocent man (John 18:10). The gospel account says Jesus waited for this violence to happen before telling his friend to stop. He is described as healing the ear of the man who was attacked before the scene is played out. Yet several disturbing questions have to be asked.
Why were the disciples armed? How could it be that more than one of the followers of Jesus, having been with him for years, were armed with concealed side-arms? Did they, like so many Christianists in our day, completely ignore the early teaching of their master, “Blessed are the peacemakers”? Or, were they simply acting out the very natural, violent example of their teacher from beginning to end?
Why did the “Teacher of Peace” not make sure his group was peaceful, unarmed, non-violent? Was it because he was not primarily a teacher of peacefulness at all, but one who saw violence as a necessary part of “God’s way?”
Why did he actually order them to buy swords (Luke 22:36) and tell them that what they carried was “enough” without disarming them? Was this due to his proclamation “I came to bring a sword” (Matthew 10:34f), and his commitment to slicing into society, causing divisions that would foment conflict even in families where he urged children to “hate their father and mother and follow me?” Is it any wonder that war-makers in our day, some who call themselves Christ-followers, see no conflict whatever between the build up of weapons and their “righteous” use in the context of a religious faith?
What are we left with in this “new” and disturbing understanding, this fresh portrait of the violent Nazarene? Essentially we are left with his legacy of brutal truthtelling, to speak what needs to be spoken in the face of untruth without fear–with an in-the-face offensiveness intended to push or pull people off the fences of indifference or ignorance. The truth must be told, no matter how sharp, how cutting. Theology can be debated, open to interpretation. Jesus had some strong opinions and seemed willing to die for those opinions and lead others in his example of suffering by choice. The historical record, such as it is, colored by centuries of tradition and non-historical legend, presents a picture of a poor and troubled man who emerged from the wilderness in the classic style of a truthtelling prophet. We find, upon close examination, that this image is quite different–in fact, in some respects the antithesis–of the image presented and proffered by billions of his “followers.”
At this distance perhaps the best that remains is to be honest, to call the Church to be accountable and to base a peacemaking process less on Jesus than on more modern examples of true, non-violent teachers of peace. To those interested in peacemaking, and I am one of those, it may make more sense to take seriously the practiced program of change implemented by Gandhi, Martin King, Sung Kyi, Desmond Tutu, and even Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan.
Confrontative? Yes. Offensive? Clearly. Risking violent death? Of course. But fundamentally committed to a practice and pedagogy of non-violence.
One further recent example illustrates the practice of pacifism in the face of blind opposition under the flag of faith.
The first Muslim ever elected to Congress, representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, asked to take the oath of office with his hand on a Qur’an instead of a Bible. Predictably, in the current American climate, Ellison was attacked for not choosing to swear on, in the words of some, “the book our country was founded on.” The American Family Association (who’s family are they representing?) want Congress to pass a law that would make the Bible the only book to be used in oath ceremonies. One professor of law at UCLA explained how un-American that would be. He said the Constitution allows for elected representatives to swear on any book, or no book if they so choose. Those with no religion at all are also protected (as are their families) by the Constitution. Once again, rather than being peacemakers, the fearfully religious choose only to attempt to make all the rest of us fall in line with their brand of American Christianism. The persistent, irrational and ignorant attacks on Barack Obama’s religious faith (“He’s a Muslim!”–note: I wrote this six years ago and this is still whispered) are further evidence of this mentality. These people never seem to notice, or admit, that were we to enforce their violent tunnel vision we would no longer have the pluralistic, freethinking, truly free America intended by the first Congress.
In the final analysis, basing a peacemaking process on the life and teachings of the executed palestinian and his sword-carrying followers is doomed to failure. Take any contemporary conflict and try to apply the actual violently narrow religious apocalyptic program presented in the gospels. I think we would see. There would be a remarkable resemblance to the most influential preachers, imams and rabbis we see appearing in the headlines and on the evening news. When we see and hear these myopic, presbyopic leaders we can see no peace possible at all. We see them not just building the tombs but sending our youngest into those tombs. In the name of religion, in the claim of faith, those who assume moral leadership prove themselves the least moral of all. And how mightily they fall.
Ultimately perhaps our journey toward peace, in our communities, in our world, in our selves, will not be guided much by the great spiritual teachers, but by the simple, reasonable, commonplace acts of those nearby, maybe you and I, who hold to no heavenly hope, who do not call us to come and die but to sharpen the blades of our minds and the vision of our eyes. Can we imagine bringing down the crosses to build these non-violent bridges to a brighter future? Even Jesus might have been open to that.
2008 Chris Highland