It is hard to imagine any inducement that might draw Jesus—that dangerous Jewish prophet—to affiliate with the Christian Church. For the life of me, I don’t know why Jews don’t take Jesus back. We Christians have made such a mess of it.
The other contributors to this special section on “Christianity Without the Cross?” have focused in great part on how progressive Christians today should make sense of the crucifixion story and its place in Christian theology. I’m interested in a slightly different but related question: if a living Jesus walked among us today, would the Christian Church accept him? And would he accept the Church? It’s a question that becomes increasingly important the more we focus on the lessons of Jesus’s life rather than the story of his death.
The divide between Jesus and the Christian Church is inherently quite severe. After all, he never started a church. He was too busy starting trouble with authority and the temple. Let me explain.
The Jesus of the Gospels is engaged in an ongoing debate with the Pharisees. The root of his concern is not so much that they were an ornery tendentious group who co-opted religious life. Rather, he is issuing a broader challenge to the predicament of being middle management, an assault on the basic attitude of what we might find reflected in our own middle class today—what is left of it. Jesus just wasn’t into money; he preferred the basic ethics of sharing in the desert.
Of course, Christians came from the dregs of the Roman Empire—the slaves, the captives, every poor and disenfranchised subject of Roman Greed and power. And the United States was built the same way. As Christians, we believe that Jesus through Paul delivered us. He presumably still can deliver us from the greed of capitalism, but we are kind of attached to it. We have identified with the oppressor. That early communal meal of sharing resources has been closed off from our everyday life in the form of a safe “very spiritual” Mass. We can receive God’s Grace privately without mixing with the masses.
God set the Jews apart. God parted the Red Sea for them. They had a history in the desert. Their life was austere, with few possessions. They had all the freedom, the autonomy, and the equality that is often present among hunter-gatherers and people of the desert. The Jews have a spiritual reference point to return to, a worldview that is not built on the inequalities of an agricultural society. The desert was the vantage point from which to sober up after bad behavior.
Christians don’t often look back to that desert reference point. Even so, Jesus insists on bringing some of those desert ideals into our world, causing us some misalignment in our purposes as enthusiastic Christian capitalists in a world where rich is good.
Jesus just doesn’t fit into the Christian conception of good embraced by far too many churches. At the Christian Club House, we ask ourselves, doesn’t our loving Father favor good, decent people with families who are successful financially? Doesn’t God want us all to have lots of presents under our Christmas tree? That’s what I heard on TV, and it makes perfect sense. Nothing about a desert. Is that a crime—to be middle class? We are getting punished pretty badly by the God of History. Is something wrong?
That is why I am placing a complaint with some department somewhere. Something is not right, and I want to get to the bottom of it.
The fact is, Jesus knows he doesn’t fit into our capitalistic system. He doesn’t like our Gentile ways. “You know that among the Gentiles,” Jesus warns, “those whom they recognize as rulers lord it over them.” Now this is where the equality of the desert comes in. Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the servant of all” (Mark 10:42-4). Doesn’t that just make you gasp? That’s what we came to this country to escape. Does the Greek word diakonosreally mean “the help”? What can he be thinking really?
We are stuck with this misanthrope Jesus who is too smart for his own good. He stands outside and criticizes and makes us wrong in our own eyes. Those very qualities, we can all agree—the critical ethical intelligence, the standing outside the predominant culture, the concern for the poor and dispossessed—have remained far more characteristic of Jewish culture than Christianity.
Prophets vs. Churches
Just like how cats and rats are natural enemies, so sanctuaries and prophets are at each other’s throats. There is plenty of biblical history to prove it. Many churches have stood up and made a difference. They have been prophetic. They have lived authentically and courageously, year after year. They have stood for human rights. They have sent money, food and clothes. They have fed on a continuing basis, day by day, the homeless and needy; but still, so often just the few, and sometimes a mere gesture of concern.
But we have been a long time without a prophet—our last great one was Martin Luther King. It could be that in exasperation, God has turned our youth into prophets with the desert winds blowing in their hair, to juxtapose to our Christian capitalism. These contrary youth and other strays have brought their tents and a consensus attitude into the middle of Wall Streets everywhere.
Jesus was tried on the basis of vandalism. He was accused falsely of threatening to destroy private property, to throw down the temple in three days.
Jesus in the writings appears to be a mystic. He hung out with the poor and disenfranchised. As a political strategist, he inspired Marxism. He thought ethics wasn’t just behavior but began with one’s thoughts. As a prophet, he found problems everywhere.
Quite understandably, many Christian churches likes their prophets to be polite and appropriate; but as I say, there is a natural enmity between rats and cats, which are bound together as shadows of each other. Take the Episcopal Church recently. It used to be a rich church, and “the rich” are typically well educated, full of themselves, and basically like to do what they want. In this case, however, the Episcopal Church has become eccentric and stumbled rather purposefully into being prophetic, and what a mess. For some time now they have been ordaining women and gays, one radical behavior that probably led to another which, turns out, to be an extravagant prophetic conflict with those who prefer polite prophets.
This conflict played out memorably in the contestation over the centrally located Trinity Episcopal Church Wall St., which for a time provided meeting spaces, counseling, medical support, and bathrooms to those involved in Occupy. This church fearlessly took on the controversy, spared no expense and tolerated every inconvenience except, as it turned out, one: allowing Occupy Wall Street to take over a vacant property owned by the church.
As previously stated, Jesus is by his nature at odds with Christian cultures. The conflict appears to be unresolvable if we consider Trinity Church typical of the battleground. God knows, that church, with its responsible lawyers, tried very hard in good conscience to do what was right, so much better than most. How can Jesus be happy hanging out in a crowd like us, so different from his family and earlier friends? It’s not fair to him and it’s not his fault.
Why Jesus Is Dangerous to the Status Quo
Jesus was an absolute mystic. He lived as if there were only one moment at the intersection where two worlds, the material and the spiritual, meet. Jesus is all about being completely present in the midst of suffering as much as joy.
Jesus asks, “What profit has a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” Typical mystic thinking here. I have been told in all seriousness that such is the nature of God’s love for us, no matter how lost and stupid our life has been—that our slate is wiped clean, our anguish unnecessary. This linear, earthly, narrative trap has been sprung. We can live a life filled with the Holy Spirit. In the beginning of St. John’s letter, he says that Jesus, in the midst of so much suffering and brutality, stated that there is no darkness, only light.
A second reason why Jesus rattles the status quo is the company he keeps with the poor, the sick, and the humiliated. He tells us he hasn’t come to soothe the comfortable, but to soothe those who steal or beg, the not-us people. He brings God’s love for them, he brings them conversation, he heals them. He seeks out the people who haven’t made it, the workers who have fallen off a scaffold and are out of medical leave and in constant pain, those who are suddenly broke on the street.
Religion, it seems to me, is a therapy for the poor and disenfranchised. The well-to-do can buy justice. They can be relentlessly rational and be secure until the next paradigm shift.
Jesus tells a story about how two people go into the temple to pray—one a scummy tax collector and the other a righteous, middle-class, spiritually correct man. The middle-class man talks to God, saying he is glad he is not like so many others because he tithes generously to support the Temple and he prays and goes to services like a good, dutiful man—following all the rules. The tax collector on the other hand prostrates himself, barely able to enter the temple because of his emotional disarray at even looking up from his tears at the altar of God. So Jesus asks, who does God prefer?
How slick is that? Who does God prefer, he asks us: the self-satisfied Pharisee or the penitent tax collector trembling at the door of the temple? Of course, Jesus might have attacked the rich, but he chose middle management. Instead of wealth, he attacks the “best” hardworking people who try hard to appear attractive in their neighbors’ eyes, who display a pleasing, false self, which is not easy to do. It takes work and concentration every day. Is that fair? Jesus insists on representing God’s love for the despised and the ignored. He tells us he has come to soothe those who tend to be shunned by “decent” folk.
So successfully did this protest movement develop that Constantine in the fourth century, as the empire was falling apart, turned to persecuted Christianity to provide the social glue as a cultural bond. Constantine converted to Christianity and perversely, Christianity converted to Constantine. By some act of grace finally—after centuries of innocent bloodshed and desperate prayer—Christianity has been thrown into the street.
A third characteristic that makes Jesus disagreeable to the status quo is that he was an ethical teacher (think of the Ten Commandments, “lust in your heart,” the good Samaritan, the parables). Jesus attacked the highest attribute of good advertisement, that corporate passion for appearance over content; yes, I’m afraid it’s true---an attack on packaging practices. He compared the religious teachers, the Pharisees, to tombs—white sepulchers with rotting bones within. He questioned a life following rules instead of experiencing the presence of an intimate loving God, a God who loves us as if we were the only one.
The fourth disagreeable characteristic of Jesus was his work as a prophet, as that voice from the desert, calling for an awakening of heart and for a time of austerity, of greater simplicity, of greater ethical clarity, of reckoning, of remembering that God was present as the God of History.
“These things that I do, you will do and greater,” says the prophet Jesus. He doesn’t say, “Look at Me, Look at Me.” Instead, if you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could tell that mountain to go into the sea and it would happen. We stand at the intersection of the material and the spiritual worlds, and why is it we are lost, and why are we crying?
Building a Communal Life
I have heard of another Episcopal church in New York City in which the church/prophet struggle took another turn. This church, Holy Apostles, at 28th and 9th Ave. on the lower West side, got in the habit of feeding a large number of homeless people. And then the church, to all good people’s horror, burnt down.
That same week, on the smoldering rubble of the fire, the priest met with his congregation to survey the damage. He told them that they had important work to do: that in a few days, there would be a large number of people arriving to be fed and that they needed to be ready; so of course, tents were soon in place. Just down the street, the General Theological Seminary students clear spaces each night for homeless people to sleep, safe from cold and rain.
I am supposing that our nation’s financial downfall has, against our desires, returned us to the desert mind, to living a shared rather than an isolated life. The young with their cell phones and their dangerous disregard for established power and money, with no way to buy them off—they have created the desert in the public park with their tents and sleeping bags, their accusations, their defiance, their Wikileaks, their idealism, their resilience, and their insolent, prophetic voice. They have brought the desert to us like a sandstorm.
So we may as well take a closer look at a real troublemaker, a real prophet, a Jew whose healthy being naturally heals others. I mean we do have some record of Jesus' life; it is not all myth.
(To read more Fall 2012 online exclusives associated with the "Christianity Without the Cross?" section, click here.)