What has happened with Jesus and the Jews is a classic case of identity theft. Some power-grabbing Christians under Constantine around the third century after his birth inflated Jesus, a Jew, to become Jesus whose last name became Christ. In Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll has explored this history of identity theft in depth. Here’s my quick summary: A man dedicated to being small became large and was used to create a religious and political empire. Before that, early “Christians” and many Jews were equally confused about who this man was and what had happened. More than one movement around Jesus rose and fell, with the Constantinians winning the day in language and empire. The movements developed because of the impact of this figure who certainly felt like the long-promised Messiah, at least in the sense that he sparked hope in many ordinary human hearts.
If the word “Christian” bothers some of us, then the sloppy use of the word “Messiah” really aggravates us. We know the constant promising of the Messiah to be a historical uprising of the down and out. We hope that there will be a day when the poor will not be oppressed and the small people will find power. We have read dozens of scriptures that promise something good “on that day.” We even understand how Jesus described himself as the long-awaited Jubilee. We know about Pharaoh’s war against the Jews, and we know about the kings who tried to kill Jesus with a threat large enough to force his young family into hiding. Had we been there when some powerful Christians decided to name Jesus “Christ,” we would have known that the real fight about religious authority or “rightness” had begun. That fight went on and on for years, until both Judaism and Christianity became sufficiently irrelevant through their own power grabbing in the name of God. Adherents slipped away while still thirsty for the Jubilee, the Messiah, and the promised time and space of God.
Christianity’s religious power grab is rooted in a simple idea: “I’m right about God, you’re not.” Once such a fight begins, some people are out and others in. Some people are on top and others are on the bottom. That these ins and outs and ups and downs have little to do with the Jesus of the four short biblical books written about him no longer matters. These texts have been manipulated by those who want to be on top and who think being right about God is a spiritual path. The result? Empire—first under Constantine, and then in a long, Christ-oppressing history of Christians driving Jews out of religious authority or space.
When the Messiah comes, the ups and downs and ins and outs disappear. Something new arrives. Since the “Christ” manipulations began, Jews and Christians alike have not enjoyed the new so much as fought for the conservation of the old. When the elephants fight, the grass suffers. To whose benefit? Ordinary people, hungry for a Messiah, get used by larger power interests that maintain the status quo. Religiously starving people remain. Forgive my doing so little justice to nearly 2,000 years of violence and struggle between Jews and Christians. I want to get on to who Jesus might be for and to Jews.
If we can get beyond the enormous injury that has happened to the man who asked, “Who do you think that I am?” then we can move on to consider his identity. Getting beyond the identity theft is difficult. It happened, over and over again, and it is still happening. The punishmentalists today act as though Scripture was poured in concrete and as if the God who once spoke in history is now quiet. As a result of their explanations of religion, gays should be oppressed, kosher should be kept, women should wear hats, and guns should be toted. Once again, we watch imperial power steal religious identity for its own ends. The distortions of Jesus abound: they are painful to those kept down and out. Enormous debts are still owed, but the authorities have not noticed. Blinded by being right, they don’t see the identity theft.
My hope for a readjustment of Jesus, for and with Jews, begins here. We could try to operate under the radar of the righteous, the “right”, and the Right. We could declare that we can’t be right about God, only glimpse the piece of light that falls on us, in our time and place.
No One Knows Everything About God
Being right about religion is not possible. Truth is different than being right, and the truth is we can’t name God, rightly. We can know God partially. We can know God prismatically. Christians cannot be right about God, and Jews cannot be right about God. Idolatry is not some abject obedience to the dogmas handed down by Tevya. Idolatry is when we think we are right about God. Jews and Christians can begin to glimpse a little of Jesus only if we stop being right about him and start being curious about him.
Being right about Jesus led to nothing but blood and its relative, stupidity. It has wiped out curiosity in his story by pouring concrete on curiosity. In 1980, the Rev. Dr. Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared at a Christian political rally that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” Later he added, “I am pro-Jew. I believe they are God’s special people, but without Jesus Christ they are lost. No prayer gets through that is not prayed through Jesus Christ.” This exclusion of prayer is something Jesus himself opposed at every turn, usually at the gates of cities where unnamed lepers, prostitutes, or “Gentiles” were healed without being asked for their orthodoxy identification cards.
In The Predicament of Belief, Philip Clayton argues that religions have become so distorted that we have lost a way to believe. Whenever any religion tries to convince people that it knows the right way, or the one way, or the only way, put on your spiritual armor. Somebody is stealing your credit card and racking up debt on it, a debt that you can never repay. Religion, in trying to be right, demolishes itself.
Jesus is not what many people think he is. As a cradle Christian, ordained for nearly forty years in the United Church of Christ, it pains me to see how many people at the gate in need of a healing touch have been driven away from that touch by his identity theft. Jesus is surely not the Messiah of religious triumphalism. He is a Messiah, in that he did bring us some good news. He himself has no need to be Christ, if that word means the one and only and best God.
When I pray in public, which I do often, I begin thus: “God, you who are beyond the power of any human captivity or name, you whom some call Allah, and others refuse to name, you whom some call Ruach or breath, you whom some call energy or force, you whom some name as brother or Jesus or Christ, you whom many do not trust at all, draw near and help us understand that we dare not name you out loud.”
A Loving Jesus
I know a minimalist Jesus, one who made very few claims on his own behalf. I don’t need a correctly interpreted Jesus; I need the ultimate trust that I have in Jesus. Because of the way I was raised, as a cradle Christian, I have Jesus in my belly. He came to me singing hymns while I cuddled my grandmother’s fur coat. Jesus has been a lifesaver for me. When I have been threatened with cancer, faced with drunken drivers, and hit by deer, he comes to my belly as trust. I don’t think of this primal trust as right or wrong, and I would never force it on another. I could never use these experiences of warmth as hammer on anybody.
Jesus himself says “God is love.” He is like God in that he believes in loving the lovable and the unlovable. Jesus is the one who refused to have an enemy and did not vilify the violent, while keeping his eye on the lame. The hardest part of my relationship with Jesus is this: I am prone to hate those who distort Jesus. I can be very hard on haters. I do vilify villains. I may be a cradle Christian but I am still learning how to love.
Jesus, for me, shows up as bread and wine. He shows up in these ordinary objects because I was trained and raised to see him there, not because they are magical substances. I have had more than one fight with Catholics who have refused to serve me at their table because I didn’t have the right perspective. The distortion of Jesus at the table brings out the villain in me.
Jesus also teaches that he is in need of me as his body, hands, and feet on the planet. He is known in the shape of love, crucified and raised. He is known as the Jubilee, the presence of peace and justice on earth. He says of himself, “In me the day of the Lord has come.” I like that. I’m not sure it actually came yet, thus my reach toward more Messiahs. As we say in the United Church of Christ, along with John Robinson, the preacher who brought our religious traditions over on the Mayflower, “God has yet more light and truth to shine forth.” We repeat this theology in our slogan, “God Is Still Speaking.” When the denomination says over and over on now-tattered banners outside many of its 5,100 congregations, “Never place a period where God has put a comma,” it means something about God. It means that God goes with you forward as well as anchoring you backward. This theology is not just something about Scripture or gay marriage, as important as both those subjects are. It is also in stark contrast to punishmentalism, whose main theology is blame minoring in shame.
In the United Church of Christ we are in serious conflict with those who say “God SPOKE.” It isn’t over with God or for God. Religious prejudice is often best seen right here. Whenever people say “God said”—as though God was only present in a historical moment that has passed—watch out. Stuck in a dead history, they are stuck in oppressive behavior toward the people who are “wrong” about God, as though they were right. These people will mount up debt after debt and have no imagination of a Jubilee time when debts are cancelled. They won’t know how to fly under the radar of the authorities. They will do what the authorities tell them to do and lose their lives by trying to save them. To rebuild after the damage of Constantine’s version of punishmentalism, just say, “God Is Still Speaking.” Empire hates that sort of thing.
Distortions of Jesus
Nothing bugs me more than when somebody dishonestly smears somebody else. I hate when the poor get blamed for their poverty, as though it is their faults. I hate when gossip has its stingy little victories. I particularly hate institutional religion gossip, the kind that wonders whether some newcomer is “fit” for a position of responsibility. Most of all I hate the lies told about Jesus. I hate the distortion of Jesus into a sentimental, punishmentalist, one-source-fits-all kind of God, the kind of God that shows up with a hammer and not a heart. I hate the Jesus that is captured by being against things, like families other than the kind the 1950s comported. I hate the distortion of Jesus as one who is against people who don’t understand how much Jesus wants to save them. I hate the Jesus who is triumphalist and all-consuming and who damns you if you don’t kiss his toes, as though they were the only divine toes anywhere. I’m not crazy about the abuse of the word “Christ” either. I hate the way people king Jesus as if they had never walked in a Palm Sunday parade or stood with women (women!) beside a grave, having no idea what possibly could have happened to one they loved. I hate the way people mistake Christmas as an anti-materialist event, when clearly God chose to draw flesh to spirit in the incarnation, encarnacion, the chili con carne, and the chili con Christ event of the birth. Every Christmas we sputter about the crass commercialism of God’s decision to brush eternity with time and divinity with humanity. Why do we need to etherize and spiritualize a true human, a man infused with God?
Jesus has been the victim of identity theft, as have the poor, Christmas, Easter, and many newcomers. The newcomers don’t just get the sniff-off in church or at temple. Immigrants, the classic newcomer, are more lied about right now than anyone else with the possible exception of Muslims and queers. In a country and culture that says it loves Jesus, there sure is a lot of hate. It’s hard to imagine, but in a “Jesus-loving country,” guns are understood to be our “right.”
I return to my apoplexy regarding the identity theft Jesus has experienced. Note that my paragraphs above have all been about hate. The Jesus rhythm is the precise opposite of hating a person or group because they hated others. The Jesus part is the golden part, where we are to love others the way we want to be loved. I want to be loved and understood. I don’t want to be blamed for my poverty of spirit. I certainly don’t want to be gossiped about by people who don’t know what I am up against or what I have already conquered. I especially don’t want to be put aside by people who think they know me based on one or two or even three experiences. I want people to give me a chance to be my best self. For that to happen, I need to refuse the distortion of Jesus. I need to give others the try I want and refuse to hate them the way they have hated. This Jesus business is not for sissies.
Jesus is a tough teacher on nonviolence. If I understand him, I can’t even vilify villains. I can’t even hate my enemies. With Jesus, I have to refuse to have an enemy. So when my blood boils because people say immigrants take away from the economy—when in fact they aid it—I have to seek to recognize what pain is causing them to distort truth. When my blood boils at people sniping about someone buying potato chips with food stamps in the checkout line, I have to wonder what makes them so afraid of potato chips or pleasure or the poor. When I say I’m not sure death is a sufficient or painful enough a consequence for the men who raped and murdered Jyoti Singh Pandey, I have to remember what Jesus would have said. He would have pushed me beyond my own anger into its source, the place of love. He would have said you can be fierce and you can be furious and you also must be fierce, furious, and constructive. You can’t have the hiding place of hate for your anger. It needs to melt into love.
In that melt, the old timers say, “cross becomes crown.” But first you have to melt. Another way to say this is to say that Jesus teaches that you can have anything you can let go of, and that the purpose of power is to give it away.
(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Summer 2014 print issue: Thinking Anew About God. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/god-anew to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)