“I don’t like religion but I like the person of Jesus.”
The religion they don’t like is Christianity – Jesus’ religion. They think it would be better if the church wasn’t involved. Separating an institution from its namesake isn’t easy under any circumstance, but it’s harder here because Jesus and the church are both ancient, and ancient doesn’t time-travel.
We hold a myth that it does, but ancient ideas and stories about ancient people preserved in ancient books can’t make the trip to today. We think if we could snatch those guys (ancient pronouns are definitely male) out of yesterday and plunk them into today, they would be just like us, dealing with the same kinds of issues, having the same kinds of thoughts. Not a chance. We are not like them and they weren’t like us. Our consciousness, experience, and reality are different from theirs. Bring them here or send us there and neither of us would have a clue.
Why? Because everything we feel, think, and do is in context – life happens right here, right now. It all happens in our brains and bodies – neurologically, biologically. We can’t escape being organisms. And we can’t escape the moment. That’s not a cool guru thing to say, it’s the way human life works. Contrary to the popular myth, we’re not eternal souls living on a higher plane while our bodies slog through the muck. We’re all here, like it or not.
Seek and Ye Shall Find
We don’t think reality works that way. We think it’s “out there,” waiting for us to find it. And if it’s Christian reality we’re after, Jesus promised that if we seek it we’ll find it. The only hitch is, the way we find it is by believing it. Christianity doesn’t function without belief. It starts with “whoever believes in him [Jesus] shall have eternal life” and goes from there.
Believing it is finding it. We find it by believing it. It’s not hard to spot the loop.
And if it’s the real Jesus we’re trying to find, there’s still the God-human problem. Theologians can talk all day about how Jesus was both “fully human and fully God,” but there’s no way the rest of us have any idea what that’s supposed to mean, so we stick with what we’ve been taught to believe. We major on the God part — we sanctify Jesus, bathe him in holy light, cast everything he said and did in marble, interpret and rationalize it in hindsight. We figure Jesus as God was always in the know so he knew all along what was happening and how it would be viewed by people like us two millennia later. He set everything up so church doctrine would make sense.
Plus our own memory banks are full of our personal history of faith and anything we might have learned about what’s happened with Christianity while it’s been around. There’s a lot of church and religion in those memories – stuff the person of Jesus” devotees want to trade for a fresh look. To do that, they’re going to have to be really good at “beginner’s mind” – using awareness to seek and destroy biases and assumptions.
Call me Ishmael
I didn’t think about the “person of Jesus” when I was a Christian, I mean, Jesus was special because I was a Christian. Sometimes people talked about loving Jesus. I never felt that way, so I worried that my faith was defective. Guilt was pretty much the extent of my “person of Jesus” experience.
Now that I’m not a Christian, I don’t like the guy.
It’s still shocks me when I write things like that. I never would have, back in the day, But I believed then. I don’t anymore.
Still, some people I’m close to buy the “person of Jesus” thing.
So call me Ishmael — I signed on to give it a try.
Jesus was a rabbi. He did what rabbis did: travelled around teaching his take on things, attracted followers who supported him, and argued with other rabbis. (Rabbi arguing is so essential that the nation of Israel pays them to do it.)
Jesus was a rabbi prodigy – he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah by ditching his parents so he could debate other rabbis om Jerusalem’s temple. That’s like skipping law school for a chat at the Supreme Court. When they found him, in true adolescent fashion he made it their problem that they didn’t know he’d be there.
Then the Biblical record skips ahead twenty years – a gap that generates a lot of sappy artwork of him being a carpenter and “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter” bumper stickers. What was he doing? The same thing he was doing before his temple debut: studying, learning, perfecting his case, preparing himself to be a rabbi for the ages. When the photo op was over, he closed up shop and hit the road.
He was good at it – had personal charisma and a message to match. Recruiting was a snap, and before long he had a retinue and a schedule like a megachurch pastor: he drew huge crowds to public events, taught an inner circle more intensely, and confided intimately with only a handful.
Jesus’ rabbi battles were epic. We like the way he put the smackdown on the competition. My overall impression is that he wasn’t the nicest guy in the world. Seems like he was often rebuking and scolding– like snarling at a man for not having enough faith while he healed his child. Maybe he was like one of those professors everybody warns is “really hard but you’ll learn a lot.” Sometimes I took the class, sometimes I didn’t – either way, I usually didn’t like “the person.”
Jesus was great in a crowd. He delivered sound bytes you could take home, share with the neighbors — consider the lilies of the field, the very hairs on your heads are numbered, no sparrow falls from the sky without God noticing…. He told great stories – always with a moral, but complex enough that his inner circle sometimes needed a private explanation. People wondered, “Where did he get all this?” “He doesn’t teach like the other rabbis,” they said.
There’s a poly-sci term for it: populism. Populism reverses the pecking order — the elites will be last and the losers first. The new blessed — the poor, meek, abused, despised, outcast, sick, blind, lame, hopeless, powerless – will inherit the earth and see God. God already has their mansions in Heaven under construction.
Not only that, but they get free healthcare.
Jesus healed people at his rallies, sometimes stayed up all night doing it.
The Christianity I was part of believed healing should be a normal part of what Christians do. Not all Christianity thinks so. Plus, we all know the debates about did he really, about what qualifies as a “miracle,” and what’s this about casting out demons? In our day, the “placebo effect” has been scientifically documented, plus there have been and still are lots of people who heal without surgery or pharma. Debate all you like, but it’s undeniable that Jesus’s ability to make people feel better super-charged his popularity.
Healing people was a big deal. Only the A-list prophets had done it, which meant Jesus might be one of them. There hadn’t been one of those in a few hundred years. More than that, healing was more than a prophet marker, it was Messianic – part of what would happen when God made good on Israel’s long-promised restoration and golden era.
Start talking Messiah, and the populist buzz goes off the charts.
Jesus’ message was clearly Messianic, and he clearly believed he was the Messiah. That’s what went down in a very rabbi-like exchange with John the Baptist (though a couple of John’s followers). The rabbi exchange works like this: one rabbi quotes scripture, the other responds in kind; and in so doing, they clarify a point between themselves. They’re speaking in code, but they get what each other is after.
“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
Matthew 11: 2-5 ESV
“Are you the one who is to come?” [Are you the Messiah?]
“Go tell John what you see happening around here.” [Yes I am.]
The scripture in question was this:
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
“ and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”
Isaiah 35: 5-6 ESV
Jesus made the same point on other occasions, like one Sabbath when he did something else rabbis did – went to the synagogue and read the scriptures, as “was his custom.” Only this time he went off script: “The prophet Isaiah was talking about me.”
“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
“And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 4:16-21 ESV
Fast forward to today. We know that Jesus’ Messianic populism didn’t go permanent. Instead – according to the church – it morphed into something transnational and invisible that you get in on not by being born in ancient Israel, but by believing that Jesus was a sort of metaphysical Messiah for everybody. A few hundred years later under Emperor Constantine, the invisible Messianic kingdom morphed again into the official Christian institution and infrastructure “the person of Jesus” devotees want to scuttle.
Jesus’ populism was a fail, but that’s okay. We got something better instead. That’s the party line.
I was a Jesus Freak in the 60’s and 70’s. We were totally into the populist Jesus– the bearded long-hair barefoot bead-wearing anti-war hippie radical Che Guevara look-alike who called out The Establishment and stuck it to the Man.
Today we’ve got the Revenge of the Establishment — the Christian Right’s Jesus who advances Christian Nationalist racist alt-right anti-democracy militarist fascist authoritarianism end stage capitalism.
I don’t know about you, but after the last few years I’ve had quite enough populism for one lifetime.
“We are the 99%” is why populism fails. Occupy camps out in Manhattan, the mob storms the Bastille (or the Capitol) but once the mess is cleaned up the 1% is back in charge while the newly disappointed and disillusioned 99% are back home wondering, “What was that about?”
So far, Jesus” sharp tongue and populism aren’t wining “person of Jesus” points. But how about this:
Jesus Reinvented God
If the Messiah was on the scene, the God of Israel’s history had to be recast.
Israel’s God was a “man of war. Exodus 15:3 He was both a war criminal and guilty of crimes against humanity – a misogynist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic narcissist who must be worshiped and resented it when he wasn’t, a nationalist, fascist authoritarian who openly ordered genocide and gave his conquering soldiers the right to rape and pillage.
You dealt with that God by being afraid – fearing him was “the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9:10 No wonder the rabbinical sects Jesus verbally sparred with – the Pharisees and Sadducees –were obsessed with getting everything just right, down to the last “jot and tittle.” Do something wrong and everybody suffered.
Of course, ancient Israel didn’t think of their God that way. People still don’t today. When they think of God, they think of a Nice Guy in the Sky – like the God Jesus introduced as our “Father” — a too-kind, too-generous, too-indulgent, too-loving remake of the old Monster God.
The Monster God destroyed men, women (except the sex slaves), and children and burned their cities down to make room for his chosen people, whom he also turned on if they got it wrong. That wouldn’t do if there was going to be a Messianic golden era. So Jesus brought a new God, and a new religion with it.
Jesus Reinvented Religion
Jesus’ new religion was based on belief. Belief was the ultimate populist Messianic kingdom strategy. Anyone could believe, even the losers — no temple, no priest, no animals sacrifice required.
Jesus’ new religion was today’s self-help gospel. When Jesus gets on the topic of belief, he’s the original motivational speaker.
“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV
“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV
That’s the power of positive thinking and law of attraction, from the pages and podiums of the $20 billion self-help industry. (Christians have adopted self-help as their own – Google “Christian self help” and you’ll see what I mean.) Believe what you want, don’t doubt, and it’s yours. You can move mountains. Nothing will be impossible for you.
It seems Jesus was an original thinker on this point – if it’s in the ancient Bible, I can’t find it.
If the Monster God was out and the Nice Guy in the Sky was in, then Israel’s historical religion had to change. No more annual calendar of animal blood sacrifices. And no more temple.
A little research reveals that there was a rabbinical apocalyptic school of thought in Jesus’ time, and some scholars think Jesus was in the club. Maybe, maybe not, but Jesus clearly had an apocalyptic view of his religion’s future, which meant the temple’s days were numbered – a development he talked about with inner circle about when the troupe made their last trip to Jerusalem.
“Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’
“As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’”
Matthew 24: 1-4 ESV
The temple was the nation. Take it away, and everything else went with it — worldview, cultural identity, historical understanding, vision for the future… all the nation’s institutions and icons trashed. The Messiah had been promised for millennia, but theoretical good news is one thing, the reality of dealing with it is quite another.
The “Lamb of God” heads off a national security risk
Jesus’ country was a theocracy. Messianic populism was a national security risk. Stir things up too much, and the Roman hammer would fall. The other rabbis could see it coming. They had a country to protect. They were human too — the lash of Jesus’ tongue hurt. And clearly he was wrong and they were right. No wonder they led the chant “We have no king but Caesar” while demanding Jesus’s conviction and murder.
And the amazing thing was, Jesus didn’t resist them. And when the Roman authorities wanted to let him go, he refused.
It looks like this came out of nowhere, but it was there all along, ever since John the Baptist made a pronouncement for the ages:
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
John 1:29 ESV
At the height of his popularity, Jesus volunteered to be the human sacrifice that would appease Israel’s Monster God once and for all. No more imminent kingdom – instead, the settling of an old score. It looks like a sudden change of heart, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.
“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Matthew 16:21-23 ESV
So much for the merry populist ride and the loving new Heavenly Father. In order for the old God and the old religion to be over with, there would need to be one last bloody sacrifice – the “Lamb of God.” That would be Jesus’s final act.
Trouble is, you destroy the Messiah, you destroy the Messianic golden age. Two thousand years of church doctrine says don’t worry about that, because this was the surprise happy ending– the impossibly good news no one saw coming. I’m no longer in the thrall of church doctrine, so I see it differently.
At the height of Jesus’ populist ministry, his family staged an intervention – tried to bring him home. They thought he was beside himself, wasn’t thinking straight, needed some time to cool off. He blew them off, and shortly after started predicting his death. It’s like something snapped in him. Right about then was the transfiguration –Moses and Elijah on the mountain — the lawgiver and prophet — and afterward the populism ran off the rails. Instead of breaking with the Monster God, Jesus announced that he would appease him with his own death. Bringing the Messianic kingdom would be his followers’ job, and in the time he had left he focused on preparing them for the job.
This is where I give up on “the person of Jesus” – when his healing, populist gospel turns into an ancient religious death wish.
But then it gets worse.
The Last Judgment
When Jesus broke faith with his Messianic populist movement, he became fully complicit in ancient Israel’s religion and angry God.
Like any sociopath, the Monster God could be kind — the official line was that his “lovingkindness indeed never ceases” Lamentations 3:22-23 Trouble was, his lovingkindness was conditional, on loan. His people could never please him, so they were always building debt they could never repay. Christian theology says that applies to the rest of us too, and that Jesus – “fully God” – knew that, so he picked up the tab for everybody.
But the final reckoning inexplicably stayed on the agenda. Once the world burns in apocalyptic flames, we’re all summoned to the Last Judgment, and if we don’t believe the right stuff, we’re screwed in the worst possible way.
These days, every time I write the stuff the church I was part of used to believe, I’m shocked and stunned all over again. Really — people who seem normal, like I used to think I was — believe all this gory, horrible stuff. No wonder Christians parade Jesus’s death by torture symbol like it’s the best thing ever. It’s a crucifix, for crying out loud! –one of the most horrifyingly cruel, depraved, savage, barbaric, sadistic, blood-lusty instruments of torture the very worst of human depravity has ever devised, and there’s a man on it, beaten and whipped bloody, writhing in pain.
Oh, and a father did that to his child. Because he so loved the world.
And the son submitted to it because he loved us and wanted to please his father.
Behold the Lamb of God.
That’s the religion Jesus couldn’t break from – which two thousand years later was the same religion I joined when I became a Christian – and which is still the same religion I’m no longer part of. Christianity gives lip service to the Father, but it worships the Monster.
Jesus Christ Superstar
By the time I got this far in my search for “the person of Jesus” I realized what I’d found was my own Christian life. Twenty years after my Jesus Freak populism days, the Kingdom finally came. It was full-on Jesus populism. We went after the losers, stayed up all night healing them and finding them under bridges. We built churches in their abandoned store fronts, washed their cars, did their Spring cleaning, hauled away their trash. We fed them and moved them into homes.
Then the worst thing happened. The Evangelicals who’d been on our case extended the olive branch, and our leaders took it. We used to have the Father, now we had half the Father and half the Monster. Occupy was over. The elites were back in charge. The old order was restored.
That’s what I found looking for “the person of Jesus.”
Writing this now, I think of Judas singing in Jesus Christ Superstar — “Every time I look at you I don’t understand/Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.” Yeah, that pretty well sums it up.
When I first heard it, I thought it was clever, but trite. Not anymore. Jesus had it going, he let it get away. Sad. Frustrating. I wish his family’s intervention had worked. It didn’t, and for reasons we’ll never know, Jesus took a course that a couple thousand years later has brought us the Christian Right and the Kingdom of Texas, the Proud Boys with their giant crosses that look like they’re going to use them on somebody, and all the rest. We get modern barbarity to match ancient barbarity, justified by the barbaric God of a barbaric ancient religion, its devotees hawking doctrinal statements of faith barely indistinguishable from their most wildly fantastical conspiracy theories.
The individual and collective brains of the human race have been groomed with this disgusting source of endless misery for six thousand years since the Bible first declared ‘In the beginning, God….”
How about if we start over with, “In the new beginning, no God’?
Not even “the person of Jesus.”
Today billions of people around the world still sanctify the church’s ideology and idolatry no matter how weird and brutal it is. “The person of Jesus” offers no escape, only more of the same.
Can we please move on?