Donald Trump and His Christian Supporters Hate Jesus (Sunday Homily)

trump-jesus

Readings for the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe”: 2 SM 5: 1-3, PS 122: 1-5; COL 1: 12-20; LK 23: 35-43.

How on earth were USian Christians able to elect a man like Donald Trump?

After all, Trump represents the polar opposite of the values embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, Jesus was the kind of person Donald Trump and his supporters actually hate.

I mean, the Nazarene was poor, dark skinned, the son of an unwed teenage mother, and an immigrant in Egypt. Jesus was viscerally opposed to an empire very like the United States. And that empire (Rome) executed him as a terrorist. Jesus ended up on death row and finished as a victim of torture and capital punishment. To repeat, Trump and the Republicans hate people like that. They want Middle Easterners like Jesus out of their country at best, and dead at worst.

Again, how could followers of Jesus elect his sworn enemy?

The readings for today’s feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe” provide the answer. They explain what might be termed the great “makeover” of Jesus of Nazareth changing him from the leader of an anti-imperial revolutionary movement into a pillar supporting the very institutions that assassinated him.

In other words: through 4th century sleight of hand, the Jesus who sided with the poor and those oppressed by empire was made to switch sides. He was co-opted and domesticated – kicked upstairs into the royal class. He became not only a patron of the Roman Empire, but a “king” complete with crown, purple robes, scepter and fawning courtiers.

Reza Aslan’s best-seller, Zealot, explains the process in detail. The book centralizes today’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke, Chapter 23. There Aslan pays particular attention to:

  • Jesus’ cross,
  • to the Roman inscription identifying Jesus as “King of the Jews,”
  • and to the dialog between Jesus and the two “thieves” presented as sharing his fate.

Take the cross first. It was the mode of execution reserved primarily for insurrectionists against the Roman occupation of Palestine. The fact that Jesus was crucified indicates that the Romans believed him to be a revolutionary terrorist. Aslan asks, how could it have been otherwise?  After all, Jesus was widely considered the “messiah” – i.e. as the one, like David in today’s first reading, expected to lead “The War” against Israel’s oppressors.

Moreover, Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of God,” a highly politicized metaphor which could only be understood as an alternative to Roman rule. It would return Israel, Jesus himself promised, to Yahweh’s governance and accord primacy to the poor and marginalized. The Romans drew logical conclusions. Put otherwise, the Roman cross itself provides bloody testimony to the radical threat the empire saw personified in Jesus.

That threat was made specific in the inscription the Romans placed over the head of the crucified Jesus. It read, “King of the Jews.”

Typically, those words are interpreted as a cruel joke by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate – as if he were simply poking fun at those who saw Jesus as the worthy successor of Israel’s beloved King David.

However, according to Reza Aslan, nothing humorous was intended by the inscription. Instead it was a titulus. Every victim of crucifixion had one – a statement of the reason for his execution. The motive for Jesus’ crucifixion was the same as for the many others among his contemporaries who were executed for the same crime: aspiring to replace Roman rule with home rule – with an Israel governed by Jews instead of Romans. The titulus on Jesus’ cross, along with the cross itself identify him as the antithesis of what he eventually became, a Roman tool.

And then there are those two thieves. Aslan says they weren’t “thieves” at all. That’s a mistranslation, he points out. A better translation of the Greek word, lestai , would be “bandits” – the common designation in the first century for insurrectionists. And there probably weren’t just two others crucified the day Jesus was assassinated. There may have been a dozen or more.

In this context the dialog between Jesus and two of the terrorists crucified with him takes on great significance. Actually, it documents the beginning of the process I described of changing Jesus’ image from insurrectionist to depoliticized teacher.

Think about it. Luke’s account of Jesus’ words and deeds was first penned about the year 85 or 90 – 20 years or so after the Roman-Jewish War (66-70 C.E.) that utterly destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. In the war’s aftermath, defeated Christians became anxious to show the Roman world that it had nothing to fear from their presence in empire.

One way of doing that was to distance the dying Jesus from the Jewish insurgents and their terrorist actions against their oppressors. So in Luke’s death-bed dialog among three crucified revolutionaries, one of the terrorists admits that Jesus is “under the same sentence” as he and his comrade in arms. Given what Aslan said about crucifixion, that fact was undeniable. All three had been sentenced as insurrectionists.

But now comes the distancing between Jesus and Israel’s liberation movements. Luke has the “good thief” (read good terrorist) say, “. . . indeed we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”

In other words, Luke (writing for a post-war Roman audience) dismisses insurrection as “criminal,” and removes Jesus from association with such crime – a fact endorsed, Luke asserts, by insiders like the honest lestai crucified with Jesus. Luke’s message to Rome: the killing of Jesus was a terrible mistake; he meant no harm to Rome. And neither do we, his followers.

After the 4th century, Luke’s message became the official position of the Catholic Church – adopted subsequently by Protestantism. The message transformed the poor, brown, bastard, revolutionary martyr from a tortured and executed criminal into “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.”

So by now in 2016 Jesus has changed color and class. He is the white, rich, bigoted “American” champion of U.S. empire. Those pretending to follow the one-time immigrant from the Middle East show they want to keep riffraff like Jesus, Mary and Joseph out of their land of the free and home of the brave. They want enemies of empire like the Nazarene tortured and executed the way Rome tortured and killed the historical Jesus. Their president-elect even wants to go after Jesus’ parents while he’s at it.

We’ve come a long way, baby! Or have we?

The truth is that only by rescuing the historical Jesus – the antithesis of his Republican version – can we be saved from Jesus-hating Trumpism.

Jesus before Pilate: His heroic refusal to name names

Readings for “Christ the King:” Dn. 7:13-14; Ps. 93:1-5; Rv. 1:5-8; Jn. 18:33b-37 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/112512.cfm

This is the feast of Christ the King. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus declares his kingship during his interrogation before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Standard interpretations of the scene (such as in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”) present Pilate as a spiritually sensitive seeker.  It seems that Pilate had some appreciation of Jesus’ innocence and was trying desperately to free him from the rabid hatred of his Jewish adversaries.

So Pilate’s questioning of Jesus takes on a theological tone. His questions though arrogant are intellectual almost gentle and respectful. They seem sparked by genuine curiosity. Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” In the end Pilate ponders the imponderable, “What is truth?”

The standard account goes on to say that only his personal weakness causes the Roman procurator to have Jesus scourged – to appease the fanatical Jewish leaders demanding Jesus’ blood. Yes, he was weak, but in the end the Jews were the ones principally responsible for Jesus’ death.

That’s the familiar picture: Pilate the intellectual, spiritually sensitive, looking for a way to set Jesus free, but too weak to assert his authority in the face of powerful and hateful Jewish leaders.

Problem is, the picture is profoundly at odds with the historical record. It also ignores the real reason representatives of empire engage in interrogation. As for the procurator’s personal character, Philo, Flavius Josephus, and Tacitus, tell us that Pontius Pilate was an absolutely brutal man. He had no fear of Jewish leaders. He despised them. In fact he took pains to provoke them. For instance, he knew the Jewish prohibition against idolatry and the making images, and yet he routinely paraded through the streets of Jerusalem statues of the Roman emperor who claimed to be a God. On several occasions, Pilate had his soldiers enter the Jerusalem Temple itself provocatively profaning it by their very presence.

No, Pilate was brutal. And his questioning of Jesus in today’s gospel had nothing to do with theological interest. He cared not at all for Jesus or establishing innocence. Quite the opposite. Pilate was just doing his job. If the questioning actually took place at all (and it’s doubtful that it did), it was at the hands of an imperial administrator doing what administrators do in all such circumstances from first century Jerusalem to twenty-first century Kabul. They arrest, interrogate, torture, and execute.

After all, Pilate had in his presence a man identified by local informants as a terrorist. In fact, this one (like innumerable others Pilate had questioned) claimed to be King of the Jews – obviously an insane “rival” to Caesar. What a laugh – an uneducated laborer from Nazareth!  So Pilate would have been all about arresting this “militant,” interrogating him for information about accomplices, torturing him when the initial interrogation failed, and then butchering the fool.

Moreover Jesus’ silence before Pilate had nothing to do with humility. It was instead about Jesus’ refusal to name his accomplices. So the torture began. To humiliate him, the soldiers stripped him naked – again, standard operating procedure then and now. For the soldiers this was fun.  No doubt they made crude jokes about Jews and circumcision. (Do you hear echoes of Abu Ghraib here?)

Still Jesus said nothing. So they beat him nearly to death. Thirty-nine lashes (almost no one survived that). And yet Jesus refused to name names. So they gave him the “crown of thorns” treatment. It was like water-boarding today. Still nothing – no names. It was entirely heroic on Jesus’ part.

Then they applied the final torture – the “third degree” following the first two: the scourging and “crown of thorns.” This was the ultimate torment reserved for insurrectionists – crucifixion. They’d send a detachment of soldiers to copy down any final disclosures. But Jesus said nothing to help them. His silence and acceptance of suffering and death literally saved his friends. They had been disloyal to him, explicitly denied him; they had been cowardly and weak. They had sinned against Jesus. Yet he gave his life for them. His friends would never forget that. Jesus’ heroic death saved them from their sins. It saved them from Pilate.

However, the truth is that Pilate was probably not aware of any of this. He was used to applying the third degree. The record shows he had crucified literally thousands in his time. A lot of them had claimed to be messiahs sent from God.  For him executing such delusionaries was no big deal. In fact, scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan suggests that Pilate took no notice at all of Jesus. The whole world was not watching, Crossan says. Jesus wasn’t even a blip on Pilate’s screen. The “trial before Pilate” was probably pro forma at best – possibly even a fabrication of the early church to shift blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews. After all, by the time John wrote his gospel in the final decade of the first century, Christians were anxious to court favor with Rome. In the meantime, they had been excommunicated from Judaism, and had nothing to lose by alienating Jews.

Strange then that we should be celebrating Jesus as a king today who became a victim of torture and extra-judicial capital punishment. But that’s really the point. I mean our faith tells us that Jesus was the kind of king who reigns in the Kingdom of God where everything is turned upside-down.  Jesus’ kingdom, God’s Kingdom, is truly not of this world. For instance, Jesus says, its citizens don’t respond to violence the way empire or the kingdoms of this world do. Its ethic is not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Or as Jesus put it, “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over . . . .“  No, in the Kingdom of God non-violence reigns. And in his behavior before Pilate, Jesus himself shows the way.

As for the personal character of Jesus’ kingship . . .  God’s head of state is not what at all what the world expected. In the eyes of Roman imperialists, Jesus represented the dregs of humanity. He was a Jew – a people the Romans despised. He was poor and probably illiterate. He was unemployed and traveled about with slackers who had given up gainful employment. At least one of his companions (Simon the Zealot) was a self-declared insurrectionist. Jesus was known as a glutton, drunkard and companion of sex workers. And he was irreligious. The holy men of his own people had excommunicated him and accused him of being possessed by the devil.  Some king indeed!

And yet, according to today’s first reading from the Book of Daniel, this king as “Son of Man” will stand in judgment over all the world’s empires from the Egyptians to the Romans and beyond. According to today’s reading from Hebrews, Jesus’ blood is his “Red Badge of Courage.” It will be his ID card when he returns to judge and destroy the empires that routinely kill people like him. Paradoxically however, what destroys the empires in question is Jesus’ non-violence, his refusal to name names, his followers’ refusal to employ violence even to save their king, his own acceptance of death rather than retaliate.

What a mystery that is! And how difficult it is for us to accept and live by Jesus’ radical non-violence. We so believe in violence, force, guns, and bombs. However until we accept non-violence, we will, like everyone else, continue making this world a version of hell rather than of God’s kingdom.

How can we reverse our belief in violence and embrace Jesus’ alternative? What does non-violence look like in our families, in the workplace, in politics and economics?

(Discussion follows.)