Jesus Is Not God!

Forensic archeologists say that the historical Jesus looked like this. He was not white and stood about 5 feet tall and weighed about 110 pounds.

Last night we had another meeting of our church’s Lenten series discussing controverted questions of faith. So far, we’ve discussed (1) miracles, (2) healing, (3) Jesus and the poor, (4) the tension between American and Christian identities, and (5) what happens after death. Next week, we’ll address the question of resurrection. It’s all been interesting and at times quite inspiring to interact with more than a dozen gifted and earnest fellow seekers in a very admirable faith community.

However (if you recall), a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to lead the session on Jesus and the Poor, I got “hooked” into defending (at inappropriate length) the centrality of the biblical “preferential option for the poor” as the heart of Christianity. The one who hooked me is a very friendly, intelligent, articulate, and sincere church member whose faith convictions are undeniably robust. I admire him greatly.  

Nevertheless, during last evening’s meeting, it almost happened again. I mean, I was tempted to respond that same interlocutor rather than biting my tongue regarding a revisitation of our topic of two weeks ago about Jesus’ identity. (Remember, last night’s topic was to be what happens after death.)

Instead, my friend in the evening’s opening remark said something like the following: “We’re supposed to be Christians here discussing our faith. But the readings we’ve shared not only this week but two weeks ago, depart quite radically from central Christian beliefs. For instance, this evening’s reading is by Marcus Borg who sees Jesus is nothing more than a prophet. In this, he agrees with Judaism and Islam both of which of course honor Jesus – but as a mere religious genius, not as the Christ or as God. Christian faith on the other hand holds emphatically that Jesus is God, that he is indeed the expected Christ (Messiah). Without those beliefs, you’re simply not a Christian.”

As I said, I had other ideas, but bit my tongue.

However, here’s what I wanted to say in response (but thankfully did not):

Jesus is not God

Following the great Jesuit theologian, Roger Haight, I’ve come to believe that Jesus is not God. Instead, I believe that God is Jesus.

The distinction is not merely semantic. Saying that “Jesus is God” presumes that we know what the term “God” means. But that term, of course, has always been entirely problematic. What exactly is content? Answers to that query are legendarily diverse.

The problem is not only perennial, but in the case of Jesus is compounded by the ironic fact that the identification of Jesus as “God” took place under the aegis of the Roman Empire at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The irony stemmed from the fact that the Council was summoned by the Constantine, the emperor of Rome which had executed the prophet Jesus as an insurgent.

So, Constantine’s own problem was how to transform a rebel against Rome into a God (Deus was the Latin term) not only acceptable to, but supportive of his empire. His conundrum was how to transform Jesus into the son of a God whom worshippers of Zeus could understand.

[By the way, I hope you can see the significance of the similarity in terms Deus and Zeus. Its single consonant variation suggests that the Romans (who knew nothing of the Jewish God, Yahweh) couldn’t help but transform God into a thunder-bold throwing Zeus and Jesus into Zeus’ favorite son Apollo. In practice, no other understandings were possible for them!]

With all of this in mind, remember that Nicaea’s mandate was to answer questions like the following about the identity of Jesus:

  • Was he simply a man, a prophet?
  • Was he simply a god?
  • Was he a man who became a god?
  • Was he a god pretending to be a man?

In Constantine’s 4th century, there were “heresies” that represented each of these viewpoints.

But Nicaea’s answer to such questions was different. It stated that: Jesus was a divine being who was fully Deus/Zeus and fully man as well. The Council however left it for future theologians to explain exactly how that combination was possible.

[In my opinion, no one ever successfully did that. Marcus Borg, I think, came closest by holding that Jesus was fully human before his “resurrection” (however we might interpret that term) and fully God afterwards.]

In any case, throughout history Christians themselves have in practice resolved the fully God/fully human dilemma by emphasizing Jesus’ God dimension while neglecting almost entirely his humanity. Practically speaking, Christians have never truly endorsed Jesus’ humanity.

God Is Jesus

And that’s where the importance of holding that “God is Jesus” surfaces. On the one hand, the formulation recognizes the problematic nature of the term “God.” On the other, it resolves the dilemma by pointing to the Jesus of history to reveal the meaning of the term Deus. Look at the human Jesus, it says, and you’ll better understand the meaning of the word God.

And what do we find when we look at Jesus while bracketing official understandings of God as Zeus and Jesus as Apollo? The answer is entirely surprising and turns official theologies on their heads.

As revealed in Jesus, God shows up as the champion not of imperial majesties, but of slaves escaped from those same imperial majesties. More specifically, God’s embodiment (incarnation) is found in a man actually oppressed, not championed by empire. He is a peasant, the son of an unwed teenage mother, a refugee in Egypt, an enemy of the religious establishment, the leader of a poor people’s movement, a victim of torture and of capital punishment.

According to Christian faith, that’s who Jesus is; that’s who God is – found in the poor, the oppressed, in the torture chamber, on death row. . .

The fact that God chose to reveal God’s self as such is what is meant by the Bible’s “preferential option for the poor.”

Jesus is the Christ

All of this is intimately linked with my church friend’s insistence that Jesus is the Christ, the messiah.  Here too we must remember that “Christ” is not a Roman term; it is entirely Jewish and has specific Jewish meaning impossible to understand apart from its cultural context.

As Jesus-scholar, Reza Aslan, reminds us, the term “Christ” had one meaning and one meaning only for Jews: the Christ was (1) a descendent of Judah’s King David who would (2) reestablish David’s kingdom (3) in a once again sovereign state. And reestablishing sovereignty necessarily meant disestablishing Rome’s kingdom which occupied 1st century Palestine where Jesus lived.

Of course, the Romans understood that. Consequently, they executed Jesus precisely as an insurgent – along with the untold others in the same historical period who made the same messianic claim. Such was the point of the titulus, “King of the Jews” that the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate insisted be displayed over Jesus’ head as he hung dying on his cross – the instrument of torture and death reserved for insurgents against the Roman empire (John 19:22). The titulus proclaimed the charges against the executed. Jesus’ crime was proclaiming himself “King of the Jews.”

So, historically speaking, claiming that Jesus is the Christ or messiah is a highly political statement. It signifies belief in Jesus as the quintessential opponent of empire and its inevitable oppression of God’s chosen – the poor and oppressed.

Conclusion

I’m glad I didn’t try to say all of that at last night’s meeting. Still, I’m happy for the evocation of such thoughts by my brother in faith at our Talmadge Hill Community Church.

It all reminded me of what I first learned at a memorable lecture by Passionist scripture scholar, Barnabas Ahern back in 1965 (when I was just 25 years old). Ahern’s topic was the historical Jesus. He inspired me to confront the fact that christians (myself included) tend to believe with all our hearts that Jesus is God, while at the same time paying only lip service to Jesus’ humanity. Ever since then, I resolved to avoid that mistake myself.

In fact, I was so impressed by what Fr. Ahern said that the very next day I wrote out from memory the scholar’s entire talk which has since then played a central role in driving me to internalize modern scripture scholarship about the humanity of the historical Jesus.

It has led me to Roger Haight’s formulation that Jesus is not God, but God is Jesus.

With Reza Aslan’s help, I’ve also come to grasp the revolutionary meaning the terms “Christ” and “Messiah” must have had for 1st century Jews. Then writers such as Marcus Borg have helped me understand the post-resurrection process by which the human Jesus himself appropriated his divine nature – human before his resurrection, divine afterwards.

And that entire sequence of lessons has immeasurably enriched my own faith and enabled me to share their insights.

Thank you, my brothers and teachers Barnabas, Roger, Reza and Marcus.

“Christ the King”: How Jesus Became Donald Trump

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.

Do you ever wonder how U.S. Christians were 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,”
  • 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 2019 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 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 radically domesticated version – can we be saved from Jesus-hating Trumpism.

Did Jesus Justify Armed Resistance to Roman Imperialism? What about Insurgent Resistance to U.S. Imperialism? (Sunday Homily)

Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 38: 4-10; PS 40: 2-4, 18; HEB 12:1-4; LK 12: 49-53

Today’s gospel excerpt presents problems for any serious homilist. That’s because it introduces us to an apparently violent Jesus. It makes one wonder; why does the Church select such problematic passages for Sunday reading? What’s a pastor to make of them?

On the other hand, perhaps it’s all providential. I say that because, today’s gospel might unwittingly help us understand that even the best of imperialism’s victims (perhaps even Jesus) are drawn towards reactive, revolutionary, or self-defensive violence. After all, Jesus and his audiences were impoverished victims of Roman plunder. By the standards most Christians today accept, they had the right to defend themselves “by any means necessary.”

Here’s what I mean. Without apology, today’s reading from Luke has the ‘Prince of Peace” saying, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

In a parallel passage, Matthew’s version is even more direct. He has Jesus saying, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Is that provocative enough for you?

What’s going on here? What happened to “Turn the other cheek,” and “Love your enemy?”

There are two main answers to the question. One is offered by Muslim New Testament scholar, Reza Aslan, the other by Jesus researcher, John Dominic Crossan. Aslan associates the shocking words attributed to Jesus in this morning’s gospel directly with Jesus himself. Crossan connects them with the evangelists, Luke and Matthew who evidently found Jesus’ nonviolent resistance (loving enemies, turning the other cheek) too difficult to swallow for people living under the jackboot of Roman imperialism.

For his part, Aslan points out that the only God Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped was the God of Jewish scripture. That God was a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). He repeatedly commands the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews. He’s the “blood-spattered God of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3). He is the God who “shatters the heads of his enemies” and who bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalms 68: 21-23). This is a God every bit as violent as any the Holy Koran has to offer.

For Aslan, Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and loving enemies pertained only to members of the Jewish community. They had nothing to do with the presence of hated foreigners occupying and laying claim to ownership of Israel, which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. Accordingly, Jesus words about his commitment to “the sword” expressed the hatred he shared with his compatriots for the Roman occupiers.

In other words, when it came to Roman imperialists, Jesus was not a pacifist. He issued no call for nonviolence or nonresistance. Quite the opposite.

John Dominic Crossan disagrees. For him the earliest layers of tradition (even the “Q” source in Matthew and Luke) reveal a champion of non-violent resistance. In fact, the Master’s earliest instructions to his disciples tell them to travel freely from town to town. But in doing so, they are to wear no sandals, carry no backpack, and no staff. He instructs: “Take nothing for the journey–no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt” (LK 9:3).

Crossan finds the prohibition against carrying a staff highly significant. The staff, of course, was a walking stick. However, it was also a defensive weapon against wild animals – and robbers.

So, with this proscription Jesus seems to prohibit carrying any weapon – even a purely defensive one like the staff all travelers used.

Apparently, that was too much for the evangelist, Mark. Recall that he wrote the earliest of the canonical gospels we have – during or slightly before the Great Jewish Rebellion against Rome (66-70 CE). Matthew and Luke later copied and adapted his text for their own audiences – one Jewish (in the case of Matthew), the other gentile (in the case of Luke). Mark remembers Jesus’ directions like this: “He instructed them to take nothing but a staff for the journey–no bread, no bag, no money in their belts” (MK 6:8).

Notice that Mark differs from what Crossan identifies as the earliest Jesus traditions upon which Matthew and Luke depended. Instead of prohibiting carrying a staff, Mark’s Jesus identifies the staff as the only thing Jesus’ disciples are allowed to carry. Evidently, that seemed more sensible to a pragmatic Mark than the words Jesus probably spoke. I mean, everyone needs to at least protect themselves from violent others.

Matthew and Luke prove even more pragmatic. By the time we get to them (almost two generations after Jesus’ death and fifteen or twenty years after Mark), we find their Jesus commanding that his disciples carry, not just a staff, but a sword – an offensive, lethal weapon. Matthew even portrays Jesus’ right-hand-man, Peter, actually armed with a sword the night Jesus was arrested. Jesus has to tell him: “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword” (MT 26:52). (It makes one wonder if Peter was absent the day Jesus gave instruction about turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies. Or is Aslan correct about Jesus’ militancy?)

In other words, on Crossan’s reading, it is the gospel authors, not Jesus himself, who subscribe to belief in the blood-spattered God of the Jewish Testament. Jesus’ God was the Forgiving One who recognized no one as enemy, and who (as his later actions showed) refused to defend himself. His dying words were about forgiving his executioners.

Crossan reasons that this more pacifist Jesus is probably the authentic one, precisely because his words (and actions) contradict so radically the Jewish tradition’s violent God.

So, whose words do we encounter in today’s gospel? Can we attribute them to the historical Jesus or to his disciples who found themselves unable to accept the Master’s radical non-violence?

Whatever our answer, the shocking words we encounter today remind us that even people of great faith (Mark, Matthew, Luke – or perhaps even Jesus himself) despise imperial invaders. Their arming themselves and fighting revolutionary wars (like the 66-70 Uprising) are completely understandable.

In any case, by gospel (and Koranic?) standards such rebellion is more justified than the entirely unacceptable violence of imperial invasion.

Does any of this shed light on ISIS response to U.S. Middle Eastern invasions, bombings, torture centers and dronings? As a Christian, what would be your response if foreigners did in our country what U.S. soldiers and pilots are doing in Arabia? Would you be a non-violent resister as Crossan says Jesus was? Or would you take up arms – the way violent insurgents have done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia, and elsewhere?

Which Jesus do you follow? Can you understand religious people who in the face of United States imperialism say: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

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.

The Church’s Disastrous Domestication of Jesus (Sunday Homily)

King of the Universe

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. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/112413.cfm

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” The contrast between the feast’s grandiose title and the readings prescribed for the occasion illustrate a basic reason behind the irrelevance of the church (and Jesus) to the post-modern world. It’s irrelevant to the social and economic transformations necessary to redeem the church’s overwhelmingly Third World membership from globalized oppression.

The contrast I’m referring to involves the great makeover of Jesus of Nazareth changing him from the leader of an anti-imperial revolutionary movement into a pillar of the exploitative status quo.

Let me put it this way: through 4th century sleight of hand, the Jesus who sided with the poor and those oppressed by empire – the one who promised a new heaven and earth belonging to the simple and poor, and who was executed as a terrorist by Rome – 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.

Following that transformation, kings and popes (now themselves transformed into gaudy temporal rulers) claimed to govern by divine right on behalf of Jesus as his representatives and vicars. In this way, the poor and oppressed (who then and now constitute the world’s majority) lost their paradigmatic leader, example and advocate. Jesus became instead a key part of the apparatus oppressing them.

Reza Aslan’s recent best-seller, Zealot, attempts to rescue the revolutionary historical Jesus from the distortions of the royal classes just mentioned. Aslan connects his salvage project specifically with today’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke, Chapter 23. In doing so, the author 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.

According to Aslan, all three – cross, inscription and dialog – mark Jesus as a dangerous revolutionary “terrorist” rather than a domesticated upholder of the given order. That terrorist remains as threatening to today’s dominant empire, the U.S.A., as he was to imperial Rome. So he continues to be erased from history and by “feasts” like today that mask his true identity.

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. How could it have been otherwise, Aslan asks? 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, he 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.

And, no, the whole world wasn’t watching either. As scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan observes, Jesus would have represented hardly a blip on the screen of Pontius Pilate. And Jews would have averted their eyes from the spectacle depicted in this morning’s gospel. They wouldn’t want to see “one more good Jew” suffering the fate of so many heroic patriots.

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.). By then the Romans had utterly defeated the Jews, destroyed Jerusalem and its temple as well as slaughtered the city’s population including practically all of the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ messianic campaign. Virtually the only Christians left standing were foreigners – gentiles living in population centers like Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. Few of these had any understanding of or sympathy for Judaism much less for Jewish politics and its liberation movements.

Besides that, in the war’s aftermath, both Jews and Christians sought to distance themselves from the socio-political expectations that had brought on the disaster of the Jewish War. So Judaism tried to transform itself from a Temple-centered religion to one focused on the local synagogue and rabbinic teaching – both overwhelmingly concerned with simply preserving the culture and identity of a people in diaspora.

For their part, Christians became anxious to show the Roman world that it had nothing to fear from their membership.

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.

Loss of the radical revolutionary Jesus is not a trivial matter in terms of Christianity relevance to a world ruled by a nation that styles itself as Rome’s worthy successor. Like its ancient archetype, the U.S. (and a majority of first-world Christians) found the historical Jesus so threatening, that it determined that Jesus’ followers deserved the same fate as their crucified Master. For this we have the evidence of the war that the U.S. fought against liberation theology when it first emerged following the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council (1963-65).

Liberation theology committed the unforgiveable sin represented by this homily. It was guilty of connecting the Jesus of history described by scholars like Aslan to post-colonial independence movements and struggles against the neo-colonialism spearheaded by the U.S. and its oligarchical clients in the Third World.

In that struggle Pope John Paul II and his henchman, Josef Ratzinger, threw in their lot with a neo-imperial Ronald Reagan. It was deja-vu all over again: Reagan as Pilate and J.P.II and Ratzinger as the temple priesthood. It was the deja-vu of the church melding its interests with Rome towards the end of the 4th century.

More specifically, the two reactionary popes looked the other way and actively supported Reagan’s policies that assassinated hundreds of thousands of Christians (200,000 in Guatemala alone!) who found the radical Jesus threateningly relevant to their struggles in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.

To balance liberation theology’s threat, Reagan patronized Evangelical Christians who eventually morphed into the Tea Party. It finds Aslan’s understanding of Jesus anathema. Meanwhile, John Paul II and Ratzinger “cleaned house,” eliminating every single progressive bishop from the hierarchy and transforming seminaries into hot houses to nurture a pre-Vatican II reactionary clergy.

Recently Pope Francis delivered a long-winded, very general and content-less speech to the National Council of Bishops in Brazil. That group used to head a church that was a hot-bed of liberation theology I’ve been describing here. The term was never mentioned in the new pope’s remarks. Instead, he presented John Paul II and Pope Ratzinger as champions of Vatican II.

He’ll have to do better than that to fulfill his aspiration towards making the church relevant to the poor he professes to care so much about.

He’ll have to confess the Church’s sins against liberation theology and revive the cult of the historical Jesus – instead of the depoliticized imperial “King of the Universe” today’s feast calls to mind.

Jesus Would Have Supported al Qaeda Sooner than the U.S.! (Sunday Homily)

jesus  terrorist

Readings for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: WIS 9:13-18B; PS 90: 3-6, 12-14, 17; PHMN 9-10, 12-17; LK 14: 25-33. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/090813.cfm

Did you have trouble with today’s gospel reading? I did. Frankly, it makes me wonder about Jesus’ attitude towards violence and armed attempts to overthrow foreign occupation forces like the Roman legions in Palestine – or American armed forces in Afghanistan or their authoritarian clients in Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere.

I wonder: whose side would Jesus be on in today’s War on Terrorism? I doubt it would be “ours.” Certainly, Jesus was not on the side of Rome. Instead, he was clearly sympathetic to Rome’s armed opponents. That makes me suspect that he would also have sided with those our own government deems “terrorists.”

What do you suppose that means for us and our politics?

Before answering, think about Jesus’ words in today’s selection from Luke. There Jesus is not telling us to love our enemies. He’s saying that we must hate! Yes he is. And the objects of our hatred must be our family members, down to our spouses and children. According to Jesus, we must even hate our own lives!

That’s pretty outspoken, hyperbolic, radical and edgy. In fact, his words make clear why the Romans and their Jewish collaborators in the Temple would have seen Jesus as an insurgent and terrorist. In any case, he was surely not the apolitical, domesticated preacher tradition later made him. He was not blissfully unaware of or uncaring about the searing resentment his people shared about Rome’s occupation of the land whose only sovereign in their eyes was Yahweh.

Yet Jesus’ words today also make it clear that he was not a violent revolutionary like the many other “messiahs” who sprang up in his 1st century context. As Reza Aslan points out, Jesus was not like Theudas, Hezekiah the bandit chief, Judas the Galilean, Menahem, Simon son of Giora, Simon son of Kochba and the rest.

Still today’s gospel makes it clear that there was genuine cause for concern about Jesus and his followers among the Romans and their Jewish clients in the Temple.

To begin with there were those “great crowds” Luke describes as following Jesus everywhere. In revolutionary situations, masses of people thronging about a charismatic troublemaker are reason for serious concern. According to U.S. standards under American Empire, it’s enough for local armed men in suspect locations to merely assemble to justify their being droned. And, of course, we know that at least some of Jesus’ disciples were armed (MK 14:43-52). Presumably others in the “large crowds” carried weapons as well. They would not have been viewed any more kindly by Roman occupation forces than their U.S. equivalents.

Then, listen to Jesus’ rhetoric as recorded by Luke. There’s all that talk about hating everyone near and dear to us that I already mentioned. That’s the second time we’ve encountered such language from the Prince of Peace in the last few weeks. Remember what we read a month ago about his coming not as a peacemaker, but to create division between children, their parents and in-laws? In MT 10:34 Jesus even said specifically that he had come to bring the sword. “I come not to bring peace” he said, “but to bring a sword.” If he actually said those words, how do you think they would have been understood by Roman and Temple authorities?

However, Jesus’ most dangerous statement this morning is the one about willingness to be crucified in order to qualify as his disciple. In occupied Palestine, those words had nothing to do with patiently bearing life’s inconveniences. No, in Jesus’ context, they could only be about opposing Rome and its Jewish collaborators.

Again, it is Aslan who reminds us that crucifixion was the mode of torture and execution the Romans reserved for insurgents. So in a Palestine where rebels were crucified almost every day (sometimes hundreds at a time), Jesus’ words could mean only one thing: his followers must join him in opposing Roman occupation of their Holy Land and in doing so virtually seal their fates.

But then comes the non-violent “catch.” Opposition to imperial occupation of the homeland might be the duty of every patriotic Jew, Jesus implies. But that doesn’t necessarily mean violent opposition. Calculate well, Jesus says – like a man building a tower. Realize whom we are opposing. We’re talking about Rome. Its legions can mobilize 20,000 well trained and heavily armed troops on a moment’s notice. At best we have less than half that number. To avoid suicide, we must “sue for peace” like a wise king threatened by a superior force. In other words Jesus counsels a prudent non-violence to avoid a bloodbath.

Bishop Oscar Romero made a similar recommendation to the revolutionary forces of El Salvador (the FMLN) in the 1970s. He said he could surely sympathize with the anger of the FMLN towards the United States and its puppet regime in El Salvador. He could understand why peasant farmers might see violent revolution as their only option in fighting brutal forces of “order” which wantonly tortured and murdered women, children, and the elderly, along with teachers, social workers, union organizers, priests, nuns, and other resisters.

No doubt Romero would say the same today about young Egyptians opposing the U.S.-supported military dictators in their own country, or about similar insurgents in the U.S.-controlled countries I’ve already mentioned.

But, Romero said, such violence is suicidal in the face of the billions in arms supplied such forces of oppression by the United States. Better to resist non-violently. At least then, the inevitable ensuing bloodbath (the modern equivalent of crucifixion) will be smaller in scope.

In 1st century Palestine, Jesus was not the only one employing such non-violent reasoning. According to John Dominic Crossan in his book, The Power of Parable, strong non-violent movements of resistance to Rome characterized Jesus’ context.

These movements were sandwiched between two epochs of extremely bloody opposition to Rome. The first occurred exactly in the year of Jesus’ birth, 4 BCE. That was the year the Roman client, Herod the Great, died. Jewish freedom fighters seized upon the resulting leadership vacuum as an opportunity to rise up against Herod’s Roman patrons. Jewish insurgents captured the city of Sephoris, the capital of Galilee. In response, the Romans razed the city to the ground and killed everyone who might be associated with the rebellion. Jesus’ family in nearby Nazareth was lucky to escape.

The second period of extremely violent resistance to Rome occurred about 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion – just before the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke were composed. This time the Jews rose up against the Roman occupiers throughout Palestine. The Roman response? They utterly sacked Jerusalem itself, destroying its temple, and killing virtually all those who had heard Jesus’ words and witnessed his deeds.

In between those fierce chapters, Crossan says, there was a period of non-violent resistance to Rome. That’s when Jesus traversed Palestine and spoke so memorably about God’s Kingdom. According to Crossan, Jesus’ era represented a period of “massive, well-organized, unarmed, nonviolent resistance against Rome.”

That’s the probable context for Jesus’ shocking words this morning.

There’s so much more that could be said about all of this. To fill in the blanks, read Crossan’s book, along with Aslan’s Zealot, which recently topped the New York Times Best Seller list.

For today it’s sufficient to note the implications of Jesus’ shocking words. Personally, I’m so glad the church makes us face them. They show that Jesus was far more complex regarding violence than he’s usually made out to be. These difficult readings open a conversation that would otherwise be unthinkable.

Going forward, the conversation might well address the following questions:

• What difficulties do we have with realizing that Jesus situation vis-à-vis Rome was extremely similar to that of today’s “terrorists” vis-à-vis the United States and that Jesus himself was considered a terrorist?
• Is the “War on Terror” a real war or merely empire once again defending its right to plunder, torture, and kill with impunity?
• How is it that U.S. citizens end up supporting massive U.S. violence against “terrorists,” but that we find the latter’s much less injurious response (like the “Boston Marathon Massacre”) so horrendous?
• Put otherwise, how is it that U.S. citizens generally support the wars of their country which Martin Luther King described as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” while demanding pacifism on the parts of those whom the U.S. attacks.
• Do the ones our government calls “terrorists” have the right to defend themselves against what Edward Herman has termed the “wholesale terror” of the U.S. and its allies? (See his book, The Real Terror Network.)
• Which terrorists do we support – our government and its brutal military or their victims?

What other questions do the readings raise – for you?

How about my reflections?

(Discussion follows)