It’s funny how quickly people pick up the Christmas script this time of year, talking about how “Jesus is the reason for the season.” We scurry about from store to store, looking for just the right holiday decorations, cards, and gifts. We load up our credit cards and keep retailers in business for another year. This might be one of the two times this year that many of us go to church.
Did I say funny? I meant profoundly sad … and appalling. Just look how far off the path we have gotten from the original Jesus.
Despite the odd mix of ignorance and conviction that spins inside many of our churches Sunday after Sunday, we actually know quite a lot about the historical Jesus – about the actual individual who lived and died nearly 2000 years ago. We have to go behind the thick screen of mythology that began taking shape shortly after his death. Our New Testament, far from being an historical account of objective facts, is a complicated braid of distinct mythological traditions representing the diverse groups that grew out of the severed stump of his failed revolution.
The cross of Jesus is at once the symbol of his message and the sign of his violent end. As symbol it speaks of his compassionate solidarity with the poor as well as his courageous resistance to the political and religious regimes of his day. What is called “the gospel of Jesus” is not the orthodox doctrines about him, but the vision of a new world-order he professed and the ethic he both taught and demonstrated in his life.
Jesus condemned the social divisions of rich and poor, of “clean” and “unclean,” of insiders and outsiders. By refusing to walk the cattle path of moral mediocrity, which in every society provides the necessary justification for prejudice, bigotry, and defensive self-concern, he provoked a strong reaction in those whose state-appointed or god-ordained role was to uphold the current way of things.
What really agitated his detractors was his message and lifestyle of radical love. For Jesus, this type of love – not the sweet sentiment that commonly goes by the name – is so deep and far-reaching that it can neither be possessed nor measured out by preference. Such a love must extend so far as to include even our enemy: this call to unconditional forgiveness was ultimately what made it necessary to put Jesus away. He challenged his friends to go beyond the god of orthodoxy whose reluctant obligation to condemn sinners had effectively set a limit on forgiveness and granted divine endorsement of a shock-and-awe retribution when an enemy will not repent.
After his death, various followers committed themselves to living according his vision and example. For decades they were persecuted, driving some into hiding and others into outlying towns or deserts where they could cultivate his way of life. Another early Christian stream came under the charismatic leadership of a Jew named Saul (later Paul), who worked diligently to marry its Hebrew heritage to the Greek (gentile) mindset.
Using symbolism already present in Greek mystery religions – many of which were dedicated to a divine figure of the grain field and vineyard who died and was transmuted into the bread and wine enjoyed by devotees in a sacred meal – Paul weaved together strands of Hebrew and Greek mythology. The product of his invention was “the Lord Jesus, who died and was raised.” His new body is the community of believers devoted to carrying his message and spirit into the world.
Some forms of early Christianity were oriented in this way, striving to realize the spirit of Jesus in their manner of life; while others, mostly groups still at the epicenter of Roman persecution, looked to a future day when the risen Jesus who had been temporarily taken up into heaven would return on the clouds with vindication for the oppressed and vengeance for their enemies.
After Paul came the Gospels, which gave more attention to developing the mythological backstory of Jesus. Here we find the symbols of a virgin birth, miraculous signs and wonders, an empty tomb, a vertical ascent of the risen Jesus into the sky with the promise of coming again, while continuing to be present where even two or three gather in his name, to the end of time. All of this mythology and its metaphysical framework conspired in a dramatic makeover of Jesus into one divinely ordained, filled with the Holy Spirit, the very (one and only) Son of God, and (in the coming centuries) Second Person of the Divine Trinity.
Along the way also, as the emerging Christendom sidled up to the State and eventually took over the reigns of political power, the essential message of Jesus concerning radical love and unconditional forgiveness was almost entirely forgotten. In its place Christian orthodoxy installed a worldview that divided heaven from earth, soul from body, man from woman, logic from feeling, and (once again) insiders from outsiders. In its soteriology (theory of salvation) orthodoxy once again elevated justice over compassion and glorified redemptive violence as god’s final solution to sin. The upshot of it all was to get the saved soul safely to heaven where true believers would receive their reward for faith and obedience while on earth.
With the shift from a feudal economy in the Middle Ages to a market economy in the dawn of modernity, Christianity established incumbency among the middle class. As capitalism took hold and spread, the ability to accumulate wealth and reinvest it for profit, or else spend it on the luxuries of a more leisurely lifestyle, inspired some to regard their good fortune as a sign of god’s favor. God’s desire is that we have all we need in abundance, and that we should be charitable to those in need. Rather than challenging the status quo and rattling the system that oppresses the poor, as Jesus had done, the Prosperity Gospel supports programs that only temporarily relieve the poor but leave the structures of inequity intact.
And so we come to American Christianity. Probably most true believers I’ve known – and I served churches as a professional pastor for nearly 20 years – care little about religious orthodoxy, or wouldn’t care if they knew even a little about it. They are familiar with that tired old rip about believing in Jesus as your personal Lord and savior, but their intellectual grasp on what that means is feeble indeed. For the most part they recite the doctrines and verses taught to them in Sunday School, go to church once in a while, and try to be good citizens of the American empire. One day Jesus will come again, or maybe they’ll depart this life and get to see him before he makes his descent.
This Christmas provides us an opportunity to look past the holiday glitz, behind the orthodoxy and beneath even the mythology of our Christian religion. We can, even now, remember Jesus. His vision for the world and our human future is just as relevant today, and his message is as urgently needed now as ever before.