Colonizer Jesus vs. Historical Jesus Redux

Published May 11, 2021

Somehow the first part of this discussion vanished from the programming lineup yesterday, so you are getting the second half first. I will try to rectify that tomorrow. Today, let’s look at the right side:

Slight preface: the picture of Jesus on the right often gets palmed off as a “scientifically accurate reconstruction” of the Real Jesus [TM]. It’s not. It is what all Jesus art (with the exception of the Shroud of Turin, which I take to be genuine) is: somebody’s imagination about Jesus projected into a portrait. It’s not a “scientific” anything. We don’t know what Jesus looked like. The only descriptions of him in Scripture are prophetic, not portrait imagery. If this portrayal floats your boat, good. But it is no more accurate than any other for the very good reason that we have nothing to compare it to. The image is fine for reminding us that Jesus was one of the Anawim, the Lord’s Poor living up in Galilee of the Gentiles and, since that is something the American Church needs to be reminded of, it does yeoman service to that end. Leave it at that and don’t exalt it to the status of “real”, much less “scientific”.

He was, indeed, Middle Eastern, brown-skinned, and Jewish. His brownness matters in an age of white supremacist MAGA Christianity in America, as does his Jewishness. It is, quite simply, impossible to fully understand the New Testament without understanding the Jewish background of both Jesus and all its authors (including the Gentile Luke, whose mental world is nonetheless deeply Jewish since he was a Jewish convert who became convinced Jesus was Israel’s Messiah). The weird thing about American MAGA Christians is the odd ambivalence they have in this department:

Reactionary Catholics are different than Evangelicals here. Many of them nakedly and openly despise Jews and therefore are schizophrenic about the Jewishness of Jesus. It’s one of the places where MAGA Evangelicalism and MAGA Catholicism can diverge. But the Jewishness of Jesus and the NT authors is key to grasping the entire mental world of the early Church.

Justice through restoration by the powerful is certainly a key to Jesus’ teaching. So Zacchaeus is commended for his faith when he puts his money where his mouth is and restores what he stole. Jesus always insists that mere “thoughts and prayers” BS, unaccompanied by action, is garbage. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say” is his warning to those who use piety as a prophylactic against obedience. But more fundamental still is grace. He demands his disciples forgive anybody they have anything against, whether the other is seriously repentant or not (Mark 11:25). He says that the Father causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust. He demands nothing at all from the woman taken in adultery but that she go and sin no more. And he pleads for his murderers when they are the opposite of repentant. His mercy is radical, but accompanied with heavier demands of his disciples than of his enemies. Of those to whom much is given, he says, much will be required.

Jesus was, to be sure, killed by Church and State (that is by religious and secular powers). But his own insistence is that those who tried him and handled the lash and the hammers were simply the hit men acting on behalf of the whole human race. All sinners–that is, all human beings throughout time and space–were the authors of Christ’s Passion. Relatedly, Jesus is the friend of sinners and outcasts and the liberator of the oppressed and practices a very clear and obvious Preferential Option for the Poor, particularly in Luke’s gospel where he plainly and bluntly says, “Blessed are you poor” and “Woe to you who are rich” and does not spiritualize that away as Americans so desperately want him to do. He does not practice the slick “All Sinners Matter” schtick to equalize everything and make the poor just as bad as the rich and the rich just as preferred as the poor. He maintains the habit of the God of Israel of defending the poor *from* the rich and warning the rich that they are in peculiar danger of moral wreck. At the same time, he reminds his disciples (who are themselves poor) that they stand in need of salvation too.

Jesus does indeed critique religious people, but given that he lives in an era and a place where everybody is what the meme means by religious, that is not remarkable. His fiercest critiques are, of course, famously directed at the Pharisees (who were a sect devoted to the law and, at their worst, prey to the sort of pride that can infect anybody with the conviction that they have mastered The Rules, risen above the Common Herd, and put God in their debt for being That Sort of Chap). Christians are not immune from such pride, nor is anybody from any walk of life:

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What interests Jesus is love. Knowledge of the Rules (whether of Moses or of a Physics text) is a good if it leads toward that and an idol if it does not. That is the point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus does indeed subvert Empire and the endless human quest for power and domination. He is not an an anarchist, but proclaims a kingdom and himself a king. But that kingdom is not of this world and in it the first shall be last and the last first, he who would be great must be the least of all, and those who would save their lives must lose them. He offers himself to us to do with as we will and we, in our sickness and sin, crown him with thorns and spike him on a cross, which he turns into the ultimate mark of his power over the entire earthly conception of power. That American Christianity has so deeply embraced MAGA and attempted to square that lust for earthly power with the circle of Christ crucified shows how far we have to go before we even begin to grasp the wisdom of the Cross.

Likewise, he does willingly embrace not only a Cross death, but a Cross life, entering the world as a refugee child fleeing death squads and state persecution and voluntarily embracing an itinerant life as a homeless man living in poverty on the kindness of others (a choice rooted in the Israelite prophetic tradition reaching back to Elijah). The Son of Man had no place to lay his head. Indeed, it is notable that when the question about paying taxes to Caesar was put to him, he had to borrow a coin in order to illustrate his point. He who was rich became poor for our sake.

I’m not sure why the mention of “half-siblings” is important to the meme makers. Every single apostolic Church, not just the Catholic Church, has always held that Mary was a Perpetual Virgin. The NT mentions of the “brothers and sisters” of the Lord has therefore always required explanation. Moderns tend to blithely regard it as due to repressed Dark Ages Christians fearing sex. The Eastern tradition tends to regard the “brothers and sisters of Jesus” as “half-siblings”: children of Joseph by a previous marriage. My own research has convinced me that nothing in the NT demands we think they were siblings at all and plenty in the NT (and the extrabiblical record) provides lots of evidence that they were cousins of Jesus and that he was, indeed, an only child. The Church only cares that Mary is a Perpetual Virgin and has taught this as dogma since the early 6th century (though the doctrine predates the definition by centuries). I have a feeling the meme only mentions it to strike a general blow against what it perceives as repression, despite the fact that Jesus was himself a virgin (very unusual in 1st century Jewish culture) and praised “eunuchs for the kingdom of God”.

Side note: One recent development in our own culture that I find fascinating is the raise of asexualism as a certain subculture registers disinterest in the larger culture’s obsession with sex and says, “We’ve got other stuff that matters to us more than sex and we prefer to focus on that.” Everything old is new again.

Finally, Jesus is, indeed, all about non-violence. One of things that MAGAfied Christianity has long done is exaggerate and pervert the one moment of violence in Jesus’ ministry: the Cleansing of the Temple. What clearly sticks out, is that this ritual act was extraordinarily unusual for him and was scarcely violent in any conventional sense. Nobody was hurt and some merchandise and coins got spilled Meanwhile, his response to the violent impulses of his disciples is always rebuke, whether it is John wanting to call down fire on Samaritans or Peter’s swordplay in the Garden of Gethsemane. The ultra-stupid attempts by MAGA gun nuts to turn Luke 22:36 into a proto-second amendment are contemptible on the face of it. His non-violence overwhelms all that nonsense and makes a hash of the paranoid, violent paganism of Republican Jesus.

On the whole, the Jesus on the right side of this meme gets far too little press in American Christianity. It is a shame, though, that the makers of the meme feel an inexplicable need to downplay perfectly legitimate features of the Christian tradition out of a fear of their sounding too “conservative” to them. If they compared their Jesus to the Tradition and not against whatever appeals to MAGA piety, they would be in a better position to defeat the lies of MAGA piety while not fighting against the revelation of Christ himself.

11 Responses

  1. Personal favorite depiction will always be the Rembrandt face of Christ.

    Rembrandt wandered around the Jewish quarters of the free city of Amsterdam, and drew the men he saw to inform his image of Jesus.

    1. I like that Christ depictions as well.

      My other facourites:

      1. Early depictions of Christ as the Good Shepherd, catacombs, Rome

      2. Christ by Marc Chagall, stained glass, Reims Cathedral

      3. Bernini’s Bust of the Saviour

      4. Early oriental depictions of Jesus, like the one in the Jinjiao Documents. I’ve always found it fascinating how far east (Nestorian) Christianiity went before the age of colonization.

      1. We should never forget that there’s nothing inherently Western about Christianity. The first kingdom to make Christianity their state religion wasn’t the Roman Empire, it was the Ethiopian Empire.

      2. @Benjamin While some historians argue this, I believe most give credit to Armenia.

  2. @All

    This is a good point about the Armenians, though as everyone rightly points out, they aren’t Western. We also forget that these are not at all the same thing! Russia is a European culture, very much so, but it isn’t a Western one.

    It is a mercy from God that Christianity can adapt itself to so many different cultures and civilizations, which can expressed in so many different outward forms without losing its essence.

    1. The nationalist is really good at having the finger on the pulse of his own nations desire to claim sovereignty, but blind to the desire of any groups within the borders of this nation to desire the same. This is why Brexit supporters generally abhor Scottish nationalism.

      Liekwise, the conservative religious traditionalist has an understandable desire for continuity and unformity, but would never understand that this can just as easily be accomplished on another’s terms.

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