Spoiler alert: I found him!
And I like the Jesus I discovered. I would like to have a beer with the Jesus I discovered. And I think he would like to have a beer with me. I think he’d enjoy rapping with any sincere seeker of truth about the meaning of life, the question of free will, the problem of evil, and so much more.
But, more importantly, I admire the Jesus I discovered. I place him squarely in my pantheon of heroes–not as a Messiah, but as an exceptional human being–a great teacher–a prophet in the truest sense–one who heralded a new reality–not just by his professions, but by his exemplary actions. As such, the Jesus I discovered is like a thorn in the side of believers and non-believers alike.
Before getting to the good stuff, three self-disclosures are in order:
First, I don’t believe in god(s). In fact, I reject the entire notion of supreme beings on eminently moral grounds. (a topic for another day)
Second, I make no claims about the true nature of ultimate reality. In other words, I am humbly agnostic with respect to such matters.
Third, while I deeply respect Jesus, I do not necessarily subscribe to everything he stood for. I, for one, do not automatically idealize pacifism, martyrdom, poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Disclosures aside, I am going to make the case for Jesus not as some cosmic superhero… and not necessarily as an actual person… but as an ethical standard worthy of admiration and consideration.
I begin by accepting the historicity of Jesus, and the spread of Christianity ever since, as follows: An exceptional human being named Yeshua (Jesus) really did walk the land of Judea more than twenty centuries ago. A principled and courageous man, he grew up to be a wandering preacher who ultimately got too popular for his own good. His influence was so threatening to the powers that were that he was tortured and executed by scourging and crucifixion, as was the barbaric practice at the time. As the accounts and rumors about this extraordinary man traveled by word of mouth over the decades, they were embellished with supernatural mythology until they eventually took written form in the Gospels. There, Jesus was transformed into a messiah whose story was preached around the Mediterranean and into Europe by his disciples, many of whom were martyred. Initially met with three centuries of persecution, Christianity was eventually adopted by the Roman elites and codified into the state religion (mostly out of political expediency). It has since been spread, largely by the sword, to suit the selfish ends of so many bishops, monarchs, inquisitors, crusaders, conquistadors, colonizers, and slave traders. Christianity persists in various forms to this day, loosely practiced around the world as a wide variety of mostly peaceful, but confused and competing, sects. All that said, there is no ignoring the profound influence that Christianity has had, and continues to have, for better or worse, on the course of human affairs.
Back to the Jesus I discovered…
It is noteworthy that Jesus ruffled everybody’s feathers. For one, he rejected the violent oppression of the imperialistic Romans. For two, he refused to meet violence with violence like the Zealots. (Does the name Barabbas ring a bell?). For three, he rejected the Old Testament religiosity, tribalism, caste system, and eye-for-an-eye justice of the Jewish ruling class. And for four, he declined monastic escape into the desert like the Essenes. But what stands out most of all is Jesus’s LOVE–love for the demonized and marginalized–and even for those who hated him, ridiculed him, and did him harm. Jesus’s love went so far as to forgive his torturers and executioners: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Now for the good stuff…
The Jesus I discovered would toss most of the Bible, the “inspired word of God” into the scrap heap not just of bad ideas, but of evil ideas. Of course, because it’s a bad science book. Of course, because it’s a bad history book. Of course, because it is largely repackaged mythology borrowed from other cultures. Of course, because it’s riddled with logical inconsistencies and moral self-contradictions. But especially because “The good book” has been, and continues to be used to justify bigotry, slavery, misogyny, homo-hatred, genocide, and the destruction of peaceful indigenous cultures all around the world. Especially because no decent person can possibly abide by the dozens of ridiculous and barbaric proscriptions and prohibitions in the Old Testament (and a few doozies in the New Testament as well). And especially because the children’s stories such as Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, Abraham & Isaac all teach the same terrorizing lesson: God loves you, but you better obey him and love him back, or else!
The Jesus I discovered is not complicated in the least. His message is perfectly comprehensible without appeals to prophecies fulfilled, convoluted dogma, claims of miracles, clever Bible interpretations, or belief in the unbelievable. For it’s all about LOVE–a love so simple and radical that few people understood it. And, even if they did understand it, they found it so demanding that they rejected it. In a phrase, nobody knew what to do with him. Alas, we still don’t know what to do with him. He was, and remains, two thousand years ahead of his time.
The Jesus I discovered was not the founder of a church. The Jesus I discovered would be embarrassed having a religion named after him. The Jesus I discovered would cringe at being addressed as Lord or Rabbi.
The Jesus discovered was not a follower—and would not expect anyone to be a follower either.
The Jesus I discovered would be appalled by the existence of so many houses of worship. He would transform every church, mosque, and synagogue into a house of service to those less fortunate.
The Jesus I discovered would cringe every time he hears one of his self-proclaimed followers say: “I’ll pray for you.” instead of sincerely asking: “How can I help?”
The Jesus I discovered was a threat to the powers that were–and is still a threat to the ambitions and hypocrisies of the powers that are. We all know that he would have been tortured and executed as a blasphemer and heretic by the inquisition. We also know that he’d be led out in a straight-jacket or handcuffs if he gave a sermon in a believer’s church this very day.
The Jesus I discovered would be nauseated by the big business his name has become. He would be outraged by how “the good news” continues to be coopted and perverted by ambitious charlatans… all quite skilled at selling false promises of “salvation” to the perplexed, desperate, and vulnerable in exchange for their adulation and hard-earned money.
The Jesus I discovered would be devastated by the tribalism, materialism, nationalism, and militarism that pervades the “developed” and “Christian” world.
The Jesus I discovered would cringe at what we do with our wealth and freedom. He would be heartbroken by our pettiness, greed, hypocrisy, cowardice, and eagerness to cast stones. Alas, it seems that being a true disciple of Jesus is just too much to ask.
The Jesus I discovered wants us to look in the mirror, not up to the heavens, for our salvation. In other words, he wants us to save ourselves–from our own ignorance, pettiness, laziness, greed, prejudice, cowardice, and unjustified pride. Alas, this Jesus remains largely unmarketable.
The Jesus I discovered belongs to everyone, not just to self-proclaimed “Christians”. The Jesus I discovered invites us all to stand with the powerless, exploited, oppressed, marginalized, and untouchable. The Jesus I discovered is a builder of bridges, not walls. The Jesus I discovered would gladly march in a gay pride parade.
And last, but not least, the Jesus I discovered was “just” a man…a simple fact with the most profound of implications: Because isn’t Jesus’s example infinitely more inspiring, humbling, and challenging if he really was “just” a mere mortal like the rest of us?
In summary, the Jesus I discovered is not easy Jesus… not Jesus the savior… not Jesus the bringer of effortless, vicarious redemption who so many “Christians” like to brag about. The Jesus I discovered is difficult Jesus–Jesus the teacher–the embodiment of humility, compassion, non-judgement, forgiveness, frugality, non-violence, courage, service to others, and the rejection of coercive power. Jesus who challenges us to have faith in ourselves… and to have faith in the power of loving each other–one act of kindness, one act of generosity, one act of restraint, one act of forgiveness, one act of compassion, one act of peacemaking, one act of courage at a time–without sanction-without fanfare–and untarnished by the hope of reward or the fear of punishment. A Christianity I could respect and aspire to would be that simple–and that hard.