John Dominic Crossan, in a recent column, wrote the following comment that echoes my own view of Jesus:

Jesus confronted the Empire of Rome with the Kingdom of God and his followers later confronted the Roman emperor as Son of God with the Jewish Jesus as Son of God. Today we may like or dislike their choice of theological language, but we should at least recognize that they proclaim God’s opposition to Empire – Egyptian or Roman, British or American – because of its violent injustice.

Jesus's resistance to the Empire of his day (and the alternative Kingdom of God that he offered in response) resonates today just as it did two millennia ago. It is just as important now as it was then, because the evils of Empire continue to plague the world. The names and locations of the Empires have changed over the course of history, but the fact of Empire remains. Within the history of Empires, individual Caesars come and go, but the problem is not with this Caesar or that one, but with the Empire that each one heads. It is important not to make excuses for the evils of Empire. The present-day fiasco in Iraq is not simply due to poor planning, or of not sending the right number of troops, or of incompetent management by a given Caesar. It is, rather, a manifestation of the moral sickness that constitutes Empire, a moral sickness that no one in the ruling political establishment seriously challenges. The American Empire is simply the latest in a long line of such Empires, all of which by necessity rule by dint of, to use Crossan's words, "violent injustice."

This is why Jesus matters to me. The importance of Jesus to my religion overshadows the metaphorical language that is used so often within Christianity to describe him, and it overshadows the rituals of Advent, the Christmas pageants, the mythological birth stories, and the midnight masses. Crossan's point about us not necessarily liking the choice of theological language is important. I often sit through church services and hear language about Jesus that doesn't exactly match my own conception of him, and that phenomenon tends to get ramped up this time of year. But Crossan argues that this isn't the thing that really matters. He elaborates on this point in this way:

...Titles of Jesus like Lamb of God, Word of God, and Son of God are relational metaphors. They are not literal but they are real because we humans can only see by seeing-as, that is, metaphorically. But metaphor is never simply Rorschach. It never means just whatever we need or want. It always requires some integrity of interpretation from the constraints of meaning born of time and place, society and culture.

But among those three metaphors, Jesus as Son of God is very special because that was the title of Caesar on coins and inscriptions, statues and structures all over the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus’ birth. To confess that title of Jesus was to de-confess it of Caesar, that is, to commit your life to peace through justice rather than peace through victory. It still is.
This contrast between Caesar and Jesus is what binds me to the Christian tradition. It was his teachings and how he lived that give Christianity meaning to me--certainly not the details of his birth. The metaphors that were used to describe him matter to the extent that they express the belief in the Kingdom of God.

This is the time of year when his birth is celebrated, and the metaphors are what we must deal with. It can be hard for those who eschew some of the grandiose theological language surrounding Jesus to cope with the language and ritual and myths that surround Advent and the Christmas holiday. Yet I think there is value in celebrating Jesus as the founder of a movement based on the Kingdom of God, a movement that has survived for 2000 years, a movement that we are now participants in.

Because of my discomfort with some of the mythology surrounding the birth event and Jesus himself, I feel torn, wanting to appreciate Jesus the man but not to go overboard in embracing the mythologies too much. I remind myself that the mythological birth narratives of Jesus, which dominate the season of Advent, are only found in two of the four gospels. The first books of the Bible, written by Paul, make no mention of Jesus's birth; his birth was so unimportant to Paul's theology that he never considered it worthy of mention, assuming he knew anything about it. The first Gospel to be written, Mark, also makes no mention of his birth. It is also probably the case that the details of his birth were much more mundane than what were suggested by the later tales of angels, magi, mangers, censuses, flights to Egypt, and so forth. The details of Jesus's birth were probably unknown by the time Matthew got around to writing about it, some 80-85 years after the fact. When Luke wrote of a census conducted by Qurinius, who didn't start governing until 6 CE (long after King Herod's death in 4 BCE), he couldn't go to Wikipedia and check his facts. The facts didn't really matter anyway. The birth narratives were about what Jesus meant to the gospel writers, not about historical truth.

Jesus means many things to many people. As proof of this, consider that Christmas is nowadays deeply integrated in Western society with the engines of consumerism and corporate profits--capitalist virtues that are go hand in hand with the ruling class ideology of the Empire that unleashed and continues to unleash death and destruction in Iraq. How ironic that the holiday celebrating the birth of a man who peacefully resisted the Empire of his day is now intertwined with the economic and social ideology of the modern day Empire.

I believe that Crossan is right--committing your life to peace and social justice is what it means to follow Jesus. As I sit through this season of Advent, and as I pass through another Christmas--a holiday that ostensibly celebrates his birth but which is so mixed up with cultural, social, and economic baggage--the best I can do is to remind myself of this.


John Shuck said...

Thanks for finding that article by Crossan. It is Christianity that makes sense.

Renegade Eye said...

Seasons Greetings

Cold Molasses said...

Excellent synopsis...keep up the good blogging in the new year.