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Jesus, the Political Insurgent?

Decoding the Coders of Christ

by Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS

The real conspiracy surrounding Jesus is not the cover-up of his marriage to Mary Magdalene, but his theological transformation into the "bridegroom" of the Christian Church (Mark 2: 18-22). Jesus was a Jew not a Christian. He was not about dying so that believers everywhere could inherit eternal life, but about liberating the Jews in his land from Roman occupation. His crucifixion was not about resurrecting the dead but about reviving the living. His sacrifice was not about heaven or hell for all people in the future, but about release and renewal for the Jewish people in this life. The great conspiracy is the early Christian Church turning his model of liberation from an oppressive state into one of accommodation to the state.

It is safer today, as in the past, to believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world than to join in seeking to rid the world of political, corporate and military sins that deny other people their birthright of freedom and fulfillment. Safer because many Christian denominations have allowed themselves to be integrated into and "blessed" and co-opted by the ruling status quo. The real deception of traditional Christianity is its reinterpretation of salvation as an individual matter, apart from institutionalized political and economic realities that greatly determine who, in the gospel words of Jesus, may actually "have life, and have it in its fullest." (John 10:10)

Ironically, Jesus himself seems to be the greatest threat to Christian Churches: his risky model of intervention-of speaking truth to power structures and acting it out-on behalf of oppressed persons. This risk appears to partly underlie institutionalized Christianity’s most deceptive conspiracy: that of immortalizing Jesus in order to immobilize his dangerous model of liberation. The threat his cross poses as a model is removed by turning it into a monument and worshipping it. Vicarious identification with his struggle may be substituted for involvement in similar, hazardous ethical struggles today. Here the power is in the prayer. The stature is in the statue. The right is in the rite.

The personal appeal of saving one’s own soul for all eternity replaces the more caring and challenging commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. A gospel of personal redemption may also protect one from seeing how one’s own institutionalized blessings may be another’s curse-gained at another’s expense.

A further risk for one’s neighbor is that a one true and only saviour of the world appeals to insecure persons. Their need for absolute certainty and rightness, and intolerance of ambiguity, differences and complexity, invite and rationalize power over and domination of others. And another conspiracy is born: oppressing one’s neighbor in the name of the very person whose mission was to set people free. Such conspiracies depend on rewriting history.

The early Christians’ need to transcend the reality of the cross evidently led them to bury history. The historical reality was that the Jews suffered brutal oppression under Roman occupation, and that Jesus was merely one of many messianic prophets crucified Roman-style for political sedition. He was not about dying for the sins of the world so that believers could inherit eternal life, but about seeking to liberate the Jewish people from the sins of the Roman Empire-which had violated their national sovereignty, occupied their country, and crucified thousands of Jewish "insurgents" and bystanders. Belief in the Messiah was grounded not in heaven but on earth: national sovereignty, freedom and peace.

Jesus reportedly saw his mission as having a key political dimension. He was "anointed . . . to preach good news to the poor . . . [and] to set at liberty those who are oppressed." (Luke 4:18) As New Testament historian Paula Fredriksen writes in From Jesus to Christ, Jesus shared a first century Jewish consensus "on what was religiously important: the people, the Land, Jerusalem, the Temple, and Torah. . . . The political situation was of religious concern because," as Fredriksen has "repeatedly noted, Judaism did not draw a distinction between the two spheres: an idolatrous occupying force posed a religious problem." (Second Edition, page 93, Yale University Press)

The occupying power of Rome, in turn, saw Jesus as a political problem, and swiftly crucified him on a cross after his "triumphant" messianic-like entry into Jerusalem at Passover. A foreboding inscription also was posted above his head: "This is the King of the Jews" (Luke 23:38). Jesus’ mission was to empower people not gain power over them-another ethical aspect of his model turned upside down through the ages by evangelistic Christian kingdom builders. They and their descendents have claimed to heed the call of a resurrected Christ: a risen Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28: 16-20) Never mind that The Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit was a Christological formulation of the early Christian Church created long after Jesus and his disciples had lived.

The early Christians seemed to stand history on its head in order to put a resurrected Jesus on his feet-and give him legs. They transported him from a political to a theological realm in order to survive and flourish in the Roman world.

The Jews believed in a living not a resurrected messiah. The real messiah would deliver them from Roman domination and restore their national sovereignty and freedom. Thus for most Jews, any belief in Jesus as the messiah faded as their oppression continued in the years following his crucifixion. Their ongoing struggle against Roman occupation culminated in a violent insurrection between 61-73, which saw Rome destroy Jerusalem, murder over a million Jews, and made tens of thousands of them slaves and captives. (Christians and Anti-Semitism: A Calendar of Jewish Persecution)

The early followers of Jesus found it safer to dissociate themselves from the Roman-despised and ­persecuted Jews. Safer to reinterpret Jesus’ messiahship in theological and evangelical rather than political and institutional terms. Safer to appeal to the Gentiles because the survival of the early followers lay in spreading a Christian gospel to the Romans. The gospel of a resurrected Messiah and saviour of the world. Whose miraculous resurrection proves, rather than negates, his being the Messiah and also the only Son of God. Therefore, his followers hold the one true religion in the palm of their faith.

The conversion of Jesus from Jew to Christian is seen in his dissociation from Judaism and accommodating appeal to the Romans. This distortion of historical reality involves the shifting of blame for Jesus’ crucifixion from Romans to Jews. The anti-Semitism in the New Testament is seen in reputedly cruel Roman prefect Pontius Pilate agonizingly sympathetic to a would-be liberator of Jews from Roman domination; in Pilate dramatically washing his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ death, even though he alone had the power of life and death over Jesus. (John 19:10)

The distortion of historical reality is also seen in Jews being set up as "Christ killers." A "whole battalion-backed, yet uneasy, Pilate giving in to the "will" of subjugated, powerless priests, elders of the people, and other Jews who repeatedly cried out, "Crucify him!" (Mark 15: 12-16) Portraying the Roman Empire in such a favorable light in New Testament books written 50 to 100 years after the fact, may have advanced the evangelizing of Romans by the early followers of Jesus, but it cast a horrible curse on the Jewish people by putting into the mouths of their oppressed descendents, "His [Jesus'] blood be on us and on our children." (Matthew 27:25)

Around 300 years later the apparent conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine led Christianity to not only be recognized, but favored by the state. Finally, the persecution and martyrdom of Christians ended. But not so that of Jews. Their continuing oppression is suggested in Constantine’s support for separating the observance of Easter from the date of the Jewish Passover. Calling the Jews "utterly depraved" and "murderers of our Lord," he also wrote, "It appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul. . . . let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Saviour a different way. (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Vol. III Ch.XVIII [1]) (Constantine 1 (emperor)-Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

"We have received from our Saviour a different way?" From Jewish liberator to Christian Saviour. The oppressed Christians were legitimized and accepted by the state, and, in Jesus’ name, joined the state in oppressing the very descendents of those he sought to liberate from the state. A similar conspiracy operates in the present.

The counterpart today is readily seen in the self-professed "Christian" who manipulated his way into the White House. President Bush has used religion to disguise and justify America’s criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq. "Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to every man and woman in the world," he told cheering Republican delegates at their 2004 national convention. (The New York Times, Sept. 3, 2004)

The Bush administration’s pre-emptive war against Iraq is not about "God" and "freedom" but about lies: Iraq’s threatening mushroom cloud-like weapons of mass destruction that did not exist; Saddam Hussein’s ties to the horrible 9/11 attacks against America that did not exist; "fighting the terrorists in Iraq so that we do not have to fight them here"-so-called "terrorists" who did not exist but do now because of the Bush administration’s military aggression against Iraq..

The Bush administration is not about spreading "freedom" but American imperialism, not about "God" "anointing the Iraqi people with "the oil of gladness" (Hebrews 1:96), but about gaining control of the oil under the soil of Iraq, not about rebuilding Iraq but about refilling the coffers of administration friendly Halliburton types. The great conspiracy against the American people is the Bush administration reinterpreting its war crimes against the Iraqi people as an act of "God."

The conspiracy underlying the Bush administration’s criminal war against and occupation of Iraq has reached an even more deceptive level. Now unraveling is the cover-up of last November 19’s deliberate killing of 24 Iraqi men, women and children civilians in Haditha by US Marines. The apparent Haditha massacre is evidently one of a number of atrocities committed against Iraqi civilians by US troops. These growing horrible disclosures apparently led Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal el-Maliki to "lash out at the American military" in reaction, "denouncing what he characterized as habitual attacks by troops against Iraqi civilians." He was quoted as saying the "violence against civilians has become a ‘daily phenomenon’ by many troops in the American-led coalition who do not respect the Iraqi people.’" (The New York Times, June 2, 2006) The fact that el-Maliki’s government is dependent upon United States military for its existence suggests the severity with which he perceives the "daily phenomenon" of violence committed by American troops against Iraqi civilians

The Bush administration’s response to the perceived " ‘daily’ attacks against [Iraqi] civilians" (Ibid) contains its own deceptive irony. The response became headline news: "US orders ethics training for all its troops in Iraq". The "ethics training" consists of "troops be[ing] taught about military values, Iraqi cultural expectations, and disciplined professional conduct," which includes "the importance of adhering to legal, moral and ethical standards on the battlefield." (The Boston Globe, June 2, 2006)

If it were about ethics, US troops would not be in Iraq in the first place. This conspiratorial masquerade is not meant to win the minds and hearts of the Iraqi people, but to bolster the flagging support of the American people for a criminal war and occupation that is unraveling. "Ethics training" or window dressing for a corrupt-and corrupting-conspiracy?

The real conspiracy is not the cover-up of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene but his marriage to the Christian Church-and Christian Churches marriages to the state. It is the corrupting "bond" between church and state that needs to be decoded.

Many Christian clergy often tend not to rock the boat, by speaking truth to power, fearing their own ship won’t come in. In institutionalized Christianity, clergy usually get ahead by getting along-which often means going along. Hierarchical structures determine their advancements and thus tend to keep their conscience. You can’t have a hierarchy without a lowerarchy.

Similarly, many bishops and other such church executives often tend not to rock the boat, by speaking truth to power, fearing constituents will abandon ship-and not merely Republican church members. The primary emphasis is on evangelism not ethics, on making all people "disciples of Jesus Christ" not doing justice for all people. It is the politics of religion that often keeps religion out of politics-out of risky political issues.

The apparent conspiracy here is turning a prophet into a profit. In other words, a primary characteristic of the successful Christian church leader appears to be the ability to maintain and enhance the institution as it is. Here again the gravest threat to institutionalized Christianity is believed to be Jesus himself-his model of setting the oppressed free rather than evangelizing and oppressing them in his name-or in the name of "freedom."

There are exceptions. One is Jim Winkler, head of United Methodism’s General Board of Church and Society, the social action agency of The Church. He recently called on Congress to impeach President Bush, also a United Methodist, for initiating an "illegal war of aggression" against Iraq "based on lies," and contrary to The Church’s Social Principles that declare, "War is incompatible with the teaching and example of Christ."

Not surprisingly, Mark Tooley, director of the United Methodist Committee at the Institute of Religion and Democracy, reportedly said Jim Winkler was a front for the "Religious Left," and would make a better "spokesman for a left-wing political action organization like MoveOn.org," as he "does not represent the mainstream opinion in the denomination for which he purports to speak." ("Blow-back for Methodist attack on Bush," UPI Religion and Spirituality Forum, June 1, 2006) Tooley himself seems to presume to represent the denomination’s "mainstream opinion." Jesus’ model of liberation is not about "left" and "right" but right and wrong.

It is time for the bishops of The United Methodist Church especially to follow Jim Winkler’s example and speak truth to power more forcefully. Last November, 95 of the bishops signed a "Statement of Conscience" in which they "repent[ed] of complicity in what we believe to be an unjust and immoral invasion and occupation of Iraq." They lamented "being silent in the face of the United States Administration’s rush toward military action based on misleading information." They confessed "preoccupation with institutional enhancement [italics added] and limited agendas while American men and women are sent to Iraq to kill and be killed, while thousands of Iraqi people needlessly suffer and die." And their concluding commitment was to "object with boldness when governing powers offer solutions of war that conflict with the gospel message of self-emptying love."

The latest "solution" of the "governing powers" is to offer "ethics training" for troops, whose very invasion and occupying presence in Iraq are violations of international law-and that of any "gospel message of self-emptying love." It is time for the 95 United Methodist bishops to present a resolution to their own Council of Bishops, calling for the censure of their two most prestigious and criminal church members: President Bush and Vice President Cheney. The grounds for their censure are contained in the 95 bishops’ own "Statement of Conscience."

Jesus is recorded as teaching that eternal life is not something one inherits but does. It is not primarily about belief but about behavior, just as the truth is reflected in what one does. When a lawyer tested him by asking, "Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?," Jesus confirmed that the two greatest commandments were the way: love of one’s god and one’s neighbor as oneself. "Do this [italics added], and you will live." (Luke 10:25-28)

Jesus did not say which neighbor to love. Nor specify the neighbor’s race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation. Which evidently led the lawyer to test Jesus further by asking, "And who is my neighbor?" And Jesus said any person robbed of life and in need of a Good Samaritan. And there were no proselytizing strings attached. (Luke 10:29-37)

Religion is about seeing through and overcoming conspiracies. It is about setting people free, not imposing sectarian or political beliefs on them. It is about empowering people, not gaining power over them. It is about honoring people in calling them by their own names, and experiencing their reality not interpreting it. It is about loving one’s neighbor as oneself. And one’s neighbor is anyone-anywhere. Religion is not worshiping what the prophets did but doing what the prophets worshiped.

Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS, Ph.D. is a hospital chaplain. Both a Unitarian Universalist and a United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics and religion. He can be reached at william.alberts@bmc.org.