Jesus, the Theological Prisoner of Christianity
Jesus was a Jewish martyr not a Christian saviour. Like numerous other Jewish "insurgents" of his time, he sought to liberate the Jewish people from the Roman Empire’s brutal occupation of their country. He did not die on a Roman cross for "the sins of the world" but to rid the Jewish people’s world of the sins of the Roman Empire, which violated their nationality, occupied their country, and crucified would-be messianic liberators, like Jesus, for political sedition, and countless by-standers. (see "Report of the Ad Hoc Scholars Group Reviewing the Script of The Passion," Dr. Mary C. Boys, SNJM, et al, May 2, 2003, (PDF/Adobe Acrobat-View as HTML) Jesus died as a liberator not as an evangelizer. His quoted mission was to empower people not gain power over them. To revive the living, not resurrect the dead. (Luke 4:18)
When early Christianity became the religion of the state and gained power under Roman Emperor Constantine some 300 years later, there was no need for Jesus’ mission and model of liberator. In fact, Christians joined the Roman Empire in oppressing the very Jews Jesus sought to liberate and, ironically, they did it "in Jesus name." And, ironically today, descendents of the persecuted Jews are brutally oppressing the Palestinians in the name of "Israeli security." Oppression is often about religious-and political-entitlement licensed by power.
When the Roman state legitimized and favored Christianity, Jesus’ model of liberator obviously became dangerous and had to be redefined and concealed. It was now about authority and power: "spreading the gospel"-in the imperialistic wake of state power. The liberator became the evangelizer. Salvation was re-interpreted as an individual matter, apart from institutionalized political and economic realities that greatly determine who, in the gospel words of Jesus, were "poor" and "oppressed" and in need of "good news" and "liberty." (Ibid) "The Kingdom of God" shifted from society to the soul, from this life to a future life, from earth to heaven and hell. With Jesus’ "love your neighbor as yourself"-ethic applied mostly to like-minded people and those to be "harvested."
The bottom lines of institutionalized Christianity became and, to a large extent, remain authority and power. For Catholicism, it is reported to still be about possessing the keys to the kingdom: "Pope Benedict XVI reasserted the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, approving a document released yesterday that says other Christian communities are either defective or not true churches and Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation." ("Pope reasserts salvation comes from one church," by Nicole Winfield, Associated Press, The Boston Globe, July 11, 2007) For United Methodism, it is about "the conversion of the world. All, of every age and station, stand in need of the means of grace which it [the church] alone supplies." (The United Methodist Book of Worship, 1992, page 106) For various hierarchical and "bibliarchical" churches, it is about maintaining and advancing their institutions as they are. And not surprisingly, the greatest threat to their existence as ends in themselves is the historical Jew, Jesus himself.
Thus the liberator has been transformed into an evangelizer, and confined behind hierarchical and theological walls, in prayerful solitary confinement. His torturous "extra-theological rendition" from liberator to evangelizer, is especially seen in the careful protests of Catholic and United Methodist leaders against the Bush administration’s criminal invasion and brutal occupation of Iraq.
The most powerful Christian leader to oppose the Bush administration’s looming pre-emptive war against Iraq was Pope John Paul II. Mainstream media covered his opposition from beginning to prayerful end. John Paul sent an emissary to meet with President Bush in an attempt to avert the war. The emissary, Cardinal Pio Laghi, described as "a friend of the president’s father and the Vatican’s first ambassador to Washington," was also believed to have "brought to the White House the moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church." He and Bush met privately for 40 minutes on Ash Wednesday, while back in Rome the Pope "called on Roman Catholics worldwide to fast and pray for peace." ("Pope’s Emissary Meets with Bush, Calls War Unjust," by Johanna Neuman, The Lost Angeles Times, Mar. 6, 2003; "Bush meets with Vatican envoy," Associate Press, cnn.com, Mar. 5, 2003)
Before the meeting, Cardinal Laghi was quoted as saying "that the two most important things to the Vatican were ‘avoiding a war and finding a peaceful solution to the problem of Iraq’s disarmament.’" ("Bush meets with Vatican envoy," Ibid) Laghi gave President Bush "a letter in which the pope urged Bush to listen carefully to the Vatican envoy. Neither the letter nor the envoy specifically urged Bush to avoid war," according to an administration official. (Ibid) The Los Angeles Times reported that "the cardinal said the president told him he appreciated the pope’s effort to find a peaceful way out of the conflict," which evidently pleased Laghi who was quoted as saying, "We are not at the end yet," and added, "I’m going away with hope." ("Pope’s Emissary Meets with Bush, Calls War ‘Unjust,’" by Johanna Neuman, Mar. 6, 2003)
The "end" came 15 days later: President Bush ordered 21,000-pound "mother of all bombs" and hundreds of cruise missiles to reign "shock and awe" on Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Bush’s expressed "appreciation" for "the pope’s effort to find a peaceful way out of the conflict" was obviously for public prayerful consumption.
The following year, President Bush visited Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. During this White House-initiated occasion, the pope reportedly "firmly reminded the president of the Vatican’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq last year," and said the country’s "sovereignty" needs to be restored and its "situation normalized" quickly, with active UN involvement, "in conditions of security for all its people." ("Pope Expresses Concern about Continuing Unrest in Iraq," by John Thavis, Catholic News Service, www.catholicherald.com, 6/3/04)
The accommodating media coverage of the seemingly scripted event appears to reveal that both Pope John Paul II and President Bush were more concerned about appearances than reality. The Associated Press reported, "Seated next to the Pope, Bush promised his nation would work for ‘human liberty and human dignity,’ without making any references to Iraq." ("Bush Meets with Pope at Vatican," Associated Press, Fox News.com, June 4, 2004) Then came the papal blessing: a Catholic News Service story stated, "At the end of his talk, the pope assured the president of his prayers [italics added] and invoked upon him God’s blessings of wisdom, strength and peace." ("Pope Expresses Concern about Continuing Unrest in Iraq," by John Thavis, 6/3/2004) The pope must be rolling over in his grave and his god having a fit in heaven-as Bush continues to "pray daily for peace." While even now saying, the "US can still win in Iraq."
Two powerful leaders appearing to play a game for public consumption to protect the authority and power and special interests of their respective institutions and constituents. Rather than accepting the often merit-less, bribery-serving Presidential Medal of Freedom and assuring President Bush of his prayers, Pope John Paul II could have led a timely global interfaith peace pilgrimage to Iraq. Morally powerful also might have been a papal edict calling on Catholics to not support or participate in a life-aborting war against Iraq. Just as Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis reportedly "forbade" 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry "from taking communion while campaigning in the area" for supporting a woman’s constitutional right to decide whether to have an abortion. ("Kerry’s Communion Controversy," by David Paul Kuhm, CBS News.com
Chief Political Writer, CBS NEWS, April 6, 2004) Instead of real moral protest, Pope John Paul II took the pathway of prayer, which is often a tried-and-true silent legitimizing escape-hatch of accommodation and complicity. For a more detailed study of Pope John Paul’s opposition to the war, and that of other Christian denominations as well, see Alberts, "Mainstream Religious Leaders in Bushtime: Guardians of the Status Quo," CounterPunch, Sept. 19, 2005)
Pope Benedict XVI appears to be following in Pope John Paul II"s prayerful footsteps. "Celebrating his first Easter as pontiff," a news story reported "he prayed today for peace to prevail over relentless violence in Iraq." ("Pope prays for peace in Easter sermon," BREAKING NEWS.ie, April 16, 2006) "In his Easter message this year," Benedict’s publicized reference to Iraq apparently consisted only of "lament[ing] that ‘nothing positive comes from Iraq torn apart by continual slaughter as the civilian population flees.’" ("Pope Tells Bush of His Concern About Safety of Iraq’s Christians," by Michael A. Fletcher, washingtonpost.com. June 10, 2007)
In his recent, assumed 30-minute meeting with President Bush, Pope Benedict was quoted as "express[ing] concern about ‘the worrying situation in Iraq,’ especially the deteriorating plight of Christians there." Bush told reporters afterwards that "the pontiff was worried that Christians in Iraq were being ‘mistreated by the Muslim majority.’" (Ibid) A classic example of blaming the victims instead of the criminality of the Christian-professing invaders and occupiers. Bush was also quoted as calling "his meeting with the pontiff ‘a moving experience. I was talking to a very smart, loving man,’ he said." It also was reported that "the Vatican has been critical of the US-led invasion of Iraq, but both sides said they did not dwell on those differences Saturday." (Ibid)
The pope and the president exchanged gifts with Bush giving Benedict a " ‘Moses stick’ that was hand-carved by a former homeless man from Dallas." It is "identical to one Bush owns [and] engraved with the Ten Commandments." (Ibid) A few weeks later Pope Benedict proceeded to give Jews the short end of the "Moses stick": he authorized greater use of the old traditional Latin Mass, which includes a Good Friday prayer calling for the conversion of the very people who gave Christians the Ten Commandments. An obviously outraged Anti-Defamation League president, Abraham H. Foxman, was quoted as saying, "We are extremely disappointed and deeply offended that nearly 40 years after the Vatican rightly removed insulting anti-Jewish language from the Good Friday Mass, that it would now permit Catholics to utter such hurtful and insulting words by praying for Jews to be converted." ("Pope Eases Restrictions on Wider Use of Latin Mass," by Ian Fisher, The New York Times, July 8, 2007)
Prayer as an instrument of liberation or of evangelism? Prayer as an avenue to power or an escape route of passivity? Prayer as a means to speaking truth to power or a way of leaving it up to one’s god. Prayer as concern or as cover? Two weeks before unleashing his war of choice against Iraq, President Bush said at his March 6, 2003 press conference, "I pray daily. I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength. . . . I pray for peace. I pray for peace." (The New York Times, March 7, 2003) Prayer as a way of confronting or conforming to oppressive institutional political or religious powers? Prayer as complicity?
The aim here is not to denigrate prayer but to show how it is used to avoid risk and thus serve personal and institutional self-interests and advancement. Prayer can lead to action against and not accommodation to the oppression of people. It is a universal means by which people find comfort, grace, the will to affirm their lives, to achieve, to overcome, and empowerment to contribute to a just, inclusive society and world.
But prayer is often another way of folding one’s hands and doing nothing, while giving the legitimizing appearance of being involved, which is probably its greatest attraction to Christian institution-builders, whose priority is evangelism not being "peacemakers." Thus Jesus’ risky liberation model is often kept in solitary confinement by prayer. It is much easier and safer, and far more conducive to denominational empire-building, to evangelize and then control people than to join in liberating them and empowering their right to believe as they choose and be who they are.
Just as much is expected of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI because of their great moral authority, United Methodists have a special obligation to speak truth to power because President Bush and Vice President Cheney are Methodists. Sadly, as with Catholicism, the theological prison confining Jesus is also seen in the United Methodist Church’s measured protests against Bush and Cheney’s criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq.
In November of 2005, 96 United Methodist bishops issued a belated carefully-worded "Statement of Conscience" subtitled "A Call to Repentance and Peace with Justice." Their generalized opening words were theologically correct: "As followers of Jesus Christ, who named peacemakers as blessed children of God, we call on The United Methodist Church to join us in repentance and renewed commitment to Christ’s reign of compassion, justice, reconciliation and peace."
The 96 bishops flirted with telling it like it is: "We repent of our complicity in what we believe to be the unjust and immoral invasion and occupation of Iraq." But vagueness took over: "In the face of the United States Administration’s rush toward military action based on misleading information, too many of us were silent." [italics added]
The bishops were appropriate: "We confess our preoccupation with institutional enhancement 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, while poverty increases and preventable disease is entrenched." But prophetic vagueness continued: "Although we value the sacrifices of the men and women who serve in the military, we confess our betrayal of the scriptural and prophetic authority to warn the nations [italics added] that true security lies not in weapons of war, but in enabling the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized to flourish as beloved daughters and sons of God."
The bishops evidently could not help slipping in an evangelistic note: "We confess our failure to make disciples of Jesus Christ and to be people that welcome and love all those for whom Christ died."
Cautious, Biblically-inspired, preachy generalities make up these United Methodist bishops future commitment:
Pray daily for the end of war in general and the Iraq war specifically; . . for the leaders of the United States [italics added] that they will turn to truth, humility, and policies of peace through justice.
Reclaim the prophetic authority that calls nations, individuals and communities [italics added] to live faithfully in the light of God’s new creation where all people know their identity as beloved children of God; where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream; . . .
Commit ourselves to peacemaking as an integral component of our own Christian discipleship, which means . . . modeling an end to prejudice toward people of other faiths and cultures; confronting differences and conflicts with grace, humility, dialogue and respect without being so cautious in confronting evil that we lose our moral authority [italics added].
The bishops then issued a call to "all United Methodists," which included, "Let us object with boldness when governing powers offer solutions of war that conflict with the gospel message of self-emptying love." They ended on a myopic note: "Let us work toward unity in a world of diversity, that all peoples will come to know that we belong to one another and that "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us [italics added] (2nd Corinthians 5:19)." (The above quotes are from the January 31, 2006 revision of the 96 bishops’ November 8, 2005 "Statement of Conscience.")
The United Methodist bishops’ "Statement of Conscience" offers a lesson in evasiveness. "Let us object with boldness when governing powers offer solutions of war that conflict with the gospel message of self-emptying love." Which "governing powers?" "In the face of the United States Administration’s rush toward military action based on misleading information . . ." Which "United States Administration?" What "misleading information?" "We confess our betrayal of the scriptural and prophetic authority to warn the nations that true security lies not in weapons of war." Why "which nations" when only "the United States Administration" is so blatantly culpable? "Commit ourselves to peacemaking . . . without being so cautious in confronting evil that we lose our moral authority." What "evil"?
Most revealing is the fact that those 96 leaders of the United Methodist Church cannot even bring themselves to name the two men most responsible for the unjust, horrific death and destruction visited upon the people of Iraq and America: their own church members, President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
Why such a safe, generalized "Statement of Conscience?" United Methodist bishops had to say something. Their church members rightly expected prophetic leadership from them. Their Book of Discipline contains a long-cherished belief on "War and Peace We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. . . . We insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them." ("Social Principles," pages 123,124)
The bishops were expected to say something in the face of President Bush and Vice President Cheney launching a falsely-based, unnecessary pre-emptive war against sanction-weakened, non-threatening Iraq. A fear-mongering war based on lies: Saddam Hussein had no "mushroom-cloud" threatening weapons of mass destruction nor ties to the horrific 9/11 attack against America as Bush and Cheney repeatedly charged, while belittling and then aborting the work of the UN weapons inspectors by invading Iraq. A war and occupation devastating Iraq’s life-sustaining infrastructure, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, triggering a massive deadly civil war, forcing over four million Iraqis to become refugees inside and outside their country, destroying and crippling the lives of tens of thousands of Americans, and wasting greatly needed national resources. A war of choice Bush even justified by saying, "Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to every man and woman in the world." ("Acceptance Speech to Republican Convention Delegates," The New York Times, Sept. 3, 2004) A war for oil and empire not freedom. A war protested world-wide and condemned as "illegal" by UN Secretary General Kofi Anan because it lacked UN Security Council approval.
The 96 United Methodist bishops had to say something about a war President Bush even now says, "I believe we can succeed in Iraq, and I know we must." ("White House Press Conference on Iraq: Bush Warns Terrorist Threat to U.S. Will ‘Outlast my Presidency,’" CQ Transcripts Wire, washingtonpost.com, July 12, 2007) And, "If we fail in Iraq," he warns, "the enemy will follow us home." ("President Bush Discusses Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors, War on Terror at American Legion," Renaissance Hotel, Washington, D.C., The White House Mar. 6, 2007) An immoral war driving Bush to "stay the course," for "failure" in Iraq would result in his criminality following him home to the White House. A war crying out for "A Statement of Conscience" especially from Bush and Cheney’s own United Methodist hierarchy.
But why such a safe statement from President Bush and Vice President Cheney’s own church leaders? Perhaps the 96 United Methodist bishops obvious evasiveness is partly due to the pride certain bishops must have felt after meeting months earlier with Bush and reporting him saying, "I’m proud to be a Methodist." ("United Methodist bishops meet with president, open door to future," Tim Tanton, United Methodist News Service, May 3, 2005) Another corrupting influence may be the apparent anticipated prestige and power underlying the movement within United Methodism to house the George W. Bush library at Southern Methodist University.
A primary reason for the 96 bishops’ laboriously cautious "Statement of Conscience" may be their attempt to control the consciences and anti-war protests of morally outraged United Methodists. It is here that Jesus’ model of liberator and call for "peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9) is believed to be confined: behind the bishops’ and United Methodism’s own hierarchical walls.
United Methodism’s hierarchical structure is assumed to keep the consciences of its ministers-including its bishops. The United Methodist Book of Discipline states that the Church’s ministers are to "offer themselves without reserve to be appointed and to serve, after consultation, as the appointive authorities may determine." [italics added] (p. 230).
The placement and promotion of United Methodist ministers are determined by the "appointive authorities" over them, i.e. their district superintendent and bishop. This hierarchical power over ministers’ appointments and advancements is believed to exert considerable influence over their consciences and greatly determine their social action behavior. Ministers usually get ahead by getting along. And those most effective in getting along and maintaining and advancing the institution as it is often become bishops and district superintendents-with important exceptions. The priority is often evangelism not equality, membership not morality, building the church not human community, gaining power not the empowerment of people. Thus bishops may be tentative about rocking the Bush administration’s ship of state, fearing constituents will abandon their ship and board the deck of more evangelical churches. Similarly, ministers may hesitate to become involved in controversial issues that would rock the denominational boat, fearing constituent or community complaints to their "appointive authorities" could prevent their own ship from coming in. With presidential candidates rushing to embrace the same prayerful religiosity dictating the behavior of the chaplains of the status quo. It is the politics of religion that keeps religion out of politics-out of risky political issues. One cannot have a hierarchy without a lowerarchy. And such hierarchies are assumed to have an inherently corrupting influence. Jesus’ model of liberation and justice-doing is believed to often languish behind such conscience-compromising hierarchical walls and related "preoccupation with institutional enhancement."
A case in point may be Jim Winkler, head of United Methodism’s General Board of Church and Society, the international public policy and social justice agency of the Church. While not a minister, Winkler is perhaps the key peace and justice leader in the denomination. A strong early critic of President Bush, Winkler was reported as having "launched a scathing attack on his preparations for war against Iraq, saying they are ‘without any justification according to the teaching of Christ.’" Winkler was also quoted as saying, "his church was ‘keenly aware’ that it counted the President and his deputy among its members, and that he was therefore ‘frequently encouraged by others to be very careful about how I say things.’" (Guardian Newspapers United, Oct. 20, 2002)
Unlike the 96 United Methodist bishops, Jim Winkler was not "very careful." Less than six weeks after their updated "Statement of Conscience," Winkler gave the keynote address at an ecumenical gathering in Arlington, VA, is which he said, "Impeach
President Bush" [italics added] He then spoke truth to power: "Yes I said it. [italics added]. The attack on Iraq was sold to our people on lies and the war itself was an illegal war of aggression." Winkler continued, "The NSA spy program is unconstitutional. These are actions far more serious than a failed land deal on the White River or a sexual indiscretion with a White House intern." Winkler was not through: "This is a president who says quote, ‘I’m the commander, I don’t need to explain why I say things. . . . Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.’" (General Board of Church and Society, www.umc-gbcs.org/timeline – GBCS Web site.
Jim Winkler evidently spoke truth too clearly to power for the United Methodist hierarchy to handle. Three weeks later he muted his call to "impeach President Bush," saying "I regret making that statement." He then explained, "Regardless of my personal opinion on the matter of impeachment, the call for it in the context of that address was unnecessary. . . . It has drawn quite a bit of attention . . .about 40 e-mails, mostly negative." Not that "the volume of e-mails" determines Winkler’s stand. But that "the call for impeachment is a distraction from the task at hand-finding an alternative to the ‘war on terror.’" ("Faith in Action," Weekly Digest from GBCS, General Board of Church and Society, Word from Winkler, "Regrets: Some things are better left unsaid," GBCS Website, June 12-18, 2006)
Many local and state political bodies, peace organizations and anti-war activists, some members of Congress, certain other politicians and government officials, political and social scientists, members of the media and an ever-increasing number of Americans and many in the world community believe impeaching President Bush and Vice President Cheney is "the task at hand." Impeachment is the way of stopping their war of terrorism, and thus exposing the so-called "war on terrorism" for what it is: a cover to justify eliminating resistance to the imperialistic policies of the Bush administration and its allies.
Jim Winkler referred to himself as an "obscure church bureaucrat" who, along with "millions of people around the world . . . saw and warned of the disaster ahead." (Word from Winkler, "For Five Years," Faith in Action, General Board of Church and Society, GBCS Website, June 18, 2007) Winkler was far from an "obscure church bureaucrat," which is why the United Methodist hierarchy and lowerarchy apparently "encouraged" him to be more "careful about how I say things."
Obscurity may become Jim Winkler’s problem. He and other Christians, Muslims and Jewish leaders are "call[ing] on all our communities of faith to draw now on fasting as a pathway toward inner spiritual transformation and outward social transformation." And they will also "encourage local communities to be in prayer for peace and to take specific actions through Thanksgiving weekend to stand together against the war in Iraq and against all the ways in which violence is destroying our communities." (Ibid)
The word that is believed to strike fear in the Bush administration’s heart is not fasting or prayer but impeachment. Jim Winkler had spoken truth to power, and probably paid a heavy price for freeing Jesus for a fleeting moment from hierarchical walls. It is past time for United Methodist leaders and their congregations, and other peoples of faith, to censure and call for the impeachment of the very two United Methodists who are the most dangerous terrorists in the world. The world knows and is watching. Our children and grandchildren will know. It is time to unlock Jesus’ theological prison and set him free by becoming justice-doers and "peacemakers." Time to call for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney before they start a war with Iran in an attempt to distract us from their criminality in Iraq. Time to stop evangelizing and start liberating other people-and ourselves.
Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS, Ph.D. is a hospital chaplain, and a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.