The Political Jesus

I mentioned in a previous post that I had signed up for a 2 day seminar on The Political Jesus, which was held November 10th and 11th.  An article in The Times piqued my interest and after checking it out a little bit, I figured it might be an interesting endeavor.

Motivation

Since on a good day, this blog has about 3 followers, and I’d guess over half my Facebook friends are pretty sick of my political posts and have me on ignore, one might wonder why I bother.  Well, sometimes I do too.  But I think the answer is, it’s really for me, not you.  I do this for myself because it’s a part of who I am.  Given my knowledge in this area (hint: about as dumb as it gets) I do not seek to preach about anything.  Far from it.  I simply find it interesting.  I have an innate curiosity.  If you do as well, feel free to read on.  If not, by all means go do something else.

There’s a fair amount of evidence in this blog and on Facebook that suggest I may have an ax to grind with Republicans.  Okay, I’ll own that one.  The same is not true of Christians however.  I have no ax to grind with anyone’s faith practice.  We may differ on what works for us as that’s a very personal, individual, and experiential thing.   But I like to think I’m open-minded enough to not scoff at they way in which people practice a faith.  As far as I’m concerned, knock yourself out.  There might be one exception to this.  I’ll admit to frustration with those who are quick to espouse strong opinions combined with being not very well-informed.  I’ve run into a few people like that, but the majority of people I know and love are intelligent people doing what feels right for them, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

It’s necessary to point this out as this particular seminar combines the two things you’re not supposed to bring up at a dinner party: politics and religion.

Influences

I think everyone runs into a few people in their life who are highly influential.  Impact players is how I think of them.  Sometimes I make a list of the top 5 people who have influenced my life in one way or another.  It’s an interesting exercise.  The same can be true of authors/books.  Sometimes you read something that gives you that aha moment that lasts.  Two of mine are David Aldrich – author of www.snohomishobserver.com, and Karen Armstrong – author of “A History of God

It was hard not to be in awe of just how brilliant Dave was.  We used to have a weekly breakfast with a group of guys for the sole purpose of discussing the things you’re not supposed to talk about in a social settings: religion and politics.  Absolutely fascinating.

Dave was a modern-day social justice warrior in every sense of the word.  He led protests, blogged in favor of the little guy, and questioned authority at every turn.  He paid a pretty steep price at times for living by his ideals.  He had been at times, very successful in business, but more often than not, his insistence in standing by his principles cost him in the private sector.   At a young age he was ousted from Pemco for attempting to organize a union.  He believed it was the right thing to do and did until his dying day.  But he didn’t care about being rich.  He cared about doing the right thing.  He was a rare breed.

A History of God gave me an appreciation of highly educated people who have done deep dives on the subject of religion in attempts to tie it all together.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have a common denominator – each faith traces its roots back to Abraham.

Admittedly, much of what Armstrong writes is over my head.  I concluded her target audience must be mostly other well-educated historians.  But I definitely had some useful takeaways.

As an example, when everything is put into the context of a timeline, it’s interesting to find out that as a people, we humans transitioned back and forth a few times between the notion of God in the plural form to monotheism up until about 680 CE.  I grew up thinking that pretty much monotheism was settled matter except for maybe during the time of cavemen.

Additionally Armstrong challenges us to go through the exercise of reconciling our religious and political beliefs.  Trust me, this is not an easy exercise, but it’s a worthy one.

Speaking of timelines, one other thing I hadn’t considered until reading Armstrong – the books of the bible were written by a collection of authors between 800 BC and 110 CE.  That’s 910 years.  So there are numerous books that make up what people refer to as “the infallible word of God” written by dozens of authors with vastly different perspectives and agendas.  I’ve always felt that explains a lot.  I’m 57 years old and the world is a lot different now that it was in 1960.  910 years is an incredibly long time.   It then becomes incumbent upon me to put this little factoid into perspective as I move ahead with everything else I learn.

The Presenters

Reading the bios of the presenters intrigued me as I had already discovered that as a self-professed dumb person, it’s interesting to hang out with intelligent people when you can.

The detailed bios of Arthur J. Dewey and Celine Little can be seen here.

Just having a Ph.D. doesn’t make you always right.  I get that.  One has to be careful about the sources of information we choose to learn from.  It’s a good idea to try to sniff out any underlying motivation someone might have for the particular message they are sending.  Is it financial?  Is it to try to recruit?  Is it to espouse conspiracy theories and gain followers?  Why are you here anyway?

I was pretty happy with the end result in that the whole time I felt like both presenters were in the education business.  Both had written books and yes, they were for sale but less than $20.

Admittedly there were times when I was a little lost just because I’m not familiar enough with the players in history to keep up with the story.  But you gotta start somewhere.

Context is Important

We spent Friday night learning about the social and economic context of the early followers of Jesus from the first century.   Enter: The Roman Empire.

A full discussion on the Roman Empire in the early centuries CE is both out of scope for a blog post and also, beyond my ability to articulate anything insightful because I honestly don’t know anything insightful.  It’s not been a strong area of study for me at any point in my academic career.  But I can share a few takeaways.  Here’s what I learned:

  • The Roman Empire was a brutal regime
    • If you’ve seen Gladiator or The Borgias, which would have been several centuries later, you would have an understanding of how brutal the Emperors were in constructing the Roman Empire.
  • The Jewish-Roman War of 66 – 70 CE was particularly brutal
    • Over 1M people killed.  100,000 enslaved.
    • To the victors belong the spoils.
      • The Roman Colosseum was one artifact built with the spoils 70 – 80 CE
    • Public humiliation was a big part of it, even after the war was over
      • Coins that depicted Romans as the masters and Jews as the slaves
  • These facts are important for centuries later to give context to the intense anger between the Romans and the Jews

Dyadics and the Social Pyramid

In the graphic below, the top-tier of Senators and Administrators represents 5% of the population.  The Nobles, Patricians and wealthy Plebeians represent 10%.  The remaining 85% of the population are what Dewey referred to as the Dyadic’s – lesser human beings in more of a servitude role.  A simpler way to think of it is, the top 15% considered themselves worthy of the gifts they received.  The bottom 85% were there to serve the top 15% – or else.

ancient-rome-hierarchy-3-638

Additionally the Dyadic’s in general had the following characteristics

  • My identity is found in others’ eyes
  • My social group defines me
  • Change requires going beyond my means
  • If one does attempt to change out of this group, they are labeled
  • To venture out of the Dyadic group with your thought process is rebellion

Lastly, for the pyramid scheme to hold, the bottom 85% needed to believe they belonged there.  The upper echelon addressed this issue though (in large part), fear.

There are artifacts that when closely studied by historians depict the notion that the culture of the Roman Empire was such that the closer you were to the top of the social pyramid, the closer you were to God.   If you were a slave, by definition you were out of favor with God.  This is important for later when the subject of resistance comes into play.

Early Resistance

Now that we have a little bit of context around the timeline and the relationship between the Romans and the Jews, it’ll make more sense to discuss the life of Jesus, the agitator in chief.

First of all, as we all know from history, Jesus was a Jew.  Right off the bat he’s not in good standing with the Roman Empire.

There are many examples of Jesus’ controversial teachings throughout the many books of the Bible that illustrate why he might be out of favor with Rome, so I won’t reiterate what you probably already know.  The short version is, the message that there was a greater kingdom than Rome, and that God would provide for its poorest members (which was completely counter to the thought process espoused by the Roman Empire), were offenses that were by themselves punishable by death.  To top it off, his disciples made the claim that he was the son of God.  This was the final straw that put the issue on the table for Pilot to have to deal with.   Nothing will threaten the existence of the Roman Empire, period.

The teachings of Jesus by themselves were the earliest form of Christian resistance.  Much of what he did were subtle attempts to stick it to the Empire in one way or another.  The important part is, he did it by messing with peoples’ heads.  Teaching the Dyadics to reach outside their comfort zone and think in completely different terms.

The Crucifixion

As mentioned earlier, the Roman Empire dealt with its threats through intimidation and fear.  They were not the original inventors of crucifixion (the Persians and Macedonians practiced it before the Romans did), yet they perfected it.

Tens of thousands of people were crucified by the Roman Empire.  Dewey described it as “the ultimate act of being shamed into oblivion.”  An important piece of this message is that not only were you subject to a horrific death – sometimes it took multiple days for death to actually occur – you were also subject to being forgotten.  This was part of the deal.  It was also punishable by the empire to talk about or otherwise make martyrs of anyone who was crucified.  This is important later on when the narrative is around resistance by Christians of the late first, and early second centuries.

Also worth noting with respect to being forgotten into oblivion, Dewey mentioned that there are only 2 known artifacts in history that depict the crucifixion before 400 CE.  That’s a full 370 years after the death of Jesus.

That seems incredibly odd to me and suggests that the fear tactics of the Romans to obliterate the existence of those crucified out of the memories of everyone were in part successful.

In the mean time, the books of the New Testament were written as well as many others, so obviously he was not forgotten.

Controversial Assertion

One problem with going back over 2,000 years in time is that there’s not a lot of hard evidence to support some of the assertions that were made.

According to Dewey, it’s not clear that Jesus ever predicted his own death.  This claim is asserted in the gospel of Mark (approx. 70 CE, or about 40 years after Jesus’ death).

The Next Wave of Resistance

As mentioned earlier, the Jewish-Roman War from 66 – 70 CE was particularly brutal.  Putting this time period into perspective, it was about 40 years after the death of Jesus.  If my limited understanding is correct, the last books included in the canonical Bible were completed around 110 CE.

The writers of the Gospels and other New Testament books followed in Jesus’ path of resistance in that they were committed to a storyline that was in absolute defiance of the Roman Empire.

Just the act of remembering someone who was crucified was a poke in the eye. The New Testament authors, some of them martyrs for having taken the ultimate risk in tweaking the beak of the Roman Empire to support the narrative of this incredible man whom they were determined would NOT be forgotten in history, was the ultimate form of resistance.

  • The poor shall inherit the earth.
  • There is a kingdom greater than the Roman Empire
  • Paul even preached an apocalyptic message in his alternative vision

There are many other examples, but these suffice to tell the story of the risks that were taken to keep his memory alive.

The Narrative

Here’s where it gets interesting.  In my mind, 100 years is a long time to evolve a storyline.  As I mentioned earlier, spread that out amongst several different authors with competing agendas and perspectives, and you have to question whether the stories were written as ‘factual documentation’ or a storyline in support of a narrative the authors wanted to achieve.

I had felt as early as the 3rd grade that many of the stories in the Bible should not be taken literally, but rather, the purpose was to illustrate a point. Jonah and the whale comes to mind.

Dewey confirmed this notion with examples of verses that were provably false as actual historical events, yet served a useful purpose of the authors to get their message across.  This tactic of resistance was to get inside the heads of those who held power.  Creating a narrative that threatened that power was effective, and given the inability to put forth any kind of physical fight against the Empire, about the only tool they had.

There are numerous examples of this, but the ones we talked about were the story of the Good Samaritan, and the example of how it would be easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than to get into the kingdom of heaven (I’m probably misquoting that a bit).  The Good Samaritan example is better because it follows the recognizable pattern of Goldilocks and the 3 bears where the 3rd bowl of porridge was just right.  This pattern of storytelling dates back centuries BC.

Did they make it all up?  No, I don’t think so.  Did they invent a great deal of it?  Probably.

Yet another Controversial Assertion

According to Dewey, “the narrative around the crucifixion is predominantly fiction.”  Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.  It just means that much of the storyline was invented by the writers to give meaning to the story and rebel against the Roman Empire.  This one will take some chewing on.

Constantine the Great

(Here’s where out of ignorance I have to hand-wave and fast forward a couple of centuries).

It’s called the turning point of Christianity because after literally centuries of persecution of the early Christians, all of a sudden a Roman Empire decides to adopt the religion as the official religion of the Empire.  (Not a lot unlike how the Republicans stole God from the Democrats and courted the Evangelical voters).

In 313 CE, Constantine decriminalized Christian worship.  This is right out of the John Kerry playbook of “I was for the war in Iraq before I was against it.”

In any case, the irony here is off the charts.  The very empire that did everything they could to wipe Jesus off the map is now in charge of the religion.  They stole it.

There’s a ton written about Constantine the Great here.  I won’t bore you with any more of it, other than to point out the historical timeline.

Resistance Today

The question came up, as often does, about Faith vs. Works.  Dewey didn’t waste much time in answering that question.  In short, his answer was the early Christians stressed the importance of “They will know us by our deeds.”   That was what I was hoping to hear.  I get the faith part, but I’ve always felt the actions are more powerful than words or prayers for that matter.

This topic of discussion always reminds me of the various “profiles” of modern-day churches that seem to have more emphasis on one or the other.  Sometimes (and I’d say the Catholic church is a prime example of this, based on my own experience), there’s mass (no pun intended) confusion about which is more important.  You’ll see lay people, priests, nuns, bishops, cardinals… who have made social justice their main focus through works.  Under the same roof, we have the Bill Donohue’s of the world who seem to have an obsession with the 10 commandments and Catholic doctrine.  I’ve always felt screw doctrine, feed the poor.  That’s an oversimplification, but it illustrates the point.  Additionally, Catholicism includes in its roster Sean Hannity, Hugh Hewiitt, and Bill O’Reilly.  I’d really be interested to know which schools they attended because wherever it was, the entire teaching staff should be terminated.

I have nothing against the message of personal responsibility.  Just ask my kids.  They got the message.  What I have a problem with is the Darwinian approach of survival of the fittest with zero emphasis on compassion.  Exacerbated by the fact that many of the people who lack compassion were born on third base.

I also believe that Faith alone lends itself to the “Frozen Chosen” moniker that is well deserved by many.  I guess I am preaching here a bit.  I should stop.

In any case, I felt somewhat validated in my own practice of exercising resistance to the Trump Empire — and let’s not kid ourselves, that’s what it is.  I also feel like my priorities are in line with action preferred over piousness.  Far from perfect.  But at least I was able to validate my thought pattern isn’t too screwed up.

React v. Respond

So here’s the nut.  Here’s my biggest take away from the 2 day event.  Resistance is good.  Keep doing it.  Shine a light on the Empire, but maybe with a little less reckless abandon. Think things through a little bit before responding and attacking.

A lot of times, my intentions are no different from the early followers.  In a not so subtle way sometimes, I’m ‘trying to get in the heads of the upper echelon, as well as the modern-day dyadics who have drunk the cool-aid so-to-speak.  Remember, for the pyramid of the Empire to work, the lower 85% has to believe in the system.  My mission is to help a few people dis-believe in the Empire.

Twitter will be my biggest challenge.  As Dewey pointed out, Twitter is a contest to see who can get the most re-tweets by coming up with the snarkiest comment. This one will be hard for me because, well, I’m pretty adept at coming up with snark.  I’ve gotten a lot of practice over the years.  My challenge will be to slow it down a bit and think through those responses so that they are not reactionary.

Closing

The point of attending was to learn something from smart people and I feel like I accomplished that, so it was time well spent.  Writing it up helps reinforce the learning as well.  It’s not so much for anyone who might read this as it is a gift to myself.

I don’t feel like I practice enough “works” to be able call myself a social justice warrior, but it would be nice to have time to get to that point some day.  Maybe in retirement.  This job is a challenge.  In any case, whether it’s seemingly pointless tweets or blog posts or Facebook posts, I see benefit in continuing to rail against the Empire.  There’s just so much fundamentally wrong with it, it feels like being passive is not an option.  At least for me.

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