I have often struggled with the very question that Pastor Bess raises here – how did the teachings of a peace-loving pacifist named Jesus get spun into a warring vengeful religion known as Christianity? Here are some observations from Pastor Bess:
THE VIOLENCE THAT PLAGUES OUR NATION
By Howard Bess
In a shooting rampage Jared Loughner shot and killed six persons and seriously wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords near a Safeway store in Tucson, Arizona. News coverage is intensive and most everyone has an opinion about how it all happened and what to do about it. The most notable subjects are gun laws, mental illness, and the need for more effective protection for our public officials.
What has happened in Tucson is not new to American life. It happens every day across our entire nation. Murders with the use of guns are so common that little note is taken until a high profile person is the target of the crime. Violent behavior is a generally accepted part of American life. Most Americans believe that violence is an acceptable way of resolving disputes. This falsehood can be traced to Christian Faith as practiced for the last 1,900 years.
It is reported in the Luke gospel that Jesus looked out over the city of Jerusalem and wept. The words ascribed to him are right to the point. If only you knew the ways of peace. I suspect he is still weeping as he looks at Tucson, America and the two billion people on the earth that confess that the rabbi from Nazareth is their Lord of life.
Violence is not a part of the record of the life of Jesus. When we read the gospels that carry the names of Matthew, Mark and Luke, we meet a very Jewish young man, who was determined to understand and live out Torah, the will and law of God. He reduced the law of God down to two specific commitments. We are to love God wholeheartedly and passionately. We are to love those around us as though they were a part of our own families. In coming to that conclusion he drew heavily from a minority of Old Testament writers who rejected violence in all its forms.
Jesus never indicated that he was interested in starting a new religion. His interest was in being the very best servant of God in the Jewish tradition. His best picture of the God he served was that of a loving father. He developed a following and made disciples. His movement in rural northern Palestine became significant enough to draw the attention of those who controlled the religious and political systems. The Roman rulers made a regular practice of killing troublesome protesters. When Jesus and a band of followers took their message of love, justice and peace to Jerusalem, he was put though a mock trial and was tortured to death on a Roman cross.
According to the gospel reports, he never resisted and died on a cross having been charged with insurrection. Not once did Jesus act violently or propose violence. Jesus was the victim of violence, and the perpetrators of violence were Roman officials. The Jewish leaders were supportive of what was done to Jesus.
How did such a peaceful man become the center of a religion that endorses, supports and practices violence? The transition happened quite quickly. The power to interpret the meaning of the life of Jesus fell to those who were literate. It is highly doubtful that any of the twelve disciples of Jesus were literate. They all spoke Aramaic. The earliest Christian writings were in the Greek that was common in that part of the world. The near unanimous opinion is that not a single word of the New Testament was written by one of the twelve disciples of Jesus.
The earliest writer of Christian material was Paul, a devout Jewish convert from Tarsus. He never met Jesus, and his writings show no awareness of any of Jesus’ parables and sayings that were being passed around in the form of oral tradition. Except for a brief and contentious meeting in Jerusalem, Paul had very little if any contact with the disciples of Jesus. All of Paul’s letters were written and in circulation decades before any of the gospels were written.
Paul, more than any other person, turned the Roman cross into an altar. Paul never identifies Jesus as falsely charged as an insurrectionist, and who was tortured to death by Roman officials. Paul turned Jesus into the lamb of God that is killed on the cross to satisfy the demands of an angry and violent God. In making this interpretation of the death of Jesus, Paul embraced the basic Old Testament concept of blood sacrifices in the temple at the demand of God.
This dominant interpretation of the death of Jesus was well established by the end of the first century C.E. The message was clear. Righteousness and justice can be established by violence. The final insult to the teachings of Jesus is the book of Revelation. It would be better entitled “The Final Angry Rampage of God.”
A handful of Old Testament prophets in their own day protested what was happening in the Jerusalem temple. They did not believe that blood sacrifices on a temple altar appeased an angry God. Jesus joined their protest. He rejected belief in an angry, violent and vengeful God.
Christian churches became the dominant shapers of western civilization. Over the centuries they have firmly established the basic idea that disputes and conflicts can be resolved with violence. Until we rid ourselves of that basic assumption, wars and killings like those in Tucson will continue. It matters not how many laws are passed.
And Jesus weeps. If only we knew the ways of peace.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.
There is no denying the meme of violence that coats Christianity. “Warriors for God”, “Spiritual Warriors”, “Jesus [Boot] Camp”, “Joel’s Army”, “Cadets for Christ”,”Holy War”, and a whole litany of other references that encourage a warring mentality in the name of God. Revelation, after all, depicts one of the most blood-thirsty war scenes ever conceived and written! And it is on the “approved” reading list for these children who are being groomed as Warriors for Christ! (But god forbid they watch any of that violence on TV!)
These are Christian Dominionists. The name says it all – “dominion = dominate” which means to “control, rule, govern”. To dominate something or someone means that you are most likely going to have to use force to make sure everyone is in compliance. So is it really any wonder that Palin is comfortable with this?
This is the kind of questioning and thinking that always prompts the most hate-filled letters from Christian Dominionists across America who delight in telling me that I am not the “right kind of Christian” and then pray for me. It is as if to pierce their vision of the Chrisitian God as anything less than a smiting, vengeful God is to emasculate him. Boy…the indoctrination is clearly rooted isn’t it? Scary…
Sadly, yes…this contributes to violence. Palin grew up in this “church-speak”. No wonder she finds it appropriate and even necessary to use metaphors and illustrations of violence – this really IS a WAR for her!