Many fundamentalists and indeed, some “regular” Christian believers among others, present Jesus as a horrific god-man who is anti-women, aligned with the forces of racism and colonialism, homophobic, against people with HIV, utterly appalling, and completely unlike the Jesus of the Gospels.
I want to introduce my soul brother, a fiery revolutionary, and a grassroots social mystic, Y’shua of Nazareth — so misunderstood by large numbers of his followers. Often, my American students have told me that “In God We Trust” means that the founding fathers of the US were fundamentalists, that the US is a Christian country, and the First Amendment was just a formality to protect the rights of believing Christians.
Where did the distortions originate?
When Jesus, the miracle-worker, peasant-prophet who preached an inward liberation and a social liberation of the poor and oppressed was unjustly crucified, his followers scattered. They were persecuted relentlessly. It became imperative that his followers find a life myth that would sustain them, hence the resurrection. More important than the resurrection, they needed a meaning for the resurrection.
Then came the Pharisee Saul, who was responsible for the stoning of Stephen. According to Acts of the Apostles, Saul was struck blind on the road to Damascus and led to the Apostles who were understandably paranoid about him. Saul converted to Paul.
Paul became the pharisaical theologian par excellence — he gave the death and resurrection of Jesus a meaning called the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement”. Since the early Torah, Jews did not believe in substitutionary atonement. Jeremiah and the later prophets of the Jewish tradition understood that repentance and sacrifice of the old ways was desired, not the blood sacrifice of animals. It certainly was not necessary to propitiate the God of the Torah with human sacrifice. Saul Paul goes back to the roots of the Jewish tradition and fuses the figure of the Jewish messiah with the figure of the scapegoat. This was the beginning of organised Christianity with its fear, shame, and guilt; with all its oppression of women and minorities. It continued through St Augustine and Calvin into the doctrine of “original sin”. By deft sleight of hand, the spiritual Y’shua was transformed into a human sacrifice. This sleight of hand also made it convenient to forget about Christian ethics.
What were some of Jesus’s views? What did he say about women? Misogyny cannot be laid at the door of the Y’shua. Misogyny is a part of church structure introduced by Paul, reinforced by Augustine and many other patriarchs of the early church.
There is a wonderful scene in the Gospel of Phillip (a Gnostic gospel) that demonstrates Jesus’s thoughts about women. Peter was jealous of Mary Magdalene’s companionship with Jesus. He tells Jesus, “Women are not worthy of eternal life.” Jesus holds Mary Magdalene up as a paradigm of those who will obtain eternal life.
What did Jesus say about the poor and homeless? The Book of Luke is full of “Woes” to the rich and the legalistic upper classes that imposed burdens on the poor: “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the cripple, the blind and the lame.” — Luke 14:21.
What did Y’shua say about homosexuals? In the Gospel of Luke 7:2, the centurion asked that his servant be healed. The word used for servant in Greek is “pais” which means body-slave. There were house slaves but there were also those who pleasured the body. The centurion was conscientious and probably genuinely loved the young man. The sense of unworthiness felt by the Roman was probably from the prohibitions in Jewish law. Jesus does not condemn him. Instead, he says, “I have not found such great faith, even in Israel.”
When I tell my students that Jesus was poor, homeless, and wandered around with prostitutes and sinners, they act like Monophysites and say, “That was to convince the worst sinners they could be saved. The Lord was a Prince, the King of Heaven. He was just pretending to be poor.” This completely denies what we can learn from his humanity. In African-American churches, the focus is on Jesus while the White Protestant churches take a more abstract view; the emphasis is more on the Christ.
What did Jesus say about the outsider in general? When the fundamentalists argue that Jesus pretended to be poor, they are saying Jesus patronised the poor and downtrodden. A clever lawyer tried to entrap Jesus by saying, “Who then is our neighbour?” The Samaritan stopped to care for the wounded man. The priest, the fundamentalist, the Levite, respectable members of society had no use for the man who was naked and bleeding. The Samaritan was the rescuer, the model of a neighbour.
Jesus points out quite clearly that he was the friend to prostitutes, gluttons, and drunks. Accused of being an overeater and an alcoholic, Jesus said, “John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking and you say he was possessed. The Son of Man comes both eating and drinking and you call him a drunkard and a glutton, a friend of whores, publicans, and sinners.” Jesus did not deny the charges — he condemned them for their hypocrisy.
Actually, the non-privileged outsiders, the transgressors were the heroes. When Jesus used metaphors in parables to talk about the Kingdom of Heaven, often it was the rejected, the mustard seed, leaven in the bread, and the Samaritan. Actually, the non-privileged outsiders, the transgressors were the heroes. The mustard plant from where the seed comes from is like a weed; it will take over a garden. It is a foul pungent plant with stringent healing agents.
Jesus needs rescuing from the fundamentalists. The non-privileged outsider and the oppressed need rescuing from the patronising stigma put on them by fundamentalists — saying all they need to do is to be saved.