HONEST TO JESUS
The Zen minister considers the religion of Jesus & A Christianity that can be
James Ishmael Ford
“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial, and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.”
Normative Christianity is Pauline Christianity. In my view, while it has some compelling and beautiful parts, it is not the religion of Jesus, nor does it call to my heart.
The religion we call Christianity is really for the most part the religion about Jesus as interpreted by Paul. Some versions on offer today, I believe Frederick Douglass would recognize and continue to condemn. Too much of it, as contemporary firebrand Protestant pastor John Pavlovitz says, is “a toxic cocktail of power, control, fear, nationalism, and white privilege…” Other versions of Paul’s Christianity call for a more nuanced judgement. And while in the United States we are awash in the public witness of that toxic cocktail, and there are similar strains around the world fixated on purity codes and often some form or another of ultra-nationalisms; this kind of Christianity absolutely is not the last word.
While that is the complexity of normative Christianity or perhaps better normative Christianities, there is more on offer. A thread. An alternative. For this small reflection I want to briefly consider what we might know about what Jesus believed. And, from there, to consider briefly what that might mean for me and for others who feel touched by that ancient teacher partially hidden and partially revealed in the traditional texts and in the communities that gather in his name.
So, first. What do we actually know about Jesus? Well. There is very little that can be known with anything approaching certainty. One scholar said the consensus of what we can know with that approaching certainty is that in all likelihood Jesus was a real person, he was born, he was a disciple of a prophet named John, and that he died, in all likelihood under horrific circumstances.
We can infer more than that. It would appear in the wake of his death stories of his teachings and stories of miracles he performed continued to be circulated. Perhaps as much as a lifetime after he died the first of the canonical gospels, generally believed to be Mark was composed. Later Matthew and Luke, Luke being composed by a disciple of Paul, each in varying degree in dialogue with the others were written. And then, maybe as much as a hundred years after the events of Jesus life, the gospel of John. Outside of the canon another book that claimed to capture Jesus teachings, the Gospel of Thomas dates from about the same time as John. There are non-canonical attestations to his life, but they only confirm that there was such a person. And that’s about it.
So, bottom line, as best I can make it out. The actual Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who inherited the mantel of his teacher John. His message was that the world was about to end, the rich and powerful would be overthrown, and the poor and left behind would be raised up. The kingdom, as best I can discern from his sayings, was a strange and strangely compelling thing, partially in some other place, and partially here and now. Frederick Douglass’ “…pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ.”
So, what would a religion that tried to follow what we know of Jesus actual ministry look like?
In Paul’s various letters where he references his raising money for the “poor” in Jerusalem, he is actually raising money for the central organization, which appears to have called itself the Poor, as in Ebionites. The Wikipedia article on this lost sect summarized them as a “Jewish Christian movement that existed during the early centuries of the Christian Era. They regarded Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah while rejecting his divinity and insisted on the necessity of following Jewish law and rites. The Ebionites used only one of the Jewish Gospels (a version of the book we call Matthew), revered James the Just, and rejected Paul the Apostle as an apostate from the Law. Their name suggests that they placed a special value on voluntary poverty.”
The article goes on to observe “Since historical records by the Ebionites are scarce, fragmentary, and disputed, much of what is known or conjectured about the Ebionites derives from the Church Fathers, who wrote polemics against the Ebionites, whom they deemed heretical Judaizers.”
And so as the article states any opinions about them are ultimately conjecture, there can, however, be educated conjecture. What we do know is there is a person named James, who is called Jesus’ brother, who is the head of the organization in Jerusalem until he is killed. If one does not assume Paul’s religion that he built up among converts away from Jerusalem and environs, was anything more than one of a number of teachings and organization, then the hints are tantalizing.
I have to admit how I also like that James is the putative author of the Epistle given his name, much hated by Luther and others for stating that without actually doing something, one’s faith is worthless. To the degree the epistle reflects James’ actual teachings it must have been a royal annoyance to Paul who put all his eggs in the faith only basket. That it survives in a document dominated by followers of Paul suggests its importance as maybe representing the original teachings of the original organization and perhaps its inspiration, Jesus.
My belief is pretty strong that James, the natural brother of Jesus, inherited the organization when Jesus was murdered by the rich and the powerful. And that while he consulted with Jesus’ other leading disciples, he was the final arbiter until his own death. Then, after his death, the organization passed to another blood relative, a cousin.
However, not long after James’ death Jerusalem was destroyed and those not killed were dispersed, and in the chaos that followed, the Jewish Christian Ebionites fell apart and the gentile communities founded by Paul filled the void and became normative Christianity.
My faith has followed a long and winding road. I was raised a fundamentalist Christian. I learned to read from a large illustrated King James Bible resting on my grandmother’s lap. I know the stories, and more importantly I know the sayings attributed to Jesus.
Over the many years I’ve come to a religion that expresses the spiritual cross roads of our times. I am at base a Mahayana Buddhist of a modernist sort. I believe in the four seals, the two truths, and the three bodies as as true analysis of the way things are as has been articulated by any religion.
In addition my natural disposition is rationalist. I believe the world described by modern science is more accurate than any other. Of course that view is subject to change as science continues its relentless pursuit of the truths of nature. But this part I’m sure of, we are biological creatures evolved on a tiny planet circling a middling star at the edge of one of a million million galaxies in a very strange universe.
However, my dream life is dominated by my childhood religion and the Jesus I started with and who continues to be a part of my life. That influence and the pointers for what is that I’ve found are endless. Most notably for me in my life today, thirty years ago during a Zen meditation retreat I had a vision of Jesus walking toward me, his hands, palm to palm together like the Christian prayer mudra, Hindu namaste, or Zen’s gassho, and saying, “I have a great gift for you.”
My immediate thought was of my childhood Jesus, the one with all the little children. And I felt waves of love washing over me. Then. He spreads his hands to reveal those infamous bleeding wounds. A terrible visceral fear leapt into my throat, as he then grasped my own hands with those bleeding hands. And, with that the pain of worlds birthing and dying ran from his wounds into what are now mine. And it was over. I was back in the meditation hall. My hands hurt for weeks.
Actually, to this day I can still touch an echo of that hurt.
So, what is the Jesus that continues to live within me?
For a start the Jesus I understand and believe distilled the collective wisdom of the Jewish people and offered something powerful. He certainly wasn’t the only one. Hillel, for instance, is a rough contemporary of Jesus who also presented a healing distillation of the Jewish traditions.
That acknowledged Jesus does something particularly magical with his approach to God. The stories of of the Jewish God coalesced over millennia becoming in his time the great creator and parent of humanity. I do think the early versions from storm god, to the particular god of a particular people, to something vast and universal are all there at the same confusing and contradictory time. Somehow I find that important. There is when we use the word God, of necessity, an aspect of human projection. But, it can, and sometimes does include something else. An attempt to name an experience.
A smiling Jesus with bleeding hands. And a joining of heaven and earth.
In fact the version of this deity that I find most useful in my life is the one that can be found buried within the heart of the Book of Job. Not in the set pieces that frame that story where Job is rewarded, but rather in the midst of the terrible storm that over takes Job, and in that confrontation with what is. That’s the god I’m interested in. God as the great Is-ness of life.
I don’t resonate with the central story of the main currents of the Christian tradition. While I can read almost any story that tries to point to our human condition of hurt and separation with some sympathy, I do not see a soul separate from the universe that embodies that hurt, nor the fix in anything even vaguely like substitutionary atonement.
As a birthright Christian I am fascinated by the rise of a nondual Christianity. There appear to be corollaries in Judaism, as well. But my heart goes this my natal tradition. Looking at those old stories and traditions without assuming dualism, an ultimate gap between the holy, God, and this world, and specifically, us; is something powerful and inviting. It is a two-way street, actually it is a tangle of highways, byways, and trails all crossing each other. There is no absolute truth, we all get a little angle on it, it is always, always through a glass darkly.
I can squint and massage the story and make something comparable with the universe I experience. And, indeed it is that lovely nondual Christianity (for instance or from a more Zen Christian perspective) that is popping up here and there that I find resonates. And. All I have to do is go to any Christian church for a Sunday service to recall this nondual approach, while perhaps the true heart of the tradition, is also not normative.
Then there my dream Jesus. He names the energy that connects a very specific if temporal, if passing me to that great Is that Is. And, and this seems so important, at the very same time he brings it to my neighbor, which as I read it, seems obviously to mean the whole blessed world.
And Jesus named it Love.
With that a minority report.
My Christianity, poor thing that it is, is based on the teaching of this wandering sage, a wonder worker and a teller of stories of oppression and freedom. Maybe half mad on God, uttering dreams to anyone who would listen. Dreams about healing inside and out. About a mysterious kingdom that is both within and among.
A message that offended the rich and the powerful, and brought about his death in a terrible, terrible way. It seems to me Jesus was about drawing together. About the intimate. And, yes, the cost of intimacy. Dreaming into a mysterious story about who we are and how what we are is sacred down to the earth between our toes.
It boils down, for me, not to a cross, but into a meal. A meal where we are all invited, whoever we are. Holy communion, the most intimate.nAll of us confronting the mystery in a meal, in a taste of rice, a taste of bread.
Not one, not two. Found in a gathering and a sharing of a meal.
The image of the Aramaic Jesus is by Br Robert Lentz, OFM