by Bill Meacham
I have been reading works by radical Christian theologians John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, and recently attended a conference featuring them both. Crossan in particular is a very rigorous historian who uses textual analytics, history, sociology and archeology to paint a picture of Jesus much different from that of the evangelical Right and of white-bread mainstream Christianity. According to Crossan, Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant who had profound experiences of the presence of God and consequently did radical things. He broke social boundaries: he would eat with anybody, regardless of caste and class. He could evidently heal people, and did so on the Sabbath, when Jews weren’t supposed to exert any effort. He refused to settle down (which would have given him a geographical base from which to gather a following). Instead he walked around from town to town with no possessions proclaiming that Kingdom of God was at hand, and told his followers to do the same.
In the context of the day, which was that Judea was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire, to speak of a Kingdom of God other than the Kingdom of Caesar was revolutionary. Caesar was spoken of in words that Paul used to desribe the Christ: Saviour, Son of God, etc. Caesar was seen as divine; in the Roman ideology, the dominion of Caesar and the dominion of God were identical. So when Jesus proclaimed a Kingdom of God that was different from the Empire, it was seditious.
I had an insight about what this might have meant for the people listening to Jesus and experiencing his presence. Suppose you feel like an oppressed nobody. Then you get a taste of the presence of God, and you get this taste when you hang around this guy who tells you that the Kingdom of God is at hand, right here, right now. Put the Kingdom of God in your heart and you’ll be somebody. So you do, and you feel happy, confident, filled with a certain wonder, and not at all inclined to put up with Roman bullshit.
The Romans killed him because he was a political troublemaker. Crossan and Borg do not believe that the laws of physics were suspended and a corpse woke up and walked around, but Jesus’ followers certainly felt his presence very strongly in the days and weeks after his death. And in the early years after his death, Jesus’ followers were radically egalitarian, living communally and sharing meals. After a few centuries, of course, it all changed, when Christianity became the new official religion of the Empire.
What this means for progressives today is that it would be smart to counteract the sappiness (at best) of fundamentalist Christianity by allying ourselves with Christians who are waking up to who Jesus really was. One of the goals of the recent conference I attended was to get mainstream Christians off their butts and active for social justice. There was a lot of energy there.