By Rev. Don Prange, Director, Ministries in Economic Justice, St. James United Church of Christ
At a recent National Prayer Breakfast run by a ‘Christian’ organization called The Fellowship President Barack Obama spoke about a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism and noted, quite pointedly, that Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should not be the ones casting the first stone, and went on to say:
“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history… and lest we get on our high horse and think (acts of terrorism are) unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
There were of course reactions, one coming from former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore saying, “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.” One has to ponder: Just what does it mean to be a believing Christian?
The Season of Lent is an appropriate time for such a question, especially when we get down to Good Friday that remembers the death of Jesus on a cross. Understood solely within traditional ‘Christian’ belief systems based on a narrow reading of certain portions of the Bible, a prevailing ‘belief’ is that Jesus had no other purpose in life but to come into the world and to die, on a cross, as an ‘atoning sacrifice’ for ‘the sins of the world.’ But such a framing of the Jesus story is not only a misunderstanding and distortion, it offers little, if any, relevance to our daily lives when dealing with the kinds of tumultuous and challenging contexts in the world that prompted President Obama’s remarks.
First, consider the historical context of the times into which Jesus was born and a ‘Jerusalem THEN.’ You could best do that by looking for a thirty-year-old classic, “Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus,” by Richard Horsley & John Hanson, Seabury-Winston Press, 1985. But simply stated, economic, political and social circumstances had dispossessed a significant portion of the population and life was marked by hunger and indebtedness, with the accompanying diseases and disabilities that remain part of poverty and oppression today. So given those realities, Jesus was clearly organizing a ‘movement’ to address them, a ‘movement’ that culminated in ‘A March on Jerusalem’ emphasizing a program of ‘daily bread’ and ‘the forgiveness of debts’ – not unlike a ‘March from Selma to Montgomery’ to secure ‘voting rights.’ As such, he was a threat to the domination of both Temple and Roman authorities, and so he had to die!
But now, consider a second part of this context. Who was ultimately responsible for his death? John Dominic Crossan’s “Who Killed Jesus?” [Harper-Collins, 1995] is indispensable here. What has to be recognized is that “Christianity began as a sect within Judaism” before becoming “a distinct religion,” and that contentious religious debates ensued. “If all this had stayed on a religious level, each side could have accused and denigrated the other quite safely forever. But, by the fourth century, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire, and with the dawn of Christian Europe, anti-Judaism moved from theological debate to lethal possibility.” [p. 32] And in what he calls the “inspired propaganda” of early Christian writings called ‘The Gospels’ the fictions of “Jewish responsibility and Roman innocence did nobody much harm. But, once the Roman Empire became Christian, that fiction turned lethal.” [p. 152] Indeed, when “passion” stories were “heard in a predominantly Christian world, (did they) send certain people out to kill?” [p.32] To deal with this question one needs to read James Carroll’s “Constantine’s Sword (The Church and the Jews)” [Houghton-Mifflin, 2001], and you will probably answer in the affirmative.
It brings us back to President Obama’s observation that “terrible deeds have been committed in the name of Christ,” taking us into stories of ‘the Crusades’ and how that connects with the contextual realities of a ‘Jerusalem NOW’ – and that’s what we’ll pursue in a subsequent article next week.
Originally published in the Purcellville Gazette March 14, 2015