Bad Friday?

Today is Good Friday in the Christian calendar: the day when Christians celebrate their belief that a historical man Jesus died for their personal salvation. A holiday symbolizing the belief that suffering, persecution, and death are redemptive events for humankind, and divinely ordained.

Here I want to share three thought-provoking reflections upon the significance of the Jesus sacrifice.

The first comes from an excellent recent book about the rediscovery of Lucretius’ great poem De Rerum Natura during the European Renaissance:

Religions are invariably cruel. They always promise hope and love, but their deep, underlying structure is cruelty. This is why they are drawn to fantasies of retribution and why they inevitably stir up anxiety among their adherents. The quintessential emblem of religion–and the clearest manifestation of the perversity that lies at its core–is the sacrifice of a child by its parent.

Almost all religious faiths incorporate the myth of such a sacrifice, and some have actually made it real. Lucretius had in mind the sacrifice of Iphegenia by her father Agamemnon, but he may also have been aware of the Jewish story of Abraham and Isaac and other comparable Near Eastern stories for which the Romans of his time had a growing taste. Writing around 50 BCE he could not, of course, have anticipated the great sacrifice myth that would come to dominate the Western world, but he would not have been surprised by it or by the endlessly reiterated, prominently displayed images of the bloody, murdered son.

Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve (W.W. Norton, 2011), p. 194.

The second is from Jung’s bracing essay on the meaning of evil and suffering with respect to the god of the Bible:

Redemption or deliverance has several different aspects, the most important o which is the expiation wrought by Christ’s sacrificial death for the misdemeanors of mankind. His blood cleanses us from the evil consequences of sin. He reconciles God with man and delivers him from the divine wrath, which hangs over him like doom, and from eternal damnation. It is obvious that such ideas still picture God the father as the dangerous Yahweh who has to be propitiated. The agonizing death of his son is supposed to give him satisfaction for an affront he has suffered, and for this “moral injury” he would be inclined to take a terrible vengeance. Once more we are appalled by the incongruous attitude of the world creator towards his creatures, who to his chagrin never behave according to his expectations. It is as if someone started a bacterial culture which turned out to be a failure. He might curse his luck, but he would never seek the reason for the failure in the bacilli and want to punish them morally for it. …Yahweh’s behavior towards his creatures contradicts all the requirements of so-called “divine” reason whose possession is supposed to distinguish men from animals.

Carl Jung, Answer to Job (Princeton, 1958), p. 53.

Both of these passages are severely critical of Christianity.

Finally, from a more detached and historical point of view, I found this reflection on the historical impact of Paul’s “theology of the cross” by a French scholar of early Christianity and so-called Gnosticism:

Pauline theology, a theology of the cross, breaks with the Old Testament’s vision of the world. Faith in the cross makes the optimism that usually reigns in the Old Testament writings seem naive, where for the most part the good are rewarded and the evil are punished in this life; furthermore, these writings hardly know of another life. The cross is the most striking sign that judgment. by what happens in the world is not the true judgment, that glory and power do not justify, that misfortune does not condemn, that it is not history that judges. The theology of the cross implies the “anticosmism” that is found in Paul…For Paul, faith in the cross in a sense brought about from now on the collapse of the powers of the world, insofar as this power worked upon the soul. Paul preserved the apocalyptic idea of the imminent end of the world; but he thought that, as from the present, the world had lost is sway over the souls of those who had faith in the cross. These people were already as if dead to the world and resurrected to another life. …Henceforth, there is something truly other and higher than the world for humanity.

Simone Petrement, A Separate God: the Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism (HarperCollins, 1990), pp. 36-37

This last quotation is particularly suggestive. One of my themes in writing this blog is the historical impact of Christian ideas, regardless of whether or to what extent they are consciously adopted or made the object of personal faith. The discourses of modern apologetics and of modern atheism have a tendency to reduce every meaningful aspect of the biblical heritage to a binary scheme: true or false, believable or not believable. Which is reductive and a cause of serious distortion and ignorance.

The Pauline “anticosmism,” or, this distance opened up from the valuations that control history and culture, has neither a simply good nor a simply bad significance. There is some deep relationship here with liberalism and pluralism and the freedom to live according to one’s own individuality or best judgment. (I consider all this a good thing.) On the other hand, anticosmism has a well known tendency to undermine, for example, collective political attention to major problems such as the ecological crisis, even when catastrophic climate change poses an existential threat to modern civilization. Or, on a different topic, one could associate a certain type of fantasy politics, that which characterizes the myth of the lost cause of the Confederacy in the past century and a half in American history, with a Christian aloofness from the real verdict of history and of social change. I am of course drawing with a broad brush, but such questions and many others linger just above the surface of modern life when we reflect upon the consequences–good, bad, or neutral–of the christian story of the crucified son of god.

Jesus & Insurrection

The mob of insurrectionists who invaded the US Capitol on January 6 offered a more or less Christian prayer when they took over the floor of the Senate, and have since been condemned by a large group of evangelicals (not to mention mainline protestants and the Pope) for Christian Nationalism, violent radicalism, racism, and delusional conspiracy mongering about the election.

It is an interesting fact, given this present political moment, that many scholars and critical students of the Bible maintain that Jesus of Nazareth was executed under Pontius Pilate specifically for the crime, real or alleged, of sedition against Roman rule in Palestine. According to E.P. Sanders, Paula Frederiksen, and many other scholars, Jesus was arrested, tried, and executed primarily because of two incidents related in the Gospels: (1) the riding into Jerusalem on an ass, signifying an intention to become king of the Jews in rebellion against Rome; and (2) the “cleansing” or expulsion of money changers from the Temple courtyard. Somehow or other, these two actions provoked members of the Sanhedrin and/or Pilate’s court to have him arrested, tried, and executed. The evangelists also, at various points, associate Jesus with the specter of “bandits” (lestai), a type of violent insurrectionary criminal who looms large in Josephus’ account of the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66-73 CE. And the disciples are depicted as having expected Jesus to inaugurate revolution.

The evangelists leave much room for debate (i.e. they are ambiguous) as to whether or not Jesus actually had insurrectionist intentions. The envelope of apocalypticism–not to mention the resurrection narrative–in which their story is presented raises a number of issues for any straightforwardly political account of Jesus’ time in Jerusalem.

For those who accept that Jesus’ death in Jerusalem by crucifixion is one of the few solid facts about his life, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that he was (a) executed as an insurrectionist; (b) understood by his immediate followers to be an advocate of insurrectionism; and (c) willing to make himself perceived by the Jewish and Roman authorities as an insurrectionist.

The conclusion seems to follow that the historical Jesus was probably an insurrectionist. Yes, no, maybe?

If one argues the contrary, his death makes little sense except as a literary, dogmatic device for the evangelists to fit him into a pre-existing Isaian/Pauline conception of an atoning messianic death for sins. Or unless, perhaps, one goes down the anti-Jewish path of blaming the whole thing on wicked, Satanic, unbelieving, spiteful Jews (certainly a theme in the Gospels).

We should not forget that the New Testament also includes a weighty diatribe against the very idea of insurrection against any earthly government whatsoever:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Romans 13:1-7 (KJV)

“Damnation” is a bit of hyperbole from the era of the divine right of kings. The actual Greek word just means “judgment.” But even without the majestic monarchical wrath of King James’ translators, it is hard to miss how unequivocally authoritarian and despotic is this passage from Romans. It doesn’t sit well at all with the Gospel story of Jesus of Nazareth.

Does the Bible advocate any happy medium between despotism and insurrection? To expect it to relate some conception of reasonable, constitutional, restrained government is anachronistic. The world of antiquity from which the Bible emanates had no such conceptions. As on many other topics, when it comes to political morality and the right to rebel, the Bible contradicts itself or at best contains a welter of challengingly divergent “theologies.” But through it all, the basic story of Jesus defying the powers that be holds sway in the Western imagination. It is not particularly surprising that the authoritarian conspiracy cult around the 45th president is fueled by some such romantic notion of Jesus, who after all is a wrathful avenging angel in 2 Thessalonians and The Revelation of John, bent on the destruction of civilization itself.