A Credible Jesus…

Posted: April 16, 2019 in Uncategorized

A Credible Jesus…

Many people who watched Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ (some years ago) were torn between the identification with the suffering that was portrayed by the film of the treatment Jesus received and a deep sense of the horror of brutality and violence. It was a film that divided Christians and non-Christians alike  Some said they were “offended by the violence”  One of the major outcomes of such a film is that we begin to wonder if too much violence, full in the face of the viewer, desensitizes them to the greater violence in the community. Does it normalize revenge, or aggressive and violent response?  Will wise political leaders be encouraged to deprive people of their human rights or their democratic freedoms ‘in the name of God’…  An interesting debate is ensuing presently over biblical language, Is the propositional nature of scripture and the brutality of the particular vocabulary hate speech or not.  Can Israel Filau quote biblical text that discriminates and incites brutal response against people? As Doug Purnell has said; “The truth is that we have put too many people violently on crosses in our world, isn’t it time we found ways to bring them down” (Doug Purnell. Letters… Insights March 2004/2).

At the time of the film, people shaped and nurtured by a fundamentalist, pentecostal theology, declared the film is a ‘faithful’ and ‘accurate’ account of what happened, supporting the theology that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice for sin and all part of God’s plan. People shaped and nurtured by a progressive liberal theology, declared the film mediaeval, confusing liturgy for history, anti-Jewish (rather than anti-Semitic), and where ignorance and prejudice have scored again over scholarship and integrity.

Of all the reviews at the time one written by John Carroll, professor of sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne (Vic) in the Sydney Morning Herald, was interesting.

John Carroll wrote: “The Passion fails, crucially, at what in the Jewish tradition is called midrash. That is the method of retelling fundamental stories and their classical themes in ways that speak to the new times. Every new generation has to midrash its stories. This film reverts to the Middle Ages; it lacks spiritual force; it does not uplift; and it leaves little sense of who this extraordinary man was, and why he changed Western history” (Carroll 2004. SMH 3 April/Spectrum 4-5).

So, here we are once again at Good Friday morning, and we might well ask again “why did Jesus die? I think we can say that Jesus died because he was publicly and brutally executed. I think we can say that he did not want to die. He died as a result of his passionate, imaginative living. His vision for his people. He died as a result of a decision not to deviate from the God-Self-Neighbour relationship he continually lived. As we said when last week we looked at the Palm Sunday Passover events; what Jesus said and did and stood for…  collided with all that was heartless and oppressive in a social religion that had forgotten its real meaning. His healings on the Sabbath. His acts of forgiveness. His stories which turned conventional social wisdom upside down. His association with that society’s outcasts. His speaking in the name of the God of compassion… all tore open the social political economic and religious fabric of his time.

Either that social, political, economic and religious order, or Jesus, had to go. I liked what biblical scholar Brandon Scott said: when he said “… one can see in Jesus’ language-activity the seeds of a conflict that could easily escalate to a confrontation and to death… Rome’s rule is built on the premise that the local population is divided and distrustful of each other.”  (Scott 2002:35) Their methods of control through elites and then through the Temple maintained ferment and distrust among the people. Sounds a bit like a community not too far from here as a result of the activity of a certain organisation. Create embarrassment or dissention and create chaos and this weaken the ability to respond.

And again… some telling comments from John Shuck:  “Jesus was about making changes in this world. That is what got him killed. He talked about compassion. He talked about moving beyond ethnic boundaries and divisions. He talked about forgiveness. Not something you go to the priest for or even to God for, but your neighbour. That is the one we hurt. That is the one from whom we need forgiveness. We get it as we give it. He worked to bring people together: Samaritan and Jew, Greek and Roman. Makes one wonder why we were surprised with Christchurch people’s response to the shooting.

Jesus practiced an open table, rich and poor, male and female. He challenged unjust boundaries and rules. That is what got him killed. Dying was not his reason for living. Living was his reason for dying. For life, he died. For integrity, he died. For compassion, he died. For justice, he died.  For change, he died…  John Shuck says: “I think it is a sham and a shame that the religious establishment distorted his story.” (‘No More Crosses’  3/2010)

And to complete my list of quotes, this from Rita Nakashima Brock, author of Saving Paradise: “One of the great controversies to emerge from Re-Imagining was our rejection of the atonement, the idea that the torture and execution of Jesus Christ saved the world. My theological career says Rita; has been spent dismantling that doctrine. I want to tell you that I am convinced that atonement theology is the deepest betrayal of Christianity ever perpetrated. It is not just one way to understand salvation, but a betrayal of salvation, a doctrine that abandoned the life and ministry of Jesus Christ for loyalty to Caesar and his legions.” (Brock 2009)

So a response to Mel Gibson’s film  and more importantly to all the fundamentalist hype that surrounds Good Friday and films like the Gibson film:

  • The cross is about Jesus’ integrity, not sacrificial atonement;
  • God’s love is not about supernatural payment or rescue, but, to quote the process theologians, divine sharing in human suffering;
  • Jesus did not invite the cross but accepted it rather than abandon his vision or glimpse of what the world can really be like when you look at it with God’s eyes.

And with one additional personal comment from Robert Funk: “Jesus attempted to pass his vision or glimpse along, as he told about it in stories and sayings and conversations. He did not write a definitive essay or the complete book. And more often than not the ‘book’ we have hides more of Jesus than reveals him.  Instead, his efforts were more like that of a painter who uses broad strokes. And those strokes were ones which enlarged God to include humankind and enlarged the self to include the neighbour.

Why did Jesus die? Integrity to a vision rather than a sacrifice for sins… I Think that’s what I and many others of the progressive theological spirit want to claim the ‘cross’ is a symbol of. Integrity to a vision of what could be and not a dramatic sacrifice for a moral code. And sadly, that is a hundred miles away from both the empty heart of the Apostle’s Creed, and Mel Gibson’s film and his fundamentalist medieval Catholic theology.

It is also, I think, a far more appropriate and suitable vision with which to shape a 21st century faith. As Marcus Borg sums up his ‘Lent and the Cross’ article: “Imagine: what if Lent and Holy Week are not about Jesus as a divinely-ordained payment for sin but about protest against a world that makes martyrs of the prophets? What if it is not about dying for a cause and more about claiming an world without violence and rules for normalisation.

“And imagine: what if Easter is about God saying “yes” to Jesus and what he stood for and “no” to the powers that killed him? “Imagine that Christianity is not about an afterlife for those whose sins are forgiven. Imagine that it’s not about constructing a future we can control and more about transforming the now of our living. “Imagine that it’s about participating in Jesus’s passion for the transformation of “this world” this now, into a world of justice and peace. “Imagine that it’s about passion commitment and intention to change “this world.” That we know. What difference might that make for what it means to be Christian…”

Brock, R. N. & R. A. Parker. Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire. Boston. Beacon Press, 2009

Funk, R. W. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for a New Millennium. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Shea, J. The Challenge of Jesus. Chicago. The Thomas More Press, 1975.


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