Who is the real Jesus?

2011-04-23 10:17

I was at a funeral the other day when it occurred to me?– it was religious leaders, Christian ones at this funeral, judging by their repeatedly quoting the Bible and punctuating every second sentence with “in the mighty name of Jesus”, who are doing a great job of making many understand the lure of atheism.

As many atheists have said, the petty, vindictive and egotist god described by some of those who claim to be his/its earthly representative have done a terrible job in converting any cynic.

Who in their right mind would want to live in fear of an entity too ready to visit untold harm on an undifferentiated group of people and a deity who makes the evil characters in cartoons (the type with a cruel laugh and a determination to rule the world) look like the characters in the children’s show, the Teletubbies.

I blame all this on the proliferation of a “gospel” that has all but recreated Jesus Christ as no more than a go-to-guy if you want quick and personal glory.

This gospel has reduced Christianity to a get-rich-quick scheme where those who believe have set themselves on a path to untold riches, and those who don’t to a miserable life here and a worse afterlife.

With billions claiming to be of the Christian faith and therefore the best interpreters of Jesus’s teachings, it was inevitable that these would be open to interpretation. Christianity is the ultimate broad church.

The Christian Right is as valid as other streams of thought.

But the proliferation of the Christian Right on TV and everywhere else has made the feel-good Jesus a dominant narrative of modern-day Christianity.

What I miss, though, in the modern discourse is what would be called the Christian Left.

I miss a movement within the Christian establishment that is the antidote and a reminder to the get-rich-quick disciples that there was more to the Jesus of Nazareth than they would want us to believe.

Missing is that cadre of preachers to remind the shiny suits and their army of bodyguards that the Jesus they know and believe in is different to the ones preached of by the Christ-made-me-wealthy brigade.

Many of us will remember the preachers who, inspired by the same Jesus, spoke as eloquently as the guerillas about why it was a gospel imperative to overturn an oppressive system that thrived on creating the impression that their god was somehow superior to that of those they sought to oppress and marginalise.

Today we have preachers who pretend that Jesus and his rise to fame and subsequent death were devoid of a historical context.

The feel-good pastors are much more comfortable with a Jesus who is nothing more than a long-haired hippie, driving a Beetle with flowers painted all over it and happy to flash the peace sign at every turn.

Our modern-day preachers have sought to project Jesus as someone who in modern language would be reduced to individual liberties – like getting saved and getting into heaven – and not interested in societal dynamics such as political and economic injustices.

Yet the gospels speak clearly about a man who placed himself in the eye of the storm of the political and economic system that was dominant in his day.

Jesus’s parables are replete with tales condemning the exploitation of the poor by the rich.

They speak of a love so great it does not condemn the foolish once they see the error of their ways but embraces them.

The most cursory glance at the scriptures reveals that Jesus was a revolutionary; if not a political one then at least a social one.

He “failed” to observe the Sabbath; associated with women, some of dubious moral repute; defended at least one woman not only accused but convicted of adultery; and challenged the religious elite-state axis with fatal consequences for himself.

The bling preachers just don’t have time for this kind of Jesus.

Instead of taking their cue from him and questioning the basis of how life is lived, these preachers seek to perpetuate it.

Their very lifestyle seeks to give a culture of crass materialism and individualism a veneer of spiritual acceptance. Opulence has come to quantify the blessings their maker bestowed on the faithful.

Instead of serving as one of society’s watchdogs over how those who have power wield it, our preachers fall over themselves to ingratiate themselves with the ruling elite – even ordaining some of our rulers.

Their silence on the burning social questions of our day suggest that they would be scandalised by a Jesus vocally and visibly in solidarity with the oppressed and the poor of his day.

That is why they are quick to attribute the poor’s terrible life to their lack of belief or to stinginess with their tithes.

Concentrating on a Jesus who asks probing questions about society and encourages a meaningful relationship and solidarity with the marginalised is simply bad for the bottom line.

Instead of a figure described in the gospels as “a friend of drunkards” they choose to see only a Jesus who salivates at the prospect of punishing those like the Dalai Lama who, regardless of the good they did, must still burn in hell because they were not baptised and did not receive the same sacraments their (Christian) holy texts prescribe.

Today we hear from those who represent this narrow view of this humble son of peasants and a friend of fishermen that our road to personal glory is dependent on how much of our salaries we part with and how emphatically we say “in Jeeezzzus’ name” when we pray – or even better, speak in tongues.

According to these preachers, the manner in which society is structured against the poor and the marginalised means nothing if you just believe in their “Jeeezzus”.

Who can blame them?

They have realised early on that praising Jesus is easier than emulating him, and is very good for the bottom line.

For them, faith is no more than an insurance policy that caters for an individual.

It is no different to joining a burial society to guarantee yourself and your family a “decent” funeral.

These preachers would, if allowed, edit the Bible to say that Jesus embraced the money changers in the temple instead of unleashing his fury on them.

Jesus is contested terrain. But sold without context of his or our times and reality, his life is no more than a grand myth no different to Aesop’s fables – entertaining with some moral lesson but ultimately fictitious.

Fortunately we do not only have to rely on the feel-good preachers for “another” picture of this Jesus.

Our own South African history is full of stories of a politically and socially liberating Jesus.

To find him, we might just have to try the harder route of emulating him and not the cop-out of just praising him.

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