Tuesday, March 25, 2014

This Is Not the Jesus You're Looking For

Few things about Reza Aslan's Zealot are likely to cheese off more Christians than his assertion that Jesus was a failed violent revolutionary.

For two thousand years, the best spirit of our faith has been radically self-sacrificing and nonviolent.  Oh, sure, we've messed that up on frequent occasion.  But the best and greatest souls of our faith have embraced this teaching.  On those occasion when we've lived into that faith, it's done amazing, world-transforming things.  But Reza Aslan rejects that as a fantasy.  To quote, from his conclusion:
Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul's creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.  The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defined the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history.
For Reza Aslan, the defining story of the Gospels is the story of the temple cleansing.  It comes up again and again.  That event is the lens through which he sees and interprets the identity of Jesus.  Which is hard to hear, because it is also the most consistent sign--in Christian circles--of someone who doesn't totally get the message of Jesus.  It's the proof-text we go to when we're looking for justification for a fight.  It's the story we let become the whole message, so we can lay some whupass on that person we're itching to tear a new one.

It is that story that shapes Reza Aslan's understanding, of a strong Jesus who lays into wrongdoers.  He loses, but he's willing to fight injustice even in the face of that loss.  And by fight, I mean fight.  The Jesus of Zealot is a dangerous mystic bandit, surrounded by armed followers.

The relentlessness of Aslan's rejection of Christian nonviolence is a solid thread throughout his book. The teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain?  G'bye.  Instead, we hear:
There is no reason to consider Jesus's conception of his neighbors and enemies to have been any more or less expansive than that of any other Jew of his time.  His commands to 'love your enemies' and 'turn the other cheek' must be read as being directed exclusively at his fellow Jews and meant as a model of peaceful relations exclusively within the Jewish community. The commands have nothing to do with how to treat foreigners and outsiders..."
In any case, neither the commandment to love one's enemies nor the pile to turn the other cheek is equivalent to a call for nonviolence or nonresistance. Jesus was not a fool. He understood what every other claimant to the mantle of the messiah understood: God's sovereignty could not be established except through force.
Cobbled together from a selective, fabulistic reading of the Gospels, Zealot's Jesus becomes something utterly different, nothing at all like the Jesus whose nonviolent message is written all over the Gospels and the Epistles, and whose message was clearly lived out by his earliest disciples.  It is not the Jesus whose countercultural message resonated throughout the world, or the Jesus known to history.  It is another Jesus entirely.

It is, however, the very particular Jesus that Reza Aslan seems to be eagerly seeking out.

Who is that Jesus he wants to find?  Following Schweitzer, we have to look at the author himself.  What does he believe?  What is important to him?  Why is he writing this?  Honestly, I was starting to get a little angry.

And with my anger very much in place, I thought about it.