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It was a time of terrible fighting. And everywhere they fought against all the people who weren't in their little club.
They all said they hated the fighting, of course. But they all knew that only the people in their little club were right. And as long as so many others were wrong -- well, they all prayed that God would give them victory over the others, so the fighting could stop. But in the meantime, it was a time of terrible fighting.
One day a young magician came to the area. He didn't seem to belong to any of their clubs, but he was a wonderful magician who did some amazing tricks. And he had that kind of "star quality" about him that drew people to him.
Many people loved watching him, though they didn't much care for listening to him, because of the things he said to them.
What he said to them was that if they weren't divided into so many little clubs, there wouldn't be so much fighting. Their clubs, he told them, were the cause of their wars.
To the people, this was about the dumbest thing they had ever heard. Their little clubs gave them a tiny area of peace and friendship among people like themselves, in an otherwise hostile world. So they almost never listened when the magician tried to teach them. But they loved his magic, and so kept coming to watch him, and they started telling stories about what a great magician he was.
After the young magician died, a funny thing happened, though it wouldn't have seemed funny to the magician. People formed a new club. And to be in this new club, you had to believe all the stories they told about the young magician. They even made pictures and statues of him, and put them up in all their meeting-places, so people could remember how great he had been.
The club became very popular, and soon had thousands of members. Before long, they even had an army.
That's when they finally decided that they could end the fighting once and for all with their army. Their priests and generals went to their meeting-places -- which had become churches -- and sort of talked to the pictures and statues of the dead magician, as if to ask his blessing.
Then they went to war. It was a long war, and many people were killed or wounded. But their army was bigger, so they won. And they forced many, many people to come into their club.
After the battles, their priests and generals went to church to give thanks. They stood before the pictures and statues of the dead magician, and told him their proud story of the victorious battle.
That's when it happened. Just as all the priests and all the generals were looking up at the statues telling them about their successful wars, it happened: all the pictures and all the statues began to cry . . .
"The Sacred Hoop" by Black Elk, Lakota Sioux Medicine Man
Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell. And I understood more than I saw. For I was seeing in the sacred manner the shape of all things of the spirit. And the shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that make one circle, wide as daylight and starlight. And in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
We are confused by people with charisma. Whether they are secular people like Elvis Presley and Princess Diana or sacred figures like Mohammed or Jesus, they confuse us. We surround them with an aura, a glow, that makes them almost unapproachable. When we insist on taking a closer look, a dispassionate look, it's felt that we have crossed over a line. With celebrities, we're accused of a lack of propriety -- or called "paparazzi." When we get too familiar with sacred figures, it is felt to be a kind of blasphemy.
So there are risks in stripping a man like Jesus of his halo and asking what kind of man he was, and whether his teachings were really wise or not. It offends the popular romantic picture of Jesus as the Son of God and supernatural savior of humankind. Yet for over two centuries, scholars have known that those were mythic attributes invented by his followers long after he died, and that the real Jesus was 100% human -- since that's the only category there is for us.
So I want to respect the truth without worshiping the myth this morning, by suggesting that this man Jesus had at least four different aspects, or "faces." One aspect was useless, a second was wrong. A third -- the most "magical" -- was real, but not supernatural. Then there is the fourth face of Jesus, which still seems to look into our souls with uncomfortable accuracy.
The first face of Jesus concerns his life style, his personal values, the kind of role model he would have been. This is the dimension of Jesus that has hardly even been discussed, because it is so bizarre. For instance, see how many sermons you've ever heard preached on these quotations attributed to Jesus:
"Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be a follower of me, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters will not be worthy of me." (Gospel of Thomas 55) -- Not the text for a "family values" sermon!
The second quotation needs some preparation. Jesus' behavior seemed so bizarre to his own family that his mother and his brothers once came to take him home because they thought he was out of his mind. Someone inside the building where Jesus was speaking told him his mother and brothers were outside, and that's when Jesus said: "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." (Mark 3:31-35) -- You wouldn't want to preach on this at Easter or Mother's Day!
On another occasion, a woman from the crowd spoke up and said to Jesus, "How fortunate is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!" It was a conventional way of handing a compliment to the mother through the son, like saying "your mother must be very proud of you." But Jesus replied, "How fortunate, rather, are those who listen to God's teaching and observe it!" (the Q Gospel, in Luke 11:27-28). -- Another bad Mother's Day text!
And the fourth quotation is the most extreme and the most famous. It comes from the gospel of Luke, where Jesus says "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law." (Q Gospel in Luke 12: 51-53) -- You never hear the Christian Right preaching on this one, either!
These sayings don't fit the traditional picture of a sweet Jesus who preached family values, so they're almost never mentioned. They show us some of Jesus' personal values and lifestyle, and make him seem very strange and foreign, not to mention unappealing. For most of the styles of living that Jesus exemplified have never had many takers. He had no permanent home, was apparently not married, had no property or money, and didn't seem to care.
This is the profile of someone on the fringe of any culture at any time. Scholars recognize this profile, however. It was a marginal but well-known style of living in the ancient world. From about the fourth century BCE until the sixth century CE, there was a name for this style of living exemplified by Jesus. These were the people called cynics.
Some scholars describe Jesus as an "itinerant cynic sage." The name itself is derogatory, given to the "cynics" by their detractors (the way most such names originate). It came from the Greek word for "dog," and was meant to imply that cynics lived like dogs. They had no home, no property, no spouses, no fixed circle of friends, no jobs, and no love for the society in which they lived. Cynics didn't offer a correction of society so much as they offered an alternative to society.
The best of the cynics were astute social critics: they were like secular versions of the Old Testament prophets, standing outside the accepted order of things, trying to subvert it.
Someone who could live a life in this manner had to be, among other things, extremely focused and dedicated to his particular vision. For history's most famous cynic, Diogenes of Sinope, the vision was one of personal autonomy, freedom from the unnecessary demands of society. An old story makes the point:
The king's messenger came to find Diogenes, who was squatting in the street, eating his simple meal of lentils. "The king invites you to come live in his castle," said the messenger, "and be one of his court advisors."
"Why should I?" asked Diogenes.
"Well for one thing," said the messenger, "if you'd learn to curry favor with the king you wouldn't have to eat lentils."
"And if you would learn to like lentils," replied Diogenes, "you wouldn't have to curry favor with the king."
The message of cynics was always extreme, and they were willing to sacrifice everything for it. Furthermore, they generally thought that everyone else would also be better off abandoning the society's vision of life and adopting their cynic vision.
Jesus fits very neatly into this conception of a cynic sage. He had no home, property or job. He didn't respect the accepted images of "the good life" or the normal expectations made upon people in a civilized society -- the religious and cultural rules that gave people their social identities, for example. His vision of the "Kingdom of God" was, for Jesus, the only thing worth living for. His parables presented the "Kingdom" in this extreme way over and over again: it was a "pearl of great price," a "treasure buried in a field" for which the lucky finder would sell everything.
What must be noted about cynics, including Jesus, is that their message is never likely to be heard or followed except for the extremely marginal person -- another cynic. Husbands, wives, children, the joy of working at a job, making a contribution to society, nationalism, ethnic or religious pride of identity -- all these counted as nothing for cynics compared with their singular vision. In Jesus' case, his entire family was treated as though they counted for nothing compared with his vision of the "Kingdom of God." This doesn't make Jesus exceptionally cold or uncaring, it just identifies him as one of history's great cynics -- and a sage whose vision was sometimes too extreme to be either useful or wise to the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived, then or now.
And so the first face of Jesus was his cynic lifestyle. It was a huge part of who he was and what he valued. For nearly everyone in history except other cynics, however, it was not a wise road to follow, but a useless aberration.
The second face of Jesus is his most famous teaching. If there is one point on which almost everyone agrees, it is the assertion that Jesus' "Golden Rule" teachings would create the best kind of human world.
While the breadth of Jesus' teachings can't satisfactorily be reduced to a sound bite, there is a fairly simple rule that most accept as being true to the core of his message. That is that Jesus taught that we should always repay unkindness with kindness, and hatred with love. This has been turned into a sound bite through the centuries, as writers have referred to this role as that of a "suffering servant." And in the popular imagination, most people would see this as constituting the essence of the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" means "be compassionate and forgiving to others, no matter how they treat you."
The purity of this ideal has inspired Christians and non-Christians alike. The teachings of Jesus served as one of the greatest inspirations to the Hindu leader Gandhi a half-century ago, who took his non-violent approach of repaying cruelty with kindness in his failed effort to revolutionize his Indian society.
But what if it turns out that this teaching is not very wise, and could not improve the nature of the world, even if significant numbers of people tried it? It now looks like there is a way to put different religious and ethical teachings to an empirical test, through the discipline known as "game theory." And the results do not support the notion that Jesus' teachings were wise.
Robert Axelrod, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, has pioneered the study of a repeated "Prisoner's Dilemma" which can let us examine the long-term results of different ethical rules, aided by computer simulations of real-life ethical dilemmas. Through several series of interactive computer experiments, he has tested a wide variety of ethical rules submitted from a range of disciplines. Here are just a few:
The Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This has never consistently been followed by anyone. It is quite ancient, predating Jesus by at least six centuries. We know this because we have the story of Confucius being asked, in the sixth century BCE, of his opinion of the rule of repaying evil with kindness. His response was "Then with what will you repay kindness?"
The Silver Rule: "Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you." In a popular essay on this subject in the Sunday "Parade" Magazine,(1) Carl Sagan names Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as exemplars of the Silver Rule, saying "They counseled oppressed people not to repay violence with violence, but not to be compliant and obedient either." Even Gandhi, however, had trouble reconciling his rule of nonviolence with the need to defend against others who followed a rule of violence. And Gandhi's anti-industrial revolution, it must be remembered, failed.
The Brazen Rule: "Do unto others as they do unto you." This is often attributed to Confucius, who taught to "Repay kindness with kindness, but evil with justice." It's also "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," and "one good turn deserves another."
The Iron Rule: "Do unto others as you like, before they do it unto you." Or "He who has the gold makes the rules," or "Might makes right." In human history, it has long been, with the Brazen Rule, the norm of most human and institutional behavior.
By testing these and other behavioral guidelines through thousands of on-line interactions, we can find -- without risking real war or violence -- which behaviors might create the most stable and cooperative ethical behaviors in the long run.
The results may not be surprising, but they are certainly not orthodox. Both the Golden Rule and the Iron Rule always lose -- the one from an excess of kindness, the other from an overabundance of ruthlessness. Strategies that are slow to punish selfish behavior lose, partly because they send the signal that non-cooperation works.
The most effective long-term strategy is a variation on the Brazen Rule called "Tit-for-Tat." It's very simple: You start out cooperating. Then, in each subsequent round, simply do what your opponent did the last time, giving "tit-for-tat." Once the other player cooperates, you're willing to let bygones be bygones. In the long run, other strategies defeat themselves, and this middle way pulls ahead.(2)
In other words: if you really want to make the world into a more just and caring place, don't follow the Golden Rule. Make your first act toward others a kind one, but from then on follow the Brazen Rule of doing unto them exactly as they have done unto you -- always making it clear that you can be counted on to treat them just as they have treated you. In the long run, this common-sense approach -- which Confucius taught 2500 years ago -- will create a more stable and predictably fair and just world than Jesus' extreme idea about rewarding evil with kindness. In the long run, as game theory is showing, Jesus' teachings may make you a "suffering servant," but they will encourage the worst behavior in others, by rewarding it. Ironically, this will then give you more chances to forgive them, thus creating a vicious circle -- one that has been apparent throughout the history of Western, and Christian, civilization.
These findings should be sobering for those who think that religion and spirituality can be improved by getting "back to the real Jesus." The real Jesus taught a "Golden Rule" that doesn't work, and lived a lifestyle almost no one would ever want to follow.
Combining only the first two facets of Jesus, you get what has been called the "suffering servant": the one who is forever abused and forever forgiving. This would make Christians good, obedient, suffering followers, but not good leaders. Machiavelli saw this centuries ago, when he observed that Christianity gave people "strength to suffer rather than strength to do bold things."(3) It is significant that Machiavelli's central concern was with how rulers could maintain their rule and control the masses under them. And when Rousseau said that "True Christians are made to be slaves,"(4) that too came from a man whose overriding concern was, as his book title said, with The Social Contract. Since at least the time of Constantine, those whose sympathies lie with the rulers rather than the ruled have been grateful to the teachings which can be lifted from Christianity -- mostly from Paul -- to enlist God's authority to supplement their own in the drive to keep their masses obedient.
Virtually all biblical scholars agree that Jesus was a man with great charisma, and a remarkable ability for what we today call "faith healing." While almost all scholars agree that the stories have been greatly exaggerated, and that scenes like"walking on water," raising Lazarus from the dead or feeding 5,000 people from a few fish are all Christian mythmaking, the core fact remains that Jesus was primarily known in his time and in the decades immediately following his death as a gifted healer. It was this almost magical power that really attracted people to him, even if they didn't understand, or didn't want to hear, the things he wanted to teach. His followers also shared this healing power, though not to quite the same extent as did Jesus.
There is nothing here to debunk, except to note that this kind of charismatic power doesn't necessarily imply that the healer is wise or good. It is easy to think of other historical figures who also had immense charisma and personal power over other people, who were unwise or evil: Rasputin, Hitler, Jim Jones, Matthew Applewhite, and David Koresh come quickly to mind. Not all wise people are magicians, and not all magicians are wise.
As all biblical scholars know, Jesus' primary concern was for what he called the Kingdom of God. What Jesus meant by this Kingdom of God was fundamentally different from what most Christians have meant by the phrase. Properly understood, it was Jesus' most radical teaching. It was also his most profound and timeless, and his fourth "face."
We need some historical background to understand what he was teaching. This gets a little eerie, because his world begins to sound uncomfortably like our own.
First-century Galilee was a cultural chaos. Invading Greek and Roman armies had destroyed the Temple-centered cultures that had stabilized the different peoples in this area for many centuries, but the Greeks and Romans never succeeded in replacing those old temple cults with a more powerful common center. The Jewish temple in Jerusalem was the final temple-centered culture destroyed, and that happened between the years of 66-70, just before the first gospel was written. Galilee was a place without a shared set of values. A dozen different customs regarding eating, drinking, dress, and marriage divided the cults and cultures and made relations among them hostile -- as we still see today in modern Israel and Palestine.
In fact, the world seemed almost hopeless. The most extreme solution being proposed was that of John the Baptist and his followers (and Jesus began as a follower of John the Baptist). John said the world was in such a mess that we couldn't do anything significant except wait for God to destroy it and start over with a few of his favorite people -- in other words, those who believed as John believed. This was called the apocalyptic solution: do nothing, just get yourself right with God and wait for God to destroy this mess and make it right.
After John the Baptist was killed by the Roman authorities and it didn't bring on the end of the world, Jesus realized John had been wrong. Otherwise, God would not have permitted John's death without bringing some kind of awful vengeance.
When Jesus began his own ministry shortly, it was with a fundamentally different vision about how to improve a fractured and hostile world -- or, in his terms, how to find the Kingdom of God. Very few Christians have ever understood this. Jesus' Kingdom of God was not apocalyptic, and not supernatural. It was what we would today call existential. You bring about the Kingdom of God by changing the way in which you treat one another. Period. No magic, no rewards, no savior.
It is alluded to when he instructs his followers to eat whatever is put before them. In a pluralistic culture, this meant telling his fellow Jews to eat pork, goat, or shellfish if they were served. He taught this because he wanted them to act within a larger identity than just the identity of Jews. His "Kingdom of God" consisted in a world where people acted like brothers and sisters, and did not let exclusive and local identities trump this higher calling. It is a teaching that is likely to get a prophet killed in any time or place.
For Jesus, the Kingdom of God wasn't coming. It was already here, at least potentially, within and among us. Or as he said in another place, the kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don't see it.
How do you rejuvenate a hostile world? By subverting all exclusive identities. The food laws of the Jews set them apart from their neighbors. So Jesus' instructions to his followers were to eat whatever was set before them: pork, shellfish, goat, whatever the host was serving. Over and over, he spurned the artificial identities we construct to make ourselves feel good at the expense of others. There was only one identity possible for us in the Kingdom of God: to treat one another as brothers and sisters. Not Jews and Arabs, not Protestants and Catholics, not believers and unbelievers, not Americans and Russians, but as fellow children of God.
Do you see how subversive this is? This is a message that could threaten any form of government, all ideologies, and all religious or racial identities. The world is in chaos, we've lost a shared center, so we create a hundred little artificial centers from which we derive our identities. The problem is, they're all too small, all exclude those who believe or live differently than we do, and so they're precisely the structures that keep the world hostile.
Today, his message might be Stop joining clubs! Stop identifying yourselves with your nation, your race, your religion or your sex. All of these are ultimately divisive identities that make a peaceful world impossible. You want the Kingdom of God? You want a world of peace and justice? It's in your hands, and only in your hands. You've been given everything you need, now it's time to act.
To put this in the terms they used in the first century, the difference between the visions of Jesus and John the Baptist were extreme. In John's vision the world was too far gone to save, so we should wait for God to act. In Jesus's vision, God is waiting for us to act. We created all the divisive little identities that make life nasty, brutish and short, and only we can change them.
It would take an immense amount of trust and faith to do that. It took an immensely perceptive prophet to see it, and say it out loud.
And this insight seems as true and profound and unlikely today as it was then. Even today, it subverts almost every little artificial identity we have created for ourselves. It is a message that would still get the messenger killed almost anywhere in the world. Imagine going into Northern Ireland telling the fighters that neither side is Christian, both are agents of evil, and they need to stop thinking of themselves as Protestants and Catholics, because those identities are themselves the problem. The only thing the two sides would agree on would be lynching you from the nearest tree.
Imagine trying to sell that message to the Jews and Palestinians, telling them the only way to stop the murderous fighting is to grow beyond thinking of themselves as merely Jews or Palestinians, and begin seeing each other as brothers and sisters, the children of God. You'd be shot!
I don't want to imply that Jesus was the only person in history to see this vision of a world kept small and hostile by our artificial identities and our territorial impulses. You can find this general view in Plato and Aristotle four centuries earlier, as you can see it in Confucius , Lao-Tzu and most of the great religious and philosophical thinkers of history. You also find it in cultures that never had contact with any Western civilization, yet arrived at the same general insight. Remember these lines from the Lakota Sioux Medicine Man Black Elk:
And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that make one circle, wide as daylight and starlight. And in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
These insights aren't true because Jesus or the others said them. They are true because they have seen to the essence of what it means to be human, with a clarity few people in history have ever had. I don't know of any way to argue against that insight. It seems deeply, profoundly, eternally correct. Our human or animal tendencies to create artificial identities for ourselves are the original sin of our species. We feel bigger and more worthwhile as parts of a family, a nation, a race, a culture. So naturally we join the little clubs and wave their flags.
It's especially easy to see this in the fall, during football season. As a graduate of the University of Michigan, I still feel my blood boil every fall as the game against Notre Dame approaches. And I know Notre Dame alumni -- or even Roman Catholics who never attended the school -- who still see every football game as a holy war between The Church and The Infidels. After all, the Notre Dame players aren't just called "the Irish": they're called the fighting Irish. And Michigan's sense of club solidarity has the same hostile edge to it: after all, they are named after the most vicious animal in Michigan, the Wolverine. We get powerful feelings of specialness through our artificial identities. We wear sweatshirts with their names on them, paste them on our cars and feel proud that we're in this club and not that club.
And if you listened to men like Jesus, or Black Elk, that is the feeling we would have to relinquish as we made the biggest leap of faith in history and began treating each other as brothers and sisters, as children of God. It is a message that would revolutionize the world. I can't think of a single war, a single violent disagreement, that is not a case of people choosing artificial identities that are too small to include enough others in the world to make it a safe and stable place.
The real tragedy of a man like Jesus isn't that he has had so much silly hokum dumped on him through the ages -- though God knows he has. The tragedy is that we elevated him into a man-God, then joined the religion of John the Baptist who expected this man-God to come save the world for us, as we sat silently by reciting whatever creeds our little religious or political or social cult has declared to be the current orthodoxy. We took the man who lived and died preaching against divisive identities, and created a club around his name it is a cruel and ironic fate for the simple Jew from Galilee.
The tragedy is that this strange man, this marginal Jew without family, friends, property or job, really did have something to offer us, and nobody wants it. It's too hard. It asks too much of us. So we found a simpler route. We made thousands of statues of this man Jesus, whom we turned into a Son of God. And we pray that he, through his infinite power, will bring peace to this world. Then we say Amen, go outside, and prepare for the day's battle against the infidels in the next church, next town, next nation.
And then I imagine the rest of the story. I imagine that all over the world, as people leave their churches, they turn their backs on the pictures and statues of Jesus they've made. And after they've gone, all over the world, in the cold darkness of the empty churches, all of the pictures and all of the statues begin to cry . . .
More About The Jesus Seminar may be gleaned from its sponsoring organization, the Westar Institute.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.