The historians have looked at the archaeology and the limited historical records and the culture of the time and proposed some interesting facts about Jesus. They fill in a lot of the missing gaps that the religious leave out, like the details of the social class that Jesus was from and the Israel he lived in and the reign of Herod. But the facts were missing something intangible. They were missing a narrative that would explain why the movement became so popular. It had to be more than the Roman roads.
The religious have the Niceaen Creed, that was put together several centuries after Jesus’ death. It emerged after a battle between the various sects of Christianity over the divinity of the Christ and how many pieces of God there actually were and other esoterica. But they came to a consensus eventually, after they threw out all of the Gnostics and other heretics. They adopted four gospels and some other books. Why on earth they decided to throw in Revelations we will never really understand. Maybe they thought fear would make Christians behave. But their spin on Christianity never made a lot of sense to me either and I’ve seen even the most dedicated and eloquent pastors twist themselves into knots over the transubstantiation. And the sacrifice to redeem us for our sins? Ummmm, what? I know a lot of people believe it and if it makes them feel safe, then who am I to argue. I’m not saying the resurrection never happened because anything is possible. But the symbolism just never made much sense to me.
It’s not eschatology. Eschatology predated Jesus and existed in other Jewish sects after his death. It wasn’t the treatment of the poor. The Buddha understood suffering and ignorance long before Jesus came along. And it wasn’t gnosis because the Greeks had that nailed down. So, what was it that made this carpenter so powerful?
It wasn’t until this week that I finally got it. When the pieces came together, I had a “oh, Wow!” moment. Suddenly, I saw Christianity in a whole new way, one that even most Christians wouldn’t recognize, but would be completely familiar to the original apostles.
Let’s start with an empire.
The Romans were wealthy, militaristic and oppressive. They bought up client kings in the provinces they conquered or intended to conquer. Their rule was law. Peasants of client states paid their taxes. They had a limited number of rights because they weren’t really citizens. Most people were poor. The fact that John the Baptist, prophet and eschatologist, had such a thriving ministry is a testament to the feeling of hopelessness among the poor. Life in Judea could be nasty, brutish and short if you were born into the wrong class and people were generally unsympathetic to their plight. The lower class, because there was no middle class, put its hopes in divine purification of the evils of the world. The average Jew lived in a country that was not his own and was barely tolerated by the Roman aristocracy and its army. This is the world that Jesus came from.
The story we have is that:
He preached to the poor. He counselled them. He was a great teacher. He told parables and made his listeners think in new ways. He fed them. He celebrated with them. He gave a sermon to end all sermons about peace, mercy, mourning, fulfillment, hunger and persecution. He condemned the rich and arrogant. He pissed a lot of people off. The Pharisees got tired of him making Pharisees out of them. His teachings made him famous. He went to Jerusalem with a following planning an act of civil disobedience. He and his closest friends pooled their money and had one last dinner where he told his friends that the day after next, they probably wouldn’t see each other again. He goes to the Temple during a religious holiday where people from all over the country are using the place as a giant bank and he throws out the money changers who are collaborating with the Romans. The Temple priests already overworked on a Jewish holiday and with Rome keeping an eye on them, are worried about this troublemaker his apostles making a ruckus and a mess and disturbing the peace. So, they reported him into the local police. He and his followers made camp in a garden and tried to stay up all night. They were all scared, especially the head troublemaker because he knew he had broken one rule too many. The Romans came in the middle of the night to break up the camp and arrest him. He tells his followers not to resist because they’re supposed to be all about peace. His followers scattered. He is thrown into jail, humiliated and beaten.
There’s some debate in the accounts of what happens next. Did the Temple priest want him dead or just out of his hair? Well, whoever turned him in probably knew what was going to happen next but if the Temple hadn’t turned him in, the money changers would have and business would be satisfied. Better get ahead of the problem. The Roman governor condemned him and nailed him up to be a lesson to all other future troublemakers. He was killed. His followers were disorganized and confused. But got themselves together after some miracles and spread the word.
Here we are in the 21st century and what do we see?
An empire, wealthy, militaristic and brutal. It has no problem taking what it wants. The wealthy buy the people they want to do their bidding. The citizens live in a downwardly mobile world. They pay their taxes but are at risk of losing everything in a poor economy. Their votes are meaningless. People who are poor or become poor through no fault of their own are shown no sympathy. Eschatology thrives.
A bunch of people see that what has happened to less fortunate countries at the hands of that empire is starting to happen to them. They decide to take matters into their own hands. They don’t have a leader but they have a Jewish prophetess who preaches a Sermon in the Park. But really, anyone could do this. She just happens to be particularly memorable and moderately well known and she’s good at it.
They feed the poor, counsel the troubled, comfort the persecuted. They come to the great city and set up their camp near the money changers. They try to turn the money changers out. The money changers appeal to the police. The authorities decide that their behavior is setting a bad example of non-compliance and is disturbing to business people. The police raid their park and arrest them.
They must have seen that coming.
They continue to sacrifice themselves. The number of their followers starts to swell when the people see how much they are willing to give of themselves to uphold a moral movement.
Now there are a probably a lot of people out there who are rolling their eyes and thinking this is a metaphor stretched too far. But for me, the pieces of this puzzle finally fit. The reason why Christianity succeeded was not because Jesus was so important. In fact, he was just there for the beginning of what was a very long struggle. It was so successful because it started off as a moral response to an oligarchical rule and the way it went about its actions affected so many people that by the time Jesus was made a sacrifice and an example by the Romans, his followers had reached a critical mass to keep the movement going. He had laid out a framework of actions and behaviors that anyone could follow. The apostles didn’t need a leader anymore because they *were* the leaders. Of course, a miracle story is a good ice breaker but if you are a Christian because of the Christmas story and the Resurrection, you may be missing the point of the movement. It is what the early Christians did in their own communities that made the movement resiliant. For centuries, they practiced civil disobedience, took care of one another, expanded their membership to include the gentiles and Samaritans (the other 99%), travelled from place to place, gave up what they had to minister to the poor, stayed with wealthy widows like Priscilla, and more modest followers like Mary and Martha, and sacrificed themselves over and over again until they were so popular in the empire that the Emperor himself gave in. By that time, the Christians already didn’t resemble what they started out as. And that is a danger that a look back through history can help us avoid.
The Jesus movement is the one to emulate, not that it was the original intention of Occupy Wall Street. It may be that successful grassroot movements have the same things in common. Conditions for success have to be present, there has to be a tipping point and some of the other factors may not be easy to copy. Many have tried. But it takes more than a good communication route. It isn’t enough to get people together at conferences to discuss politics. It can’t be directed by a small group of people with money working behind the scenes. The reason why MoveOn and Netroots Nation and the Tea Party have failed to move the public where Occupy Wall Street has succeeded is that the latter is a moral movement with a simple message and the people in it are willing to make personal sacrifices because they have nothing left to lose. And the recent brutal crackdown by the authorities is a demonstration of the power of that morality.
Today, we have the benefit of hindsight. We also know from our own personal experiences that a moral movement does not need a religion in order to succeed even if the religious decide to join it. A moral movement also knows that it doesn’t need to have a political flavor. It’s purpose is to lead people to a new way of thinking, new values and set of behaviors, new rules of acceptance and condemnation. When you change the way you think and behave, you become a new person, isn’t that right, Christians? And a country full of new people becomes a new country. The closest we have had in this country to such a movement was the Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s, lead by Martin Luther King Jr. who also made a personal sacrifice.
The tactics that this movement uses is a mix of the highly technical and the primitive. Anyone with an iphone can record the events, and anyone with a voice can become a leader. Anyone with a clever and amusing idea can capture the attention of thousands. The message and tactics combined make this movement accessible to everyone while the images of sacrifice broadcast on the new Roman road can both anger and inspire.
This week, the current movement made its most significant sacrifice to date. But there will be others. As the prophetess said, we need to show each other kindness and take care of each other because we have chosen to challenge the most powerful forces on the planet. And it will be hard. It will be much easier to conquer each other. Wise words. But in our lifetime, we may see a new generation of that movement from 2000 years ago. That rebirth has happened before. This time, the scale is global and echoes the economic and cultural atmosphere of the originators. But with perseverance, it shouldn’t take 400 years to gain the upper hand.
Hold hands, look both ways before you cross the street and watch out for each other.
Look around. You are part of a global uprising. Don’t be afraid. Love. We are winning.