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The Violence of Deformed Christianity

By the Rev. Howard Bess
January 14, 2011

Editor’s Note: The massacre in Tucson has prompted soul-searching among Americans, reflecting on the nation’s angry political rhetoric and the country’s easy recourse to violence.

However, that soul-searching should go even deeper, says the Rev. Howard Bess, back to the early distortion of Jesus’s teachings, messages of peace and justice that were twisted to justify wealthy churches embracing violence and power:

What happened in Tucson is not new to American life. It happens every day across the country. Indeed, murders using guns are so common that little note is taken until a high-profile person is the target or the numbers of dead are shockingly high.

Not only is violent behavior a generally accepted part of American life, but most Americans, including Christians, believe violence is an acceptable way to resolve disputes, an attitude that conforms with the Christian Faith as practiced for the last 1,900 years.

But that attitude was never part of Jesus’s message. Violence cannot be found anywhere in the recorded teachings from the life of Jesus.

When we read the gospels that carry the names of Matthew, Mark and Luke, we meet a very Jewish young man who was determined to understand and live out Torah, the will and law of God. He reduced the law of God to two specific commitments: We are to love God wholeheartedly and passionately. We are to love those around us as though they were a part of our own families.

In coming to that conclusion, Jesus drew heavily from a minority of Old Testament writers who had rejected violence in all its forms. His interest was in being the very best servant of God in the Jewish tradition. His best picture of the God he served was that of a loving father.

Peace and non-violence were always part of Jesus’s concerns. It is reported in the Luke gospel that Jesus looked out over the city of Jerusalem and wept, “If only you knew the ways of peace.”

Though never expressing a plan to start a new religion, Jesus developed a following and made disciples. His movement in rural northern Palestine became significant enough to draw the attention of those who controlled the region’s religious and political systems.

The Roman rulers made a regular practice of killing troublesome protesters, which is how Jesus was viewed by both the Roman occupiers and the dominant Jewish leaders of the day. When Jesus and a band of followers took their message of love, justice and peace to Jerusalem, he was put though a mock trial as an insurrectionist and tortured.
The perpetrators of this brutality were Roman officials, with Jewish leaders in Jerusalem supportive of what was done.

According to the gospel reports, Jesus never resisted and died on a Roman cross. Not once did Jesus act violently or propose violence. Jesus was the victim of violence, yet remained true to his rejection of violence.

Given these accounts in the gospels, one has to wonder: How did such a peaceful man become the center of a religion that endorses, supports and practices violence? 

The transition happened quite quickly without much regard for – or even knowledge of – Jesus’s core teachings.

The near unanimous opinion of scholars is that not a single word of the New Testament was written by one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. They all spoke Aramaic and it is highly doubtful that any of the twelve disciples were literate.

So, the power to interpret the meaning of Jesus’s life fell to others who were literate and who wrote in Greek, the language used in the earliest Christian writings and common in that part of the world.
The earliest writer of Christian material was Paul, a devout Jewish convert from Tarsus. He never met Jesus, and his writings show no awareness of Jesus’s key parables, which were being passed around in the form of oral tradition.

Except for a brief and contentious meeting in Jerusalem, Paul had very little if any contact with the disciples of Jesus.

Further, all of Paul’s letters were written and in circulation decades before the gospels were written down. In other words, Paul apparently had no knowledge of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and other expressions of his philosophy.

Paul also was operating in the shadow of Roman power. So, in his writings, Paul never identifies Jesus as a falsely charged insurrectionist tortured to death by Roman officials. Instead more than anyone else, Paul transformed the Roman cross into an altar.

In doing so, Paul distorted Jesus’s core message of forgiveness. He turned Jesus into the lamb of God, sacrificed on the cross to satisfy the demands of an angry and violent God. In making this interpretation of the death of Jesus, Paul embraced the basic Old Testament concept of blood sacrifices in the temple at the demand of God.

Yet, a handful of Old Testament prophets had long protested what was happening in the Jerusalem temple. They did not believe that blood sacrifices on a temple altar appeased an angry God. Jesus took up their side of the debate, rejecting a belief in an angry, violent and vengeful God.

However, by the end of the first century C.E., Paul’s interpretation of the death of Jesus had become dominant and well-established. The implicit message was clear: Righteousness and justice can be established by violence.

The final insult to the teachings of Jesus is the book of Revelation, which would be better entitled “The Final Angry Rampage of God.”
In the centuries that followed, Christian churches became key shapers of western civilization. In that way, Christianity sanctified and spread the idea that disputes and conflicts can be resolved morally with violence.

Until we rid ourselves of that basic assumption, wars and the killings like those in Tucson will continue, with Jesus still weeping: If only we knew the ways of peace.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is [email protected].             

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