As the world awaits the celebration of the birth of the Christ child — and as, on the eve of this celebration, municipalities around the United States clear out Occupy encampments, pepper-spray peaceful protesters, and threaten them with felony convictions and two-year jail sentences — it is worth remembering what the historical Jesus actually told people to do: he told them precisely to behave like Occupy protesters.
The wealthy land-owning Trinity Church in lower Manhattan shies away from Occupy’s recent request to it to allow its peaceful protesters to set up camp on its property: a spokesman for the Church dismissed them as “marginal protesters” and said that to do so would detract the Church from its “mission.” The Episcopal church in London dithers over whether or not to support the Occupy protesters encamped on its own premises. But it is worth taking a second look at what Jesus actually asked his nascent church to do: he asked his followers — who were “marginal protesters” — in no ambiguous terms precisely to support Occupy’s mission.
Jesus was the original Occupy protester. More and more scholarship about the historical Jesus is establishing — as, indeed, the scholars of the Jesus seminar and others have been documenting for nearly three decades — a set of facts that are regularly taught in full in seminaries, but which active clergy have told me off the record they are reluctant to preach about, let alone inform their congregations about, once they are established in ministries: that is: the original Jesus texts probably did not include language about Jesus being a unique Son of God, or about the embrace of Jesus being a unique path to salvation. Rather, the original historical Jesus, according to such scholars as Spong and Crossan, was much more likely to have been a revolutionary Jewish Rabbi continually pointing, not to himself, but to God, and to a “kingdom of heaven” which was not elsewhere – not doctrinal nor ecclesiastical in its essence — but was, rather, made up of the grace that comes from creating economic justice and manifesting egalitarian love, here on earth.
This revolutionary rabbi, according to these scholars, was not determined to set up a new religion but rather to compel the Judaism of his own time to live up to its own core ideals, and he wished to include pagans in what he saw as God’s message of universal love and economic justice.
According to these scholars, the New Testament’s language about Jesus as the one path to salvation, and the anti-Semitic language that separated the emerging first-century Church from its roots as a reform movement aimed at Judaism itself, were later additions, added about sixty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, and resulted from political pressures — including Roman persecution — and the need of an emerging institution to claim certain kinds of doctrinal legitimacy.
Jesus’ original message, they insist, as you can see in the Jesus Seminars’ book “The Five Gospels: What did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus” — which separates the Testaments into what the historical Jesus almost certainly said, what he probably said, what he probably did NOT say and what he almost certainly did not say — indeed reveal a revolutionary Jewish rabbi; and if you read his original message as presented in these scholar’s arguments, you see that today, much more than the established Church, it is Occupy protesters who are most directly carrying out Jesus’s instructions.
Jesus was constantly occupying public and authority-invested space, just as Occupy does. As Yale scholar Dr Wayne Meeks explains, the historical Jesus was continually staging uncomfortable public challenges to the social order; continually holding a mirror in the most disruptive and impolite way up to public hypocrisy and injustice; continually challenging the ’1%” of his day; and continually staging spectacles in public space that blurred conventional boundaries of propriety and that upended conventional separations between Jew and Gentile, “respectable” people and prostitutes, tax collectors and marginalized people; he was continually inviting all to a feast that represented the universalizing love of God. He disruptively and illegally “occupied” that Holy of Holies, the Temple Mount, where the bankers and clergy of the day made massive profits capitalizing the revenue-driven and financially corrupted institutions of the Priesthood and a bloated commerce in the sacrifice trade. He engaged in dangerous and public civil disobedience by literally upending the tables of the money-changers — a direct parallel to the Occupy boycotts and closings of accounts that were staged at major banks this autumn in America. Jesus occupied the Mount of Olives: and as he gave the Sermon on the Mount — a confrontational speech about economic justice (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the earth) — he was staging a major subversive public assembly, without a permit — in the very face of a tyrannical Imperial power that consistently arrested political prisoners and other social justice revolutionaries, held them without trial, tortured them and lined the skyscapes of Jerusalem with their crucified bodies (Meeks and others point out that crucifixion in Jesus’ time was not a unique event at all, but a standard punishment for crime and for social justice preaching, as well as for issuing public messages of challenge to the unjust authority of Rome).
Do the Occupy protesters set up kitchens and feed all who are hungry, rich or poor, thus creating an inclusive table? This is exactly, argues Crossan, what Jesus sought to do: by inviting rich and poor to sit at the same table and telling his followers to feed all who joined them, he was creating a kind of public theater to demonstrate the power of a society in which people were not divided by race, class, gender and religion, but united in love and justice. When Rabbi Jesus staged an event at which people contributed all the bread and fish they had with them (the miracle of the loaves and fishes) he was setting up a public kitchen like those that Bloomberg cleared out of Zuccotti Park for “safety reasons.” Are the Occupy protesters continually being swept out of public space with attacks on them for being “dirty”? One of the continual themes of Jesus’ preaching is that conventional assessments of what is dirty and what is clean are corrupt, and that true cleanliness comes from compassion and justice, whereas hypocrisy and injustice make one like a “whited sepulcher” — pretty on the outside, but filled with corruption within.
When he confronted the wealthy young man and said, Give up all you have and follow me — when he issued parables that asserted that it was harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven — he was challenging confrontationally the unjust distribution of wealth and the injustice of a system in which the meager possessions of the poor were continually eaten away by crippling, ever-escalating taxation that flowed to a superpower, to military might and to a small wealthy elite of Romans and of a small group of Pharisaic and Sadducean officials mediating between Rome and the common people.
According to the Jesus Seminar scholars, the historical Jesus was not some ethereal divinity, wanting people to “believe in him” as a new kind of God; rather he was a very angry,very loving Jew, confronting the entrenched injustices and superficialities of the Jewish and Roman Establishments of his day, demanding an inclusive love that transcended rigid religious and ethnic boundaries, and insisting that “the Kingdom of God” was a state within each of us, that could be manifested on Earth by sharing what we had, visiting the prisoner, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and engaging in the political and personal practice of peace. He said that THAT was what God wanted. Did he say it in Churches on Sunday, politely? No: he was constantly confronting power in public, constantly p—ing off the powers that be, constantly impolite and disruptive in order to hold a mirror up to hypocrisy, constantly destabilizing “business as usual”, constantly telling his followers to do the same, and constantly asking his disciples to continue that work in his name after he was gone.
Are the Occupy protesters faced with show trials, and more to come now that the NDAA, which suspends due process in America, is due to pass? Yes; so were the early followers of Jesus, and Jesus himself was arrested without evidence, convicted without evidence, tortured and murdered by a state edict, in a politicized show trial. Are the Occupiers practicing non-violence in the face of state violence? Yes; and in so doing they are exactly following Jesus’ instructions to his first-century followers, to ‘turn the other cheek” and not to respond to violence with violence but with love. In creating libraries in which all are free to learn, kitchens in which all are free to eat, and public spaces in which love and justice are modeled as a new social order, are they creating chaos and mess, or are they establishing the Kingdom of Heaven exactly as the historical Jesus insisted it must be built? If you really follow Jesus — the historical Jesus — there is nothing to conclude but that Occupy, more than Trinity Church, more than the British Anglican church, more than any church today that does not publicly step forward to house, feed and support the Occupy movement — is following Jesus’ direct instructions; and that the established Churches who fail to do so, are derelict in their duties, and disobeying the direct commandments of their boss.
Do you want to be a real Jesus follower this Christmas, instead of a Christian-ish “whited sepulcher”? It is worth taking a look at the Five Gospels to see what that angry Jew said and did, according to many scholars. After you have taken on board his message of confrontation of power, public disruption, and universal love, you might make different choices. In his own words, he didn’t want you sitting in Church talking about how great he is; he wanted you in the streets, making the wealthy uncomfortable, and feeding the poor. Do you want to really follow the historical Jesus? If you are a church, welcome Occupy to your physical site. If you are a person, fight for Occupy and other movements’ rights to do what Jesus did: in feeding the hungry, confronting injustice, and speaking truth to power.
© Copyright 2013 Naomi Wolf | http://naomiwolf.org