I miss the Jesus I grew up with—the Jesus of the sermon I delivered, at age 15 on Youth Sunday at Saint Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Lakewood, California, just across a very dry riverbed from Orange County, where right-wing anchorites apostrophized the jackals of lust and the tigers of wrath while lobbing stink bombs at the decadent City of Angels from their backyard fallout shelters. My text was “The Leap of Faith in Kierkegaard: Either/Or?” My Jesus was a mixed grill of Lamb of God, loaves and fishes, Quaker oats, the sorrow songs, and the Sermon on the Mount.
He led me to such Essenes as Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and the Berrigan brothers, and from there, wearing sandals and turning the other cheek, into civil disobedience. This is the sweet Jesus who inspired Saint Francis in Assisi, Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, Gandhi in Cape Town, Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, and Vaclav Havel in Prague, not to mention Johann Sebastian Bach at a Leipzig organ, where he gave tears to the Passion instead of clubs and fists. My Jesus would show up as well among French worker-priests and Baltimore Maryknoll nuns and brown-skinned liberation theologists.
As hard as it was to imagine such a Jesus with a sword in his hand, leading holy warriors into battle either for or against the Reformation, it was impossible to imagine him with a torch, lighting bonfires to burn heretics in town squares during the Spanish Inquisition. In no way did he resemble the Braveheart and Ted Nugent of the Gospel According to Gibson. He looked to me a lot more like Picasso’s blind guitar player—singing, of course, a Pete Seeger song.
“Hebron and Nablus will not be ours whether or not the prophets once walked there, whether or not the stones our ancestors liked to throw at the prophets still lie scattered there,” wrote the Israeli novelist Amos Oz in The Slopes of Lebanon. Among other things, he was suggesting that for a great many people, when the Bible isn’t a covenant, a deed in perpetuity, or a license to kill, it’s the very first Western, a sort of how-to manual on abusive sex and crazy violence in the sun-stunned, goat-munched desert. Fundamentalists of all stripes are now in charge of the world. I certainly couldn’t find my Jesus anywhere in Jerusalem’s lurid space of Second Comings and Third Temples; of Wailing Walls and fairy-tale mosques and bloody sepulchers; of catacombs, citadels, hermetic cults, and siege mentalities.
“A Jesus has somehow been restored to us who stands for something more than martyrdom and vengeance.”
Peter Jennings, on the other hand, had better luck. Yes, too much of the music in Peter Jennings Reporting: Jesus and Paul—The Word and the Witness (Monday, April 5; 8 to 11 p.m.; ABC) is contemporary Christian rock, even, God help us, Christian rap, maybe to go with the jangle and gridlock of the Middle Eastern cities. But Jennings did his homework before hitting the antique yellow-brick road to Damascus, Jerusalem, Corinth, and Rome. The academics and clerics, the walls and relics and caves, have tales to tell about revolutionary politics, messianic religion, and imperial police work in the first century A.D. So we are reminded by Jennings and his scholars that Jesus, besides being a teacher and a kind of Zen master, was also a designated troublemaker on behalf of the poor, the sick, the despised and excluded. That, in a Galilee with an infant-mortality rate of 30 percent and a peasant life expectancy of 25 to 30 years, he identified not demonic possession but overwork, malnutrition, and political oppression as the problems. That he preached a social gospel encouraging all who heard him to “rethink” themselves “beyond stigma”Â—which means, of course, beyond class. And that such preaching naturally threatened both the Roman authorities (always nervous during Passover, with only 600 cops for a restive population of 200,000) and the handful of high Jewish priests (a self-perpetuating mafia of extortionate, nepotistic collaborators).
Talking to theologians, historians, sociologists, and archaeologists, Jennings is languid but curious and not at all shy. He will chat with the likes of Karen Armstrong, Richard Horsley, Elaine Pagels, and E. P. Sanders about either circumcision or milk and honey. Circumcision was an issue for Paul, trying to grow a new religion: For Christianity, he aimed to draw as many potential converts as possible. Well, you don’t ask an adult Greek or Roman to wound himself in his manhood on, as it were, spiritual spec. So: No Bris. Thus Paul annoyed James and the other disciples back in Jerusalem, where everybody was more Jewish.
Paul, with whom The Word and the Witness spends more time than Jesus, was odd as well as ugly. Since he believed that the End of Days was nigh, sex seemed a bad idea to him, women should keep their mouths shut, and slaves obey their masters. And yet this same Paul, writing his theology on the run in remarkable letters to the Ephesians, Galatians, and Corinthians, preached loving-kindness for the poor. His Christian community was a safety net of social services the Roman Empire neglected to provide for its captive peoples.