Why has the Jesus story become so timelessly influential across history? Why do so many people find something irresistibly attractive and fearful in it?
And yes, why have so many adherents to this “Christian” tradition done horrendous acts of violence and depredation?
No search of history to find lessons for the present can ignore these two questions.
So why this great positive and negative impact of the figure of Jesus on the course of history? Why does the story of Jesus refuse to go away? This is truly a big subject, but humanity faces big choices. As we think about this, we might remember ironically, as W. Edwards Deming said: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”
The Christian celebration of Holy Week begins by remembering the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem. For Jesus, Jerusalem was the center of power which most opposed his own political views and public activity. In Galilee, where he had lived for several years among the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and those imprisoned for debt and resistance to imperial power, he had gained notable popularity, because he had healed and empowered multitudes of those despairing folks. But now, his decision to go to Jerusalem was a fateful and frightful one, because it would take him inside the beltway, to the center where those who thought they ran the country and defined the culture wielded their power. But he chose to take the risk, ramp up his courage and do it.
Matthew’s gospel says, “When they came near Jerusalem, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.’ ” And Matthew says,
“This fulfilled the words of the prophet, who said,
‘Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ ”
So, it was a prophet’s voice from the margins, not the mainline press, which said the king of Israel was coming in a totally unprecedented way — he would be riding a bicycle, not a limousine.
The crowds in Jerusalem, gathered for the great annual religious and political convention, heard the rumor that this Jesus from Galilee was entering the city. They gathered along his route and Matthew says they shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
With great drama the crowds were identifying Jesus as a descendant and heir of king David’s ruling dynasty in Israel. Jesus was coming as a king. The people of Israel, living in exile and oppression, were about to have a new king in the line of David.
But it was far from clear who Jesus was. The account says next, “When he entered Jerusalem, the who city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee.”
So there you have a stark and dramatic difference in who Jesus might be. Is he a king in the tradition of David, with a throne, armies and wealth? Or is he a prophet who denounces kings with their pride, pretense and homicidal ways?
This Jesus is a big deal, he is popular, known by thousands, apparently. He must have some kind of power. But there’s the question of history — what kind of power is it? Do we have here a king or a prophet?
And if a prophet, then is his power merely the kind that stirs people up and leaves them frustrated? What real power does a prophet wield?
Then Jesus goes to the temple, the center of religious practice for all the people, but also of political power, because the Romans had built the temple. It was a kind of giant mall, arena and cathedral all in one, where commerce, piety and patriotism combined in a great annual festival of spending and profiting and hoping for success in the year ahead. Jesus walks in and begins to turn things upside down, and says, ‘You’ve turned God’s house of prayer into a den of thieves.’ He challenged the way things were being run, and his challenge infuriated those who thought they held the power in this society. Then he left the temple for the night, but returned the next day to teach publicly.
Matthew then records a week of Jesus teaching in the temple. It is a clash of power, the established religious authorities in league with Rome vs. a prophet from Galilee. The teaching of Jesus put forward a nonviolent plan of action, a way of running the world that was based on compassion, forgiveness and defeating enemies by loving them into relationships of trust. It did indeed clash with the ways of kings and priests who were busy colluding to manage the economy and society with the power of hierarchy, domination and ultimately homicidal violence.
But why has that clash and story so fascinated people for centuries?
Because humans know this struggle between the violence of established authorities and powerful nonviolent impulses of the human heart. Every day we face choices between harming or helping, retaliation or forgiveness, escalating or calming situations of conflict. It is the human condition — do we survive by beating down and beating up the other, or seeking common ground and greater good by taking the risks of cooperation and second and third chances for all of us?
The great advances of history have been made by people who chose the path of human kindness, to abolish slavery; of justice, to recognize women as equals; of democracy, to replace kings with shared leadership. Nonviolent methods have achieved dramatic changes.
But it is painfully true that others have turned their backs on this wisdom of Jesus, and people carrying his name and posing as his community have fought wars, launched military crusades, and filled prisons with people far better than themselves. But if we’re clear and honest about it, these were not people accepting the radical new way that Jesus entered Jerusalem, on a donkey or bicycle. They enter Jerusalem as David did, with armed men on war horses (1 Chronicles 11) — they are in long black limousines. They are not disciples of Jesus.
So as far as Jesus goes, and history goes, it is pretty clear. Jesus can be represented and he can be misrepresented. If it is too difficult for us to parse that difference, we will be the losers.
Jesus does not continue to impress and attract 2000 years later because of people who misrepresent him. He is remembered because he did choose a donkey for his transportation, totally upsetting the notion of kingship, and did speak like a prophet, challenging the presumptive powers with their ways of domination and cruelty. He confronted the world with the option of nonviolent struggle, another way that he called the kingdom of God. And that continues to have an irresistible tug on the human heart — a vision of how we could choose to make a viable future by running the world a different way.
John K. Stoner is a member of Akron (Pa.) Mennonite Church. He is co-author of If Not Empire, What? A Survey of the Bible. This post first appeared at bible-and-empire.net.