Dan Brown’s conspiracy book “The DaVinci Code” was good. This is like that, but Biblical.
Someone sent me a meme of Jesus bungee jumping from a crucifix.
A month later, I read a book that took this meme to a whole other level – that Jesus suffering on a cross was only first used as a religious symbol around the year 960 c.e. Let that sink in for a moment. The image of Jesus on a cross suffering is an artistic choice. And, one that is (only) 1050(?) years old. I’d like to share this history with with you.
*David, small and scrawny*
Think of a series of photographs you have on a camera from a vacation. Imagine that you are going to select six photographs of your vacation. Depending on which six photographs you pick, you could tell different stories of your vacation. The Bible’s the same way. The stories that are told about the Bible tell different stories of the Bible. And, many of the images we get are the wrong ones. Think about King David. Chances are when you think about King David, you think about the image of David carved by Michelangelo. It’s a giant statue – David is ripped, has a beautiful body, and is seventeen feet tall. That image is completely wrong, according to what we know about David. The biblical text is very clear that David was the smallest and scrawniest of Jesse’s sons. (He had to be small for the story of David and Goliath to make sense—he was the underdog, the unlikely one to win in that battle. Cause if he was seventeen feet tall, it would not be a David and Goliath story, right?) The giant image of David sticks with us. Michelangelo’s vision of David changes what we think about David. And that sculpture was not made wrong unintentionally. The sculpture, financed by the Medici family, was made that way as a way to usurp from Rome the power of Biblical interpretation—because controlling the message has always been part of how the powerful play the game. Reality, then and now: whoever controls the media controls the story.
*The Bible Project*
I’m going to go on a small tangent here. I don’t know if you know about The Bible Project, but it’s a group of folk here in Portland, Oregon who are set on making beautiful cartoons of each Bible story. Their interpretations are genius. But, they are interpretations. Their spin on the Bible is their spin on the Bible. According to them, the books of my tradition (The Hebrew Bible) is nothing more than a stage setting for the story of Jesus. I think that’s dismissive and misguided. I’m not going to tell them that their interpretation is wrong. It just fits with their agenda. Like I have mine and you have yours. (I have a goal of making a Bible Commentary in 2020. Let me know if you want to help with that.) The point is that this reality doesn’t change: whoever controls the media controls the story.
*Jesus, suffering on a cross*
Think about the image of Jesus on a cross, suffering. It is almost impossible for us to unsee this ubiquitous image. When we think of Jesus on the cross, we think of his tortured, beaten body. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker’s book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire, opened my eyes when I found out that Christianity did not image Jesus suffering on the cross until the 960s or so. Let me restate that because it is hard to believe: it is only in the tenth century, in Germany, when we first see an image of Jesus on a cross, suffering. That is the first known image of Jesus suffering on a cross. Up until that time, there were no iconic references to Jesus suffering on a cross. There were images of Jesus suffering and images of Jesus on a cross, but not of him on a cross suffering. Think about a trip you recently took. Which pictures do you show? What stories do you tell? Do highlight the wonderful meal or the horrible waiter? It’s up to you to choose what story to tell. Showing the image of Jesus suffering was (and is) a choice. I’ll explain how this choice was promoted by the founder of the crusades, the 11th-century pope, Urban II. But, first, let me tell you what the imagery of Jesus was up until then.
Prior to the tenth century, all iconic images of Jesus and the cross were of him peaceful or, more commonly, next to the cross – having been resurrected. Jesus was off the cross, resurrected, next to four streams. This represented the idea that Jesus was resurrected in the garden of Eden. The iconography was that Jesus transcended death and came to life in the garden of Eden. A basic tenet of Christianity—the idea of being born anew—was never imagined as being born anew into the next world. To be born anew used to mean to be born anew in this world. That’s what a baptism was: a shedding of this earthly, human life and seeing that you had another life, that you were filled with a spirit, and that spirit is you being born anew. That was the message. Judaism had and has, even unto this day, the notion of cleansing oneself in a ritual bath. The idea has been that we need to do something to cleanse ourselves of the impurities of this world. Baptism (the Greek word for this rite) as performed by John and others was never with eyes towards inheriting a world to come — it was to be born again anew in this world. And for the first thousand years, this is what Christians were practicing: how do I live my best life here and now? How do I live under an oppressive government? How do I keep my spirits up despite “them” trying to “bring me down”? Jesus lived in an authoritarian regime, with the people being terrorized by Roman imperialism, and he preached the idea that the kingdom of God was — and is — here and now. The disciple said, “When will the kingdom be here?” and Jesus said, “It is here now. You did not see it.” The idea of being reborn in this world was so you could live under such oppressive conditions. To be able to fight against the perverse society in which you live takes active resistance. This was Jesus’ message, and it was the message of the early rabbis. They taught that we can stand up against the perverted society in which we live.
*I will not buy in*
Krishnamurti said, “To be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society is no indication of health.” What does this mean? That we need to stand up and have moral fiber. We have to be able to look at society and reject what is wrong with it. Here’s my speech:
I reject the notion that might makes right.
I reject the notion that peace will come from violence.
I reject the notion that busy is better.
I reject the notion that wealth is an ends in and of itself.
I believe in justice.
I believe in love.
I believe that that peace can come from love.
I will not believe otherwise.
We need to stand up to the perversions our society teaches. We need to re-see that it is our job to make this heaven on earth. That this, if I live it right, is heaven.
*Heaven on earth*
My friend Martin Rutte wrote this wonderful book called Project Heaven on Earth. He explains, logically, that we know, deep in our heart, deep in our soul, the kind of world we long for. We want a world moving in a direction that nourishes and fulfills our deepest being. And we need to live that life, that Heaven on Earth, now, and create more and more of it in future nows. Martin, a Jewish man who grew up speaking Yiddish in Hamilton (near Toronto), has helped me see the very same truth that Jesus was pointing people to thousands of years ago: This here, now, is heaven on earth. The belief that it’s not heaven on earth is what prevents us from seeing it. This is heaven here if we live our lives as though it is. This is heaven on earth if we cleanse ourselves from our wrongful understandings and tacit complicity with injustice. Please click this link to look at Martin’s revolutionary ‘Three Simple Heaven on Earth Questions’ that will help you and all of us live heaven on earth. Martin is naming the new story of what it means to be a human and what it means to be humanity…..Heaven on Earth.
*How it went down*
Let’s get back to the pope and the cross. Pope Urban had an idea to unify the world for Christendom via a military campaign. But Christians were forbidden from spilling human blood during the first millennium. (This changed.) His workaround was to explain to people if they died suffering or in service of making the world Christian they would be reborn and get to the world to come. To suffer for God was to be like Jesus. The image of Jesus on a cross in eternal and enduring agony was to inspire people to do the same. The image of Jesus on a cross did not exist until people made it an image. *Not here to suffer* However, despite the omnipresent image of Jesus suffering, that is not what we are here on Earth to do. I would suggest that Jesus should bungee-jump off the cross. We are not here to suffer. I remember learning in grade school that Jews were the suffering servant of God. This never made sense to me. None of us are meant to suffer. For God to have us suffer would make God cruel, and any God that I can understand is not cruel. Moreover, understand the implications of how Thomas Paine put this: “The belief of a cruel God makes a cruel man.” God does not delight in our suffering. God delights in us finding that we are filled with spirit and that we can live and love and find that our actions can make this world heaven on earth.