This cat Shaft is a bad mother….:
“Shut yo’ mouth!’
“But I’m talking about Shaft!”
“Who pulled the trigger and the how is just window dressing for the people. What’s really important is why did it happen and which group stands to benefit from his death.”
-Mr X. in the film, JFK
“It reaches to the highest mountain,
and it flows to the lowest valley.
The blood, that gives me strength,
from day to day--
it will never lose its power.”
-Old Hymn Sung in Black Pentecostal Churches
I watched “Passion of the Christ” again. There was a point where I distinctly concluded that today’s Christians—present company included—are a sorry lot. We suck at being the embodiment of what Jesus asked us to be. On a four-point collegiate grading scale, we should be at 1.0. And, our scared, out-of-shape, unfocused, eX-box-playing kids are even more pathetic. With our suburban churches, resplendent with CrispeeCremes, Double Mocha Lattes, and a “feel-good-must-not offend anyone” twenty-five minute long Saturday night message, it’s hardly surprising that many who need the message of the gospel believe Christianity is nothing but two-bit chicanery populated by buffoons.
The problem with Christianity isn’t Jesus Christ. It is the sorry lot of people that name themselves Christians, but wouldn’t recognize Jesus if they met him in the parking lot of Denny’s.
A grand theological debate raged in our church when I was a kid. Was Jesus half-God and half-man? Was Jesus the true God-Man, fully God and fully man or was he some different kind of being—an alien of some sort… A supercharged, super-hero version of an archangel...Jesus as member of some interplanetary Justice League or space council.
I was with a co-worker---let’s call her Angelina-- who was buying her son a birthday present. We were looking at video games. She bought him something. On the way back, when discussing, Passion of the Christ, she was adamant that she didn’t want her eleven-year-old son (we’ll call him Ray) to see the picture because it was too violent.
Well, what’s worse: Cartoon violence that has no basis except to either titillate or sensitize… or a representation of needless brutality inflicted on a guy being railroaded by the socio-religious-political system of the day.
Aside from the business about who killed Jesus, there is real truth here that demands illumination: What does the reality of this man’s death, burial, and resurrection mean to the good Christian folk of today. Are we representing the belief system He endured unspeakable humiliation to found, or are we so wrapped-up in our “me-first,” conspicuous consumption, focused on ‘self-preservation at all costs lives that Jesus has become an afterthought.
“Passion” portrays courageousness lost on much of present-day Western Christianity. The founder—who came first to the Jews and the lost sheep of the house of Israel—is one of the toughest men who ever drew breath on this planet. Jesus is the guy you want you in a foxhole. When Jesus says, “I got your back,” you can rest assured you’re not fighting alone.
The message of love is a central theme in the gospels. Reading in English, we lose the power inherent in the Greek word “agape” that is translated, simply, “love.” It’s not the kind of easy, “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” kind of love-based-on-reciprocity that we’ve come to experience in our world. His forceful use of “agape” suggests a kind of love that emanates from a different place—a place of choice and a place of strength versus a canned emotional response.
The gospels are pregnant with Jesus showing real courage. He and his posse happen on a funeral procession in Galileean city of Nain. A widow’s son—her only son—is dead. Jesus stops the procession and brings the kid back to life.
Let’s fast forward to 2004:
Cut to a Funeral Procession: The lead car is a hearse. The next three cars are all Caddy limos. Following, there is a procession of 20 or more cars and five off-duty motorcycle cops along for the extra pay. A guy and his twelve friends stop the funeral procession. They get out and go to the lead limo. It’s a lady, her name is Joanne and her only son, Roger, got shot during a car jacking. The guy lifts her veil and dries a tear away. Then, he goes to hearse and opens the door. His crew and the hearse’s driver pull out the steel coffin. He prays, thanks God, and says some words over the coffin. Then, he tells them to open it. By now, a crowd has gathered. The people at the back of the procession have stopped honking and are wondering what’s happening. Every body’s getting out of their cars. The motorcycle cops don’t know whether to write a ticket or get out the way. Joanne is now standing close by. The top of the coffin is now open The guy grabs the boy’s hand and the boy sits up. He’s awake. He’s alive. You think that wouldn’t be the lead story on CNN? The motorcycle cops are calling directory assistance for the number of the National Enquirer as we speak. “Yeah, I saw it. The kid just got up…never seen anything like this before in my life.” Jesus, what courage!
And, this business about disrupting the money-laundering schemes of the temple crew…a close analysis of history reveals these folks were involved in a highly lucrative enterprise. Let’s say that Rasheed al- Wallace from Syria and Dirk al-Nowitski from Ethopia believes that the Hebrew God is only true God and they want to worship him. The two of them come from Addis Abbaba and Damascus to the temple in Jerusalem. They learn quickly that they can’t just worship the Hebrew God, but they’ve got to purchase a sacrifice. “Oh, we’re sorry, but we don’t take your Syrian dollars or your Ethiopian pounds, you’ve got to convert this to Hebrew dollars.” And, if you’ve ever exchanged money at a hotel, instead of at the airport, you will understand the pain that Rasheed and Dirk felt in their wallets. And remember they are trying to worship God, not shop at Sears.
Jesus, fully aware of this moneymaking scheme, wrecked the temple courtyard. This attack on their moneymaking schemes sent a direct and powerful message to the religious/politcos. He challenged them on both theological and moral principles.
You think this didn’t require courage: The temple was protected by between three or four hundred Jewish guards and armed Roman soldiers. Jesus’ crew could have been massacred that morning.
What would happen if you went to your local shopping mall and began wrecking the place, calling it a 'den of thieves.' See what happens to you before the cops show up. (Don’t try this unless you have health insurance—but hey, twenty-five million Americans lack health insurance…)
Jesus was certainly no slouch when it came to pain. I can’t believe he even made it to the crucifixion. After the ‘cat o’ nine tails’ and the crown of thorns, it must've been the sheer force of will that kept him alive to make it to the cross. He was, in exact type, the Passover lamb slain in payment for mankind’s sin.
Which brings me to the why? Jesus asked this question: “Father, if there is another way, let this cup pass from me, but not my will.”
One would think there’d be a cleaner way to get the deal done…a way that didn’t involve the ‘cat o’ nine tails.’ Strangely, though, I don’t think the torture was the cup that Jesus didn’t want to drink from. I mean, he knew the deal from the start. It was a specific day he had to die that would fulfill the Old Testament requirements. He couldn’t just pick any day. There were other times when the temple bad guys were hot on his trail and he simply evaded them. This time, one notices he didn’t even try to escape.
The crucifixion thing was coming up. I think it’s safe to assume that Jesus had seen a Roman crucifixion before. If not, he’d at least heard of them. Although he’d only been back in Galilee for little over three years, he was traveled enough and learned enough to know this crucifixion business was not a pretty sight.
It struck me that the Jesus never shied away from his responsibility. The temple bad guys roll up on him whilst he’s in Garden of Gethsamane. Judas Iscariot embraces him so they’ll know which one to jump. Jesus doesn’t run. Jesus doesn’t fight back. He just says, “I’m your guy... Let the rest of this crew go.”
Or, here is another idea. He knew the Sanhedrin cabal was clockin’ him…why not just leave Jerusalem and go to back to Galilee. He could have easily fled to the area of Western Galliee or even up to Syria and lived for many more years. But you know what, he didn’t.
And moreover, the last two weeks before his trial, he was staying at the home of his boy Lazarus (yeah, that Lazzy, the one who was dead for four days before Jesus brought him back). Lazarus and his sisters—known in traditional scriptural treatises as the “ Bethany Household,” – lived just two miles away from Jerusalem. Jesus walked down to Jerusalem every day to teach in the temple and walked back at night. He wasn’t’ trying to hide from anybody. Can you say, courage? Today’s group of western Christians would be running for cover, so terrified that they’d need extra strength “Depends.”
Clearly, self-preservation wasn’t Jesus’ thing. Didn’t he say something like, “He that loses his life will save it and he who is trying to save his life will lose it”? The guy wasn’t behaving like someone who had done anything wrong. Nor, was he behaving like anyone who was scared. Jesus was just, cool. Kinda like a first century James Bond without the gadgets and the girls. In fact, Jesus may have been the original James Bond. “You can only get me if I chose to get got. Otherwise, catch me if you can because I am betting that you ain’t got what it takes. No one takes me life. I freely lay it down.”
Here is more stuff about Jesus that blows me away: His regular guy type tendencies. Jesus in the carpenter shop. Jesus being told to wash his hands before dinner. Jesus caring more deeply about his friends than himself. I mean, he was a straight partner—the kind you want to have when you’re up against an enemy. A real enemy—one that as David said in Psalms, ‘is trying to eat my flesh and destroy all that matters to me.’
Jesus is the kind of guy who always has your back. You start blowing up his cell phone in the middle of night, in the dead-cold of winter coz’ you’re in a real jam —He’s like: “I’m there.” He won’t do something weak like looking at the caller ID and not answering, or let it go to vm and pretend later that he didn’t hear it ring. No way, Jesus would be on the way to regulate on your behalf.
I am not surprised that a songwriter wrote, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” Have any truer words ever been spoken? If you’re his boy, you’re solid. You’re in, no matter what happens. Mel, thanks for portraying Jesus as a friend—and thanks for showing how his friends—except for John, scurried away in his greatest time of need. It is a cautionary tale for us today.
More cool stuff about Jesus: The guy had compassion for human weaknesses. Peter, in what has to be the luckiest strike in the history of sword fighting, slices off some cops’ ear without, oh let’s say, chopping his arm off. (Either the guy had Dumbo-type ears, or Peter should’ve been choregraphing those Errol Flynn movies). I know Peter didn’t stand up for Jesus in the middle of the night, but I give him straight ‘props’ for fighting in Gethsemane. The guy catches fish for a living—but he’s willing to ‘throw-down’ when they come looking for his main man. I like that about Peter. And all these present day CrispyCremeChristians—what would they have done? Probably pretended to be asleep or crawled under a rock until the temple bad guys scurried away.
Temple Guard: “You, over there, have you seen Jesus?”
CrispyCremeChristian: “ Jesus. I ain’t got no idea who you’re talking about. I was just out here for a late night stroll because I couldn’t catch no z’s. I saw the commotion and what-not, and I just came to see what was going on. I’ont know this Jesus dude.”
When Jesus came back from the dead, he told the girls, “Tell my disciples—and Peter—to meet me at the home front.” I’ve often wondered how Jesus got from Jerusalem where he had been buried all the way over to Galilee. (That’s a long walk and one must conclude that he was noticed by someone along the way…oh well, that’s another essay—I mean, how could he not have been noticed?)
Peter gets a special invite because Jesus knew my man was feeling low. Personally, I’ve got respect for Peter. He didn’t show at the crucifixion—John had the courage to be there—but Jesus obviously didn’t hold that against him.
And, I’ll bet if you could get Peter isolated in the non-smoking section at Waffle House (at Georgia Lynn’s table) and talk to him straight, he’d tell you that he still feels like a piece of dung for what he did and didn’t do. Life is about choices. The same guy who made the decision to step out of the boat, and walk on the water truly dissed Jesus in a moment of fear. (Self-preservation crushes your heart every time).
But, you don’t hear Jesus denigrating Peter and saying, “I told you so… If you was any kind of real man, you would’ve stood up for ya’ boy when everyone was hatin’. But no, you ran off.”
Jesus says none of that…He welcomes Peter back into the crew and, on the day of Pentecost, when 3,000 people accept him as Messiah, it is Peter who delivers the chilling message: “This same Jesus, whom you crucifed, is raised from the dead.” He didn’t exhibit any fear then. And, I would say the same socio-political-religious structure that fomented for Jesus’ murder was still around fifty days after the crucifixion. Peter wasn’t afraid any more, was he? And he could’ve been officially charged with assaulting an officer. Don’t kid yourself, Peter was at risk when he went public.
Here is more stuff I like about Peter… he doesn’t hide his failings. He doesn’t look to re-write history to make himself seem like the hero:
“Well, uh, you know, er’body else ran off that night, but me, I was, uh, right by Jesus’ side. Look right here at the cut on my neck. I got it ‘cause I was fighting the Sanhedrin guards. I said, over my dead body are you taking my Master.”
He could’ve gone off and said that, but he didn’t.
In less than thirty-five years after Jesus’ resurrection, Christianity was little more than an afterthought in Palestine, a splinter off Judaism. Mark was off in Alexandria, Egypt. Thomas was in India. The rest of the apostles were off doing apostle type activities. The core group of believers in “the Way” had relocated to Syria and Asia Minor (Turkey). The ‘Bethany Household,’ as legend goes, ‘bounced’ to the South of France.
Peter could’ve constructed a revisionist historical frame that painted himself in a much more favorable light: “I’m not trying to tell tales out of school, but Thaddeus and Matthew…we couldn’t even find them fools on the night of the trial. And as far as the crucifixion goes, I was right there the whole time.”
Nope, my man Peter came clean…he recounted a story that painted himself as a weak, frightened, lying piece of Gallilean garbage.
Peter did not practice revisionist history when he could have, and gotten away. There was no CNN or BBC with video footage of him denying Jesus. No paparazzi had scandalous photos. He could’ve re-written the history of that night and made himself look like a hero. Instead, he told the truth which was, shall we say, less than flattering.
Why did he tell the truth? I believe that the resurrection transformed him and he was uniquely and forever changed. And, to fully embrace the substantive nature of the change, he could not, in good conscious, tell his story in any other way but the unadulterated truth. He wanted the generation following to know the transforming power of the resurrection of Jesus. (Look what it did for me…it can do the same for you.)
Again, the influence of Jesus on his crew. He showed them a shining example of how to lead…of how to be. And, through his life and death, they became more like him. Guys that were super pragmatists: (Thomas: “I ain’t believing nu-thin’ until I see holes in some hands and feet. Then, you can talk to a brother about this resurrection nonsense.) Jesus "busts him out" for being faithless but, nonetheless, flashes the hands and feet. Thomas, at that moment, transformed into a man of unwavering faith, never again doubting the power of the resurrection. He declared this message until the day he was martyred (He met his death while preaching in India-- pierced through the abdomen with a sword.)
Focusing on how he died (A girl I know said this: “Oh, my God, it was like really bloody…do they have to show that…”) instead of why He lived, died, was buried, and then resurrected misses the real point of the story.
If He really came out of the tomb, there are a lot of people who are going to have some answering to do.
Personally, I don’t know a lot about Mohammed and Buddha and guys like them who started religions… I do know there is no qualitative historical record of them surviving a Roman crucifixion-- being dead for three days and coming back.
Had Jim Jones taken the Kool-Aid and come back after three days, I’d be forced to take another look at Jim-boy. But Jim didn’t come back. And last I checked, neither did any other founder of a major or minor religion. If Jesus did not come back from the dead, what’s the real point of Christianity? There are tenets of Buddhism, as a way of life, that I think are particularly more instructive. And, they’re clearer. Christianity as it has become westernized and turned into a business, is reduced to a set of behaviors, secret codes and carnival hucksterism. The message—the one of trust in God and the good news of the gospel—has been obscured in favor of promoting religion as a business, or some quid pro quo scheme to get rich.
What is the end game? As the reduction of Christianity to a business occurs before our very eyes, this wonderful message that Jesus endured such shame to bring us, erodes to a set of behaviors. The result: inconsiderate, weak and judgemental representatives of the faith. Oh, how far we have been blown off course.
We are a sad and sorry lot. If Vegas were laying odds on who goes in the rapture and who doesn’t, I’d say that 50% of those in North America calling themselves Christians will, on the day following that event, be driving around listening as Rush Limbaugh pontificates away the disapperances as a trick of the liberal media.