Mar 04 2024

The Gentle Jesus Myth

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 5:26 pm

There is a picture you may have seen, depicting Jesus with lots of cute, cuddly animals: squirrels, deer, rabbits, various birds, sheep, and even a particularly non-threatening fox (I think it’s a fox….  It might be a small dog, I suppose.).   The picture also includes a lake in which, even though we can’t see them, the fish are presumably lining up to be petted.

This picture was clearly not illustrating a “lion lying down with the lamb” moment, for the excellent reason that there were no carnivores at all (except for the small, cute, non-belligerent fox I mentioned that might just be a small dog).  The picture is clearly not intended to show us what the post-apocalyptic New Earth will be like (some people think there will be no predation on the New Earth).

Does this mean that Jesus only likes herbivores (leaving aside the carnivorous nature of many cute little birds)?  I do know some vegans who seem to think Jesus loves them more than he loves those of us who frequent Outback and Sizzler, but since humans are omnivorous as a species, I’m not sure that counts.

I’d be more impressed if the photo showed Jesus gently stroking a lion who had just taken down a wildebeest, or maybe a cheetah who had just hamstrung an antelope and was now chowing down on the still wriggling sprinter (soon to be retired).  How about if Jesus was shown in the background approvingly looking upon the family man and NRA member who just shot the family’s meat for the next two months?  Would Jesus say, “Good shot!” and maybe admire the well-maintained, telescopically sighted rifle?  (“David sure could have used one of these for Goliath… and would still have given Me the glory for his success.  By the way, My hunter-son, that was a good, clean, merciful kill of the food I put on this earth for you.”  Genesis 9:3)

I’m aware that a possible interpretation of the photo is that normally timid creatures feel safe with Jesus.  But wouldn’t that be just as true of predators, also God’s creations?  Many of them run at the sight of humans, the chief predator of all.  Predators probably experience fear, and need to be comforted, don’t you think?  Maybe we should have a picture of Jesus petting lions, tigers, bears, wolverines, traders in securitized sub-prime mortgage bonds, senators and IRS agents.  Or maybe not the last two, since they seem to have no natural enemies or any real competition in the food-chain, and therefore do not know fear.

If this all seems a little dissonant to you, it’s likely that you’ve bought into the “gentle Jesus” myth.  This is the notion that Jesus and the God of the Old Testament don’t have much to do with each other (think of it as a distant father/son relationship, but they really don’t talk much).  So Jesus can reflect only gentle meekness.  Maybe the only thing with legs that Jesus ate was, well, broccoli?  (Forget that Passover lamb, I guess….)  Cut to photo of broccoli trying to get away from a reaper.

Too many Christians seem to be functional polytheists.  They say they believe in one God, but in practice their concept of the Trinity involves not one God in three Persons, but three Persons who only get together on infrequent holidays, like other dysfunctional families.  And even then, They must argue over the war in Afghanistan and whether or not taxes should be raised to fund more social welfare spending.  Essentially, these Christian polytheists see Jehovah as a “Republican” (war mongering conqueror of non-threatening nations, excessively concerned with building wealth, and too moralistic and judgmental), Jesus as a “Democrat” (probably a pacifist/socialist/environmentalist/animal-rights-activist all rolled into one, who is still not sure about the appropriate legal/moral status of a fetus, and is willing to rely on your conscience in the matter) and the Holy Spirit as Libertarian or apolitical (after all, the Spirit requires the freedom for us to act out).  

What’s especially funny about this view of Jesus is that pacifism and socialism don’t mix, not at all.  Socialism requires government enforcement with threatened violence to make the redistribution of money happen, something lots of pacifist wanna-be-socialists just haven’t wrapped their minds around.   The most bloodthirsty nations in the 20th century have all had “socialist” in their names or central ethos.  Most of the recommended policies of environmentalists also involve some form of economic redistribution and enforcement with the implied threat of violence for non-compliance (else why would the unconvinced comply?).  “Pacifist-socialist” and “pacifist-environmentalist” are oxymoronic terms if ever there were any.

But I digress.

Underlying all this is an essential discomfort with the idea that God created predation, and that Jesus was God looking on in the Old Testament approvingly as the Israelites conquered Canaan, at His specific command.  Jesus was God as the Mosaic law was given (including what seem to us to be its bloodthirsty aspects).  Jesus did not lecture the Father from the cross about how the Father should really get over it and put this violent atonement stuff aside.  Instead, Jesus had already said, “Not my will, but Yours.”  Given the apparent separation of identity involved here (the real mystery of the Trinity expressed in the Incarnation), it is clear that Jesus didn’t see His presumed commitment to “peace at any cost” (the assumption made about Him by many pacifist Christians) as superior to the Father’s commitment to divine justice (with the aspect of mercy fully acknowledged in the sacrifice of the Heroic Son, really a sacrifice made by both Father and Son).

The Jesus I know thinks that lions, tigers and bears are pretty cool.  How else?  Does anybody really think that carnivores grew their claws and teeth and acquired their dietary preferences only after the Fall?  The Jesus I know thinks human hunters who behave responsibly are just fine, and He has nothing at all against self-defense, including violent resistance to aggression (again, having made us this way, knowing such a drive was critical for our survival, and not withstanding inadequate interpretations of Matthew 5:39 about “turning the other cheek,” which is about not overreacting to insults, not failing to defend yourself from real threats).  The Jesus I know created the human need for justice, as part of the Creator Godhead, and that need is one of many reflections in the Imago Dei.  In fact, that human need for justice is part of what makes us able to understand, “through a glass darkly,” God’s divine plan for the salvation of human beings, with its triple necessities to reflect God’s character in regard to justice, mercy, and love.

One incredible thing about the Cross is that Jesus didn’t have to allow it.  He was, instead, the mighty Warrior who gave Himself up, didn’t call in His army to rescue Him, and sacrificed Himself for His people.  It isn’t that Jesus just couldn’t conceive of anything else.  It isn’t that He saw not defending one’s self as the highest moral good, in some absolute way.  It is that He won the battle, and the war, by sacrificing Himself, in a strategic turnabout that took Satan totally by surprise (and Satan’s been denying it ever since, even going so far as to deny that there ever was a war, or that he even exists).  

I’m sure that no harm is done by cute little pictures.  Maybe they’re appropriate for small children, though children often have a greater sense of justice and the necessity for rational violence than adults may want to admit.  Children rarely look to the smallest among them to defend the rest.  They run straight to Daddy or big brother, who, it is presumed, will act with strength and good judgment.  And, childish though it may seem to some people, “who started it” really does matter.

As adults, we might be better served by art that depicts Jesus accepting and supporting people who do difficult work like fighting wars, catching and prosecuting criminals, or collecting debts, whenever and wherever such things are just.  Regarding the awful consequences of war for non-combatants, God tolerated “collateral damage” even in the New Testament, not just the Old, as evidenced by everything from Herod’s murder of toddlers (trying to kill Jesus) to the fate of many Christian martyrs.  In the end, justice is mercy, and love, even when it comes at a cost that must sometimes be paid by innocents, or even the only Innocent One.

In the meantime, let’s try to widen our picture of Jesus so that we always see Him as part of the goings on in the Old Testament, and see His words and deeds in the New Testament as literally fleshing out and refocusing the picture of a God who is the very embodiment of justice, mercy and love, who Alone (in three Persons) is able to keep them in perfect balance and wholeness.  Admittedly, there are some tensions in this approach, but there is also a deeper sense of God’s nature to be apprehended, and we are less likely to pretend that God is bi-polar (tri-polar?), or schizoid, for the sake of making it easier to ignore aspects of His nature with which we may be uncomfortable, or may have difficulty reconciling from our all-too-human viewpoints.