Friday, September 3, 2010

To Be More Like Jesus

If you think Jesus loves you, he probably doesn't even like you. Or wouldn't, if he were alive. Jesus wouldn't like any of us who claim to oppose systems of oppression but are unwilling to accept personal risk and take action.

OK, there's my hook, and I like it, but it's not quite fair. So, in fairness, I am guessing we are all familiar with Jesus' message of universal love. I hope so. It is an important message. A dear friend of mine who is a preacher says that the primary focus of Jesus' teachings was interpersonal relations. She has misgivings about my focus, in this piece, on the Temple episode, perhaps the only story in which a fully mature and manifested Jesus acts in an overtly oppositional manner. I hope this piece is not taken as a refutation of the notion of Jesus as a community builder but rather as an expansion of our understanding of his actions and, moreover, as a case for expanding our repertoire in defending the community of life.

Why was Jesus murdered by the Romans? The sources, problematic as they are, suggest it was at the behest of the collaborationist Hebrew elite, feeling threatened, no doubt, by this populist Hebrew resistance leader. But what was the trigger? Again, the sources we have give a perfectly plausible and sensible explanation, which we have no good reason to doubt. Mystical or esoteric explanations are unnecessary. The pretext for Jesus' gruesome public execution was the act of resistance he performed in the Temple.

I just ran a Google Images search using the words “Jesus” and “Temple.” What I saw were images like the famous El Greco painting above, scenes of a man taking a firm stand, sometimes looking serene, sometimes angry, sometimes giving orders, sometimes wielding a whip, sometimes overturning tables, generally striking fear in the eyes of those around him. None of the images show any suggestion that he assaulted anyone, nor do the written sources upon which these images are based. The written sources, like these images, make it clear that Jesus forced the business community out of the Temple by physical means, including the destruction of their property, but not including assaults on their bodies.

But wasn't Jesus a teacher and practitioner of non-violence? The scriptures say so, and there is no reason to doubt this. But what is violence? If I tear a sheet of paper, is that violence? What if I smash the windshield of a car (with no one in it)? It may be infuriating to the car's owner. It may be unjust (but what if it's Osama bin Ladin's car?). It may be interpreted as a threat of potential violence to the owner. But is the act itself an act of violence? If so, why are some acts destructive of inanimate objects violent while others are not? Is it a question of their monetary value? Regardless of how you choose to understand violence, the following should be clear. If Jesus is to be understood as a practitioner of non-violence, yet lost his life for having destroyed the valuable property of business people engaging in what he considered to be morally reprehensible practices, then targeted attacks on immoral or destructive property are not acts of violence.

Get it? Unless you are ready to call Jesus a terrorist, then destroying destructive property is not violence. If you want to follow the example of Jesus, you should be willing to destroy destructive property when other means of resistance fail. Either you sympathize with Jesus and the Hebrew resistance or you sympathize with the genocidal Roman occupiers and the Hebrew collaborators, including the business community. If you are in the latter camp, be honest about it. Do not say that Jesus loves you. On a profound spiritual level he would, but more immediately, he would oppose you.

What is the #1 threat of domestic terrorism in the US, according to the FBI? No, silly, it's not the FBI. It's the ELF. And I don't mean Legolas. Haven't you heard of the Earth Liberation Front? No wonder if you haven't. It doesn't exist, as such. It is label for individual environmentalists or small groups of them who claim the name because they adhere to a set of principles, which are as follows:

* To inflict maximum economic damage on those profiting from the destruction and exploitation of the environment (biophysical).
* To reveal to, and to educate the public about the atrocities committed against the earth and all species that populate it.
* To take all necessary precautions against harming any animal - human and non-human.

Yes, you read that third and final principle correctly. And yes, it has been adhered to very closely and successfully. And yes, that is the “top domestic terrorism threat” in the United States. They haven't hurt anyone. And they don't intend to. And to do so would be in direct violation of one of their three core principles. Some terrorists.

No doubt, Emperor Tiberius, Governor Pontius Pilate, King Herod, and all their cronies, considered Jesus to be the leading threat of domestic terrorism in Palestine. No doubt, the good Roman subjects accepted this without question, or ignored it entirely. Just as few Americans questioned or even noticed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's obsession with destroying Dr. Martin Luther King. Or when the Reagan administration added Nelson Mandela and the ANC to their list of international terrorists.

Are you ready to say that Jesus was a terrorist because he broke the law and destroyed property used for immoral purposes? If not, how do you respond to the charge that those who adhere to the principles of the ELF are terrorists, let alone the most dangerous terrorists in America?

My point here is not to make the case for the ELF in particular, though the individuals who have claimed the name have done some courageous work. Nor is my point really to get us to rethink the historical Jesus. My point is to get us to see that the targeted destruction of destructive or oppressive property is, for one thing, not violence, and for another thing, something we should do.

Quick review. The planet is being killed. 1% of species are going extinct annually. Need I say more? OK, I'll say a little more, but this is, hopefully, just a chore at this point. The planet is warming at an alarming rate. The Greenland ice sheet is melting, and when it collapses, will produce unimaginable tsunamis and will permanently raise sea levels by 25 or so feet. This is to say nothing of the much larger ice sheet in Antarctica, also showing signs of at least partial collapse. Up to one third of the wildlife that existed just in 1970 is now gone, exterminated, murdered. There is ten times as much plastic as plankton in the oceans. Every albatross on Earth carries plastic in her/his body. Every human and nearly all non-humans carry dioxin and other hideous carcinogens in our bodies, and cancer rates are skyrocketing. Who have you lost? Oceanic acidification is so severe that phytoplankton can no longer live in large portions of the seas. Over 90% of large vertebrates that inhabited the oceans before industrialization are gone. Pollinators are dying off worldwide. Seals are so loaded with mercury that they are technically toxic waste, as are the indigenous Inuit who live on them and who now have some of the highest rates of birth deformities in the world, despite living a sustainable lifestyle thousands of miles from any industry. There are eighteen mega-dams on the Columbia River, once home to more salmon than any other river system on Earth. The litany could go on endlessly. If you haven't noticed that we are in the midst of an anthropogenic apocalypse, please wake up. Please.

Now, have you signed a petition against BP, Exxon, or Halliburton? Attended protests? Recycled, composted, bought locally, commuted by bike, boycotted sweat-shops, and planted native trees? Shat in the woods, dumpster dived, practiced permaculture, gone to environmentalist retreats, learned primitive skills, killed your food, or taught honest classes? I've done most of these things and hope to do more. These are good things, well worth doing. And yet, they are not sufficient. None of these practices is making a dent in the ongoing process of ecocide. What will? Carbon credits? Please. I ask again, this time for real, what will? Destroying destructive property. Will it be called terrorism? You bet. Will people be murdered for doing it? Yes, they will. Just like Jesus.

Just like Jesus.

Destroy destructive property. It's a hard moral imperative to face. Won't it harm people, even if indirectly, even when taking “all necessary precautions against harming any animal - human and non-human”? It will, in a sense. In the same sense that destroying the property of the businessmen in the Temple made their lives harder, and those of their wives, children, aging parents, etc. In the same sense that ending the Holocaust put a lot of people out of work. In the same sense that shutting down Raytheon or Monsanto or the US military or the FBI would do the same.

One of the sad realities of abusive systems is that innocent people are dependent upon them. Creating this dependency is a universal and key tactic of abusers. Does that complicate the issue of stopping abusers, or dismantling abusive systems? Only on a tactical level. Does it justify or legitimize abusers or abusive systems? Not one bit. The children whose food, medicine, and school tuition was paid for with money from the trans-Atlantic slave trade must have suffered when that trade was shut down. Was it therefore wrong to shut down the trans-Atlantic slave trade? No. If we want to consider ourselves adults, we have to accept that actions have diverse and sometimes unpredictable consequences. Yet profound injustices must be opposed, and not just symbolically, by anyone who genuinely empathizes with the victims or values the qualities that are targeted and destroyed by abusive systems. Jesus opposed the Roman occupation of his homeland, opposed the Hebrew collaborationists, and, as a devout Jew, opposed sacrilegious trade in the house of God.

We should be more like Jesus. We should be merciful and kind. We should not be quick to judge. We should be selfless, humble, and compassionate. We should love this world, love simplicity, love community. We should do everything we can to avoid wantonly harming anyone. And we should be willing to take a firm stand. We should resist injustice like we really mean it, in action as well as in word. That action can and should include direct attacks on property when less confrontational or dangerous means prove insufficient and when the degree of abuse warrants it.

We should be no more violent than Jesus. And no less firm.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm. Interesting points, and nice job on the "tweaking." I maintain that the temple incident cannot be understood outside of its narrative contexts, and when I have more time it would be interesting to explore how each of the four gospels portrays this incident, and where in the narrative they place it. Some even say that it may not have been part of the early stories about Jesus at all, but was instead inserted to redirect the thinking of those who still thought the temple in Jerusalem should be the focal point for all religious activity. Will discover more later...