Because I am feeling lazy and have a lot of other things to do, I thought I’d recycle this post from 2000 which first appeared in Columbus Day Riot.
Christmastime can be hard those of us who tend to worry about how the world works. I have railed in the past about the obligations to a relentless flurry of materialism, but that only comes to me because the majority culture is part of my heritage. There are millions of Americans and billions of people around the world for whom Christianity itself, the supposed origin of the holiday, is not a part of their traditions and values.
I think there is something there in the life of Jesus that we all can celebrate and learn from.
I realize that this statement is a difficult one, but that is true largely because even those of Christian faith typically know very little about the man known as Jesus of Nazareth and what he was trying to say. Jews, for example, often see Jesus and his eventual death as just a cheap excuse for their persecution because that is how it has been used against them for two thousand years. Other faiths, especially Islam, have had Christianity used as a war cry and an excuse to kill and enslave and imprison their people and culture. All of this sad history has only been possible because no one, especially Christians, seems to understand the real message that was being preached by “The Prince of Peace” and what his way of life was really all about.
Certainly, the Bible itself as an authority can be confusing and contradictory. But the words of Jesus are very clear on a number of topics, especially when it comes to living a life that is truly at peace:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39)
This is a direct refutation of what came before, and a simple command to live a life of peace. To follow Jesus and his teachings means that you do not strike out, but resist passively and non-violently. This is a part of the Sermon on the Mount, the most famous and complete selection of his teachings that has survived to this day.
There are many other important passages in there, such as Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. (Matthew 5:6) — in other words, it is the process of attempting to be a better person that eventually creates its own reward. This is not a bunch of New Age claptrap, it is the teachings of a Jewish peasant whose very existence is supposedly the foundation of our majority culture. Yet people rarely seem to find that message in our culture itself — they feel compelled seek outside Western Heritage for messages of peace and self-enlightenment.
How this got twisted into what we now know is a tough bit of tradition to get around. Mostly, it is blamed on Paul of Tarsus — the man who was most responsible for the spread of Christianity, and not so incidentally the only one of the first Christians who was not present when Jesus himself spoke. It is he who sent off letters to early groups of Christians telling them that “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). With the often (and mistaken) addition of “alone” at the end, the process of turning Christianity away from the life and teachings of Christ is complete: Faith is more important than behavior and actions.
This is how we get to the point where no major Christian religion has stood up to decry recent wars and the various military interventions that are so common and result in so much misery. They are obviously not consistent with the teachings of Christ, yet who has dared to point this out? To be fair, the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II has spoken out against war as a general concept in his “Gospel of Life” or Evangelium Vitae encyclical of 1996. This is a philosophical package against all forms of killing including war, the death penalty, and abortion which is remarkably complete and consistent. No matter how I feel about this Pope and his conservative stands on issues such as the role of women or homosexuality, he is at least capable of rendering a package that is complete and consistent. In that way, he is serving the Gospels far better than any other Christian leader.
Actually reading what Jesus had to say produces a number of other surprises, for example. He speaks out clearly in favor of separation of Church and State with the words “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). He’s ‘s also pretty hard on prayer in school (and other public places) with one of my absolute all-time quotations from Jesus:
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. (Matthew 6:5-6).
Now, I realize that some of this point of view that I have comes from a small part of my own heritage, which is not exactly as a member of the majority culture. Some of my ancestors were Mennonite, a religion that to my understanding is the only one that has taken the life and teachings of Jesus seriously (outside of the Catholic order of Saint Francis, who really is the first Westerner to rediscover what Jesus actually said). But I maintain that what was actually taught is something that we can all know, we all can appreciate, and that we all should try to live by. I honestly believe that this can be taught in schools in a way that reinforces not just Christian life, but the life of all of us regardless of our faith. “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
For these reasons, it is a good thing for all of us to take some time out and consider the arrival on this planet of a philosopher who gave us a message of peace and love that we can all live with. In fact, I happen to believe that it is the only way to live.
Peace be with you all.