The revolutionaries that make a difference never look revolutionary as soon as they get into the history books. Lenin was truly revolutionary, but by the time Stalin came along, Lenin was co-opted, kidnapped, beaten and misshapen. No longer was Lenin the compassionate genius, ready to do whatever necessary for the good of the working class. He’d been adopted and abused by the ruling class in a way he’d never been when he was alive, because when he’d come out of the process, his image was no longer who he really was.
Think of how modern China can use Mao to support their capitalist policies. How Dorothy Day is made almost non-religious by many of her modern workers. How Lutherans reformed Luther to make him the leader of the quiet, passive denomination. How Buddhists made Siddartha an object to be worshiped rather than primarily a life to be imitated.
That’s what happened to Jesus. Again and again.
Over two centuries of spinning, Jesus has become a never-ceasing top, and cannot be recognized in the theology that bears his title. “Christology” is all about “the essence of deity” and “two natures” and “was it God or the human Jesus that picked up the toothbrush, May 2, 27AD?” Jesus’ philosophy suddenly is about “intellectual assent” “faith and works” “predestination” and other non-issues. The results of Jesus’ work has become building churches, pastoral education and conservative platforms. Jesus isn’t spinning in his grave—although the church that bears his name treats him as if he were dead—rather, he is vomiting spiritual fruit.
Jesus wasn’t about opulent wealth, but surrendering possessions.
Jesus wasn’t about taking the name of deity, but humble leadership.
Jesus wasn’t about complicated philosophy, but straightforward ethics.
Jesus wasn’t about intellectual satisfaction, but the release of prisoners.
Jesus wasn’t about supporting the decadent authorities, but about radical politics.
Jesus wasn’t about forgettable worship, but about life-destroying devotion to God.
It is always the descendants of a great revolutionary that destroy his real persona, his pure revolution. Some say that Jesus was co-opted by Paul, transformed to be “Christianity” as we know it. It isn’t really true. Paul’s presentation of Jesus was filled with radical politics and life-pretzeling ethics. Some say that it was the early church, as represented by the interests of the writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Hell, if they were the problem, we would never know it, would we? They are the only real way we experience Jesus as all.
The real problem began in the second and third centuries, when the simple, straightforward words in first century Judea began to do flip-flops, becoming trained dogs in the hands of expert etymologists. By the time the church of the fourth century, having bitten the fruit at the encouragement of Constantine, the original intent of Jesus was lost in quagmire of Greek philosophy, interpreted by Ignatius and Augustine, never to return.
Well, not “never.” Should the true intent of Jesus never have been seen, then surely God would have nuked the church and started over. All throughout the history of the church there has been a minority that pursued the ideal of Jesus—a slender thread that the church quelched or bureaucratized as quickly as possible. Montanus, Francis of Assisi, Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, Michael Sattler, Dorothy Day. Some intellects, some simple, but all of them cutting through the layers of lard that had been thrust upon the gospels. They opened the velvet cage that had attempted to tame the wild Jesus, and the Tasmanian Devil of a religious leader was released, albeit briefly, to wreck waste upon the tame Christendom.
It is time to do it again.
It is time to open the real Jesus to scrutiny and public mocking again—this time by those who claim his name. This Jesus isn’t passive or quiet—he is loud, boisterous, insulting and rebellious. This Jesus is angry, violent, insane and superstitious. This Jesus wasn’t killed as some supernaturally-fated accident. This Jesus was killed for good reason. If we met up with this Jesus, we might think ourselves that for the good of our society, he would need to be killed. I’m not sure who would like him in our white bread, MTV-as-revolution, anesthetized society. But it is time to set him loose. Then we’ll see who follows him.
How can we do this, how will we set him loose? We will write the gospels again—not as if they were set in this time. But we will write them as if they were written by revolutionaries in first century Judea. Some explanations will be necessary along the way, so we can understand what they were fighting. This isn’t a translation, it is a paraphrase, but I am attempting to keep as close to the text as possible. If I change it, it is change so we can appreciate how radical, how contrary Jesus’ look at reality and society really was.