Christianity has been used as a weapon against others, and has been made into a justification for imperialism. The seeds for this are in the Biblical texts themselves. Even in the Gospel of John it is hard not to see a constant us-believers-versus-them (those who reject the believers’ assertions). When the conditions were right, the seeds grew.
In the beginning Jesus was a Jew who preached to other Jews a message of change and renewal; and he demanded inclusion without delineating a boundary of exclusion. He was executed as a criminal by the imperial governor. On Easter his tomb was empty and he was seen by many who asserted that what they saw was not a ghost or vision or hallucination but a living human being in a material body of “flesh.”
The church has turned this into a toxic message. Jesus became the great exception, and his believers became the privileged over against all others, whom the church condemned. Others had no meaningful existence unless they could be converted (and became subservient to the imperial — missional — church).
Can the originating event be redeemed? Or is it too late, especially after the crimes of the planet-changing fifteenth through twenty-first centuries, crimes of genocide, slavery, economic and political exploitation and eco-cide?
I haven’t found the answer to that.
But just personally, what if Jesus was NOT the great exception? What if he was a manifestation or revelation of reality itself, about which — our own reality — we and our “worlds” are blind? That’s a starting point.
I am still left wondering whether even this approach can work. We would have to recognize that Jesus used patriarchal terms like “father” and “king” and “lord” and “kingdom” in a subversive way, that he actually inverted their sense in a constant use of irony. He probably did, for the un-inverted non-ironic sense of his teachings has been preserved, which are clearly non-patriarchal, as far as they went. I understood Jesus this way.
But, is this enough? Can we excise also the transcendent sovereign god, and not just neuter “him” and render “him” into a mere influence of attraction that still has an oddly privileging interest in human affairs? Is anthropocentrism and the binary of deity-and-creation inherent in even the originating “story” as it certainly is in gentile Christianity?
It is tempting to read the originating story pantheistically, that Jesus’ “divine” is not transcendent but immanent, not a theos but a panthea. That could redeem it (though probably never for the popular reader). But it might also require so much interpretive violence to the words of the accounts that it would be unfaithful to their witness. That won’t do.
Except privately. I can still wonder if the originating story “behind” the understanding of the first witnesses accounts might still be true along that line. I even wonder if the early and late Francis of Assisi (from the beginning of his conversion to the Fourth Lateran Council and from the stigmata to his death) and Clare of Assisi were not instinctively and intuitively pantheists however awkwardly they would have understood themselves within the intellectual constructs that were available to them. Without any doubt they were animists, believing that the entire creation (not just the biological) was aware and animate (which tradition attributed to their naivety). That kind of animism follows a straight line to pantheism, though pantheism is a serious heresy within the patriarchal church. Yet there it is, hiding in plain sight.
Francis, nurtured into his spiritual awakening by the younger Clare, his secret friend, did not originally want to preach, and when he had brothers and then sisters, he did not envision an order. The pope imposed this on him, making him and his brothers an order of preachers like Dominic’s. Francis was overawed by the Fourth Lateran Council which he attended and began preaching on behalf of the “church.” When, however, he was away on his historic trip to the Middle East, the pope took over “his” order and wrote its rule (the rule Francis wrote was rejected). Leadership was taken from him. He was only necessary for the order as its symbol. It clearly did not reflect his original vision. He was a broken man in health and in heart. It wasn’t until, in his deep identification with the betrayal and suffering of Christ, he manifested the stigmata that an interior healing began to take place. It was during these last days, outside the order that bore his name, that he returned inwardly to where he began, just as he returned outwardly to Clare, imprisoned at San Damiano, where she nursed him while he was dying and composing the Canticle of the Creatures.
Even before his death the pope was also trying to force Clare to renounce the “Franciscans” and join an order of cloistered sisters that he had previously established and to lend it her name. She refused and kept resisted, even at one point going on a hunger strike, but eventually the pope got some concessions out of her which he fully exploited. The pope kept imposing his own rule on her, a rule that denied her original vision and imprisoned her and her sisters. In the end, she found a compromise by writing her own rule with necessary accommodations to the papal rule. The pope relented as she was dying (no woman had ever accomplished this before, ever), but a few years after her death the rule that she spent years drafting was replaced by his own — with the stamp of her name. Her original vision was obliterated from it. And the Franciscan Friars were drafted into serving the Inquisition.
The question remains: were the popes right about these two, that their original vision did not represent the Christianity that the church recognized? Nevertheless, these two saints provided an opportunity for the popes who saw that their reputations could still be (ab)used to create an army of preachers and contemplatives to serve the interests of the patriarchal church. The vision of Jesus that both Francis and Clare appealed to was condemned by the church as a heresy; and Franciscans, in collaboration with Clare while she was still alive, who tried to be faithful to Francis rather than to these papal pronouncements, were burned at the stake. Did the papacy have a point? Was the “Jesus” of Francis and Clare true to the Biblical text? or not? If not, was it faithful to a deeper intuition that was behind the textual witness to Jesus? I don’t know, but I have suspicions.