What was Christ’s movement?
Christ was not a Christian, at least not in the mainstream sense. He did not consider himself divine: the Gospel of John, the last Gospel written, was the only book to say such a thing directly. There is no real account of his resurrection, as sources directly accounting for the resurrection did not arise until some 50-years after the crucifixion. Even Paul’s section on Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 was written around 20 years after the death of Christ.
Furthermore, the empty tomb is improbable, as Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin and would not have provoked the Romans by purchasing a tomb for a man accused of high treason. Indeed, Flavius Josephus1 and Tacitus2 corroborate that Jesus was put to death by Pontius Pilate for crimes against the state: they do not note that he himself started a religious movement, but merely that his posthumous followers worshiped him.
Considering that the writing of the books of the Gospel took place almost fifty years after Jesus’ execution, little reliance can be made on it for true information about Jesus. His miracles, purported interactions with certain individuals, and such cannot be verified.
Today’s “Christianity,” and the Gospels, do not focus on the true beliefs of the message of Jesus, but instead on his “Resurrection,” his supposed divinity, salvation, and other divine aspects. This focus tends to make the true ethical and moral message of Jesus secondary to an attempt to fulfill the Jewish messianic prophecy. It is not that divine aspects are wrong or bad, but that the message and true values of Jesus are lost to the divine message.
What the Gospels can be relied upon for is a general understanding of the thought of Jesus. For this, we can turn to the Four Cardinal virtues, and one of the Theological virtues. Prudence: the act of stepping back and discerning the correct of action; thinking before you speak or act. Courage: confronting one’s fears, standing strong in the face of life. Temperance: moderation in all things, but denial in none. Justice: fairness, honesty, integrity, and centeredness. Charity: share your possessions, your virtues, and your love found from the other principles with others.
What did Jesus not stand for?
He would not have abided the oppression of women: he prevented the stoning of the “woman taken in adultery.” He advised her to “sin no more,” but would not condemn her. Jesus railed against the sexual oppression of women by men, equating male lust with adultery.
Jesus even fought against discrimination, despite his followers’ disputes on teaching Gentiles: he broke social custom and associated with the Samaritan woman, spoke the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Gentile woman from Syrophoenicia.
He even gave women administrative positions in his teachings: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna were noted specifically to administer with Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. It is noteworthy that the Gospels defy the patriarchal domination at the time by mentioning these women.
By examining the social issues addressed by Paul and the Gospels, which were written later than Paul’s letters, one can see how Pauline theology influenced the later Councils and creeds to distort Jesus’ teachings. These later authorities imposed socially conservative doctrines used to oppress upon Jesus’ original message of liberation. Paul introduced opposition to homosexuality, an issue Jesus never touched upon, and he introduced a misogynist element in 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
Paul’s writings furthered the view of Christ returning at the end times, a view used to convert people to the religion about Christ through fear of death, rather than spreading the message of Christ through love and example. The Wobbly and Catholic Worker Ammon Hennacy3 said quite succinctly, “Paul spoiled the message of Christ.”
Separating these virtues and ethics from dogmatic theology and reshaping them into an ethical view, one sees how Christianity has been separated from its benevolent roots: where once these virtues were taught by Jesus to give a movement to the poor and downtrodden, Jesus has been co-opted for blind faith and worship whilst abandoning these messages.
Jesus may not have read or even known of the Classical Greek and Roman writings about virtues, but he took them and stripped them of their class character. Where the Classical virtues applied to specific classes of people, Jesus stripped that dimension and allowed the poor a place: he gave them a movement from which to organize and find a place outside of the repressive Mosaic system and the oppressive Roman Empire.
If Jesus himself was not divine, then what is the purpose for following these teachings? Nothing. They are an outlet of self-expression, a moral compass by which to abide, and that is enough. If one wishes to follow the teachings of Jesus, one can do so. If one does not, one can choose not to.
The English Separatist preacher George Fox (1624-1698), living in a time of intense political and social upheaval, proposed revolutionary ideas about the Bible’s theological teachings: he equated women with men, thought that all (no matter age, race, sex, education, or wealth) could teach and preach, and affirmed that believers could follow their own inner guide. Whilst his ideas conformed at first only to Christians, with the start of comparative religion studies, some Quakers would begin to believe that “believers” could apply to anyone willing to follow the path of righteousness and good, regardless of actual religious belief.
Fox fought on behalf of the poor, crusading against unjust court sentences against the poor, and combating corruption within the English Church on the subject of tithes and money. He focused on inner moral growth rather than on the sumptuous rituals and displays of other English Christians. Fox, in his Fifty Nine Particulars, called for an end to tithes and unjust punishment, as well as many regulations that were meant to stop the oppression of the poor.
The American Quaker Elias Hicks (1748-1830) was an early force within Quakerism for abolition, and he started charity for African-American education. He preached obedience to the Inner Light, and he resisted the Orthodox Quaker trend to an organized Protestant sect. Hicks’ radicalism eventually led to the first split in the Quaker movement, with Hicksites denouncing the corrupting influence of the market economy and the increasingly evangelical and dogmatic views proposed by the Orthodox Quakers.
The Quaker Earlham College taught evolution, and liberal 19th century Quakers like John W. Rowntree and Edward Grubb supported social application of Christian teaching, as well as modern Biblical criticism. These Liberal Quakers would lead to the formation of the Universalist Quakers, distinctive religious pluralists, and the self-explanatory Nontheist Quakers.
Concurrent with the rise of liberal Quakerism was the rise of Unitarianism, which rejected the trinity and many established Western religious doctrines, and which criticized the supposed infallibility of the Bible. Many rejected the worship of Christ, and more radical Unitarians rejected dogma in favor of ethics and love. Many Unitarians would soon integrate their theology with the idea of the universal reconciliation: God’s love and mercy will allow all souls, saved and lost, to enter Heaven at the end of time.
In 1961, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. Whilst at first this was obviously a merger of two liberal forms of Christianity, it eventually evolved past Christianity into a religious pluralist organization that identified as non-creedal and drew inspiration and ideas from all religions.
In the 60s, Catholic Priests in Latin America reconciled the left revolutionary upheavals of their time with the theology of the Catholic Church. Reverend Gustavo Gutierrez wrote A Theology of Liberation, an analysis of poverty in Latin America combining theological views with Marxist economic analysis. Christian anarchists like Ammon Hennacy also reconciled their theological views with resistance to the repressive state mechanism and capitalism.
The moral and ethical teachings of Jesus can, in my opinion, best be represented through the aforementioned virtues and the testimonies found in Quakerism. The testimony of equality exemplifies the broadness and inclusiveness of Jesus’ movement. The testimony of integrity and truth exemplify the moral standards that the followers of Jesus’ ethical message should hold themselves to.
The testimony of peace, though it should be tempered against outright inaction, exemplifies the antimilitarism of Jesus’ message: wars are fought for the ruling class, and the poor sent to die; by fighting them, we legitimize them, unless we are fighting against those who oppress. The testimony of simplicity exemplifies the class character of the message: we should not overindulge, nor possess an unnecessary amount, nor engage in classist behavior.
Indeed, it seems that nontheist and universalist Quakers, as well as Unitarian Universalists and Liberation Theologians, are the inheritors of the true message of Jesus: not to glorify the teacher, but to ensure the true material is taught.
And that material? It can be summed up with the following:
“Love your neighbor as yourself,” “blessed are the poor,” and “fill the hungry with good things but send the rich away empty.”
Notes & Image Source
1 Flavius Josephus – The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3. There, he describes Jesus as a “wise man,” and that this “tribe of Christians are not extinct to this day.” Editor’s note: For more on the passage from Josephus, see “Jesus in the Eyes of Josephus,” by Geza Vermes, in Standpoint (14/12/2009).
2 Tacitus – The Annals, Book 15, Chapter 44: “Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus.”
3The Book of Ammon (1965), autobiography by Ammon Hennacy.