Sunday, April 11, 2010

Jesus in a Culture of Violence


    A number of ancient looking volumes sit on the top shelf in our bedroom, books that I've collected through the years and which, no matter how little I may refer to them these days, I refuse to throw out. The top level (on that particularly shelf, of which my wife and I have about seven) is dedicated to history. Most of the books are from various courses I've taken through the years, although some have been salvaged from garage sales and library extravaganzas. Whenever I buy a book on history, it always brings with it a moment of excitement. For me, history is like a treasure hunt, an old fashioned adventure in the search for truth. (Clearly, I watched Indiana Jones too many times as a kid) Books of all kinds, especially historical ones, contain the most treasure because they tell the most important story of all. The story of us. Of who we are and who we've been. Of how we've changed and how we haven't. Of why we acted and why we didn't. Of why we succeeded and why we failed.

    As someone who understands this and loves to parse the historical record, it's been quite some time since I took the time to sort through it again. The last one to capture my attention was The Story of Christianity by Justo L. Gonzalez, a former course text in my Graduate program, which now lies buried on the window ledge next to our balcony. Off the dusty shelf to my current book pile (which currently numbers twenty-five) but still unopened the past ten months. Why? Well, you only have so much time for reading, and with all of the magazines and newspapers and novels I want to read, it's hard to find time for a chapter on the political ramifications of Augustine's City of God on Feudal government in the 14th Century. Especially since the Masters is on and Tiger Woods is back on tour and did you hear that he gave that one woman ten million dollars to stop talking and look at that shot – are we watching a movie tonight, because the kids need to be in bed early and we still need to watch American Idol this week and – poor Sandra, look at this, love, they found another woman that Jesse was having sex with – that church is so ridiculous! It's pure glass! They're probably racist – is every woman doing the news good looking, but – hold on, Quentin wrote me on Facebook, I have to buy some farm equipment, and – Brain Overload – who cares about history!


    The Myth of Education


    When we talk about educating people so that they can understand the issues, we need to understand that only certain people want to be educated. Most of us, in fact, are merely interested in the idea that we could be educated if we wanted to be. Like buying a piece of stereo equipment that we can upgrade if we so choose. Our lives are busy and designed to be that way. You may not realize it, but the busier you are, the more likely you are to buy things. To consume. That's how our brains work. The advertisers know this, and the companies know this, so they conspire (this is the beauty of greed, it brings everyone together) to turn our lives (and coincidentally, our prefrontal cortex – which is responsible for our rational decisions) into a zone of chaos.

The point of our twenty four hour info-freak highway is not to learn, or even collect knowledge, but merely to consume the potential for collecting information that may become knowledge. So much 'info' that we zone out and end up plucking off the conveyor belt the tidy little 'gems' which reinforce what we already know, so that we can hurry back to our couch and the game/reality show/news bulletin/movie… (Very few people hurry back to their books anymore.)

I suppose we should delineate the difference here, between knowledge and information. For lack of a better definition, knowledge is held as something to be used, something of value that is learned by the individual who now "knows" something. Information however, simply implies crude data. That said, the line between knowledge and information has been completely blurred. And that's the way companies and advertisers want it. They would prefer our knowledge base to be less, but the amount of information we possess to be greater. That makes it far more difficult for us to make wise decisions. In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz clearly illustrates this point. The more information we have, the less wise and more paralyzed we'll become in making a decision. In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer, breaks down the reactions within our brain when we make decisions, and why, it seems, we are so often unable to make wise choices. Often times, he says, we simply hold too much information in the prefrontal cortex (the place we make rational decisions), so that most of our decisions are based on emotions. Sometimes, he argues, that is a good thing. But the fact that people are unaware of this makes them susceptible to advertisers and politicians and companies that basically overload our brain and hold out something that will immediately touch our dopamine reward systems. (Chocolate anyone?)


Jesus and Violence


What has Jesus to do with this? Very simply, we have been duped by certain forces within our culture, to the point where those who say that they follow the Jewish Rabbi have attached certain beliefs to their core faith that have nothing to do with him.

Understand that this has always happened. That none of this is new. The church has always adapted to the culture around it, as it should. And it has always been subject to the whims of the rich and powerful who try to extend their control to those (the Serfs) around them. That is the flaw of humanity. That said, it is something we must still address, and here in the 21st Century there seems to be a growing disconnect between the words of Jesus and Paul and a large portion of the North American church. A church that has merged with a video game culture that does not understand violence or war or the value of life.

It's hard to express to North Americans what it means to grow up in war, what it means to be forever worried that today might be your last or to be ripped from your family or to witness the violent deaths of your friends and neighbours. Jesus understood. He was a Jewish Rabbi in occupied Palestine, born less than eighty years after the uprising led by Judas the Maccabean, which ended with many Jews staked out on crosses along the road to Jerusalem. The witness of war and violence is present throughout the Gospels. (Which were written about thirty years after the death of Jesus and about ten years after the slaughter and destruction of Jerusalem) So is the desperation of the people. The Romans, of course, with their famed Pax Romana, sought to bring stability and order through their conquest, and many of them considered what they brought to these people to be something of great value. Interestingly, the Jews never saw it that way. Neither did the Gauls (the French) or the Britons or any of the other countries that the Romans annexed and subordinated.

Depending on which commentator you read, Jesus was either very political or not political at all, as his was a very different kingdom. Regardless, he was a Jewish Rabbi trying to help his people survive, and despite their pain, he repudiated violence as a means to overthrow the Romans. He knew it could not be done. He spoke about subversive actions with an eye towards non-violence, the hardest form of subversive-ness. (When someone asks you to go one mile, go two. The Romans could not ask the Jews to go more than a mile to carry their things. Jesus tells them to go two. The second mile you do it, you do it independent and free.)

And yet it is the cross itself, the one upon which Jesus is killed, that speaks to his greatest and most important message. (And in my mind, cements him as being God Incarnate) He took the violence of the Romans, held it in his hands, and refused to pay it back. He took the violence of the most successful Empire in the history of civilization, an Empire that had destroyed and annexed cultures and lives around the world, and simply held it. The payback was coming, but it wouldn't be through bloodshed. It would be the spread of a new movement throughout the Empire, a movement dedicated to this Jewish Rabbi and to the idea of an Incarnate God, a movement founded on a sacrifice and based on love. This movement would rescue babies thrown in the garbage by the Romans, would teach new ideas about culture and equality, would share its goods with one another, and would work hard to keep up the Jewish traditions of looking after the poor and the widows. It would spread quietly through the Empire as an example of what Rome was not, and in so doing, eventually topple her.

This is how Christianity was born. This movement, seeded by martyrs and in direct opposition to the human enterprise that said "we know what's best for you. You should be Roman." This movement was born in an Empire and culture that believed it was superior to all others, a culture that made its fame through the discipline of its legions and the might of its arms. The movement spread, first as a Jewish idea, and later as one embraced by different cultures as it shifted and adapted to the world around it. For over three hundred years however, the movement never lost sight of its Saviour, never forgot the bloodied and tortured image of God Incarnate hanging on a cross, and the contrast between what he'd taught and the Empire that had killed him.


What Now?


Many advertisers will tell you that if they can keep your mind busy enough, they can make you believe anything. Politicians know this, too. And in world headed back towards illiteracy, this bodes well for those who have power in our society. They can convince us of anything these days, or so it seems. They can paint pictures of politicians and religious leaders and those in the science community, and they can paint them anyway they like. Who's going to do the follow up to the TV special? Who's going to back check the article they read online? Who has time for that?

And they can do it for figures of history as well. They can make the Romans seem kind and benevolent to the people they conquered. They can make the British Empire and the life of a soldier back then a thing of genteel beauty. And they turn the Jewish rabbi who spurned the Romans and helped destroy the greatest Empire in history, by dying, into a card carrying NRA member who equates the Kingdom of God with democracy by force. The power of the lie is so great, the level of differentiation so vast between these ideas about the original movement and what it is has become in some quarters, that it leaves little room for argument. As our televisions and video games flicker in the background, we move further from what our Rabbi taught, and we forget too, why he died.

The textbook still sits on the shelf next to my window. I pick it up and head out onto our balcony. The sun glows over the city without a cloud in sight, and in the distance the CN Tower rises above the landscape. The Masters is on, and the Raptors play a big game tonight, and I still haven't talked to- I interrupt my thinking and crack open my old history text, and with a quiet prayer, sit down to read. We'll never have all the answers, but if we understand why things get so confusing in our culture, and force ourselves to go back to the place where God whispers to us in that still, small voice, perhaps we'll remember who we were, and who we are supposed to be. Jesus once said that the truth would set us free. My prayer is that, despite the interference from a society trapped in information overload, the freedom we have been blessed with would help us remember what that means… and act accordingly.