Liberation through Sacrifice

An African Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey to the enthusiasm of the crowdI wonder what really happened when Jesus entered Jerusalem. He can’t have had that many followers traveling with him from Galilee. He might have had some followers in Jerusalem but I’d expect their numbers to be small as he wasn’t a regular visitor or teacher there. For him to stage an impressive entrance into Jerusalem with big crowds of people seems unlikely.

There may have been a large crowd of people there for Passover. That crowd may have been drawn to the spectacle. I wonder if maybe a crowd had gathered to honor another dignitary.  Maybe Jesus got there first riding on his borrowed donkey.  If so, he might have excited the people near the gates with his parody of a triumphal entrance into Jerusalem of a warrior-king on a magnificent steed.  Whatever happened, it makes for a good story with a meaningful message.

What the gospels agree about is Jesus appeared in Jerusalem to criticize the powerful. Clearly, Jesus wanted to announce his presence to the authorities. What scholars tell us is Jesus’ behavior is modeled on the tradition of Jewish Prophets. He most likely came to Jerusalem to announce the coming Kingdom or Realm of God on earth. In the tradition of the Jewish Prophets, Jesus was painfully aware of the betrayal of the Jewish people, especially the poor, by the Jewish leaders and by the Roman overlords. In Jesus’ eyes, they had broken their covenant with God.  They needed to be called back to restore that Covenant.  The center of the Jewish universe was the Temple in Jerusalem.  The holy days of Passover were a time when the many Jews would be there.  It would have been an excellent time to be in Jerusalem to speak prophetically to the powerful.

So what was Jesus’ Prophetic message? We find it stated right at the beginning of Luke as Jesus worships in his home town of Nazareth and reads from Isaiah 61:1-2:

The spirit of the Lord is on me,
And anointed me
to bring good news to the afflicted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim a year of jubilee.

These words describe the mission to which Jesus was called, called to announce the Realm of God to be established on Earth.  Jesus announced this message not just to recommend this way of being as a hypothetical. He was right there saying it was going to happen very, very soon; within the lifetimes of those hearing his voice. God was sick and tired of the way things were and was going to do something about it.  Jesus was, in effect, saying, “Get ready for some big changes folks!”

Jesus knew who was hungry to hear this message. Jesus had been meeting and healing those who were excluded from the Temple by their illnesses that made them unclean. Roman oppression meant that people were being unfairly imprisoned. Jesus knew people who had lost their inherited family land due to being unable to pay heavy Roman and Temple taxes. Farmers couldn’t support themselves or their families without any land to grow food.  They didn’t have progressive income tax nor did they have earned income credit. Pay your taxes … or perish. A year of Jubilee would forgive all these debts and burdens, allowing people to have a second chance.

So Jesus was on a prophetic mission from God proclaiming an immanent reversal.  The high and mighty will brought low and the low shall be lifted up.  This reversal will be a blessing to the poor in spirit, to the meek and gentle, to those who mourn, those who are persecuted and those who hunger and thirst for uprightness and righteousness.  The merciful, the pure of heart, and the peacemakers will get the recognition they deserve.

And sooner or later, Jesus was going to have to go to Jerusalem to speak this truth to power, maybe even triggering the reversal itself.  Yes, he taught and healed as he traveled from town to town, but his primary mission was to proclaim this good news.

So, given his passion for this mission, the question arises, did Jesus go to Jerusalem to do his prophetic duty for the benefit of the suffering Jewish people or did he go anticipating he would be killed then rise again and sit on the right hand of God ready for the last judgement after the apocalypse?

Two of my favorite Biblical scholars think he had hoped to continue his ministry and mission. They think he probably wanted a triumphant exit as well as an entrance from Jerusalem after Passover was complete. Sure, he must have known he was taking great risks by what he was doing, especially turning over the tables of the money changers. Maybe he hoped for and expected a change of heart by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders, as happened when Jonah went to confront Nineveh and all the people repented.

Liberal Catholic scholar John Dominic Crossan notes that Jesus was protected by a crowd who came with him from Galilee but also by “others who had invited him to bring his message of God’s Kingdom-on-Earth to Jerusalem for maximum publicity precisely at Passover.” Every night Jesus would withdraw out of Jerusalem to the relative safety of an area of supporters on the Mount of Olives and Bethany.  Crossan sees in these precautions that:

Jesus was planning, despite those dangerous demonstrations, to leave Jerusalem without getting himself killed. And he almost made it — until Thursday. (source: link)

Scholar Bart Erhman agrees with Crossan, not expecting that Jesus came to Jerusalem to get killed. The problem was, Jesus wasn’t just criticizing the Roman rule.  He had some harsh words for:

the Jewish aristocracy and the priests running the Temple cult in Jerusalem. Jesus saw them not as the representatives of God on earth, but as God’s enemies. When he arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed that God would destroy the Temple and wipe out those who were in control of it (the power players in Jerusalem: the high priest, the chief priests, the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees) (source: link)

I think we can be confident that this didn’t make the Jewish authorities friendly to him.  They would be happy to hand him over to the Roman authorities for execution if they got the chance. Pilate would have surely seen him as a problem and it takes no stretch of imagination to expect him to crucify Jesus “as a public example of what happens to those who stir up animosity to the ruling authorities.”

At some point during Jesus’ week in Jerusalem, he must have realized the authorities were planning to capture and kill him. What we have is a story of him in the Garden of Gethsemane, agonizing over the cup of poison that was being handed to him. He could have gone back to Galilee and escaped. He didn’t. Whether or not he came to Jerusalem expecting to die, at the moment he allows Judas to kiss him and betray him, he chooses to sacrifice himself for his hoped for liberation of the Jewish people.

Jesus is hardly unique during this period of time putting his life on the line. There were a number of other prophets who appeared and were killed or banished. Jesus was different. Jesus either survived the ordeal (which is highly unlikely), or somehow his spirit or presence or message was able to survive his death that led to the reconstituting of his community that preserved and carried on his mission.  Whether or not he physically returns from the dead after three days, his prophecy does not die with his body.

While most Unitarian Universalists embrace the ethical teachings of Jesus, we are suspicious of the idea that Jesus sacrificed his life, the way Jews slaughtered animals in the Temple during those days, to atone for sins. We resist the idea that God can only be reconciled with sinful humanity if Jesus offers his own life up as an atoning sacrifice. Some of us find that kind of an ancient God appeased by the shedding of human blood repugnant.

Here is another way to hear the story of Jesus’ sacrifice in the context of the sacrifice of his life for his prophetic mission rather than our personal redemption. Jesus puts his life on the line to show his commitment to that mission. It is a mission that can only go so far during his lifetime, given the Roman occupation of Palestine. But, if his mission outlives him and is taken up again by his disciples and followers, then his death will not be in vain. His hope for the liberation of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, continues.

So when we recognize and honor Jesus’ sacrifice, when we align with Jesus’ prophetic mission, he can live again in us and in our actions. We become part of his sacrifice for the liberation of humanity, work far from complete.

That work of liberation remains undone partly because Jesus was wrong.  He expected the Realm of God would be established during the lifetime of his disciples. That part of his prophecy is clearly wrong, even disastrously wrong. In the lifetimes of his disciples, things go from bad to worse with the eventual destruction of the Temple by the Romans.  God doesn’t reverse anything and the Jews suffer even more not less afterwards. Jesus’ message probably would have disappeared too, except for Saul from Tarsus who stopped persecuting Christians after having Jesus appear to him and question him about that persecution. So much of the Christianity we have today is colored by St. Paul’s Romanizing influences to make Christianity attractive to them. (Especially removing the requirement for circumcision)

But his followers didn’t give up on the idea that the Realm of God was coming. Christians have been expecting the second coming to be imminent for the last two thousand years.  Thanks to Wikipedia, here are some of the more entertaining predictions that haven’t come to pass:

  • Irenaeus believed Jesus would return in the year 500. One prediction was based on the dimensions of Noah’s ark.
  • Pope Sylvester II expected the Millennium Apocalypse at the end of the Christian Millennium, January 1, 1000. Various Christian clerics predicted the end of the world on this date.
  • Mathematician Michael Stifel calculated the Judgement Day to arrive on October 19, 1533 at 8am.
  • Emanuel Swedenborg thought it had actually happened during his lifetime in 1757 except that it had happened in the spiritual world. He also believed he had daily visions of Jesus over the course of 30 years.  Jesus’ return was not in the flesh, but in His Holy Spirit.
  • The most recent failed expectation was September 28, 2015 by Mark Biltz when there was a lunar eclipse. This comes from the Blood Moon Prophecy of John Hagee.

If you’d like to mark your calendar for the next prediction, psychic Jeane Dixon thinks it could happen as early as 2020.

I say, don’t bother. Jesus was wrong about predicting the coming Realm of God as a moment in time. What Jesus might not be wrong about is he participated in initiating a change in consciousness about how people should treat each other that is gradually changing the world.

Unitarian Universalist values as written into our Principles align well with the essentials of Jesus’ vision of the Realm of God.  Jesus’ radical and uncompromising love we express in our first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Jesus’ demand for justice we express in our call for justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Jesus’ vision of world transformation we show through our goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

These values are not just found in Unitarian Universalism but also today in contemporary Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and other world religions as well as earth centered traditions.

And still the work of liberation initiated by Jesus’ sacrifice isn’t done.

So as this holy week begins, may we reflect on how Jesus’ prophetic mission has touched our lives and moved us. If we are so moved by him, may we align with the good news he claimed from fellow prophet Isaiah. I’ll close by repeating the verses:

The spirit of the Lord is on me,
And anointed me
to bring good news to the afflicted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim a year of jubilee.

Benediction

Go out with these words by Dag Hammarskjöld,

“Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who ‘forgives’ you–out of love–takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice.

The price you must pay for your own liberation through another’s sacrifice is that you, in turn, must be willing to liberate in the same way, irrespective of the consequences to yourself.”

Reflections on Middle East: Not Making It Worse

Recently I’ve been reading many expressions of fear and anxiety in the social media universe. I’ve read reports that Americans are more on edge than they have been since 9/11.  Although the media seems to have become desensitized to having a mass shooting at least once a day, the attack in San Bernardino has touched a nerve.

The site of the attack is what I think is so disturbing.  The target, a social service organization having a Christmas party, has a randomness to it.  A potential next attack could be almost any target.  I read messages expressing a new awareness that if people are in a movie theater, the mall, in a big box outlet or a grocery store, they are in a space that could be a target. We are starting to get a taste of what it is like in many parts of the world where a trip to a public marketplace could mean encountering a suicide bomber and death.

This anxiety is increasing our attention to what is happening in the Middle-East.  ISIS is no longer focused on attacks in just that region. Now that they have attacked the French, they have declared their intention to come after Americans as well.  Suicide bombings and indiscriminant mass violence mean their followers are willing to die for a cause many of us don’t understand or appreciate.

So, what do the people who form the leadership of ISIS really want?  They declare they are creating an Islamic state that will encompass all Muslims worldwide (except Shia Muslims they consider rejecters or “rafida”). To do this, they are planning the overthrow of all the existing governments in the area and establish a “caliphate.”

This isn’t a new idea, one called the Abbasid caliphate existed from 750 to 1258 C.E. Khaled Diab in an op-ed piece in the New York Times described this as a time of relative diversity in the region, as well as dramatic advances in science and mathematics – in sharp contrast to ISIS’ violent fundamentalist version of their own imagination of a caliphate.

Diab thinks the appearance of ISIS is the result of many failures of European diplomacy that started with the destruction of the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago.  These failures cleared the way for the emergence of a nihilistic fundamentalism.  They rejected the sinful ways of the Western unbelievers, and corrupt, oppressive Arab states.  They advocated a return to a vision of a pure Islamic state as outlined by the Prophet himself.

As Muslims have not rallied behind them in the last year, and they have come under heavy military resistance from the West, ISIS has become more radical, and more extreme, further isolating them from the international community … which might explain their increasing focus on end times thinking.

ISIS believes a meadow outside a small village in Dabiq, Syria, will be the site of a decisive battle described in a prophecy attributed to Muhammad.  The prediction they revere describes that meadow as the place Muslims will defeat Rome and trigger the Day of Judgment.  If you can’t defeat your enemy militarily, then, at least you can set up the circumstances for God to be recruited to do the work for you.

Part of me wants to just dismiss this kind of crazy talk.  Why would this insignificant bit of real estate matter that much in the grand scheme of things except to the hapless people who live there?  Sadly, this kind of apocalyptic thinking is hardly unusual in world religions.  It even has a name: eschatology, the description of the end of history when the Day of Judgment comes, the righteous finally triumph over evil, and God evens up all the scores. In these prophecies there is likely to be a place identified where an epic battle takes place and finally brings history to an end.

A few signs in the Quran that the Judgment Day is coming include: the Splitting of the Moon, a time when honesty is lost, when a wicked member of a tribe becomes a ruler, and the sun rises in the West. I expect most of us are aware of Christianity’s version of this that happens after the second coming of Christ.  There is a whole book of the Bible called Revelations that outlines some of the disturbing events that will happen when the four horsemen of the apocalypse appear to begin the battle.  Both Christianity and Islam find their thinking rooted in Jewish tradition.  Jews also wait for the Messiah to come, fight that final battle, set things right again and end all oppression.

Because eschatological thinking can be found in just about every religion, I wonder if it is baked into our genetic code somehow.  When times are tough and injustice and oppression reign, I wonder if it is deep human urge to want to project the resolution to suffering out to some glorious time in the future when the wicked will be punished and the righteous shall be victorious.

I wonder if this kind of thinking got world leaders to a place they would be willing to unanimously commit to the Paris Climate Accord.  This is really a landmark moment in dealing with humanity’s impact on the environment to celebrate.

But dangers still loom ahead as we are already in dangerous territory with the current level of carbon dioxide in the air.  The effects at 400 parts per million may not follow linearly at 450 or 500.  They be far worse or may not be linear at all.  What we can be fairly sure of is things will be different than they are today.  And buying real estate in Florida is a risky long term investment.

We’re even seeing this kind of end-times thinking in the high tech world with talk of a “technological singularity.”  This singularity, that could happen in the lifetime of some younger people here this morning, might happen when intelligent machines develop recursive self-improvement methods, that surpass human intelligence.  Google is on the fast track that direction right now with Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana in hot pursuit.  Machine intelligence could then outstrip our intellectual capacity as it continually improves maybe at an exponential rate.  These super-intelligent machines may then decide they don’t need us anymore and eliminate humanity as a troublesome artifact.

So far, Unitarian Universalists haven’t indulged much in eschatological thinking.  We certainly are not going to take the Abrahamic religion’s sacred texts literally.  We are hardly immune to gloom and doom thinking however.  The second half of the twentieth century after the first atom bomb explosion was terrifying.>>>

As the Soviet Union and the United States built more and more nuclear missiles and had B-52s on constant alert, World War Three seemed just around the corner with a full exchange of thousands of these bombs almost inevitable.  Anyone remember the discussion of Nuclear Winter that might result from such an exchange?  (Possible solution to climate change?  Maybe not …).

Thankfully the seventh principle, the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, has become our frame for envisioning the future.  Rather than seeing ourselves dominators and domesticators of nature as our ancestors did when they encountered wilderness, more and more, we see ourselves as moving toward the future as one interdependent part of a healthy ecosystem, without which we cannot survive.

We also have a vision of the world we want to create that is in our Purposes and Principles: The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.  Rather than seeing one civilization triumphing over all the others and being blessed by God with a millennium of peace and prosperity, our vision is of a pluralistic world of diverse people worshipping many different Gods or none at all living together in peace with mutual respect and appreciation sharing in harmony the bounty of our planet without taking more than is sustainable.

I’m happy to report that this same vision can also be found in other religious traditions as well.  There are Evangelical Christians to take seriously being stewards of the Earth.  Liberal Protestant Christians also take sustainability seriously as a goal as we build the Beloved Community on Earth as it is in Heaven. The Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change is a rich source of interfaith work. There are many values we share to be found in that document. I would dearly like to make common cause with the Catholics to work on Climate Change as they are a mighty force who might be able to change hearts and minds in places of power around the world.

In the Islamic world we have many potential partners for building a sustainable world. Allah commands human beings to avoid doing mischief and wasting resources. These acts cause degradation of the environment. Muslims believe the privilege to exploit natural resources was given to humanity on a guardianship basis.  This implies the right to use another person’s property, collectively viewed as God’s property, on the promise that it will not be damaged or destroyed… According to the Qur’an, environmental conservation is a religious duty as well as social obligation, and not an optional matter. The exploitation of a particular natural resource is directly related to accountability and maintenance of the resource. (source: http://www.ecomena.org/sustainability-islam/)

Judaism also is a rich source for sustainable thinking and action. Mirele Goldsmith expresses this eloquently, when she writes:

Jews may disagree about the application of Jewish ethical teachings to various problems, but all streams of Judaism hold fast to a few key moral principles; that life is sacred, that every person has dignity and value, and that it is our human task to contribute to the redemption of the world. There is a purpose to Jewish life that goes beyond pursuit of our self-interest as individuals and even as a collective…

Jewish text and teachings implore [them] to:

work toward a sustainable future for all humanity by living out the values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedek (justice), derekh eretz(civility and humanity), chesed (mercy and kindness) and others. (both quotes – source: http://jpeoplehood.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/peoplehood14.pdf)

Cultures under stress and experiencing oppression are much more likely to retrench in their eschatology. Without a vision of redressing the grievances of today and finding a better life in the here and now, they are more likely to project hope for resolution of injustice into the future. And that abandonment of a better life today makes people more willing to sacrifice their lives in a ball of fire.

The real enemy is disrespect, marginalization, and hopelessness. So much of Western policy in the last 100 years has created the situation we find ourselves in.  The partitioning of the Middle-East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and then the creation of the state of Israel, laudable and reasonable as it has been to the rest of the world, was imposed on these areas against their will. Many of the problems there have their roots in politics rather than religious differences. Religious extremism can arise as a struggle for meaning and hope where other avenues have been cut off.

What can we do now? We certainly can’t condone ISIS’ extremism that has no respect for universal human rights.  The oppression of minorities and women goes against all that we hold dear in the charter of the United Nations and our vision of world community. The nations of the world are obligated to resist them and assist the development of a more just and tolerant form of governance to replace them in the region.

And that also goes for what is happening in Palestine too. There is a lack of respect and appreciation of human rights in that conflict as well.  While the issues are deep and complicated, the nations of the world cannot accept the status quo there either. Both sides must be driven to continue a peace and resolution process that results in a solution that respects the human rights of all people involved and brings about a solution both sides can live with.  We can’t know what that solution will be, but we can know that the current state of affairs isn’t acceptable either.

Most important of all we need to be clear that we care about the people first, their security and health concerns, and a fundamental respect for their religious values and beliefs. Most of the people in the region, I believe, do have an appreciation that a level of religious tolerance is critical to any solution in the region.

We must energetically support our evolving eco-centric sustainable vision of the world because it will address the security concerns of every nation through a focus on sustainability rather than exploitation.  Just that change of commitment could change everything about the way nations relate to each other, if we see ourselves as part of a whole rather than as a self-interested region. The religious vision we are incubating in our congregation is a vision of how the world might be able to create a viable future.

And, thankfully, it is one way forward that probably will do the least harm, and not make things worse.