Over the past three weeks, in response to “Black Lives Matter,” I have seen a number of images of a black Jesus. A print of the Last Supper showing a black Jesus, for example, has been installed in St. Albans Cathedral in England. The artist, Lorna May Wadsworth, used a Jamaican-born model for the basis of her interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th Century work, and said she wanted “to make people question the Western myth that [Jesus Christ] had fair hair and blue eyes.”
The name “Jesus” is a Latinized version of a Greek version of the name “Yeshua.” So was “Yeshua” dark-skinned or white? Certainly not Anglo-Saxon white as so often pictured……The average Judean man of his time would have had dark brown or black hair, olive skin, brown eyes and a height of about 5 feet 5 inches. Scholars also suggest that Yeshua probably had short hair and a beard, in accordance with Jewish practices at his time.
So what else do we know about the historical Yeshua…our Jesus?
Two Jesus certitudes that stand out for me, because they are so urgently needed today, are that he was totally non-hateful and totally pro-women.
This week, I offer some historical reflections about Jesus the nonviolent peacemaker (and what happened to that understanding). Next week reflections about Jesus the feminist. The perspectives are historically correct. They still animate and challenge contemporary believers.
I hope you will stay with me on this two-part historical-theological Yeshua journey.
The Non-violent Jesus:
Jesus’ earliest followers felt called by his example to oppose violence. An historical certitude about Jesus was his strong commitment to peace and nonviolence. He preached and taught in favor of the excluded, the poor, oppressed women, the despised, and children. Note well….he did none of this by fomenting an armed rebellion.
Yeshua’s mission was not to establish a new Kingdom of Israel but to announce the Reign of God — the here and now dynamic environment of mutual care and respect, where people begin to consciously experience God’s presence. In the Reign of God people are changed because they understand that God continues to love them without limits, without end, without condition. Reality is transformed. Society is transformed. The Reign of God is not a socio-political violent rebellion. It is a call to live in peace and compassion.
Remember how Jesus chided the armed guards who came to arrest him, saying, “Am I leading a rebellion that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?” (Mark 14:48) To his followers who tried by the sword to prevent his being arrested, Jesus said, in Matthew, “Put up your sword. Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” (Matt 26:52) Further, he famously said, “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matt 5:9) The entire Sermon on the Mount is a call to nonviolence and compassion for all people. A transformed and transforming human environment. Grace.
Jesus’ nonviolent life inspired his followers to imitate him in seeking justice in a nonviolent manner. In the first three centuries of the “Christian Era” Jesus’ followers were strongly anchored in nonviolence. That changed however when Constantine (272 – 337 CE) became Roman Emperor.
Preparing for the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine said he had a vision of the cross in the sky inscribed with words promising that under its sign he would be victorious and become the sole Roman Emperor. After the battle, in which he led a victorious army wielding a sword in the shape of a cross, he legalized Christianity and the cross became synonymous with Christian might and power. Think for instance about the medieval “crusades” (murderous campaigns marked with the cross) undertaken by European Christians in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries.
Yes. Early historical literature does give evidence of the position of Christian pacifists. After Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity in 312 CE, however, many Christian bishops and leaders dropped the idea of nonviolence. This trend then moved to the extreme in 391 CE when Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity to be the only religion of the Roman Empire; and Christians no longer objected to becoming military fighters. (Separation of church and state IS a good thing!) When the “Christian” empire was attacked by various “heathen” barbarians, Christian theologians thanks to Saint Augustine (354 – 430 CE), the Bishop of Hippo, developed the “just war theory.”
As a theologian and historian, I have doubts that Constantine was truly a Christian. (He was baptized just before his death in 337) …I think Constantine was simply a shrewd political leader (like some contemporary political leaders) who knew where, when, and how to get popular support for his self-promotion campaign. His distorted Christianity was more Roman than Christian.
Today in a society so horribly disfigured by violence and hateful speech and actions, genuine followers of Jesus should focus on his core teaching in word and personal example. The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, for example, has urged religious leaders to challenge “inaccurate and harmful messages” that are now fueling rising racism, hate speech, and conflict as the coronavirus pandemic circles the globe. (Guterres, by the way, is a committed Christian.)
On July 7th, John Connelly, historian from the University of California, wrote in a pointed article in Commonweal about hateful political rhetoric in the United States: “The president recently labeled peaceful protesters ‘thugs’ and ‘scum’; he has called Bette Midler a ‘washed up psycho,’” …..and on and on….. “Having taught European history for three decades, I believe such words of disdain are unprecedented in the public utterances of an elected leader…..Students of history have to go far to the extremes of right and left to find language so drenched in hatred.’’
The key issue here is not just a problematic president “45” but a danger alert about all who foment violence and torment people with hateful speech and action.
Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016), the political activist, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor often stressed that “Hatred destroys the one who is hated, but it also destroys the one who hates.” Historically, political leaders who hated always dragged down their states and peoples. “Anger,” Wiesel said in an interview with Bill Moyers, “has some positive attributes to it, hate has none. Even hate of hate is dangerous.”
“Happy are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)