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April 21, 2011

Who is Jesus?

Reuel S. Amdur

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Jesus has long been an enigma, a blank canvas on which people of different cultures and persuasions have drawn a likeness. In the West, we are all familiar with a fair-skinned, blue-eyed Jesus, but African Christians color him black, and Oriental Christians give his eyes the epicanthic fold. The different likenesses are, however, more than skin deep.

For some, Jesus is other-worldly.  Albert Schweitzer, in his Quest for the Historical Jesus, concluded that authors who tried to pin down what Jesus was about largely found him to be a glorified portrait of themselves.  He famously concluded that Jesus thought that the eschaton, the end of the world, was at hand.  Karl Kautsky, on the other hand, argued in his Origins of Christianity that Jesus never lived.

The more recent Jesus Seminar presents a different Jesus.  One member, John Dominic Crossan, identifies him as an illiterate agrarian revolutionary.  One could argue that both Schweitzer and Crossan are right, but Crossan’s Jesus is definitely of this world.

There is a long tradition of Jesus as rebel.  Thomas Münzer found in Jesus the inspiration to be a leader in the German Peasant Wars of the 16th Century.  In the following century the Diggers led by Gerrard Winstanley saw in Jesus a justification for their agrarian communism.  At the time of the French Revolution, British republican sympathizers were pursued by the Crown.  One republican, brought before a Scottish Tory judge, reminded the judge that Jesus too was a rebel. “Aye,” replied the judge, “and they hanged him for it.” 

In North America, the social gospel movement has been a major force in Protestant churches. 

“What would Jesus do?” a question today identified with religious and political conservatism, comes from the writings of Charles Shelden, an early 20th Century Christian Socialist and a Congregational Minister.  Catholics have Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement as well as liberation theology which has had such an impact on Latin America. 

North American radicals of the last century often identified Jesus as one of theirs.  In her “Comrade Jesus,” Sarah Cleghorn, a Christian and a member of the American Socialist Party, wrote:

          Thanks to St. Mathew who had been

          At mass-meetings in Palestine,

          We know whose side was spoken for

          When Comrade Jesus had the floor.


          Ah, let no local Him refuse!

          Comrade Jesus has paid His dues,

          Whatever other be debarred

          Comrade Jesus hath His red card.

And when Salvation Army bands tried to disrupt Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) street rallies, the “Wobblies,” as they were called, sang along with their own words.  Their version of Onward Christian Soldiers carries the line “Let the gentle Jesus bless your dynamite.” 

Churchmen have been leaders in North American socialism.  Tommy Douglas and M.J. Coldwell, both ministers, were inspired by their understanding of Jesus and his gospel to take part in founding and working in the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the New Democratic Party.  Norman Thomas, the six-time Socialist candidate for the U.S. presidency, was a Presbyterian minister.

The radical Jesus is an image accepted by some but not all.  The Scottish judge and his ideological descendants see Jesus as not of this world yet as the firm ground on which the status quo is maintained.  Jesus the rebel.  Jesus the Tory.  Black. White.  Chinese.  Jesus resurrected.  Jesus God.  Jesus just a man.  Jesus who never existed.  Each of these is Jesus to someone.  I’m kind of fond of the rebel myself. 

Reuel Amdur is a social worker and a Unitarian living in Quebec.

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