Uncomfortable Metaphors

It’s now Monday, and to my amazement, my hastily dashed-off post “Good Friday” —about the original meaning of the crucifixion in Jesus’ time— continues to be shared at a stunning pace.
It’s now approaching 3,000 Facebook shares, and thousands of remarkable and kind comments. My best guess is: it’s still being shared around 100 times an hour.(*)

I’m sure this will die down, as all viral posts do. But this is well beyond any other semi-viral post I’ve ever made to Facebook.

This post obviously struck a chord for many.

Let me quickly note that while I am getting lots of praise for this post, please understand I did NOT think of any of these concept. The ideas in the post are not original with me, or even controversial for many contemporary Christian theologians outside traditional Evangelical and conservative Catholic circles.
(See the book: “The Last Week,” by Borg and Crossan. It’s excellent…)

Perhaps my favorite share comment is this one in this picture:

I mean, who doesn’t want to be called “brilliant?!!”


But it’s the “uncomfortable” part I truly love.

Many preachers cite a quote that, in fact, was actually first coined to describe journalism: “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Many preachers incorrectly attribute this thought to William Sloane Coffin. (It’s certainly the kind of thing Coffin would have said…)

That said, both reporters and preachers ought to live the meaning of this ideal, yes?
(Maybe I’m more passionate about this, since I was professionally trained in both fields…)

Our Christian calling —if indeed that’s a calling we claim— must be to comfort to those who are suffering, and to call for justice to those who are too comfortable. So, I’m back again today, to press the “uncomfortable” button once again… I want to drill-down into the TWO updated metaphors in that original post.

I hope you noticed there were two. Both updated metaphors are important, but the latter is tricky point to make well…so here we go…

In case, you missed it, the original post was actually trying to make two metaphorical points:

1. “Roman Crucifixion” = “American Lethal Injection.”

That is demonstrably true. And, sadly, a connection that many American Christians either have never made, or actively resist.
But there is a second, trickier updated metaphor that’s equally important for our time:

2. “Religious Collaborators” = “American Christians.”

Today, friends, I feel called to spell out one final transitive property of this second metaphor:

Constantine was to the Roman Imperial Church…what Ronald Reagan is to American Evangelicalism.

I want to speak to this momentarily. But in order to get there —to even understand the concepts— we must take a deeply slightly long and deeply important side road…

If there is any legitimate concern about my original Good Friday post, it’s in naming “Religious Collaborators” at all.

When I preach from any of the Gospels, I often try to point out that the “Jewish leaders” of the Gospels play “characters” in a narrative story. Actual Pharisees of Jesus’ time were, as it turns out, pretty progressive and open folks. They, like Jesus, were often trying to reform their faith from the inside.

That said, ancient Jewish historical sources also note the historical truth of Kings and Priestly officials who 100% did “collaborate” with Roman Imperial power. There was a whole series of Jewish Kings whom ordinary Jewish folks saw as more “Greek” than “Jewish.” Again, many independent historical sources outside the Gospels speak to this truth.

There were very GOOD socio-political-religious reasons for this “collaboration.”

First among them being a clear understanding that Roman power could, at any moment, destroy the entire Jewish state and religion.
(Which, as it turns out, they eventually did…without any help of the tiny Christian Church…in 70 AD)

Both in our time, and back then, “puppet kings/leaders,” were a real thing; and American Empire has installed “friendly” leaders in nation states around our world as well.

If I had been a Jewish leader of Jesus’ day, I frankly don’t know what I would have done in their position. I bet you don’t either.

In the decades immediately following Jesus’ death (before and after 70 AD) both nascent Christianity and emerging Rabbinical Judaism were VERY TINY SECTS within the vast sea of the Roman Empire.

We must remember this.

Neither group was large.
Neither group had any political power or serious influence.
Early Christians and early Rabbinical Jews were like cousins, fighting it out for the same small group of followers in a vast sea of Roman culture.

The four Gospels we commonly read today all date to this period. And therefore, the “character” portrayals of “The Jews” and “Jewish leaders” reflect this conflict I have just described. Their portrayal may have reflected actual “collaborating” Jewish leaders of Jesus’ earthly life…but IT ALSO REFLECTS the emerging conflict between the tiny church and tiny Jewish faith.

All this changes with Emperor Constantine.

All. OF. IT.

Suddenly, Christianity is not a small, independent sect. But it’s sanctioned religion with state power backing it. Christian crosses now appear both in churches, and atop the maces of warring armies; on the high altars of cathedrals, and plastered onto battle flags.

(Sorry, not shouting: just don’t want you to miss this…)

In this new environment, those passages about Jesus’ early Jewish opponents read *quite differently,* don’t they?

The Roman Empire seizes on those passages as “moral licensing” to kill and persecute Jews.
And the Imperial Church, filled with newly minted “religious collaborators” of its own, gleefully provides the theological “moral license” for this.

The growing Imperial Church AND the growing Roman Empire want this for different reasons:

— The Empire: wants “moral license” to persecute the Jewish religious minority.
— The New Imperial Church sees an horrifically easy path to eliminating its “competition.”
(Aside: this is exactly what corporations do in our day too: seek to “eliminate” the competition…)

(Again, I’m not shouting, I just don’t’ want you to miss this in this long essay…)

As I note in the original “Good Friday” post, the Roman Empire gleefully embraces a theologically suffering Jesus who dies on the cross (sent to that death by God!) because that’s what the Empire wants its own poor citizens to do…suffer and bleed…join bloody battles…on behalf of the Emperor. The Empire is happy to help promote a “suffering servant” motif, which helps its people endure suffering not just for God’s sake, but for the Emperor’s.

The brilliant trick here is/was: To convince average Christians to forget Jesus’ crucifixion was ever “state execution,” and to simply put forth the “Cross” as a purely hybrid religious/political icon.

It’s like some Roman Wizard of Oz proclaimed: “Pay no attention to that State Execution behind the curtain…just endure your earthly suffering like Jesus did.”

The “Cross” forever “flips” in terms of its meaning. Now, it’s used as symbol by BOTH Church and Empire to suppress the Jewish descendants of Jesus’ own faith!!! And people of many other cultures and faiths too.

It’s a brilliant and horrific metaphorical move. And it’s lasted, in hard and soft forms, for almost two millennia. To be clear: Millions of Christians were not anti-Semetic in any way, and simply saw the “Cross” as an object of religious veneration.

But…in my mind…LEADERS are a different matter. Leaders, especially political and religious leaders, and coopt religious devotion and twist it for their own benefit.

Hitler understood all of this too. This is why he was so enamored with Christian and non-Christian iconography, from the Swastika to the Cross. He understood how they could be coopted to service empire itself.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer showed us, the German Church collaborated with Nazi power, just as the early Imperial Church Leaders had previously collaborated with Rome almost two millennia before. Bonhoeffer and his friends provided “resistance” to this, and they were killed for speaking up.

As before, Nazi Germany again showed us how Jesus’ story of being executed by Imperial Power could be flipped so that everyone forgets about “state power,” and instead focuses on the “religious Otherizing” of innocent Jews.

So, friends, I only apologize slightly for this this long aside. It feels important to me, because it gets us finally to modern America….and a final updating I mentioned earlier:

Constantine is to the Roman Imperial Church…what Ronald Reagan is to American Evangelicalism.

For decades, American Evangelicalism was a small, quiet, pious part of American Christianity. In point of fact, much of American Evangelism saw politics as a dirty business, and its focus was on personal salvation. All that changed during the 1970s-80s, when Right Wing Politics and Right Wing Christianity realized the power of a new alliance….a new “collaboration.”

You could point to many “Constantine-like” moments, when American Empire finally blessed American Evangelicalism.

To my mind, a key moment was when Ronald Reagan —speaking to Christian Conservatives at an event in my own hometown— said to them: “I endorse you…”

“I endorse you…”

That’s a very good nominee for the “Constantine-like” moment that formalized the modern “collaboration” between modern politics and religion. Forty years later, the two movements have all but merged, much like Church and State merged in the time of the “Holy Roman Empire.”

American Evangelical Churches/Preachers supply theological “moral license” to Far Right politicians.
American Political thoughtleaders repay the favor by reinforcing theological views inside actual legislation in actual legislative chambers.

I don’t need to cite specific examples.
You know it’s happening.
I know it’s happening.

The technical term is “Christian Nationalism.”

I try to call it out when I can. It’s a dangerous mixing of Political and Religious Power that, in our time, threatens the very foundations of our Constitutional Republic.

When ex-Christians answer public opinion polls that “the church is too political” they aren’t talking about ALL Christians. They are specifically talking about Right Wing Religion’s marriage to, and collaboration with, Right Wing politics.

Sure, left-leaning churches and preachers (I am one) absolutely could *theoretically* become dangerously immeshed with progressive politics.

But! Do not miss the important differences inside the DNA of the two movements: There is a natural aversion (and outright hostility) in large factions of modern America’s progressive socio-political coalition to anything that appears “religious.” This serves as a natural barrier to theologically progressive preachers ever being welcomed to the front of the political line of the political left.

Further, the very nature of progressive people (The way their brains are wired. Their desire to avoid “top down” leadership) makes it non-credible to ever image a cadre of “Left Wing Megachurches” could dominate “Left Wing” political thought.

Let’s not kid ourselves about this: The Far Political Right not only coddles Far Right Conservative Christianity, it actively seeks to be married to, collaborate with, it.

Which gets us right back to the original post, suggesting that Jesus was killed by Roman “Powers That Be,” with an assist of “Religious Collaborators.”

It gets us right back to why we Christians —if we are to embrace our faith at all— must update our metaphors!!

Christians are, in large, part, the only credible group to play the part of “Religious collaborators” in our culture. We are the dominant religion, as Judaism was in Jesus’ time/nation.

Said another way, there are literally no living “Pharisees,” “Sadducees,” or “Scribes” today. It’s not credible to assume modern Jewish Rabbis, or your own personal modern Jewish friends, are in any way directly connected to the the Jews mentioned in the Gospels. They are no more directly connected to the characters in the Bible than you are to Peter or Paul.

We are all living 2,000 years down the road of those events. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge.
A lot of blood.

As such, when a Gospel story teaches of “Jewish leaders” who “pass by” an injured “Jew,” and a “Samaritan” who stops to help; we must update these metaphors.

Because there are only 700 actual known “Samaritans” in the today’s world, and you don’t know any of them.

The injured person by the side of the road are People of Color, the LGBTQ community, religious minorities, women.
Christian Preachers are the religious leaders who fail to stop.
Secularists, Muslims, Immigrants…they’re the ones who pause to render aid.

“The Parable of the Good Samaritan” is a prime example of one of Jesus’ most important visions for our world:

To see the “enemy” as my “neighbor” instead…
To short circuit our apparently innate and tribal human tendency to “Otherize,” with compassionate love for all instead…

That’s the revolutionary message that got him killed.

It’s still a revolutionary idea today, in our time, where most Christians have never considered how they unconsciously recreate the same “Otherizing” narratives Jesus came to destroy.

“Crucifixion” = “American Imperial Power/Lethal Injection.”
“Religious Collaborators” = “Christian Preachers.”

Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, right?

And if all this makes you “brilliantly uncomfortable…

That’s probably right where you need to be right now.
(*) Both today and Friday’s posts originally were published on Facebook, and are permalinked here on “When EF Talks.”

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