Thoughts on the Day of Zombie Jesus

This morning, I saw the following Facebook post from a relative whose worldview I admire:

“This day commemorates the day that everything changed in the world…the concept of putting others ahead of ourselves was born today, hope was born today.”

He was commenting on an article he’d read with which he said he wholeheartedly agrees.

For my part, as a Friend (Quaker), I address the question of Jesus’ divinity differently than that author does. Friends believe that god is a spirit that lives in all human beings (the Light Within), Jesus of Nazareth included. We see him as exceptional among mankind only because we regard him as a person of perfect Light. As a Messiah of his time, he showed and told us all how to make life on earth a paradise for everyone. Christians aren’t to sit around waiting for paradise to materialize for them. They can follow Jesus’ example and make it happen.

It doesn’t matter if Christians engage in this work together with persons of other faiths or with those for whom faith holds no interest. In fact, working across theological boundaries is the only way the maximum amount of good works could be accomplished. What matters most is that we act to ease the suffering of others as soon and as much as we can.

Live in peace. Heal the sick. Feed and help the poor. Clothe the naked. Visit the lonely. Befriend the oppressed. Love your enemies as you try to see things from their perspective. Love each other. These are the things Jesus commanded and did in the Gospels. Friends believe that this is the work laid out for us if we are to bring about our “salvation” – that is, everybody’s life in a peaceable kingdom. It’s not in some spiritual realm after death; it’s in the here and now.

But, as my cousin noted in his post this morning, these seemingly simple nations weren’t always. Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) showed the world how to alleviate one’s own suffering. This was an important path to spiritual salvation too, but it was only part of the answer. Judaic law and practice gave the world an example of a people who worked together for the salvation of future generations, but, at the time, such was concentrated among their nation and theirs is not a missionary faith. 

Even in the time of the Roman Empire, the social contract on which Rome had been built was borne more of the mutual benefit to equally predatory powers rather than a desire for improvements for the benefit of all mankind. Any improvements made to the lifestyles of the residents of occupied areas were of pure coincidence.  Rome was always at war, even during the Pax Romana. Within its borders, life was only slightly more secure for the average individual. Most within the borders lived in dire poverty. At the height of Roman power, a third of the empire’s population were slaves.

My cousin is right; the western world changed once Christianity took hold among the people who would embrace it. Through the Dark Ages, Europe slowly emerged from its history of constant war waged by warlords who sought to please their gods by being superior killers. The continent would evolve to a collection of nations led by men who were no less comfortable with violence than their predecessors had been, but who now seemed to care that they were viewed as better, more reasonable men.

The linked article’s author presents his beliefs as to why that might have been. My view is that it doesn’t matter why. What matters is that the message got through, no matter how slowly. No one is arguing that any ancient European king went from being a Viking conqueror to being Mother Theresa overnight. The fact remains that something happened to lead those kings away from their warlike gods with plenty of their own powerful magic and towards one who never used his magic for selfish ends and who preached a word of peace.

Many have argued that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t exist at all. I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter if he didn’t. Someone came up with the principles embraced in the story of Jesus’ life. Those principles; Peace, Truth, Simplicity and Equality had not enjoyed widespread embrace in western mythology before the spread of the Gospels. My personal belief is that there was some Jewish reformer with a name like “Jesus” who lived in Judea at the time of Roman occupation and who spoke out against the wealthy and powerful exploiting the poor and weak with impunity. Even if it was all made up by some anonymous storyteller 200 years later, then those revolutionary values are still those of that author. What does it matter what his name was?

Many will argue that supernatural elements were inserted into the story in order to cater to an Iron Age audience to sell the story for the storyteller’s own ends. I’ll admit that I doubt much of the magic in the story myself. Maybe this story was built around a man who had better medical knowledge than others around him, so the authors saw the deeds as magical. Maybe it was all made up. But what would it matter if it were? The modern mind doesn’t need the supernatural elements to persuade it towards valuing a message of building a better world for ourselves. And what would have been the storytellers’ end, anyway? To spread a message of peace? I’m OK with that end.

Yes, men will exploit myths to enhance their own power over large populations, but clerics of the ancient religions did that too. Even during Christianity’s darkest periods of corruption in the Church, more people lived in peace while those same corrupt clerics threatened would-be war-making kings with ex-Communication should they wage their profit wars on the wrong country. Even when these power brokers merely wore the appearance of worship of a God of Peace, it meant a world of difference to hundreds of thousands of powerless individuals in their respective realms. Does the end justify the means?  Not always. But in this case, the desirable end of greater peace and stability for the greater number of people clearly defined better means as things went on. Witness: In the modern world, there are millions of people who work for the betterment of humanity simply because they believe it’s what needs to be done.

So what are we to make of this lingering story of Jesus of Nazareth; tortured to death by the foreign power occupying his homeland all for the offense of his preaching a message of peace and equality? Did he really rise from the dead three days after his death, showing the world that he could conquer even physical death?

If the story contained in the Gospels is to be taken as fractionally true; that there really was a Jewish reformer with a name like “Jesus” who spoke out against the abuses of concentrated power and wealth; who pleaded for the value of the individual; and who was executed by the reigning power of the time – his message lived long past that execution, didn’t it?

What does it matter if the story of the resurrection is real or not? All of mankind’s revolutionaries die at some point. It’s when their message lives on that they could be said to have truly “conquered death”.  When I die, I fully expect that my body will remain dead for good. However, I hope to live my life in a manner that allows me to “conquer death” in much the same way that Jesus clearly did.

To celebrate Easter, a feast of rebirth and renewed life, that’s all I need to believe.

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