Redeeming the Redeemer
Jesus is in trouble. When people worship him today--or even speak his name--the object of their devotion is unlikely to be who they think he is. A mythical Jesus has grown up over time. He has served to divide peoples and nations. He has led to destructive wars in the name of religious fantasies. The legacy of love found in the New Testament has been tainted with the worst sort of intolerance and prejudice that would have appalled Jesus in life. Most troubling of all, his teachings have been hijacked by people who hate in the name of love.
"Sometimes I feel this social pressure to return to my faith," a lapsed Catholic told me recently, "but I'm too bitter. Can I love a religion that calls gays sinners but hides pedophiles in its clergy? Yesterday while I was driving to work, I heard a rock song that went, 'Jesus walked on water when he should have surfed,' and you know what? I burst out laughing. I would never have done that when I was younger. Now I feel only the smallest twinge of guilt."
No matter where you look, a cloud of confusion hangs over the message of Jesus. To cut through it we have to be specific about who we mean when we refer to Jesus. One Jesus is historical, and we know next to nothing about him. Another Jesus is the one appropriated by Christianity. He was created by the Church to fulfill its agenda. The third Jesus, the one this book is about, is as yet so unknown that even the most devout Christians don't suspect that he exists. Yet he is the Christ we cannot--and must not--ignore.
The first Jesus was a rabbi who wandered the shores of northern Galilee many centuries ago. This Jesus still feels close enough to touch. He appears in our mind's eye dressed in homespun but haloed in glory. He was kind, serene, peaceful, loving, and yet he was the keeper of deep mysteries.
This historical Jesus has been lost, however, swept away by history. He still lingers like a ghost, a projection of all the ideal qualities we wish for in ourselves but so painfully lack. Why couldn't there be one person who was perfectly loving, perfectly compassionate, and perfectly humble? There can be if we call him Jesus and remove him to a time thousands of years in the past. (If you live in the East, his name might be Buddha, but the man is equally mythical and equally a projection of our own lack.)
The first Jesus is less than consistent, as a closer reading of the gospels will show. If Jesus was perfectly peaceful, why did he declare, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword"? (Matthew 10:34) If he was perfectly loving, why did he say, "Throw out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth"? (Matthew 25:30) (Sometimes the translation is even harsher, and Jesus commands "the worthless slave" to be consigned to hell.) If Jesus was humble, why did he claim to rule the earth beyond the power of any king? At the very least, the living Jesus was a man of baffling contradictions.
And yet the more contradictions we unearth, the less mythical this Jesus becomes. The flesh-and-blood man who is lost to history must have been extraordinarily human. To be divine, one must be rich in every human quality first. As one famous Indian spiritual teacher once said, "The measure of enlightenment is how comfortable you feel with your own contradictions."
Millions of people worship another Jesus, however, who never existed, who doesn't even lay claim to the fleeting substance of the first Jesus. This is the Jesus built up over thousands of years by theologians and other scholars. He is the Holy Ghost, the Three-in-One Christ, the source of sacraments and prayers that were unknown to the rabbi Jesus when he walked the earth. He is also the Prince of Peace over whom bloody wars have been fought. This second Jesus cannot be embraced without embracing theology first. Theology shifts with the tide of human affairs. Metaphysics itself is so complex that it contradicts the simplicity of Jesus's words. Would he have argued with learned divines over the meaning of the Eucharist? Would he have espoused a doctrine declaring that babies are damned until they are baptized?
The second Jesus leads us into the wilderness without a clear path out. He became the foundation of a religion that has proliferated into some twenty thousand sects. They argue endlessly over every thread in the garments of a ghost. But can any authority, however exalted, really inform us about what Jesus would have thought? Isn't it a direct contradiction to hold that Jesus was a unique creation--the one and only incarnation of God--while at the same time claiming to be able to read his mind on current events? Yet in his name Christianity pronounces on homosexuality, birth control, and abortion.
These two versions of Jesus--the sketchy historical figure and the abstract theological creation--hold a tragic aspect for me, because I blame them for stealing something precious: the Jesus who taught his followers how to reach God-consciousness. I want to offer the possibility that Jesus was truly, as he proclaimed, a savior. Not the savior, not the one and only Son of God. Rather, Jesus embodied the highest level of enlightenment. He spent his brief adult life describing it, teaching it, and passing it on to future generations.
Jesus intended to save the world by showing others the path to God-consciousness.
Such a reading of the New Testament doesn't diminish the first two Jesuses. Rather, they are brought into sharper focus. In place of lost history and complex theology, the third Jesus offers a direct relationship that is personal and present. Our task is to delve into scripture and prove that a map to enlightenment exists there. I think it does, undeniably; indeed, it's the living aspect of the gospels. We aren't talking about faith. Conventional faith is the same as belief in the impossible (such as Jesus walking on water), but there is another faith that gives us the ability to reach into the unknown and achieve transformation.
Jesus spoke of the necessity to believe in him as the road to salvation, but those words were put into his mouth by followers writing decades later. The New Testament is an interpretation of Jesus by people who felt reborn but also left behind. In orthodox Christianity they won't be left behind forever; at the Second Coming Jesus will return to reclaim the faithful. But the Second Coming has had twenty centuries to unfold, with the devout expecting it any day, and still it lies ahead. The idea of the Second Coming has been especially destructive to Jesus's intentions, because it postpones what needs to happen now. The Third Coming--finding God-consciousness through your own efforts--happens in the present. I'm using the term as a metaphor for a shift in consciousness that makes Jesus's teachings totally real and vital.
When Jesus Comes Again
Imagine for a moment that you are one of the poor Jewish farmers, fishermen, or other heavy laborers who have heard about a wandering rabbi who promises Heaven, not to the rich and powerful, but to your kind, society's humblest. On this day--we can surmise that it was hot and dry, with the desert sun beating down from overhead--you climb a hill north of the blue inland lake known as the Sea of Galilee.
At the top of the hill Jesus sits with his closest followers, waiting to preach until enough people have gathered. You wait, too, seeking the shade of the crooked olive trees that dot the parched landscape. Jesus (known to you in Hebrew as Yeshua, a fairly common name) delivers a sermon, and you are deeply struck, to the heart, in fact. He promises that God loves you, a statement he makes directly, without asking you to follow the duties of your sect or to respect the ancient, complex laws of the prophets. Further, he says that God loves you best. In the world to come, you and your kind will get the richest rewards, everything you have been denied in this world.
The words sound idealistic to the point of lunacy--if God loved you so much, why did he saddle you with cruel Roman conquerors? Why did he allow you to be enslaved and forced to toil until the day you die? The priests in Jerusalem have explained this many times: As the son of Adam, your sins have brought you a wretched existence, full of misery and endless toil. But Jesus doesn't mention sin. He expands God's love to unbelievable lengths. Did you really hear him right?
You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before all men.
He compares you to a city set upon a hill that can't be hidden because its lights are so bright. You've never been told anything remotely like this or ever seen yourself this way.
Don't judge others, so that you may not be judged. Before you try to take a mote out of your brother's eye, first remove the log from your own.
Do to others what you would have them do to you. This one rule sums up what the law and the prophets taught.
Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek, and you shall find. Knock, and the door will open.
How can you explain your reaction to this preacher--jumbled feelings of disbelief and hope, suspicion and an aching need to believe? You wanted to run away before he was finished, denying everything you heard. No sane man could walk the streets and judge not the thieves, pickpockets, and whores on every corner. It was absurd to claim that all you had to do, if you needed bread and clothes, was to ask God for them. And yet how beautifully Jesus wove the spell:
Consider the lilies, how they grow: They neither toil nor spin, but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. Consider the crows, for they neither sow nor reap, they have no storeroom or barn, and yet God feeds them. How much more valuable are you than the birds!
Despite years of hard experience that made a lie of Jesus's promises, you believed them while you were listening. You kept believing them as you walked back down the hill near sunset, and for a few days afterward they haunted you. Until they faded away.
Time hasn't altered this mixture of hope and puzzlement. I had an experience that centers around one of Jesus's most baffling teachings: "Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also." (Luke 6:29) These are words that our Jewish laborer could have heard that day on the hilltop, but time hasn't altered human nature enough to make this teaching any easier. If I let a bully hit me on one cheek only to turn the other, won't he beat the stuffing out of me? The same holds good, on a larger scale, for a threat like terrorism: If we allow evildoers to strike us without reprisal, won't they continue to do so, over and over?
On the surface my experience only vaguely fits this dilemma. Yet it leads to the heart of Christ's mission. I was in a crowded bookstore promoting a new book when a woman came up to me, saying, "Can I talk to you? I need three hours." She was a compact, forceful person (less politely, a pit bull), but as gently as I could I told her, pointing to the other people crowded around the table, that I didn't have three hours to spare.
A cloud passed over her face. "You have to. I came all the way from Mexico City," she said, insisting that she must have three hours alone with me. I asked if she had called my office in advance, and she had. What did they tell her? That I would be busy all day.
"But I came on my own anyway, because I've heard you say that anything is possible," she said. "If that's true, you should be able to see me."
The PR person in charge of the event was pulling at my elbow, so I told the woman that if she came back later, I might find a few minutes of personal time for her. She became enraged in front of everyone. She released a stream of invective, sparing no four-letter words, and stalked away, muttering darkly that I was a fraud. Later that night the incident wouldn't leave me in peace, so I considered an essential spiritual truth: People mirror back to us the reality of who we are. I sat down and wrote out a list of things I'd noticed about this woman. What had I disliked about her? She was angry, demanding, confrontational, and selfish. Then I called my wife and asked her if I was like that. There was a long silence at the other end of the phone. I was more than a little shaken.
I sat down to face what reality was asking me to face. I found a veneer of annoyance and irritation (after all, wasn't I the innocent victim? hadn't she embarrassed me in front of dozens of people?). Then I called a truce with the negative energies she had stirred up. Vague images of past injuries came to mind, which put me on the right trail. I moved as much of the stagnant energies of hurt as I could.
To put it bluntly, this was a Jesus moment. When he preached, "If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other also" (Luke 6:29), Jesus wasn't preaching masochism or martyrdom. He was speaking of a quality of consciousness that is known in Sanskrit as Ahimsa. The word is usually translated as "harmlessness" or "nonviolence," and in modern times it became the watchword of Gandhi's movement of peaceful resistance. Gandhi himself was often seen as Christlike, but Ahimsa has roots in India going back thousands of years.
In the Indian tradition several things are understood about nonviolence, and all of them apply to Jesus's version of turning the other cheek. First, the aim of nonviolence is ultimately to bring peace to yourself, to quell your own violence; the enemy outside serves only to mirror the enemy within. Second, your ability to be nonviolent depends on a shift in consciousness. Last, if you are successful in changing yourself, reality will mirror the change back to you.
Without these conditions, Ahimsa isn't spiritual or even effective. If someone full of desire for retaliation turns the other cheek to someone equally enraged, the only thing that will occur is more violence. Playing the part of a saint won't make a difference. But if a person in God-consciousness turns the other cheek, his enemy will be disarmed.
Copyright © 2008 by Deepak Chopra
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