Two years ago, I was one of those people who flinched every time I heard the word “Jesus.” When I told this to my friend Joe Snyder, he said, “Read the Bible. That'll take care of that flinch.” And then he told me about Mark.
This piece is intended to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The afflicted in this case—or, perhaps, the conflicted—are those Quakers, particularly young folks like me, who are troubled by references to Jesus, Christ, Christianity, or the Bible as a whole. The comfortable are either those who are sure that they already know what the Bible says, and thus dismiss it as a reactionary old tome, or those who confidently use the Bible to shore up today's structures of power and wealth because some of its messages are indeed reactionary. I mean to show, however, that the Bible has a lot to offer the most radical in our Quaker faith.
After all, everything that most people admire about Quakerism—from the lack of creeds to the equality of genders and sexualities—flows from the Bible. George Fox and his fellows read the Bible in a radical fashion, and knew it inside and out. For me, the key is to read the Gospel of Mark as a story of revolution.
Guerilla Tactics in Galilee
The first parts of Mark have a recurring pattern: Jesus makes a speech to a lot of people and then leaves, or he performs some miracle and then tries to hush it up. He constantly tries to keep a low profile, sometimes giving his own friends the slip—except when he has something to say. By downplaying himself, by prioritizing his message, and by leaving his message deliberately obscure (“Nothing is hidden except to be disclosed.”), Jesus uses good marketing techniques. He always leaves his fans wanting more. Further, since Jesus has already started to antagonize the local religious authorities, this pattern of “strike and exit” also counts among good guerilla tactics.
Jesus often skips town in such extreme secrecy that his closest companions have to hunt him down. He crisscrosses the Sea of Galilee, bouncing from place to place, basically using a fishing boat as his escape pod and appearing out of nowhere, with the scribes none the wiser. In military terms, this is called “interior lines,” meaning you can get wherever you want to go quickly, while your opponents have to take the long way around.
Mark never says this outright, but it's not hard to read between the lines: After one major confrontation with the scribes, Jesus flees Jewish territory entirely, going to Tyre, explicitly hoping no one will see him. He's recognized at once, however. Mark then recounts that Jesus goes back to Galilee, but does so by taking a wildly improbable route. He starts, for instance, by going twenty miles directly away from his destination. It's senseless until you remember that he was trying to hide. Taking the long way home, through foreign territory, bought him more time for things to cool down.
But how had Jesus gotten the authorities so ticked off?
First, a little history: Jewish law had long born a concern for social justice. Even in spelling out how to conduct ritual sacrifices, the Law made provisions for those who couldn't afford to sacrifice the appropriate animals. The alternative was usually sacrificing a dove. The Law also forbade charging interest, required all outstanding debts be forgiven every seven years, all property to be redistributed every fifty years, and guaranteed a food supply for the poorest.
But the Law also established a hereditary priesthood, and as Israel was an explicitly religion-based realm, the priests and their agents the scribes wielded considerable power. The priests owned no land, but every Jew brought them food. Whenever Jews made a sacrifice, the priests burned some of the offering and ate the rest. Essentially, the sacrifice requirements were a religious tax supporting the authorities.
Many of the sacrifice requirements centered around the “kosher laws” – eating certain foods, not touching certain things, etc. If anyone violated this part of the Law, he or she had to make atonement by offering up a sacrifice. A cynic might point out that making such laws and punishments was a great way for the priests to squeeze more out of the people. A more generous interpretation is that the kosher laws formed the bedrock of Jewish identity in a sea of other cultures that threatened to engulf the Jewish people. A third take is that the kosher laws are arbitrary precisely because their only purpose is to instill obedience – to God, of course, but also to the priests.
By Jesus's day, many of the more socially just elements of the Law – such as forgiving debts and redistributing property – were either long gone, or had been knocked out more recently by the conquering Roman Empire. As a result, the priests and scribes (surprise, surprise) had gotten pretty full of themselves.
Moreover, Rome had entered into collaboration with the priests. Rome always preferred for the locals to govern themselves, more or less, and so they put the priests in charge of Judea. This meant that the power of the Roman Legions stood behind the priests. The Jewish people, whose great defining moment was the Exodus, the escape from slavery, had always hated captivity, and this was no exception. But the priests, thinking to preserve their people, their power, and themselves, counseled submission, as priests so frequently do.
Jesus Christ, Radical
Jesus pretty much knocks down the entire priestly system every time he opens his mouth.
At almost the very beginning of his ministry (Mark, Chapter 2), Jesus has a series of confrontations with the scribes. He eats with sinners, forgives sins, and doesn't bother fasting when others do. And then, in a crucial moment, he breaks the Law in a conspicuous act of civil disobedience by helping an “unclean” (sick) man on the Sabbath. As he does so, he points out that doing good is more important than the Law. Kindness, he says, is greater than obedience.
Naturally, this is where the scribes and the Roman sympathizers begin planning to string Jesus up.
Jesus continues to violate the Law and custom in half a dozen ways, while pushing a radical agenda. He announces that all foods are clean, perhaps making it easier for the poor to feed themselves, overturning half of kosher law and half of Jewish identity. He encourages women to leave their homes and follow him. He instructs a rich man to give away everything he owns, and implicitly dismisses the long-held (and still-held) notion that wealth signals divine favor. He fed five thousand people and then four thousand more, teaching a lesson in generosity that the more you give away, the more you get back. And over and over again, he repeats, “The last shall be first and the first, last.” To lead, he insists, one must serve. The social order, he asserts, must be flipped on its head.
In other words, Jesus casts down restrictive religious laws, furthers gender equality, demands the rich surrender their wealth to the poor, encourages communal care, and proclaims revolutionary change.
Showdown in Jerusalem
Finally, after shadowboxing with the authorities for some time, Jesus stuns his disciples by making a beeline for the center of priestly power: Jerusalem.
But Jesus knows what he's doing. He goes there at Passover, when half the Jews on Earth will be in town, including many of his fans and allies. By now he's built up quite a following of popular support. It's also one of the most sacred times in the Jewish year, the Jewish festival of liberation, so everyone's mind will be on religion and God. Going to Jerusalem during Passover is a good tactic. Time and again in course of the following week, it's Jesus's support among the people that keeps him alive.
Jesus has enough fans that when he arrives in the city, he's treated like royalty. But he's still teaching: instead of using this popular support to launch a revolt, he goes to the temple, looks around, and leaves. He's not there to give the people what they want.
The next day, he cleanses the temple.
This is the only time Jesus uses violence, though no one is killed. He flips some tables over and chases some people out. He has good reason to be furious. The people he throws out of the temple are the moneychangers, who were likely cheating out-of-town tourists, and also the dove-sellers, who were likely gouging the poor who had come to make sacrifices, which of course defeated the purpose of the low-cost dove option. Two blows on behalf of justice.
Then comes the essential line, which can only be found in Mark: “...and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.” If no one could carry anything through the temple, normal operations were shut down. Occupy Jerusalem. Jesus essentially launched a sit-down strike, or more accurately a teach-in. Anyone could enter the temple to pray, but no one could make sacrifices, and if no sacrifices could be made, then no sacrifices could be eaten. Jesus had struck at the priestly supply line, and if he kept it up, the priesthood would literally starve.
Jesus’s next words are telling: “Is it not written, 'My house [the temple] shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations [all humanity]?' But you have made it a den of robbers.” Jesus is throwing the temple wide open to Jews and Gentiles alike, shattering more religious laws, and making a firm statement to the priests: “Your day is done.” Naturally, the priests redouble their efforts to kill him.
Yep, that's where Quakers got it from: no ministers, no pastors, and no hierarchy.
The authorities set up an entrapment campaign against Jesus. They send a religious scholar to confront him publicly with the question, “Which commandment is first [in importance]?” Jesus's response is a masterpiece. He opens with the most holy Jewish law and prayer, the Sh’ma, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one; you shall love the LORD with all your heart...” This is a safe answer, but one that also points out there's only one top dog in Israel, and he's not the High Priest. But Jesus continues further, “The second [commandment] is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” By placing the Golden Rule beside the Sh'ma, Jesus is saying, “Love outranks all other laws.” In fact, by pairing it with “The LORD is one,” Jesus is essentially saying, “God is love. That is the greatest commandment.”
The scholar's reaction is startling. “You are right, teacher... this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Even in the context of a blockaded temple and some increasingly hungry priests, Jesus is winning. His enemies are agreeing with him, even if it might cost them. The priests panic.
At the height of the conflict, Jesus denounces the religious authorities unequivocally, “They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.” In other words, the priests are hypocrites; just in it for the power, prestige and money; and they achieve their ends by exploiting the poor. Immediately after Jesus’s statement, an actual widow (read: dirt-poor and doubly powerless as a woman) offers up her literal last penny to the temple treasury. Jesus excoriates the priests and scribes for demanding such a sacrifice from her.
Jesus leaves Jerusalem after this scene, and shortly thereafter he is arrested, condemned, and executed. The priests set the Romans against him, and the legionaries put him to death.
The Behemoth and the Gene
We have to face it: in terms of practical change, Jesus might have been winning at first, but in the end, flat-out lost. He died. The priesthood stayed in power, and so did Rome. The rich stayed rich and the poor stayed poor. Jesus came and Jesus failed.
Or did he?
He certainly let his followers down, who had been expecting total revolution with immediate results. Instead, they saw their leader strung up like a petty thief.
But think about it. Rome was Behemoth, the invulnerable iron-boned monster that only God could subdue. So Jesus offered himself up; he saw to it that he was arrested, and arrested alone. Jesus died – but nobody else did. There was no massacre, and certainly no doomed and bloody revolt. This meant that Jesus’s followers lived to teach another day, and, inspired by his boundless love, they began to spread his message everywhere.
That message ran like wildfire through the poor, the slaves, and the women of Rome – all the powerless ones, all those who had been stomped on and who suffered, not only Jews, but people of every race and background. And they taught their children, and the religion grew, and grew, and grew. And eventually Rome had to bow to the new faith, and the faith outlasted the empire.
By dying, Jesus became an idea. And the idea of Jesus and all his teachings became immortal. In the earliest versions of Mark, Jesus rises from the dead, but nobody sees this happen, he rises off-stage. In a later version of Mark, the editors added a more “satisfying” ending – the miracle of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But perhaps Mark meant to end his story this way: that Jesus is alive, but not physically present; instead he is in our hearts and minds.
The teachings of Jesus certainly have stayed with us that way. They have entered the genetic code of Western civilization, and have come to the surface again and again. Dozens if not hundreds of anti-war and pro-poor movements have been inspired by the words of Jesus, including liberation theology, abolition, and of course Quakerism (some overlap there). Time and time again the downtrodden rise up against the new high priests and new authorities, and they often carry Bibles in their hands when they do.
Christian hierarchies of every stripe are playing the role of the Jewish priesthood now, extracting their tithes and fighting furious reactionary rearguard actions. And they often win. They are Behemoth now, unassailable by force, stomping flat any challengers. But like a gene, the radical gospel of Jesus is part of the very DNA of the Behemoth churches. Behemoth can't destroy something that lives inside it. So the messages of peace and justice and love are destined to reemerge again and again. And if that isn't like the woman's suffrage movement rekindling, or the Czechs of Charter 77 biding their time against the Soviets, or the determination of Gandhi's satyagraha, I don't know what is. Jesus and his teachings have earned their place among all the great revolutions of human history.
Countless reactionary, power-hungry, sanctimonious zealots have used the Bible as a cornerstone for tyranny – against women, gays and lesbians, people of color, slaves, indigenous peoples, foreigners, the poor in general, and anyone “other.” But every time they do, they plant the seeds of their own undoing. The Bible has a lot in it that promotes oppression; I don’t deny it. But it also has Mark and many other stories that teach of revolts and strikes, of empires toppled, and of religions surrendering to the truth. Mark teaches us love and justice.
So now I read the Bible. I read it with a radical mind, and therefore I often read it with pleasure. And when I put my Bible down, I am ready to rise up. ♦
Paul Christiansen is a member of Eastside Friends Meeting near Seattle, and NPYM Young Adult Friends co-clerk. A longer version of this article, and other wild notions, can be found on his blog, generousgrasp.wordpress.com.