Thursday, December 25, 2014

Jesus made a whip from some ropes and chased them all out of the Temple.

This isn't the time of year for shepherds to be in the fields with their sheep.  Jesus probably wasn't born now.  If, by some miracle (can't count it out considering who he is), he was born today, then it wasn't December 25th.

The Julian Calendar introduced the now-standard leap year, which mostly fixed the problem of a year not being a whole number of days long.  But it over-corrected.

It was three days long every four hundred years.  Thus the most recent adjustment to our calendar which makes it so we skip having a leap year every hundred years, but skip the skip every four hundred years.

Now it's as close to right as we're likely to get it.

Of course, the reason for the introduction of the modern, Gregorian, calendar was the same as the reason for the introduction of the Julian calendar: Things got fucked up.

Julius Caesar was annoyed that the calendar wasn't right, which meant that feasts and other religious things were happening at the wrong time of year.  (He was high priest, recall.)  So he attempted to fix it.

Centuries later Christians were annoyed that the calendar wasn't right, which meant that feasts and other religious things were happening at the wrong time of year.  So there was an attempt to fix it.  But there's an important footnote.  They didn't try to fix it the way that Caesar did.  Their festivals didn't even exist in the the time of Julius Caesar.  Their religious festivals were worked out around 325 AD (Nicaea is somewhat important as Christian tradition goes) and thus when the Christians reset the Calendar they reset it to 325 AD when it had already had almost 375 years to get out of whack.

So if Jesus was born at this point in the solar year, his birthday would have been more like the 22nd or 23rd.

And all of this is missing something fairly important: Christmas doesn't matter much.

Of the four canonical gospels, only two can be bothered to mention the fact that Jesus happened to have been born.  Christmas only became important when some people started saying that Jesus hadn't been born.  Not non-Christians who said he never existed, Christians who thought that he wasn't human after all and never went through that whole process known as birth.

It is likely that, for example, the author of Mark didn't feel the need to say that Jesus was born because he felt that it naturally followed from the fact that Jesus was walking around doing stuff.  He probably thought it went without saying, which is why he went without saying it.

But as the Church matured some people started thinking that maybe Jesus was never born in the first place.  Some of this was wrapped up in a mind-body dichotomy that goes back to Plato and the idea packed up with it that mind=good and body=bad.

We've still got a lot of that going on.  Body without mind = zombies eat your brains.  Mind without body = benevolent energy beings.

Anyway, people started saying Jesus was never born and suddenly it was very important for Christians who thought that that was horrible heresy to say, "No, he was totes born!" and thus Christmas started to matter.

But that was later.

What mattered at the beginning was what he said and what he did.  Which brings us to the whip.

Only two gospels tell us about the birth of Jesus.  Four of them tell us about his confrontation with the money changers.  He didn't just drive them out, he also drove out their livestock.  That's potentially some serious damage to their pocket books because the livestock may very well have run the fuck away.

Insurance does not cover acts of god.

He scattered their coins.

Think about that.  You've got a bunch of people doing business, then all of their money is in one pile on the floor.  What do you think happens next?  If you answered, "They calmly and rationally sort the money so that everyone ends up with exactly what they had before they lost track of what belonged to who," then I question your knowledge of business people.

He overturned their tables.

At this point I think he's just in the flow of things and going with what feels right because, really, if he'd merely driven them out with a whip, scattered their money, freed their assets, and insulted them to their faces do we really think anyone would say, "Well, at least he didn't knock over the tables"?

I think not.

My point here, though, is that we begin to get an idea of one of the answers to the question, "What would Jesus do?"

There are other answers.  He would turn the other cheek.  He would say, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," he would fail to condemn someone, he would give medical aid to his enemy, so on.

But, this is an important answer.  He would get violent.  But violent against what?  He drove the people out with a whip, but did he hit them with the whip or just make threatening motions?  What about the animals?  Some translations imply that the animals were driven out at the same time as the whip-fleeing people, others make it sound like it was a separate act (with no clear indication of how it was accomplished.)

We don't know.  We don't have detail there.

Where we do have detail is that he would get violent toward things.  Your tables will be overturned.  Your money will be scattered.  Your animals probably won't be abused, but they'll be loosed.

Jesus is coming and he intends to smash your shit.

It's not the version of him that we hear about often, but it is a version that we should hear about.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was many things.  "Criminal" usually isn't the first that comes to mind.  But he was.  When he was in Birmingham Jail he was there because he did, in fact, break the law.  It was the 13th time he was arrested.  He was smuggled a newspaper while there and read a condemnation of the actions of himself and his allies.  In the margins of that newspaper he began writing what would become the Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Here's an excerpt:
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
King labeled Jesus an extremist.  He wasn't wrong.  We sometimes forget that.

I think we forget because it's easier to forget.  Most people in America like Jesus.  (I attribute this to Christian hegemony.)  We'd like to think that he'd be on our side.  But we have more than one shirt.  If you've got two, you're supposed to give one away.

We want to think that he'd judge us as good, but we never take all of our possessions, sell them, give the money to the poor, and then follow the life of a homeless rabbi.

We want to think that he'd forgive us our faults without too much trouble, but the fact of the matter is that while WWJD includes stopping people from stoning us to death, it may very well also include overturning our tables, scattering our money, disrupting our business, and telling us that we're assholes.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 
In America, even those of us who are poor, who don't know how we'll make it through the winter, and worry about not having enough food, and can't afford better shoes to keep out the freezing but infuriatingly still-liquid water, have it relatively easy.

Omales has a simple solution.  No one takes it because the fable would fall apart.  But save that kid.  Omales will be screwed, and they may very well lynch you out of spite, but once the spell is broken there's no reason for the child to suffer anymore so there's a decent chance you can somehow help.

We don't have such easy outs.  The world we live in is built on the suffering of people we'll never see.  They're going to be lifted up.  We're going to be cast down.  That's what it says.

You can't escape the system.  My sister's farm has become a sort of hub for traveling homeless people.  For a while some stay with her and thus have a home.  You'd think they'd be far removed from the system, but note the "traveling'.  The trains that they use to get from place to place don't run for them, they're freight hoppers.  If everything goes to plan the people running the trains don't even know they're on them.

The trains run because of our economy.  Our economy runs because we exploit people in other countries and we exploit our own underclasses.

Even the freight hoppers get their leg up because someone else is down.

When you see the system, when you see how it surrounds us, when you see how it pervades everything, when you see how it can't be escaped, when you see how even by doing nothing you benefit from it and support its perpetuation, when you see that the world you live in is built on the discomfort of others, then lifting up the lowly and bringing down the powerful becomes scary.

Because, no matter how powerless you may be, if you're reading this you're a member of the powerful to someone.

So I think that's why we don't focus on Jesus the extremist, Jesus the confrontational, Jesus the economically minded.

It's a lot easier to think about a baby in a manger under a star.

But in shying away from the very things that scare us, we also shy away from the things that should give us hope.

Yes, Jesus might burst in, fuck up your workplace, and tell you that you suck, but he'll also stand between you and the person who wants to stone you.
“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,”Jesus declared.
I mostly quote this because Jesus' response to people trying to get him to condone a killing is to draw in the dirt.  (And it works.)

But, dirt drawing aside, the same verses that threaten whatever comforts you've managed to carve out in your own life also threaten the comforts the powers that be have made systemic.

You're going to be in trouble for basing your lifestyle on stuff built out of human misery in factories that would make OSHA collectively fall to their knees and cry.  The people above are going to be in trouble for instituting the system that made the previous sentence reality.

The very Jesus that threatens you for your part in oppression threatens those who oppress you.  Embracing that may be uncomfortable, but it seems like it would be better for almost everyone.  Very few people aren't being kept down somehow.  Why we let them be in charge I do not know.

It never happens though.

Given the choice of embracing an ideology that fights injustice, even though it might hurt us a bit because our hands aren't clean themselves, and embracing the status quo, we always seem to go for the status quo.

I think it's the Republican gamble.  People do things that hurt them, things that keep them down, things that go against their own self interest at every turn, because the things that would help them, that would lift them up, that would improve their lives would also have a side effect of damaging or abolishing the unfair advantages they do have.

Every election we see people vote in favor of keeping themselves down for fear of losing what keeps other people lower.  People support the unfair disadvantages that hinder them for fear of losing the unfair advantages that allowed them scramble to whatever height they have achieved.

You know that the dice are loaded.  You know the deck is stacked.  You know the odds are never in your favor.  But you also know that other people have it worse.  So you bet that you can do better on the current unfair playing field than you could on a fair one.

In politics and religion both, it seems easier for people to accept a situation where other people have massive gobs of undeserved privilege, than to accept that fixing things will mean losing their own, much smaller, privilege.

Thus we rarely hear about the Jesus who would have cast out Wall Street and their supporters while going on an Aramaic rant about how the government should be for the people but instead its been made into a den of thieves, because that same Jesus would be telling us that we're being too selfish too.

And yet what we would gain if we started to make things fair is so much more than what we would lose.

But the promise remains.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 
That's via Slacktivist.  It's the prelude to the Christmas story.  Jesus won't be born for a few months yet, but it's about him.

We (collectively) may forever be stuck with the zero sum thinking.  We may forever be afraid to truly embrace such extremism because we're worried about being brought down, rather than lifted up, but it's going to happen.

That's the promise.

It occurs to me that in my ramblings I've missed something.

The powerful are going to be brought down, the lowly lifted up.  But most of us are both.  I think that's why people act against both morality and their self interest.  They focus on how they'll be brought down while forgetting that they'll also be lifted up.

A friend from Denmark once remarked on how he kept having the same conversation with Americans.  It went like this:
American: You have to pay that much in taxes?
My Friend: Yeah, but after expenses I have more money than you.
The Americans did what we as a country tend to do: focused on what would be lost.  My Danish friend looked at the full equation.  Brought down by taxes, lifted up by benefits, and realized that the result was better than if there weren't that balancing.

People don't want a Jesus who would rebuke them, but they miss that the exact same Jesus would benefit them as well.  So they make up a Jesus that's unthreatening and doesn't mind that they haven't visited anyone in prison lately, don't have homeless people bunking with them, aren't opening their pantry to the hungry, and are generally failing on the things Jesus said to do.

But today is (probably not) his birthday.  So maybe today we should look at the question, "What would Jesus do?" and try for a real answer.  It's just one day a year.

So, you know, get some rope, make a whip, and cast out some money changers.


This long rambling post went sideways, then fell off a cliff, rolled down a hill, turned toward the fourth dimension, and ran through the forest of tangents before I even got going with it.  At this point I'm not even sure that sense can be made of it, and who the fuck can tell what it was I meant to say?

I'll leave you with this:

The word "history" comes to us from a work of, more or less, the same name.  It didn't mean history when it was named it, but since it tends to be considered the first history in the western tradition it spawned the idea of history.  It also marks the beginning of Greek prose.

Herodotus, for that was the author's name, set out to tell the story of the world as near as he could figure it, which basically meant the war with Persia.  You may have heard about it, there was a movie called 300.

Some of what he writes is pretty damned accurate.  Some of it is utter bullshit.  Sorting out which is which can be annoying.  What is of interest here, though, is a theme that he repeats over and over again.

Right at the beginning he says:
I shall go forward further with the story, giving an account of the cities of men, small as well as great: for those which in old times were great have for the most part become small, while those that were in my own time great used in former times to be small: so then, since I know that human prosperity never continues steadfast, I shall make mention of both indifferently.
The great become small and the small become great.  His history is a story of reversals.  It was how he viewed the world.  A natural order of things.  The lowly shall be exalted; the powerful shall be cast down.

It wasn't a moral teaching, it was just something that happened.  This is where we get the idea that you're not supposed to count someone lucky until they're dead.  It's not that being dead is good, it kind of sucks, it's that as long as you're alive there remains the possibility that it will all come crashing down.

You only know if you avoided the fall when you're no longer capable of falling, thus when you're dead.

It's kind of a depressing world view, but it has within it a kernel of hope.

Persia might be way more powerful than you now, but you can weaken their army at Thermopylae, hold back their navy at Artemisium, and kick their asses at Salamis.  Nothing, not even oppression, lasts forever.

Like all things, this too shall pass.

The idea was there, the idea has probably always been there, but in the Christmas story it gains a moral component.  He'll overturn your tables when you're the corrupter, but he'll protect you when you're the victim, and even Rome shall fall.

And he'd rather write in the dirt than sanction a public execution, which is a set of priorities I hope we can all get behind.


  1. I like it.

    Another thing that pushes people towards the status quo is knowing the rules. If their strategy for sort-of-winning is based on injustices that are being destroyed, what are they to do?

  2. Coincidentally, I gave away a few of my shirts this week.

    Your post made me think about the Occupy movement; so much energy spent trying to convince everyone that we should - what? Not overturn any tables, not fling all the money into a pile, not drive out all the assets. Just asking the moneychangers to behave themselves a bit better. And all that energy seemed to dissipate into nothing.

  3. Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
    Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
    Everybody knows the war is over
    Everybody knows the good guys lost
    Everybody knows the fight was fixed
    The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
    That's how it goes, everybody knows

    And I've heard it suggested that one of the reasons for the sparse use of the Christmas story is that it had to be added later, because if you wanted your prophet to be taken seriously over all the others he had to have a virgin birth at the very least, and the more miracles the better.