[This text is lightly adapted from a short talk given at St. Ethelburgas’s Church in London on December 15 for Perpectiva. It was a response to a request for a non-Christian reflection on Christmastime.
Perspectiva is a community of expert generalists working on an urgent 100-year project to improve the relationships between systems, souls and society in theory and practice.]
This piece is about two things I find remarkable about Jesus, as a Jew – plus one thing I find less remarkable.
If you are a Christian and offended, I am sorry. But remember (I sometimes want to say to believing, and semi believing, and even non-believing Christians!) that I live in your world, and not the other way around. I have sung in Christian choirs and listened to Christian sermons and sworn in on Christian bibles and been graduated from every institution I have ever attended with Christian prayer. Your religion is inscribed in the laws of the state. Your days off are not my days off, but I have lived by your days in every job I have ever had.
I say this all both seriously and lightly. (This is the gentle humor with which I and other Jews in America speak of going to eat Chinese food on Christmas eve. This is the nod between the worker at the Chinese or Indian restaurant and the Jew on the same night.)
It is not just my life but my mind that has adapted to fit the Christian world. Just to get around in this Christian and post-Christian world (one in which half of my relatives are also Christians, Catholics specifically) I have read many, many books about Christianity, and I find I have come to understand the religion’s theological details — not all of it of course, but some. The reverse is sadly rarely true. I understand, for example, that it is really Easter that should be the most holy and most celebrated day, but I forgive the focus on Christmas because winter is miserable and pine trees and extra lights and sugar at the darkest time of year are nice for everyone. Plus, I will never turn down an excuse for marzipan.
Despite my interest in their religion, even the nice Christians I know tend to by necessity see my religion as the proto-, undeveloped version of theirs. This is historical, institutional, unavoidable maybe. When I sang in the King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, the windows of the building were designed to show that the most sacred texts of my religion were merely a predecessor for the true, developed view, the Christian faith.
This cannot help but sting deeply and bitterly, and seem preposterous to me, at the same time. For meanwhile Judaism of course carries on, ever complexifying and deepening over the last 2,000 years, like the living breathing surviving thinking moving human civilization that it is. To imagine Judaism as merely a predecessor is not just hurtful, but it is to neglect the insights (available even to those of other faiths) of the Talmudic, hypertextual discussion across time about the nature of the good life and the reverence and awe owed to the world.
Excuse Me, Why is Jesus White?
In recent years, we have wrung our hands about decolonizing statues and syllabi; I wonder what it would be like to decolonize this, the Christian faith itself, so it might sit with greater humility (a Christian virtue!) in its place among the ‘family of man’.
That is the first, most sad and bitter part of what I have to say. (Try to see it my way – in my religion, we think forgiveness is nice, but not the chief virtue. The chief virtue, arguably, is justice!)
Now to my second point.
Jews think that Jesus’s birth, in particular, is the least remarkable thing about him. (But again, marzipan is wonderful.) Jews think Jesus’s birth is unremarkable, but there are two things that I find remarkable about Jesus and one thing that I do not, but wish more Christians did.
1. Jesus is no fan of money
Jesus is remarkable to me because his gospel is generally too radical for his followers. Very few Christians I meet are interested in giving up their earthly possessions to serve the poor (though I am always delighted when I meet one who is). Yet Jesus says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Christmas Is a Time for Acts of Generosity
Jesus repeatedly tells his followers that money will not save them, that it will in fact imperil their souls. It has always been rather facile and ahistorical to suggest that Jesus is straightforwardly a “socialist”, but Jesus rejects, more or less entirely, even the wise getting and spending of money as a central aspect of virtue. This is remarkable given its contrast with, for example, what Aristotle termed the “executive virtue” of knowing how to make and give money well, what Jews emphasize in household ethics, and of course what our current society values today.
To show you what I see here, as an outsider to Christianity: I see Jesus as a virtuous Jew in ancient Palestine, which means I understand him to be a member of a householder religion. Judaism was then, and is as yet still, from a sociological perspective, a householder religion – we tend to base our idea of the good life on the premise that you should keep a household, including at least some material goods, that basically you should marry and have children if you can, and that the good life and the ethical life is played out in these grounded familial responsibilities. Jesus diverges from this – and I think this is profound.
It is profound in part because of another thing about Jesus’s beliefs which also diverge from householder religions — my second point:
2. Jesus suggests a transcendence, an abolition even, of the family
Jesus repeatedly reminds us that in heaven there is no marriage. He tells his followers that they should be prepared even to “hate” and “forsake” their biological families to follow him, and asserts that it is those in his circle who are his true “mothers and brothers”. It is from statements like these that Paul derives the assertion that we are all related through Christ as much as through blood, that the most important union for humans to be concerned with is that of the body of Christ as a whole. While it would be cheeky to suggest that Jesus is straightforwardly “socialist”, it is not entirely preposterous to suggest that Jesus himself, and even many of the Christians who followed him, are somewhat interested in that most radical and least loved idea in left-wing political theory, the abolition of the family.
Our Alexanders are not Jesuses, nor Mohammeds
Should you be appalled by the mere phrase abolishing the family, the term abolish, when used in political theory (my field) means to transcend something by making it no longer needed, while at the same time incorporating what is good about the previous form into the new era. (The Hegelian word famously is Aufhebung).
Let me be clear — I say this with admiration. I think this remarkable view of Jesus’ is an improvement (not unconditionally, but in many ways) on the ethos of the family-oriented householder religion. I even dare to say I think it is the way of the future: both the movement away from money and the abolition, the transcendence, of the family unit. I admire this. I hope that one day we will accomplish this together, across faiths.
The powerful kernel in the story of a bastard child born in a barn, raised by an adoptive father, soon to be on the run from the cops, is, at least in part, that Jesus’s expression and conception of what family is and should be is so much wider than our conventional idea, and indeed transcends the concept of “the family” itself. There is something bigger and better to build together.
3. Finally, the unremarkable thing: Jesus emphasizes action
One thing though that is not remarkable to me, as a Jew, about Jesus’s life and thought, is that Jesus is mostly concerned with what you do, and not what you believe, at least in a great many of his sermons.
I follow a small group of radical Mennonites on Facebook – they are called the Marginal Mennonite society, I recommend their page! – and recently they posted this quote, which I think puts things nicely:
I am aware that Jesus does talk about faith and belief and heaven (faith and heaven are in contrast things the Jews I grew up with rarely spoke of, or even believed in). But his emphasis on action is simultaneously remarkable for its difference to the way institutions have since focused their energy and their persecution of others, and simultaneously unremarkable to me, in that action remains the focus of Judaism 2,000 years later. For Jews, as I have experienced Judaism anyway, morality is generally its own reward, at most further rewarded by the experience of the divine in that moral act. That Jesus expresses an emphasis on doing is unremarkable to me, but perhaps it should be more remarked on generally, in a world where too little good is actively done by believers and non-believers alike.
There you have it in a very brief form: this is what these particular starry nights look like to me. Let us have a very merry Christmas and go do the sorts of radical and remarkable things of which Jesus would approve.
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