Thursday, 12 January 2012

Social Status of Jesus

Mohammud came from a very respectable family; and Buddha was a prince. But the social status of Jesus is interestingly conflicted. On the one hand, he was mortal royalty; directly descended from King David, a fact to which the NT adverts with suspicious regularity. On the other hand -- and this, I think, is one of the things that makes Christianity so very distinctive as a world religion -- he was a nobody; a commoner; a carpenter who had given up carpentry for a life of holy vagrancy. In the words of the great Kurt Vonnegut (an unjustly overlooking theologian, I'd say), he was a bum.
It was The Gospel From Outer Space, by Kilgore Trout. It was about a visitor from outer space...[who] made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.

But the Gospels actually taught this:

Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected. So it goes.
The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn't look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought...:

Oh, boy - they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!

And that thought had a brother: "There are right people to lynch." Who? People not well connected. So it goes.

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. He still got to say all the lovely and puzzling things he said in the other Gospels.
So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn't possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that too, since the Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was.
And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of the Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this:

From this moment on, He will punish anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!
The point of this splendid midrash (it's from Slaughterhouse Five, of course) is that the gospel message loses force if Christ actually is the sort of person you shouldn't lynch (a king, the son of God) because that necessary establishes the category of 'people it is OK to lynch'. However insistent the scriptures are that Jesus was aristocracy both in mundane and heavenly terms, the force of the Gospel story is that of the outsider, the nobody, the bum.

There's one way in which I can see the text's insistence that Jesus is the lineal descendant of David works for, rather than against, its core purpose; and that is that it adds pathos to Jesus's situation. We are, after all, familiar with people who (for example) claim that they, not the present incumbent, are the Rightful King Of England, with their forlorn stare-eyed Miss-Havisham-like intensity and their filigree family-tree documentation. When we encounter such a person we feel certainly not reverence, and probably not even a sense of the tragic aspect of 'how are the mighty fallen'. The situation, on the contrary, is ludicrous. My old Welsh gran used to tell me that we (through her) were lineally descended from Owain Glendwr. At 7 years old I used to be impressed by this datum. Now that I'm older, I tend (a) to doubt it, (b) to reflect that I've yet to meet a Welsh person who doesn't claim the same thing. I quite like the thought of it, not because of its putative grandeur, but for the exact opposite reason -- precisely because its mildly comic and bathetic.

1 comment:

Ian Sales said...

Jesus is only a commoner if you accept the Bible as an historically accurate document. Which we know is not the case. It's more likely he was an actual prince, and even if his documented actions tend to suggest so. A lowly caprenter's son, for example, is unlikely to have been educated well enough to argue scripture with Pharisees.