If I asked you what it meant to “believe” in Nelson Mandela, say, or Martin Luther King Jr, or Germaine Greer, or Ché Guevara, or Charles Darwin or Donald Trump or Margaret Atwood, how would you respond? In all likelihood, you would understand that “believing” in a public figure entails resonating with their core ideologies, and wishing to emulate them in some way. So why on earth do Christians, when it comes to Jesus, insist that “belief” in Jesus means something entirely different: subscribing to particular doctrines, theories or creeds about him?
I am going to posit a radical theory: what if “belief in Jesus” simply means trusting his message and trying to be like him? I can hear you saying it now: but that’s not radical! Except it is. That is not what Christians mean when they say they believe in Jesus. What Western Christianity means when it claims to “believe in Jesus” is this: we have undergone the commonly accepted ritualistic processes and publicly confessed adherence to a statement of faith as interpreted by our particular denomination. Jesus is largely irrelevant in that picture. Faith in Jesus has come to mean subscription to a particular mythologizing of Jesus rather than any real engagement with what Jesus was about; Christianity today does not really care about Jesus’s teachings and ethics. Instead of asking “how do we conform our ethics and practices to mimic those of Jesus”, we ask: “how can we interpret the teachings and ethics of Jesus so that they fit our socio-cultural norms?” We don’t believe in Jesus at all; we try to make Jesus believe in us.
Here is the raw truth: Jesus was about peace. Jesus was about unconditional forgiveness and enemy love. Jesus was about subverting power so that instead of making it a justification for exploiting others or coercing them into particular ways of being, having power was a mandate to serve others. And Jesus said that in these things you would see God. You can twist it any way you like, but the simple fact is this: Jesus was inescapably opposed to violence, whether in the name of justice, liberation, you name it. Jesus taught – and lived – an ethic of self-sacrificial enemy love and peace-making. And he believed that God was like that too. There is no possible reading of his life and teachings that could legitimately come to any other conclusion.
Of course, that logic doesn’t make sense to most of us, simply because that is not how human society has ever configured itself. All of our cultures and religions were birthed in violence. As Rene Girard, whom Forbes labelled ‘The Einstein of the Social Sciences’, noted, religion was born out of primitive humanity’s attempt to make sense of how collective violence against a scapegoat (the mechanism driving sacrificial practices) could prevent the greater violence that arises from mimetic rivalry, and which threatened to destroy social cohesion. To (over)simply his point, in its genesis, religion is the establishment of a system of prohibitions and rituals and myths that control revenge, so that the group doesn’t self-destruct, a role which he believes the judicial system has assumed in modern society. In short, social cohesion is maintained through the controlled use of collective violence. The logic of human relationships is violence. We won’t like to admit it, of course, but it underpins our notions of justice; it drives our capitalist economies (how easily we ‘hide’ the poor, the refugees, the starving and illiterate, who are the victims of our economies of exchange; there is a real human cost to our accumulation of wealth); we accept it as the means to discipline our children – if not through physical violence, then through emotional manipulation or some other strategy that exploits their relative weakness; it is how we resolve conflict; it undergirds all notions of modernity and progress. Violence is the glue that holds our ways of being together.
In Jesus we are presented with a damning critique of the profound injustice of our ways of being in the world. In all of his interactions with the poor, the outcast, the sinners, as well as with the powerful elite – the Romans and the religious leaders – Jesus interrogates the legitimacy of what Jean-Luc Nancy calls “violent relatedness”. In all of his parables, his listeners are provided with an unflattering mirror of how they relate to others. And finally, when his teachings simply fail to convince anyone – even his disciples – that there is a necessity to relate differently, this new peace-ethic is powerfully exemplified in the passion narrative, which is why the cross is central to the gospel of Jesus. Now I don’t believe that one has to regard Jesus as divine for the theoretical framework of his ideologies to make sense. And the genius of Jesus, for me, is illuminated by the work of Girard, so that it becomes obvious that we are trapped in cycles of retributive violence, which hide the victims of the unjust scapegoating acts that keep society ‘civil’. Whether or not you accept Jesus’s solution to the problem: self-giving love and forgiveness, it is hard to deny the power of his insight into human relationships. What Jesus says about humanity is genius. When you add to that his commentary on the nature of God, you have gospel.
If, as you claim, you “believe in” Jesus, then you need to grapple with his claims that if you have seen him, you have seen God. Do you know what the implications of that are? If Jesus rejects “violent relatedness”, then the logical inference is that God does too. All of the Old Testament smitings, which the various authors claimed were sanctioned by God, now have to be regarded, if not as outright lies, at least as misunderstandings on the parts of the authors. It means that there is no basis – ever – for the zealous persecution of those who do not interpret God in the same way as we do, or who do not adhere to our holiness codes (that was Paul’s epiphany on the road to Damascus). It means that God never sanctions violence. It means God did not punish Jesus on the cross (which none of the gospel writers ever claim). It means that we are the problem, not God. We don’t get to butcher others and claim a divine mandate to do so.
Believing in Jesus means forgiving even those who murder us because “they do not know what they are doing” – we accept that they are driven by socio-cultural and psychological forces that are far beyond their understanding. It means modelling our mimetic behaviour – and we are hardwired for mimesis, there is no escaping that – on him. When he was raised from the dead, the victim of unjust violence, he did not reciprocate, but uttered only “Peace! Be not afraid!”. Believing in Jesus means service, it means relating in non-violent ways and doing what needs to be done – from our side, anyway – to restore relationships, even with our enemies, to something life-affirming. After all, what is society but the sum of all of our relationships? And if every one of those relationships affirms life, affirms the value of the individuals doing the relating, would that not be life in abundance?
That is what Jesus meant when he said that he was the way and the truth and the life, and that we could not know God apart from him (John 14:6). That is why the fourth gospel writer claimed that those who received him obtained the right to be called children of God (John 1:12). Belief in Jesus has nothing to do with finding a magical formula for entering the afterlife. It has nothing to do with subscribing to any particular atonement theory. It has nothing to do with believing Jesus existed and was God. It has nothing to do with saying the sinner’s prayer and inviting Jesus into your heart (what does that even mean?!). Belief in Jesus is not an intellectual activity, nor is it a ritual to be followed. Belief in Jesus has everything to do with trying to be in the world the same way Jesus was. And often we will get it wrong, but there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, because unconditional forgiveness precludes that entirely. I won’t scapegoat you when you fail in my eyes, just as I hope you will not persecute me when I fall short in yours. That is not how Jesus taught us to relate. There are ways of being in the world, of resolving our differences, that do not legitimate violence and perpetuate injustice in the name of progress and modernity and salvation for all, all the while hiding the victims. There are ways of being in the world that affirm life and not death. I believe that. I believe in Jesus. I long for the day when Christianity will too.