Who Wants a Spiritualized Jesus Anyway?

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Jesus was an incredibly unlikely messiah. Though Matthew and Luke later shaped his genealogy in an attempt to establish his royal messianic bona fides, Jesus was born to humble parents from a nowhere town in a backwater state among desperate peasants—peasants who had little hope of relief from what they assumed was the irremediably grim trajectories of their lives. That Jesus inspired hope among the hopeless peasants only made his refusal to incite the awaited revolution that much more confusing and heartbreaking. From the standpoint of his first-century followers, looking on in horror at the humiliating spectacle of his very public execution, Jesus was a lousy messiah. We can hear it in the disillusioned words of the disciples on the road to Emmaus: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk. 24:21a). 

Later, though, his followers viewed Jesus’ resurrection as a transformation of the whole concept of messiah. Whereas, before, the expectation of Jesus’ followers was that his messiahship would be a traditional one—God’s anointed one would rise up and throw off the bonds of occupying oppressors—his unfortunate crucifixion screwed up that assumption. The resurrection led his followers increasingly to spiritualize the concept of messiah. But messiahship thus understood made Jesus’ life and ministry all but irrelevant, focusing instead on the cosmic implications of God sending a messianic savior who prevailed in the spiritual realm. The unintended consequence of such spiritualizing made possible (and continues to make possible) a Christianity that could be preoccupied with the individual’s soul, while at the same time ignoring the relationship of that soul to the very messy and political world it inhabited. In other words, by abstracting Jesus’ messiahship from the economic and political concerns of oppressed peasants, and placing it on an ethereal christological plane having to do with saving the individual soul, Christianity could, with clear conscience, ignore the plight of the very people Jesus arose from, fought for, ministered to, and died on behalf of—that is, it could say with a straight face and in all sincerity: “Christians shouldn’t be too political.” 

Jesus’ life amounted to a sustained political argument about a new kingdom in which the socio-economic concerns of the forgotten would drive the political agenda … while his death amounted to the state’s deadly answer to such a political agenda. But the power of Jesus’ messiahship is its ability to transform, not the political to the spiritual, but to transform the despair of the vulnerable into the power to resist all attempts to render the vulnerable voiceless and their lives meaningless. Or, as James Cone argues, “We cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualizing it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering, and death. The cross as a locus of divine revelation is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 156). 

A spiritualized messiah—apart from doing violence to Jesus’ understanding of himself as a prophetic voice announcing a new reign to rival the claims of existing reigns—makes possible the kind of otherwise decent people who, when faced with injustice and tyranny, don’t have the strength and courage to say “no” and “wrong.” However, Jesus the lousy messiah is the perfect model for producing people … able to resist any authority that threatens those who cannot help themselves.

[Excerpted from Outlandish: An Unlikely Messiah, a Messy Ministry, and a Call to Mobilize, Chalice Press, 2019]