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Revolutionary: Who was Jesus? Why does he still matter?, edited by Tom Holland

13 November 2020

Michael Doe considers essays on the idea of Jesus as revolutionary

TOM HOLLAND’s Dominion last year showed how the Christian revolution disrupted the ethical and political assumptions of antiquity (Books, 13 September 2019; Features, 27 September 2019). After Jesus, nothing would be the same again, and even the most secular people today should acknowledge how he has shaped our world. But how radically different was Jesus? In what way was he a revolutionary? That is what this stimulating collection of essays tries to answer, and there is some healthy disagreement. 

Robin Gill explores Jesus’s ethics, much of it pragmatic, becoming more distinctive in their enemy-love commands. Amy-Jill Levine goes much further: as a Jewish theologian, she questions how far Jesus actually went beyond what was already being taught about care for neighbour and stranger, whether the Pharisees were as bad as the Gospels paint them, why Jesus overlooked slavery, and the supposed novelty of the Church’s universalism.

She may protest too loudly, but her description of Jesus’s teaching on judgement, and the violence of the book of Revelation, as “colonial mimicry” is a sobering thought for Christian idealists. She is more amenable to Jesus the storyteller, with parables that upset our presuppositions.

Joan E. Taylor sees Jesus within a dualism, not of the material versus the spiritual, but of God against Satan. As God’s empowered agent, he dethrones the rich and powerful and so moves from being a prophet to a revolutionary. Along similar lines, Terry Eagleton says that Jesus was killed because, when he spoke out so fearlessly for love and justice, he threatened the religious and political establishment. He was not a revolutionary leader, but a martyr like Martin Luther King or Steve Biko. It is only after such breaking that there can come resurrection, which also has political implications.

A. N. Wilson would disagree. From his reading of the Fourth Gospel, the revolution is not about society, but of the inward person. He is right that, while in many revolutions, the individual becomes disposable, Jesus emphasises the worth and response of each person. Some may feel, however, that Wilson’s approach, likely to result in sympathy and philanthropy rather than any real change to his Establishment world, is rather too convenient. (In passing, he raises the fascinating possibility that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was not John, but Lazarus).

Nick Spencer says that Jesus was not a political leader and had no interest in the kind of sedition which the Jews and Romans may have feared. He was revolutionary in the sense that he rejected the zero-sum game and the tit-for-tat chain, replacing recrimination with forgiveness, and doing it through making the ultimate sacrifice himself.

Two of the contributions are interesting but rather off-beam. Tarif Khalidi describes the significant part that Jesus plays in Muslim teaching, and especially poetry. From the opposite corner, Julian Baggini provides an atheist’s perspective, from which he is particularly critical of what he calls “the genius of ambiguity”, such as seeing Jesus as both human and divine, or his teaching being both for and against (for example) the Law, family, or those in power. Sadly, he uses empirical language and argument, as many Christian fundamentalists do, to describe what must be sought elsewhere. He fails to see that tension and paradox may be a richer way to explore the deeper truths and mystery of life.

The ubiquitous Rowan Williams rounds off the collection in a characteristic combination of insight and complexity. Contrary to the self-interested powers, religious and political, that turned him into, not a martyr, but a victim, Jesus revolutionises how we see ourselves and others. Our identity and our belonging together are dependent not on what we’ve inherited or achieved, but are “given”, given by God. There can, therefore, be no place for the humiliation or exclusion of the other.

He roots that in the Gospels, and, while he is not alone in this collection in acknowledging the difficulty of separating out the Jesus of history from what followed, he rightly points out that every historical person is a literary figure, seen through the lens of those who later made sense of them.

Perhaps the crucial word in most of these essays is “power”. Jesus does not seek political power. He actually runs away when he is offered kingship. He debunks his disciples’ wish for such power for him, and for themselves. He knows that it is more likely to harm than to heal. His power lies elsewhere, in his relationship with the Father, shared and surrendered, and in what can happen when people share his life, walk his way, follow his teaching.

This is far more than social gospel, but if we ever did take it seriously, its impact on the world, our economy, and our political processes would be — well, yes —revolutionary.


The Rt Revd Michael Doe is Preacher to Gray’s Inn and a former General Secretary of USPG.


Revolutionary: Who was Jesus? Why does he still matter?
Tom Holland, editor
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