Jesus Wasn't Polite Company

Well-intentioned followers of Jesus too often assume he was a warm, fuzzy guy. 

In him they see someone preoccupied with keeping the peace, not making waves. And there can be no doubt that Jesus was a peacemaker. He was non-violent to the core. But non-violent is not the same as non-confrontational.

Non-violence is an inherently confrontational practice. We need not look as far back as the Gospels to confirm this fact. Both King and Gandhi used confrontation to effectively dramatize injustice. Similarly, confrontation was a preferred tactic of Jesus. 

Jesus was undoubtedly a kind, compassionate, and loving man. But Jesus's message was subversive. His behavior, tactics, and rhetoric call to question the simple-minded ideas many of us cling to about love and compassion. The fire-brand that turned over the money-lender's table is tough to square with the overly sentimental image of Jesus many of us hold dear.

Jesus was not an "agree to disagree" kind of guy. When the Pharisees asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" Jesus did not say, "To each their own. Now go in peace my brother." He instead called them "hypocrites" and said,
"You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!"

Ouch. That is the sting of brutal honesty. 

“Our ideas of God tell us more about ourselves than about Him,” said Thomas Merton. I suppose the same is true about Jesus. The always affable and courteous image of Jesus that occupies the altar of our mind conforms more to our fears and expectations, than the picture painted by the Gospels. It appears to be an image cast in the shadow of our fear of confrontation. We don't want Jesus to be confrontational because we are afraid of following him into the conflict.

Conflict can be scary business. 

Jesus never declined an invitation to a good debate, even when tensions were high. "They took up stones to stone him." Stop and think about that: "They took up stones to stone him." If there is ever a time to keep your mouth shut, it is when they take up stones to to stone you. Yet, Jesus offers perhaps his wittiest response of all to this stone-toting audience: "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, you are gods?' (82nd Psalm) Now if those to whom the word of God came were called 'gods'—and the scripture cannot be in error—can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, 'I am God’s Son?' If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father." He said that to people who were about to stone him!

I am not saying that Jesus was unnecessarily combative or the First Century equivalent of an internet troll, but I am saying that when ideas and practices deviated from the truth as he saw it, Jesus turned into that friction, rather than away from it. He was not concerned with "keeping the peace," so to speak. He said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Obviously, he is not referring to physical violence. He is talking about the sword of wisdom which cuts through those ideas, beliefs, traditions, and institutions that prevent us from realizing what he called "The Kingdom of Heaven."

Challenging someone's "beliefs" is often thought to be impolite. Social customs that place our religious ideas above dispute are built in memetic devices that aid those ideas in their struggle to endure. On the spiritual path, such etiquette is counter-productive. It compartmentalizes our beliefs, segregating them from the reality of our daily life, which is the environment they must learn to operate within. In fact, unless they learn to operate within that environment they cannot be considered proper beliefs.

Kant describes three degrees of conviction: opinion, faith, and knowledge. In brief, opinion is both subjectively and objectively insufficient; faith or proper beliefs are subjectively sufficient but objectively lacking; and knowledge is both subjectively and objectively sufficient. Sufficient to what? Establish truth. What is the minimum threshold of truth? According to the pragmatic theory of truth as fleshed out by William James—which is the most suited for our purposes—it is utility. When an idea inspires action and the corresponding result of that action proves to be useful, then that idea ceases to be a mere opinion and becomes a proper belief, though it lacks the persuasiveness or efficacy needed to be universally accepted as knowledge. This is the ladder our ideas must climb to become beliefs, the ascent of which requires study, debate, self-examination, and spiritual practice.  

Social taboos against openly critiquing religious or spiritual ideas do nothing more than guard those ideas against the pressure truth applies to them, which is what forces them to adapt or mature into proper beliefs. As a result, our ideas about spirituality fail to ripen into a practical and effective spirituality. They remain adolescent, under-developed, ill-suited for life in an adult world, which is why Jesus ignores this custom. He embodies the sentiment expressed by Paul when he wrote"When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways."

Politics is another sphere of intellectual life that is often quarantined. We are afraid of the tension soaked conversation that ensues when politics, religion, or the ever combustible combination of the two surfaces. People tend to identify with the the ideas that collectively define their religious and political orientations and therefore feel internal friction—stress, fear, anger—when those ideas are challenged by competing points of view. Therefore, those conversations typically surface only in the "safe space" of like-minded people. And breach of this unspoken protocol is thought to be bad manners, as the old saying goes, "In polite company, it’s not proper to talk about religion or politics."

Jesus is not polite company! 

He is extremely critical of other's beliefs. In fact, the word "hypocrite" appears approximately twenty times in the Gospels. I am not suggesting we run around calling people hypocrites, but I am suggesting that open and honest debate is healthy, even necessary, for spiritual growth and a thriving democracy. We should be respectfully critical of other's beliefs, as well as our own. And by critical I do not mean rude, but "crit·i·cal: an analysis of the merits and faults of a given idea, proposal, or practice."

Beliefs are the ideas that orient us toward the world in which we live. They are those ideas upon which we act. When beliefs or traditions prevent ourselves or others from orienting their entire Being toward the reality of our daily life, they should be challenged. If there is a manner of living that is more fulfilling, then that life should be lived and any beliefs that prevent us from actualizing that life should be challenged. Avoiding this confrontation is a form of spiritual bypassing. When our ideas are challenged, it is an invitation to grow: an invitation to be transformed by the renewing of our mind.

I am not suggesting that walking the spiritual path requires us to become contrarians. I am simply saying that debate and discussion are an essential part of a balanced and healthy spiritual diet. And furthermore, they are part of the path outlined by the example of Jesus.

We have to be willing to have those uncomfortable conversations. Discomfort is the texture of kenosis, which is the active ingredient in spiritual growth. We have to be willing to question not only our beliefs and traditions, but the beliefs and traditions of others—not out of spite, but as an expression of love and fidelity to the truth. This is part of Jesus's yoke, his jnana yoga, if you will.      

Have This Blog Sent to Your Email.