The lasting meaning of Jesus is that he is incarnate. No matter how the kings, pharaohs, inquisitors, torturers, bankers and scribbling servants of power try to distort, demonize and destroy his spirit, the meaning always is among us.
The story is simple and moving. The illegitimate child of Mary, both of them universal symbols. The child also of a working man, who becomes a carpenter. A teacher and prophet by example. A community organizer whose followers lived. taught, healed, fed the peasantry in the Lower Galilee and moved on. The scourge of the banks and tax collectors, a threat who took his protest downtown. Threat to Empire. Friend of the poor, the slaves, the hungry, the prisoners of state The intimate friend of independent women. A builder of movements meant to last. Arrested in a night raid. Betrayed by an agent of Empire. Ridiculed, scorned, tortured and nailed to a cross, alongside alleged common criminals. Executed by a politician who feared the police, vigilantes and public opinion.
The story of the martyred insurgent inspired others in villages on the outskirts of Empire. If Jesus’ memory could not be suppressed, his symbol could be institutionalized, co-opted, become a face of Empire, formalized by Constantine at Nicea. The insurgent Jesus became the messenger of imperial faith. The conversions inflicted in his name were brutal beyond imagination. The Inquisition detained, tortured and killed millions, especially women. The same crazed oligarchs launched the Crusades, and at the same historic period, our New World was established in fire and sword. All this in the name of Jesus.
For centuries, the story of the original Jesus was forsaken or made to dim in the age of Reason, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and the coming of Marxism.
I was raised in the church of martyrs – Michael was most awesome – but wherever I looked the Church was martyring the other side – promoting a Catholic crusade in Vietnam and strictest obedience to the status quo in my hometown. Like many of my generation, I read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, rose from my knees, embraced doubt and existentialism, and entered the life of The Movement. It would be another incarnation.
Our Sixties awakening finally swept through the ranks of millions of other rank-and-file Catholics and people of faith. At the 1962 Port Huron convention of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), it is important but barely remembered that our “agenda for a generation” included a draft section on religion and spirituality. The passages failed to make the final version because of time and exhaustion. The drafter-in-charge, a young Christian organizer named Jim Monsonis, simply fell asleep. Only a few sentences made their way into the final Statement, including these:
“We regard (men) as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom and love...(with) unfulfilled potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding and creativity.”
This was neither an affirmation of Enlightenment hope nor the gloomy Christianity that would lead a Reinhold Niebuhr to embrace the Cold War. Songs of slavery and the blues transmitted to us through southern church congregations awakened the spirit in us. Or perhaps it was the handful of spiritual searchers who came to Port Huron, among them Casey Hayden, Mary Varela and Monsonis.
We could not possibly realize it, but Port Huron was a step toward what became Liberation Theology, the doctrine of affirmative, equalizing action on behalf of the poor and marginalized. Liberation theology arose almost simultaneously, and contagiously, among African Americans still excluded from White Christianity, among women excluded from Male Christianity, messengers of peace – like the Berrigan brothers – excluded from Imperial Christianity, and above all, in Central and Latin America, where the breakthrough came in 1968, as police clubbed us in Chicago and Paris, killed us in Mexico City and crushed us under tanks in Czechoslovakia. As the old bureaucracies and gospels seemed to fall, the Latin American Catholic bishops officially proclaimed liberation theology to be the theory and practice of a new mission in the world. Campesinos formed small base communities where the story of Jesus against Empire became incarnate in their struggles.
For many of us, the SDS notion of participatory democracy was a liberatory and spiritual one based on awakening human dignity, not simply a blueprint for rearranging institutions.
It was another moment of incarnation, with signs for all to see. The first image of our earth from infinite space. Guerrillas and priests, women and men, students and peasants, poets and philosophers, backpackers and doorknockers, all shuddered through life-changing experiences, toward the light of recognition. It was not long before frozen institutions thawed, the war ended, a president fell, dictatorships imploded and so many lost causes suddenly were won.
But the incarnation was fleeting, a holy moment, a flying saucer (so Dylan thought). Soon enough, the Machiavellians – the powers and principalities – were back in their chambers and boardrooms, but shaken. Like the Romans, they crucify the Other while promising Reform to the public. They call this counterinsurgency.
Every year massive efforts are made to make us look away from this simple story of the historical Jesus, to be absorbed by the artificial needs of consumer capitalism, turning the Spirit into Santa Claus, continuing the Crusades and Conquests, to be consoled and sold again.
Surely we cannot allow the Jesus story to be co-opted and twisted by so many right-wing Christian hucksters and One Percenters who would think Jesus a deadbeat if they passed him on the street, a tramp one of the Nuns on the Bus might pick up.
The subversive spirit of Love still rises from its birth mangers everywhere, hidden in plain sight. Every Christmas means a chance to get the story right. As Casey wrote recently in book on Port Huron, “And yet abides my passion for truth, radical truth, found, it turns out, in this very moment, gone before it can be named, unadorned and luminous.” (Hayden, Casey. “Only Love Is Radical,” Inspiring Participatory Democracy. Paradigm, 2012.)