Ben Pertz and family, all dressed in their Sabbath best, walked up the temple steps. Little Isaac brings up the rear, leading their goat, Molly, on a short twine rope. When they finally reach the top, the patriarch Ben Pertz, reels in Molly, hoists her up onto the sacrificial rock, pulls out his ceremonial knife, and plunges it deep into her heart, spurting out blood in all directions.
The family turns and walks back down the stairs. Worship is over.
True story! Until their temple was destroyed for the third and last time in 70 CE, the Jewish worship of God consisted of climbing the temple steps and sacrificing something living, usually a goat. There was no sermon, no songs, no discussion, and no buffet afterward. Just the statement of some ceremonial words to consecrate the sacrifice, dispatch the goat, and go on home.
A quick, blasphemous religion rundown
Around about 0 CE, Jesus came along. Even as a young Jewish boy, he had issues with some of the Jewish ways. With the ruling Romans protecting their interests on one side and the Jewish authorities on the other, Jesus (who was much stronger in spiritual than political matters) was quickly squeezed out of the picture.
He only had a chance to teach for a few years, and a lot of that time he said most of his important stuff in riddles and non sequiturs. For instance, when his people expected him to fulfill what they understood as the old Jewish prophesy of the “messiah” and overthrow the Romans, he replied, “My kingdom is not of this world...” John 18:36
Cool, but Judas and many others still expected him to somehow defeat the Romans and restore things to how they were in the “good ol' days.”
Long story short, Jesus didn't fit well into that world, so he didn't last long. His followers tried to pick up the pieces of his teachings after he made his exit, but without a clear curriculum, there was utter chaos. Well-meaning Christians took it upon themselves to “save” the heathens by destroying their idols -- even if that meant breaking into their homes to do so. Of course, the Romans tried to restore order, but their gruesome public executions failed to have the desired effect.
Fast forward 300 years. The new emperor, Constantine, hits on a new tactic. An adherent to the strategy of keeping your enemies close, and in the spirit of “If you can't beat 'em, corrupt them,” he bribed the bishops of Italy with government positions.
The message of love and forgiveness that Jesus tried to get across was pretty much lost in the perception of an angry god after Paul started preaching his apocalyptic expectations (tied to the messiah myth) about 50 CE. Over the next few hundred years, that message grew into a monster, so that by the time Constantine came along, Christianity was fairly compatible with the fear tactics and brutality of the Roman empire.
Constantine incorporated his understanding of blood sacrifice practiced by the traditional Hebrews and pagans into his new cosmology involving Jesus. Then, disguising his new ruling class and alliance as a holy empire, Constantine made his new Catholic Church the only legal religion (on penalty of death). Then in 324, he set himself up as the head of the Catholic Church, securing his complete control over his new power structure.
Civil obedience and religious unity was finally achieved. However, by now, the Roman empire was beginning to crumble. Less than 400 years after Rome had Jesus crucified, those claiming allegiance to him were in power. This made a good story for the Church to tell to prove that God was on their side. Yet, the history of Constantine's maneuvers indicates that it was more due to “slight of hand” than it was the hand of God.
Shortly after Constantine got this ball rolling, Augustine ran with it. He created the doctrine of Cognite intrare, or “compel them to enter.” He also coined the concept of “original sin,” even though that notion doesn't exist anywhere in the bible. By shifting the blame for their hardships from their conquerors to the people's own innate inadequacy Augustine removed a lot of opposition, while at the same time cementing in the subservient role of the masses to the elite, who were suddenly set up as intermediaries for God. Brilliant!
Augustine also coined the concept of “just wars,” so any remaining opposition could be quickly dispatched without harming the ruler's image. Finally, in perhaps his biggest stroke of genius, Augustine promoted the idea of “The Spiritual City of God” that could never perish. This usurped the power from the crumbling Roman Empire, transferring it to the Holy Roman Empire, which defined itself as a free agent, obligated to no one but God, who conveniently, only spoke to them.
Fortifying this empire in the minds of men took the age-old practice of conquering to a whole new level. From this impenetrable fortress, the monster of Constantine's corrupt Church sent tentacles out capturing alliances with every political power in Europe.
Letting these various political structures do its dirty work allowed the Church to clean up its image a bit. This strategy of mind manipulation and collusion with merciless rulers was so successful that after about 1500 years of overt and covert operations that eliminated anyone who didn't wholehearted accept their authority, their holy image grew increasingly secure.
The Christian Reformation exposed some of the corruption and reformulated some of the ideology. However, coming at the end of the dark ages, it's easy to see why the reforming ministers (who were also admittedly well indoctrinated in Church dogma) left the essential fear-promoting and congregation-controlling features of Christianity in tact.
So at the end of the Reformation, and in most Christian circles even today, we are born with original sin, saved from eternal damnation by the Jesus' sacrifice, but are still pretty powerless in our own world, because the unseen, unknowable hand of God does all the real work, and to think otherwise is sinful.
Christian Reformation 2.0
Most successful modern day ministers no longer even try to control their flock by throwing the fear of God in them. People are taking responsibility for their own lives, morals, and world view, and the churches that do best in this environment provide a supportive message and community for today's less fearful Christians.
When I discovered the Progressive Christianity organization a few days ago, it looked good, but knowing how the creation of BS smoke screens has become an art form, I asked them one question. It was the same question that my parochial school Religion teacher asked us the first day of fifth grade: “What's more important, what Jesus taught or the fact that he died for our sins?”
After answering that question wrong in the fifth grade, I was quiet the rest of the year. Common sense obviously had no place in Religion class. However, about a half of century later, I now discover that I'm not the only one who sees Christianity a little differently.
To my delight, Fred C. Plumer, the president of Progressive Christianity.org wrote me back saying:
“We do not believe that Jesus' death had anything to do with
substitutional sacrifice for human sin. There was no garden, there was not
original sin. There is and was no need for a third party to be sacrificed
for something that did not happen.”
He went on with a further statement of belief, but I'll just refer you to their website for their official position of what amounts to a new Reformation.
I think of it all as a doctrine stating what doesn't matter anymore.
My wife's skin color is different from mine.
My partner is the same sex as I am.
I'm not sure I really believe in God, and I'm pretty sure I don't believe in the exclusive divine insight of ministers.
All this and more really doesn't matter anymore. What does matter?
President of Progressive Christianity.org, Fred Plumer answers that this way:
“We consider Jesus a very special wisdom teacher and a mystic. He believed that anyone who was able to follow his core teachings, non-judgment, forgiveness, compassion and a willingness to change, could also experience that Heaven here on earth. In the Book of Thomas, Jesus was quoted as saying that “Heaven is within you. It is all around you but you cannot see it.” In our opinion, backed by solid modern scholarship, Jesus was more about how to access and experience God (Divine Unity) than he was about anything that happens after our worldly death.”
Heaven and Hell – irrelevant!
God – we don't really know exactly what God is or how he/she/it operates,
and no matter what evangelists or atheists say, they can't really know either. Let's be honest.
What matters is here and now and how we handle it.
Despite this seemingly radical stance regarding some basic Christian tenets,
I'm told there are close to two thousand traditional churches affiliated with Progressive
“We also have a tremendous following of people who identify themselves as
followers of Jesus but not Christian. And we sell a lot of our material to
interfaith communities. The fastest growing segment of our supporters is from
those who no longer attend church but are forming small groups. They are trying to create ‘intentional communities all on their own. We provide educational
materials, rituals and even some suggestions about ways to organize their
cell groups. It is a very interesting and curious shift.” – Fred Plumer
They also have a monthly e-magazine that currently goes out to about 11,000 people, and that number is growing every day. The Christian Reformation 500 years ago was very violent. This Reformation 2.0 seems to be putting out the last of those fires.
Peace, love, cooperation, taking personal responsibility for our lives, and honestly and humbly doing our best. That's what the new Christianity is all about – not ideology. And it's wonderful to see that community building!