What Would Jesus Do?

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The Forgotten Creed: Christianity's Original Struggle Against Bigotry, Slavery, and Sexism
By Stephen J. Patterson
Oxford University Press

This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’” So begins the famous line cited at various times by all three of the Kennedy brothers. “But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” This beautiful dream of political possibility comes from George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, but the Kennedys drew no attention to its particular attribution in the play. Shaw puts the words in the mouth of the tempting serpent in the Garden of Eden, about to bring down Eve and wreak havoc with all of history. Was Shaw warning that the idealistic vision of a just world free of suffering counts, actually, as a hubristic denial of what is real?

The serpent seems to propose the hope of a better future, but the myth of Paradise suggests that humans more readily locate their dream state in the past. (To “make America great again” aims to recover a quality of public bliss that once existed, but was then lost. The bliss, of course, was white.) But, abstracting from the American present, the myth of an original blessedness ruined by a Fall is a way of accounting both for the intractable injustices of the human condition and for the undying human refusal to make peace with such injustices. Indeed, these days the three Kennedys themselves furnish the latest version of a mythical lost blessedness (Camelot; RFK’s 1968 campaign; “the Dream will never die”) against which to measure the grim politics of the present.

With The Forgotten Creed, Stephen J. Patterson has written a highly technical work of biblical scholarship that nevertheless has an unexpected relevance to the contemporary American crisis of private morale and public morality. Unlike Shaw, whose dreams of a better world “never were,” Patterson, in his “forgotten creed,” lifts up a vision of primordial justice—across class, race, and gender—that not only existed once, but that enlivened the igniting pulse of Western civilization.

Patterson’s, too, is a story of original blessedness and a terrible Fall, for, as the rough course of history shows, injustices of class, race, and gender continually prevail over every attempted remedy. That Patterson’s description of the original blessedness he detects is vague (his subtitle speaks of an “original struggle”), and that his account of an all-destroying Fall lacks historical definition (what actually defeated the struggle?) do not take away from his narrative’s surprisingly bracing hope. The book matters for its acute biblical erudition, but also as a case study of humane possibility.

Patterson’s subject is not American politics, but rather the story of Christian origins. The “creed” that he identifies as the first statement of what following Jesus Christ meant is a simple formula found in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: “For you are all children of God through Faith in Christ Jesus; for as many of you who have been baptized have put on Christ. There is no Jew or Greek; there is no slave or free; there is no male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Patterson, a scholar at Willamette University, argues plausibly that Paul, whose letter dates to about 50 CE, is simply repeating a pre-existing ritual affirmation that probably originated in the baptism practice of first-generation Jesus people (not yet “Christians”). The formula, therefore, would date to the years not long after the death of Jesus in 30 CE. Patterson’s thesis is that to join this community (a community of Jews) was to embrace a new arrangement free of the perennial structures of domination by ethnicity (“no Jew or Greek”), class (“no slave or free”), and gender (“no male or female”).

Alas, in Paul’s rendering of the pre-existing promise of “no” denigrating distinction by ethnicity, class, or gender—or at least in how Paul’s rendering would be subsequently read—the seed of a new denigration was sown by an additional qualifying phrase, “in Christ Jesus.” That qualifier would spawn an “othering”—those “in” against those “out”—that would be stoutly used against the unbaptized. The supposed “universalism” of Christianity, later set against the supposed “particularism” of Judaism, would prove, with excluding claims made for Jesus as the “one way” to God (John 14:6), not to be universal at all. But Patterson insists it was not like that at the start.

The original impulse reflected in the “forgotten creed” was simply to repeat the pattern Jesus had set in the way he spoke of God, and in the way Jesus behaved. These first “followers of Jesus were trying to be like God, to imitate God,” Patterson says. “God is merciful and kind to everyone.” There’s the point: everyone. Yet Patterson does not naively assume that the iron laws of human “othering” were repealed by baptism, even in the very beginning. Slavery and pauperism, patriarchy and sexism, as well as complications of Jewish-Gentile relations, not to mention tribalism, remained givens of the ancient world. But Patterson argues that the meaning of these traditional sources of domination was changed simply by measuring them against the standard set by Jesus, in the name of the all-loving God he proclaimed.

For the first followers of Jesus, his memory quite simply demanded a radical equality enshrined in that “creed,” a commitment that made his movement what, in hindsight, must be reckoned as a counterculture of virtue. (It should be emphasized, by the way, that Jesus was advancing here a profoundly Jewish vision, not a superseding “Christian” vision. After all, the primal principle of God’s universal love was established in Genesis, with Israel’s God as the loving creator not only of the tribe, but of all that exists.) The counterculture of virtue proclaimed that the impulse to divide the world into realms of “us” and “them” was not inexorable, nor, therefore, was dominating injustice inevitable.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to think so? If such a dream had taken hold in the West, there would today be no “one percent,” no immigrant children ripped from their families, no need for Time’s Up and #MeToo. Patterson applies a cold eye to what went wrong, noting for example the way in which “no Jew or Greek” could, as Christianity came to dominate, effectively mean, “there is no longer Jew.” That the Church-sponsored move to eliminate the Jewish religion spawned, ultimately, the move to eliminate the Jewish people, required a reassessment of how Paul had been read. Using that faithful Jew’s words to justify hatred—and killing—of Jews, Patterson maintains, has represented “one of the greatest intellectual failures of Western civilization.”

As with anti-Semitism, so with patriarchy, which readily prevailed over the ideal of male-female equality, and was firmly advanced within a generation of those early equality-minded Jesus people by the Gospel writers themselves. (Recall that the four Gospels were composed between about 70 and about 110 CE, so a few years after Paul, and decades after those who composed the “creed.”) Contempt for Jews, contempt for women—and, of course, slavery, which continued to thrive as a pillar of culture, with even Paul taking it wholly for granted. Not only did the original vision of the Jesus people fail, but then the institution created in Jesus’s name became that vision’s great enemy. So complete was the triumph in Christian doctrine and practice of anti-Judaism, misogyny, and class inequality that such forms of dominance were taken to represent not “the Fall,” but the will of God.

Therefore, is Patterson’s “forgotten creed” a mere pipe dream, the hazy wish of a modern liberal? No. The reason for believing that the Jesus movement began with an ideal of equality against which the subsequent Church and the civilization it spawned must be judged harshly is embedded in one of the few undisputed facts of early Christian history. Little is known for certain about Jesus, the peasant nobody from Galilee. The Gospel accounts are not works of history. What is known for certain is, on its face, a fact of history that, were it not taken so wholly for granted, could seem as astounding as the miracle stories, and that was the unbridled rapidity with which the illegal backwater Jewish sect spread across the Hellenized Mediterranean world, reaching into every level of the social classes, ultimately to take over the Empire itself. 

This unlikely progress can be accounted for in various ways, but its all-surpassing energy was ignited at the very start: There had to be something singularly uncommon about the man Jesus, who set the current moving. Theologies were developed to explain what made him unforgettable: He was the Jewish Messiah, the Greek Logos; he gave his followers leave to call God “Father”; his crucifixion and resurrection transformed the meaning of suffering and death; he sponsored hope in eternal life. But all of this came after an initial encounter that changed the lives of the men and women who experienced it. Eventually, the quality of that encounter could only be described as a presence of God.

Patterson has put his finger on what may have been the transforming content of that first encounter with Jesus. Something about him cut to the heart of the human condition’s most troubling aspect—the way, out of fear and for the sake of power, we humans turn accidents of identity into weapons. In making God vivid, Jesus made God’s meaning clear: no to group bigotry; no to economic exploitation; no to gender-based domineering. What Patterson sees as the primordial dream of Christianity and the West was obviously not realized in social structures robust enough to survive. By now, of course, with right-wing Bible-toting fundamentalists in America and Islamophobic Catholic neo-tribalists in Europe, Christianity is reconstituting its alliance with bigots. That only makes the retrieval of the counterculture of virtue more urgent. 

That forgotten dream can be remembered as a standard against which to measure what we of the West have become, and as a motive for yet changing our beliefs, our economies, and our politics. Patterson is right to lift the old creed up, especially now, and say, “Why not?” 

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