No one could have had such a consistent presence on the historical scene for two millennia without having an extraordinarily compelling message. But what was this message? There may be as many Jesuses as there are people who encounter him, but for the sake of brevity the many can be reduced to two: the Savior and the Teacher.
Humans often feel helpless about their own nature, especially its compulsive self-interest. A Savior can "magically" absolve them of sin by dying for them in a way that, while it is indeed magical, is very real to millions of people.
Two of the steps in the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step process are worded thus:
# We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
# Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
A.A., far from being magical, has helped millions.
In the Jesus as Savior model, I am powerless, even if I do not suffer from one of the common addictions. I am addicted to my self and its needs and impulses in a way that feels sinful and beyond my own powers to change. Only the Son of God giving his life for me can atone for my helpless but destructive assumption that I am the center of the universe.
The other Jesus, the Teacher, is also very much alive in this world, offering a helpful, if challenging, model for endless forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and other creative alternatives to "an eye for an eye." This model of Jesus also requires surrender to the fact that I am not the center of the universe, but with an assumption that is more optimistic about human nature than the Savior model: it posits a training that can be put into effect in one's own life, gradually melting away egoism and replacing it with a new presence, authenticity, inclusiveness and responsibility. No room for passivity; what happens to me after my encounter with Jesus the Teacher is up to my active and autonomous engagement. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
It is tempting to say that these two models consist primarily of being and doing. If a Savior saves you, there is nothing you have to do. Or if we really put in practice the teaching of the Teacher, it is all about action. But it isn't that simple. In both cases it is really about being. How I act can only follow from the quality of my being. In any case it is impossible to separate out these two Jesuses in mainstream American creeds.
But there is still a dissonance in the body of American Christians, some of whom even go so far as to want the country as a whole to be a Christian nation. Can we call ourselves disciples of either of the two Jesuses and still calmly pay our taxes for wars like Vietnam that rationalized massive use of "free fire zones," napalm, and Agent Orange on Vietnamese non-combatants? We remain engaged in wars that may be just as futile and based on similar rationalizations, delusions, or even outright lies.
Might our culture be negatively affected by the "learned helplessness" of taking Jesus as our Savior while at the same time refusing to see that the Teacher model has direct ethical consequences in our lives? When the Teacher suggests "resist not evil, but overcome evil with good," or "cast not the mote out of thy brother's eye before you remove the beam in your own eye," or "do unto others as you would be done by," it is hard to miss a pretty clear alternative to the old ways of I win-you lose mean-spiritedness-the ways of revenge and greed and exclusivity. Those old ways still seem to be running rampant in American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan today, in the sense that there is an unconscious colonialist assumption that we need to bring enlightenment to the heathen, even if at the point of a gun-while also maintaining corporate control of their natural resources.
During the 2000-odd years since Jesus' ugly death, humans have learned how to intensify the destructive power of our weapons of war to the point where their functionality, on the nuclear level, is simply cancelled out, with no victory possible. The Teacher is still with us in the midst of this world-changing dilemma. His message is considerably more profound than choosing pacifism over potential annihilation. The pacifist model of Jesus is a cop-out that allows us to say that while he died for us, he was also a kind of wimp, and our brutal world does not go easy on wimps. But if he was merely a wimp, why the continued appeal? He appeals because he obviously wasn't passive, but one of the most actively creative thinkers who ever walked the earth.
Because he could apparently see down the time-stream to the doom toward which the eye-for-an-eye mentality would inevitably lead, he presented a model of active learning which is a truer and tougher definition of peace. War is difficult, but war prevention, on every level, is even more difficult. It requires us to leave behind a way of thinking that is deeply habitual, summed up by Robert Frost's pithy little couplet:
Nature within her inmost self divides
To trouble men with having to take sides.
Jesus refutes Frost at the outset merely by being an observant Jew and repeating the traditional Hebrew schema: "Hear Israel the Lord is our God; the Lord is One." The primary attribute of reality (affirmed by Buddhism also) is its oneness, its interconnected, interdependent aspect. We moderns are learning about this interdependence in spades as we try to cope with huge issues like global climate change.
It is not nature in her inmost self, but the human ego, which divides and chooses this side over that, me and the "other," us and them, pro-Israeli/pro-Palestinian; pro-Christian/pro-Muslim, Shia and Sunni, pro-capitalism/pro-socialism. If we can instead look within ourselves with complete honesty and accept all that we see, the light and the dark, then we can begin to accept others and ourselves together as part of a larger oneness-a teaching that saves.Winslow Myers, the author of "Living Beyond War A Citizen's Guide," lives in Boston and serves on the Board of Beyond War (www.beyondwar.org).