Gentle, rural Jesus had to face harsh urban reality
Fresno Bee, March 10, 2012
The region near the Sea of Galilee is lovely this time of year. Wildflowers bloom on the hills. The Jordan River begins here, flowing gently south toward the desert. The tradition tells us that John baptized people here. Perhaps John understood the joy of taking a dip in a mountain creek.
Jesus found his disciples here among the hill people and fishermen. At some point after he swam with John in the Jordan, Jesus went to a hilltop above the Sea of Galilee, where he gave his Sermon on the Mount. I stood on this rocky knoll the other day and watched the sun sink into the mists. It was gently beautiful: a fitting place for a sermon about love.
Mark Twain came here once. But he wasn’t impressed. Twain thought the little lake of Galilee was “dismal and repellant” in comparison to the magnificence of our own Lake Tahoe. He is right. Nothing compares to Tahoe. But there is something restful and reassuring about this modest lake, a welcome contrast to the tumult of Jerusalem and the severity of the desert below.
The version of Christianity that I prefer seems to come from the idyllic country of the Galilee. This is the Christianity of river rats and fishermen—not the Christianity of priests and politicians. This is the Christianity of friendly food miracles: of turning water into wine and multiplying loaves and fishes. While I doubt that these stories are true, there is value in the spirit of hospitality and generosity they inspire.
Similar values are found in the Sermon on the Mount and its predominantly gentle message. The Galilean Jesus celebrates forgiveness and love, turns the other cheek, and loves his enemies. There are worries about hellfire here, which point in another direction. But in general Jesus suggests that we need to be more tolerant, merciful, and peaceful.
The idea that Jesus was a gentle soul in tune with nature has been described by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson thought that churches and catechisms obscured the truth of Christianity. He suggested that Christianity is best understood, “from the pastures, from a boat in the pond, from amidst the songs of wood-birds.” What Jesus discovered, according to Emerson, is that nature is good and that we each possess the divine within us. Life does look good when you are floating on Tahoe or Galilee, when you take a dip in the Merced or the Jordan.
But Bible doesn’t leave it at that. When Jesus goes to Jerusalem, the rural idealism of the Galilee comes into conflict with the political and religious hierarchies of church and state. Political and religious authorities don’t like river rats and backwoods fishermen. Such outsiders reject the rules and power plays of the city. When these rustics go to town, they get into trouble. Some of them get arrested and even killed.
The God of cities and temples is severe and wrathful, demanding obedience and sacrifice. Jerusalem is a city of kings and priests, with a long history of religious violence. It is not surprising that Jesus is killed in Jerusalem. Wouldn’t Jesus have done better if he had stayed in the Galilee, swimming with John, fishing with Peter, and turning water into wine? If only life were always and everywhere so easy.
But life is not easy everywhere. As we drove to Galilee along the Jordan River from Jericho, we passed through impoverished Palestinian towns, we saw barbed wire and the new security wall. We were hassled by the cops more than once. Above the Galilee lies the contested Golan Heights and beyond that Syria, where children are being murdered by their own government.
The sweet and mild Jesus that Emerson dreamed of could not ignore the suffering of others. It is nice to retreat from the city and enjoy a pleasant mountain holiday. But poverty, injustice, and war make that impossible for most people. The meek remain disinherited and there is no peace. That may be why Jesus had to leave the hills and take his message to the halls of power. Once you understand how easy it is to find peace, love, and joy among the wildflowers, you realize how wrong it is that so many of us are prevented from enjoying these simple blessings.