Before you click out, know this: I’m not religious. Trained first as an experimental scientist, I spent most of my working life as a lawyer and law professor. I don’t believe in the supernatural, far less in a kindly old man (or lady) sitting up there in the clouds and watching over us. It’s a nice myth to make children feel safer. But all four of my careers depended on evidence, and I don’t see any solid evidence of that.
Nevertheless, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was real. Even if the history of him that we have today is partly fiction—or perhaps a composite of several real people—we can be sure there was at least one extraordinary man who bore that name.
How extraordinary was Jesus? Well, consider his times. He lived in a region (the Middle East) that still today features incessantly warring tribes. The Old Testament, which tells the history of humanity in the age in which Jesus lived, is a tale of rampant “smiting,” whoring, adultery, treachery, and just plain old murder.
Two millennia’s worth of great minds have pored over that salty tale, trying to turn it into a morality play. But it’s mostly a tale of human crabs in a bucket, motivated by lust, greed, hate and desire to dominate, seeking the slightest pleasure or temporal advantage. The “lessons” that great monastic minds took two millennia to derive from this dismal tale are all “small” lessons: how to live one’s personal life, in various small ways, to produce less chaos, carnage and “collateral damage.”
Jesus was different. He taught one big, overarching lesson. If learned universally, it could change human life forever. That lesson is love.
“Love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Love thy enemy.” These are enduring and memorable “bumper stickers,” composed two millennia before there were bumpers.
But the word “love” is mere shorthand. Jesus certainly didn’t mean carnal love. Nor did he mean the kind of unconditional love that parents have for children and that small children, of necessity, give back. (Teenagers are another story!)
Puzzled by the breadth of that four-letter word, a modern philologist might well choose another, longer word: “cooperation.” A loving family, despite angst and dissension within it, cooperates for the benefit and betterment of all.
In ancient times, there were no business corporations, universities, government bureaucracies, or (for that matter) police departments. The few large “institutions” then existing—armies and work gangs (often made up of slaves)—were hardly exemplars of voluntary cooperation, let alone “love.” So Jesus chose a word evocative of the most universal, willing cooperation then practiced widely: love within a family.
Did Jesus intuit that our human ability to communicate and cooperate is our species’ chief evolutionary advantage, without which our small brains and opposable thumbs mean nothing? I think so. Did he think hard about how to express that truth to primitive minds in primitive cultures, in which only the elite were literate? I think so.
Was he at least partially successful in doing so? The fact that over a billion people still follow him today, and reread his words once a week, if not daily, testifies to that. Today Jesus’ influence far outstrips that of Julius Caesar, the ancient world’s great demagogue, conquering general, and memorable leader of the ancient world’s most democratic Empire, who was practically Jesus’ contemporary.
But Jesus, the myth goes, was divine, the Son of God. His Father resurrected him, and he lives yet, somewhere in the clouds. (Which clouds, on which planet, orbiting which of the trillions of stars in our Universe with solar systems, the myth does not say.) Some day, the myth goes, Jesus the Son will come back again. Then God, apparently tired of watching and correcting all of our species’ many self-defeating acts, will wind it all up.
To see how this myth might actually lessen Jesus’ practical influence today, click here. But there’s an even bigger problem with this myth: Jesus already has come again. At least someone very like him has, with much the same message. In that sense, the Second Coming is not myth. It’s history. The “Second Coming” already has come and gone.
I’m going to make the analogy, but I’m not going to name him. By the time I get through, you’ll be able to do that, especially if you are American.
Who was Jesus? He was a member of a small tribe of people (Jews) living on the periphery of what was then a mighty empire, ancient Rome’s. The tribe was insular, with its own language and script and its own religion. Relative to that great empire, it was small, powerless, and lacking in influence. It was generally despised.
Jesus was an absolute nobody, even within that tribe. He came from no powerful family. He had no high office. He attracted a ragtag group of followers with his unusual and compelling ideas.
He preached love and tolerance in a time of incessant war and hate. With his admonition to “turn the other cheek” if struck—let alone “love thy enemy”—he preached non-violence. Because his strong ideas attracted an unusual following, he attracted the attention of Rome’s local powers, including Herod. They tried him as a common criminal and executed him by crucifixion alongside two common criminals.
The Second Coming is hardly ancient history. He’s in the memory of every living Baby Boomer. He also grew up inside a powerful empire, one that (coincidentally) most resembles ancient Rome today. He, too, was a member of a despised and marginalized group. Like the Jews in ancient Egypt, his ethnic group had been slaves, too.
Jesus’ modern counterpart also had no secular power. He was a nobody from a nothing family. Unlike Jesus, he got his start in an existing religious organization. But like Jesus, he rose to prominence and even adoration on the strength of his unusual ideas.
The Second Coming, too, struggled to express the power of cooperation, not conflict. He, too, oft used the word “love.” But he struggled for something more comprehensible in a secular age of huge nations and mighty armies, with incomparably more powerful weapons than in Jesus’ time.
Eventually, he settled on the concept of “non-violence,” of making social change by voluntary, cooperative action among people of good will. He preached appealing to every person’s goodness, empathy, and sense of justice and mercy. If that was less than “love,” it was far more comprehensible and compelling in a world that had just endured the most destructive war in human history and that had just invented, and had used, history’s most powerful weapon.
Like Jesus, the Second Coming was killed before his time, and for his unwanted social and political influence. But there were some big differences. Rome had killed Jesus by official criminal process, primitive as it then was. Jesus’ murder had been an act of state.
Not so today. The Second Coming was assassinated by an ordinary person, acting on his own. At times and in places official action may have encouraged the murder. But it was neither officially condoned nor perpetrated by any state.
More important still, the Second Coming heavily influenced the powers that were. He became an informal advisor to his nation’s supreme leader. Even while escalating a great war, that supreme leader managed to get that nation’s legislature to pass laws giving the Second Coming’s ethnic group certain rights that it had long coveted, and that it fully deserved.
Furthermore, the death of the Second Coming was marked not just by riots among the oppressed, but by official funerals and mourning. Today, most major cities in his nation—and many minor ones—have streets named in his honor. He remains one of our greatest national heroes, perhaps the closest thing we have to a secular American saint.
By now, unless you are brain dead or haven’t passed junior high school, you know whom I’m writing about. If you think hard about the analogy—and suspend for a moment whatever belief you may have in Jesus’ divinity—you have to confess that the analogy is striking.
The message of both Jesus and his Second Coming is compelling, if only we could heed it. What could we accomplish, as a species, if only we could put into practice Jesus’ message of “love,” or at least his Second Coming’s message of non-violent cooperation!? We could cut our global CO2 emissions in short order, arrest climate change, slow our population growth, support and uplift (not suppress) minorities and marginalized peoples worldwide, and generally make our small blue planet a paradise to match the mythical Garden of Eden.
But we humans are slow learners. No matter how intrinsically compelling and brilliant new ideas may be, we have trouble overcoming our primitive instincts and our tribalism.
Perhaps this is true of most, or even all, intelligent species. Having evolved through hard competition, with only the fittest surviving, maybe they allow that competition to carry over into regional and national governments, producing more and more technologically sophisticated warfare, with more and more deadly results.
Maybe every intelligent species, by the time it discovers atomic energy and nuclear weapons, is on the verge of self-extinction, just as are we today. Maybe this “natural” progress of accumulating power without conscience or reflection is the real source of the Fermi Paradox. Maybe there are millions of habitable planets much like ours, on which intelligent life evolved. But maybe we can’t discover any because most, if not all, failed to take the sage advice of their own Jesuses before it was too late.
If we look analytically at our species’ reaction to our own two, the analysis is not promising. A good teacher would have to give ancient Rome’s immediate response to Jesus of Nazareth a grade of F, notwithstanding subsequent ages’ better receptivity to his message. In comparison, our American response to the Second Coming perhaps rates a C-, or even a C+. That’s a lot better, but still not good enough to insure us against complete or partial self-extinction.
We Americans have made some progress in improving the treatment of our marginalized peoples. But our main achievement in international warfare seem to have been providing better weapons and intelligence to help hapless victims of aggression, as in Ukraine. It’s hard to see how the wisdom of Jesus and his Second Coming can be imposed by force of arms.
So time could be running out for us as a species. Will there be a Third Coming? If so, will enough of us recognize him or her and heed the message to avoid species self-extinction, whether by nuclear war, runaway global warming, or an awkward, divisive and uncooperative response to a far more deadly pandemic?
The celestial jury is still out. But we’ve also had two other messengers to demonstrate the power of non-violent persuasion in lesser empires: Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. On our ability to learn from them all more quickly, and take their common messages to heart, our species’ survival and happiness depend.