I am assailed from every side. I share the righteous scorn you heap upon "professional scholars," yet I confess to have imagined I could contribute to to that very profession. I am shamed above all by "Jesus studies." I do not mean source studies as initiated by David Friedrich Strauss and carried forward by Albert Schweitzer, but the more recent quantities of sociological, political, and economic, even psychological and psychiatric outpourings, all deriving from interests so far removed from the man as to be, in Paul Dirac's famous phrase, "not even wrong." All their extraneous conjecture, however promotional to academic careers, distracts from the central issue: Torture and death.
I must be grateful for the obscurity of my refuge here in Sipe Springs. Here I can carefully weigh the beliefs held by naive peanut farmers against the exlucubrations of sophisticated Bible scholarship. On such existential subjects as man's place in the scheme of things, it is true that the more coherent and cogent beliefs are usually found among simpler and more sincere thinkers. Still, as regards the problems surrounding the historical Jesus, conclusions on the part of both farmer and professor strike me as equally probable. The terse words of pagan Cleopatra upon her visit to Rome may at least reflect first hand experience.
The truth is sometimes so simple that uttering it will surely damage one's reputation among the savants. It is very early in life when every child asks the wondering question, "Which one am I? How is it that I am just this one, and not some other?" What scholar dare be so simple? The sophisticate prefers to delve into mystical unity of all with far Eastern religions. Yet our Dustbowl Ulysses tells his Ma: "Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain't got a soul of his own, but on'y a piece of a big one." The Dustbowl Pindar was so impressed by that line that he elevated it in an ode.
Ever'body might be just one big soul,This is a universal thought among humankind, of course, and probably always has been.
Well it looks that a-way to me.
Everywhere that you look, in the day or night,
That's where I'm a-gonna be, Ma,
That's where I'm a-gonna be.
Granted, small children are able to inflict pain in a more or less disinterested way, and perhaps early man did the same, as can any mindless crowd today. The egregious cruelties throughout the Ancient world may seem to us unbearably oppressive. We read how a Roman matron may command that a clumsy servant be nailed to a cross. Livy tells how Hannibal in Italy crucifies a guide who cannot understand his Punic tongue correctly. The followers of Spartacus suffer the same fate en mass. But there comes at time, especially among the psychologically and religiously developed Jews under Roman terror,when the sheer numbers hung up for their several-day agony, let alone the aspect of any one of them, reach a saturation point and an extreme of consciousness, concentrated in the Christ.
Not far from the universal human question, "which one am I, how is it I am this onlooker and not that sufferer?" lies the ancient wisdom that gods are accustomed to visit the earth. That is why we do well to meet all comers with kindness, and hospitality toward the stranger is a virtue. After the visit of those three strangers to Abraham and Sarah, such insights continued to be fostered and refined. The sacredness of the stranger, if carried to its last consequence, eventually leads to the central message of Jesus, "for inasmuch as ye do it unto the least of these my brethren, ye do it unto me."
The ancient Golden Rule preached by some particular Nazarene may not have been so important as the ubiquitous spectacle of all those young men tortured on the cross, over and over again, until the message rises up in the hearts of an entire generation. At first it is a cry of revulsion, No more! That young man hanging there, who is he? And that unfeeling, coarse mercenary inflicting the horror, is that me? Surely it is merciful God himself being tortured without mercy! We are all guilty of this unspeakable, measureless cruelty, and the Suffering Servant dies for our wretchedness, the line of mutilated Osiris and Dionysus extending on beyond human memory.
I do not mean, dear Reverend Wesley, to diminish your Christian message. The Christian era, or as some wistfully said in my day, the Common Era, certainly begins with that major shift in the Western mentality. The age-old Jewish faith spreads. Throughout the diaspora it accommodates non-Jews and proselytizes far beyond its place of origin. A tribal religion once characterized by exclusivity is transformed into a world religion in the name of a Galilean agitator become Messiah to the Gentiles. Crucifixion recedes as distinctive feature of the Empire, as does even the divine status of the emperor himself. The grand entertainments of human agony are perceived as shameful holdovers (as we see already in Augustine's friend Alypius--Confessions 6.8.13). These are important changes in the character of humankind, comparable to Father Abraham's rejection of human sacrifice. If it was not wrong to teach monotheism by means of a person--Jehovah now taking a walk in his garden, now consulting with his advisers--it may also help us if we individualize Jesus, the better to hear His teachings, to experience His sufferings.
I say these things in the spirit of Paul, who claims to have put away childish things, himself. He, if anyone, knows the mind-numbing extent of the law, and the comprehensive cruelty of its execution, but yet as teacher he focuses on the particular agony of one individual--whom he never saw. The receptiveness of his audiences far beyond the confines of Jerusalem arises no doubt from the universal practice of a torture and execution become not simply intolerable, but somehow exemplary and emblematic for universal suffering. You no doubt do well to continue Paul's superb apostolic method.
Begging for your indulgence, I remain your sincere
J. W. Worthy
Please return to Professor Worthy's Page, Home
or see the correspondence with John Wesley