25 Jan 10
This Blog will present one programme on Jesus in a new series on Channel 4 entitled The Bible: A History. The series started on Sunday evening.
When I was asked to present the programme I was very intrigued. The issues involved have interested me for a very long time. But I am hyper busy with my political duties and with family issues which are very much now in the public arena.
Despite all of this the programme is now almost finished and the Jesus programme is due for broadcast in early March.
I am a Catholic. An Irish Catholic. And despite all the let-downs and scandals that the Church, or at least a section of the Church, has been embroiled in, I remain a member.
When I was asked to do the programme the director Dan Reed appealed to me not to research or study the issues involved. He wanted me to learn on the job. I took that advice. My task was to discover the real Jesus – Jesus the man; the historical Jesus. We know only about one year of his life. Was it possible to look at what came before this? What type of person was he? Did he have siblings? Sisters? Brothers? Girl friends? Children? I was very taken by this challenge.
When I say that I am an Irish Catholic students of Irish history will know that I am not being xenophobic. Catholicism in Ireland for centuries was outlawed, repressed, forced underground by English governments. In my own lifetime Catholics were actively discriminated against in the north of Ireland and until recently Catholics were a frequent target for unionist death squads.
So being an Irish Catholic is distinctly different from being a Catholic in other spheres. This has shaped me and the community I come from and the Church I belong to. The colonisation of Ireland has also affected the Church. The teachings of its leadership have for generations been conservative, more about control that liberation.
When I was a teenager in the 60s there was no Archbishop Tutu or Bishop Romero to publicly campaign for peoples rights and in a changing Ireland the relationship between the faithful and the Church changed. Strictures and denunciations from Church leaders were challenged, particularly by younger people. The failure of the hierarchy to meet these challenges may be excusable but the elitist and judgemental attitude taken against members of their own flock at a time of great trauma – following, for example, the pogroms of 1969 or the killings by British forces were deeply hurtful for many Catholics. What would Jesus have done?
Spirituality or fundamental Christianity, like all the great religions have at their core a belief in human dignity and human rights. The institutional churches are human structures. They bring with them all of the failings of the human condition. In their internal processes and in the myriad maze of man-made rules and regulations, they sometimes lose their core message – the Jesus message.
And of course there is a myth that the conflict in Ireland was or is about religion. So where does Jesus fit into all of this?
As well as trying to discover the real Jesus my remit was to establish who killed him. I also wanted to explore how the Jesus message of love and forgiveness and his extraordinary sacrifice have affected me throughout my life during the conflict and the peace making processes in Ireland.
If Jesus had been Irish what would he have done? He too lived in an occupied country. There were a number of uprisings before, during and after his life. The desire of the Jewish people to be free of imperial rule was very strong. Indeed many of them were waiting for a Messiah to liberate them and to bring back the Kingdom of David. Did any of them see Jesus as a liberator. Is this what the Romans feared?
So I set about talking to experts and scholars here in Ireland. I explored Jesus’ ethical teachings with victims of the conflict. One was a victim of the IRA. The other was a victim of British state violence and collusion.
In the Holy Land I spoke to Jesus scholars from both the Christian and Jewish traditions. I visited many of the sites which feature in Jesus’ public ministry and talked to scholars and archaeologists. I was surprised to learn how Jewish Jesus was. That may seem a ludicrous thing to say but no where in Catholic teaching is that obvious fact clear. Jesus was not about establishing a new religion. He was about modernising a very old one. And many of the practices which Christians, including Catholics see as ours, are rooted in Jewish rites.
It’s long been my view that anti-semiticism is totally unacceptable and abhorrent, like racism and sectarianism. It was the Romans who put Jesus on trial. It was the Romans who executed Jesus. Yet the Jews get the blame?
I discovered that the roots of this lie in the gospel story about the passion of Christ. And that that story was written while the fledgling Christian Church was trying to convert the Romans. Much easier to do that if you weren’t blaming them for killing the Messiah.
I am also a strong supporter of the people of Palestine. I believe that the security of the people of Israel is tied inextricably with the Israeli government’s need to acknowledge and uphold the rights and security of the people of Palestine. I have visited the Palestinian territories before, including Gaza and the west Bank. These visits have saddened me very deeply, particularly the failure of the international community to do what it should to encourage a peace settlement. What would Jesus, the Palestinian do?
This time my visit was non political but we ran into the awful and very visible evidence of occupation and injustice. The tragic irony of all this was sharpened for me by my new and growing knowledge of the ancient history of the place.
I came away from this programme more aware of the relevance of Jesus’ message in these modern times. Not just in terms of forgiveness or peace making but also in social and economic issues. Jesus is about equality. About the poor. And the disadvantaged.
That much I knew before the programme but it was a very special experience to visit the places he lived in, to study his message in those places in a very focussed and protracted way and to talk to the experts. One thing is for certain. The core message of Jesus is relevant in today’s world. It retains the ability to motivate countless billions of people two thousand years after his execution.
If adhered to there would be no conflict, no hunger and no poverty in the world today. No wonder they crucified him.