Accepting the teaching of an angry, human Jesus — a meditation in the shadow of the conflict between Israel and Gaza

Jesus heals a leper - a sketch by Rembrandt
Reading: Mark 1:39-45 (Geneva Bible 1599)

And [Jesus] preached in their Synagogues, throughout all Galilee, and cast the devils out. And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeled down unto him, and said to him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus had compassion, and put forth his hand, and touched him, and said to him, I will: be thou clean. And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was made clean. And after he had given him a straight commandment, he sent him away forthwith, And said unto him, See thou say nothing to any man, but get thee hence, and show thyself to the Priest, and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded, for a testimonial unto them. But when he was departed, he began to tell many things, and to publish the matter: so that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city, but was without in desert places: and they came to him from every quarter.


I don't know about you but, as I have followed the news over the past couple of weeks, I have found myself becoming increasingly angry as I contemplate the killing of so many unarmed, powerless civilians in Gaza at the hands of the extremely powerful and well-armed Israeli Defence Force; then there is also the anger I feel welling up within me as I contemplate the violent actions of Hamas that wants to eliminate the State of Israel. Having a number of close Palestinian and Israeli friends my anger is, naturally, also born out of the anger and distress I see arising in them.

Given that, in my role as a minister of religion, I am charged with bringing a small measure of hope into the world it is highly tempting simply to suppress my anger and to avoid mentioning these things  by choosing to speak of something considerably more pleasant and certainly less contentious and emotive.

But I hope you see that I can’t do this at the moment for our world is way too alive with the visceral anger connected with these events. Anger is too much ‘in the air’ on all sides for me not to be daily breathing it deeply into the lungs of my psyche and so I have to find some way to talk with you about it, not least of all because I know many of you are feeling anger too. (Despite this last point, please note I have chosen to write this address in the first person for, although I hope to say something useful to you all, I am speaking from my heart.)

But a real danger that quickly presents itself is that in speaking with you I will, all too quickly, try to distance myself (and you) from the visceral anger felt by all those involved as well as my own to go on to try and find an intellectual, theoretical and abstract way to proceed; to find a way of speaking in what we are minded to call a “measured and rational” way. It is a way of proceeding that avoids the immediacy of anger by concentrating on the impersonal act of weighing this piece of cold historical or contemporary evidence against that in order to come up with an “even-handed” set of comments about this situation.

But, what this process of abstractisation completely fails to allow itself to show up is a full appreciation of just how integral visceral anger is to all the outplaying of the events in Israel and Gaza (and in so many other events in our world). To avoid allowing myself to feel — and publicly acknowledge — something of this real anger would be to fail to experience, at a very basic level, something very basic and structural about this situation. (In connection with this I recommend that readers of this blog in the UK take time to watch the current BBC series entitled "The Honourable Woman" which helps us glimpse something of this. It is a measure of the sophistication of this series that the BBC has not chosen to pull it from their schedule at this most difficult time.) If I can’t myself feel (and acknowledge) something of the visceral anger felt by those involved deep in my own bones, then I cannot begin to hope to understand what’s truly going on around me and nor can I have a hope of finding a way out of the highly destructive impasses that anger always causes.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the philosopher Edward F. Mooney reminds us that what we share as human beings is ‘presence to particulars — not generalities’ (in Wilderness and the Heart, University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 205). Abstractisation connected with any conflict can all too quickly arrive at some hopelessly inadequate and inaccurate generalities and so the particularity I wish to point to today is the completely understandable anger felt by every particular human being who finds themselves at the sharp-end of an artillery shell, rifle bullet, rocket or wielded hand or fist. A person who finds themselves in any of these situations cannot find there anything approaching the even-handedness promised by the “rounded” picture of the world that is offered by any abstract, generalised picture.

So I think it is vital that today I do not ignore the anger felt by the people involved in these events and neither must I try too quickly to distance myself from my own anger about these same events. Rather, I must find ways to inhabit the anger in a fashion that might just help me (and perhaps you too) even to find ways to build from out of this anger something of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Mention of the kingdom of heaven on earth brings me, of course, to Jesus who is one of the major well-springs at the centre of our own community’s religious life.

Now, usually, I generally avoid talking about a basic aspect of classical Unitarian theology because it can often be presented as an abstractisation — a theoretical generality that cannot truly be shared. But I need to point to it here in order to bring us back very much to particular human anger and its possible positive transformation into something else: it is our own religious community’s historic claim that Jesus was not God but was a human being like you and me.

But despite our important historical rejection of the doctrine of Trinity (and the idea that Jesus was, is, and always will be God) we have continued to be held captive by a certain picture of a human Jesus that is still very problematic. It is the picture of Jesus as a perfect man who expresses only compassion and goodness. For those of general Unitarian inclination Jesus may no longer be very God of very God, begotten not made but, in terms of virtue, he has tended to remain for us as near to God as you are going to get in a human being. So, for example, and related directly to the subject of anger, Jesus cannot model this for us; instead, as the perfect human exemplar, he is available to us only as a model of perfect compassion. And there’s the rub because, as human beings, we know only too well that we are a complex mix of possibilities and have tendencies as much to anger as we do to compassion. If Jesus was truly a human being like us then, surely, he, too, must display the same complex mix of possibilities and what Judaism calls the ‘yetzer hara’, or evil inclination, and the ‘yetzer hatov’, or good inclination.

But our foundational Christian texts, and the generalised Christian culture that has grown out of them, consistently presents us with a picture of Jesus as the paradigmatically perfect man in whom there is no inclination to evil and only the inclination to good. Because of this he has often remained an impossible model for us to follow — ideal and admirable, yes but, realistically speaking, impossible truly to follow because to be angry — as we so often are — is not to be “Christ-like”. But is this picture of a perfect, compassionate Jesus a true one? The simple answer seems to be, thank heavens, ‘No’. Here’s why.

Let’s turn back to our reading of Mark 1:39—45. There we read that, upon encountering a leper, Jesus instantly felt compassion and reached out to heal him. The book of Leviticus (13—14) reminds us that lepers were forbidden to live any sort of normal lives, they were considered dangerously unclean and were to be isolated and completely cut off from the rest of the community. But, God-like Jesus, moved with compassion for this particular leper, chooses a radically different, wholly compassionate approach. Given our inherited picture of Jesus what could be more natural for him to do?

Now our reading represents an accurate translation of the Greek text as it is found in most of our manuscripts of Mark’s gospel. But in one of our oldest surviving manuscripts, called the Codex Bezae (which is itself supported by three Latin manuscripts), we find a very different picture. There, instead of applying the Greek word ‘splangnistheis’ to Jesus, which translates as ‘feeling compassion’, we find the word ‘orgistheis’, which translates as ‘becoming angry’. Is this what Mark himself wrote?

I cannot go into great detail about his here but, as the New Testament scholar, Bart D. Ehrman, notes:

. . . the fact that one of the readings makes such good sense and is easy to understand is precisely what makes some scholars suspect that it is wrong. . . . [The scribes copying the gospel for others] would have preferred the text to be non problematic and simple to understand.The question to be asked is this: which is more likely, that a scribe copying this text would change it to say that Jesus became wrathful instead of compassionate, or to say that Jesus became compassionate instead of wrathful? Which reading better explains the existence of the other? When seen from this perspective, the latter [that the text was changed to make Jesus became compassionate instead of wrathful] is obviously more likely. The reading that indicates Jesus became angry is the “more difficult” reading and therefore more likely to be “original” (Bart D. Ehrman, “Whose Word Is It?”, Continuum Books, 2006, pp. 134-135).

Now this is not a knock-down argument that allows us to be absolutely sure Jesus was, in this instance (or any other), angry rather than simply compassionate, but it is highly suggestive and, I would argue, it is very likely to be true if you think — as I do — that Jesus was a human and NOT God and that, like us all, Jesus had tendencies both to evil and good.

Leaving aside, today, all questions about what precisely it was in his encounter with the leper that made Jesus angry (was it the leper himself, the situation as a whole or something else entirely?), I think that, for our own psychological well-being, we need to recover clear sight of this angry Jesus. If we wish to keep him as a meaningful and genuinely useful exemplar for our secular age then we need to see that what makes an exemplar a truly good and useful one is not that they never experience and express anger (whether justified or not) but that, in the totality of their particular lives, they come to show us a way to move through real anger in a way that helps birth more and more, and better and better expressions of compassion and forgiveness. It is surely more realistic and helpful to see Jesus as someone who, over the course of a whole lifetime, managed this and who became a person in whom the tendency to good won out to an exceptional degree over the tendency to evil. This wholly human model, though still exceptionally difficult to follow, is achievable in varying degrees by all of us.

But such a fully human “Christ-like” way of being-in-the-world cannot be achieved where there is no frank acknowledgement of the ever-present reality of human anger and that this anger must not be hidden from view but rather seen as something that is structural and integral to us as human beings which must always being worked through. I would argue that what makes Jesus such a valuable secular exemplar is precisely that he wasn’t God and that it was his creative human use of his own real anger that eventually helped him give birth and real depth to his eventually achieved, extraordinary compassion. In order to see this achievement in the making, and then properly to follow his example in the making of our own lives, we must, clearly and unsentimentally, acknowledge and accept that Jesus was like us, far from perfect and that he, too, was at times a very angry man.

This more complex picture of a flawed, human Jesus, gives me genuine hope that I, too, can find ways incrementally to move beyond my own anger and begin to offer myself up ever more compassionately to the world.

This leaves us with an unexpected thought which is that the full lesson contained in the story we heard from Mark is only accessible to us when we learn to read it both ways simultaneously and see that Jesus was both angry and compassionate — that in him was anger but that, somehow, this anger became compassionate outreach.

And in Israel and Gaza?

Well, yes, I believe that it this transformation is possible there too, as the interview with Yishai Frenkel (the uncle of one of the three young Israeli's murdered some weeks ago) surely reveals. But as I say this I have to acknowledge that there is almost nothing I can do in a direct way to help this come about —I am not there and I cannot fully comprehend the anger, pain and grief of those involved.

But one thing I can do, and that is find a way to transform my own anger because, in the end, our brothers and sisters in Gaza and Israel need around them only compassionate friends if they are to be helped to settle their dreadful differences – they do not need their own anger fuelled and encouraged by mine, or anyone else's.