How does one extract God from the mob?
The Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation (originally published in 1962), made the following startling observations about strong hate:
Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy and alone. It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit. From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated, with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of a God Who delivered Himself to the Cross and suffered pathological cruelty of His own creatures out of pity for them. […]
But men have now come to reject this divine revelation of pardons and they are consequently returning to the old war gods, the gods that insatiably drink blood and eat the flesh of men. It is easier to serve the hate-gods because they thrive on the worship of collective fanaticism. To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion.
I think that Thomas Merton has hit upon a key distinction here; it is the distinction between Jesus’s path and all others. Jesus was a victim, not a victimizer, and so proved a trailblazer to three key moral insights: (1) respect of conscience (Jesus called people, but never forced anybody); (2) imaginative sympathy for outsiders, whether of class or nation; and (3) nonviolence.
Whatever are Jesus’s sins—his moments of hell-fire rhetoric; his promotion of faith over reason—these are still his three virtues: the things that have resulted in “good vibrations” through time.
The world, of course, doesn’t need the hellfire and irrational Jesus. But it does need Thomas Merton’s Jesus.
Therefore, every religionist in the 21st century has to make the following existential decision: will I go the way of Jesus or the way of the violent Hindu extremist, the Islamic Brotherhood member, the West Bank settler, and Rick Santorum?
And if you’re an atheist or agnostic, you too have an existential decision to make. Will you go the way of: (1) a humanism or Buddhism that largely tracks with the three moral precepts originally hit upon by Jesus; or (2) Nietzsche and Machiavelli?
Either way, what to do about Jesus is inescapable. It is Jesus vs. the religious and secular gods of war.