As an Orthodox Jewish boy in Manchester, England, I was taught that Christianity was the religion of our oppressors. It was forbidden to go into a church, to read Christian Scriptures, or even to mention the name of Jesus. My ideas of Christianity were of the haziest. I would probably have answered, if asked (but no one did since all my friends were Jewish), that Christians worshiped three gods and blamed Jews for killing one of them. This probably sums up my ideas before the age of 11 or so.
But I have always been restless. The idea of God speaking to just one people troubled me. The idea that "one of the gods" of the Christians was Jewish intrigued me even more. So I ventured onto forbidden ground. I needed to make sense of the world around me, outside the Jewish area of Manchester, outside the prescribed books. The more I read and thought and met non-Jews, the more I realized the prejudices of various communities and the breathtaking untruths they held about each other.
Then came the 1960s, a time of new ideas, new theories of religion, new at least for me. I was challenged by the revolutionary attitudes towards religion of a Methodist religious education teacher in my sixth grade who made religious debate exciting. I read Honest to God and The True Wilderness, books by Christian theologians that sounded much more interesting than the narrow forms of Judaism I had met before. I was overwhelmed by Dostoevsky’s Jesus in The Brothers Karamazov and how the Grand Inquisitor, recognizing how dangerous Jesus was for the church, decided he was safer on a crucifix than walking round the world disturbing his followers. So I wanted to know more about this Jesus about whom these Christians kept talking.
The problem was Jesus was Jewish and that so many of his later followers knew so little about Judaism. This led me to read the Christian additions (called by Christians the New Testament, as if the Jewish Testament had been superseded). It soon came to me that there were many different Jesuses depending on which bit of the Bible you preferred, which theory you followed; and I had the sneaking idea at the back of my head that Jesus himself would scarcely have recognized any of them. To me he was a brother, a teacher, a revolutionary who had somehow been kidnapped by the institutional church. He had been tamed, worshiped, made into a bourgeois; worst of all he had been made respectable.
And then there was this "Christ thing." Christ means Messiah, the anointed one. In the Jewish Bible priests and kings were anointed to carry out special functions. The Messiah whom Jews were still expecting was not a divine figure, but someone who would inaugurate a time of peace and justice. Christians, however, were using the word to mean strange things: that Jesus was the unique son of God who had reconciled the world to God by dying on the Cross (at the hands of his own people who had rejected him) and who had ended up somehow as God. This idea of Messiahship was totally incomprehensible to Judaism, even if it was based on a particular reading of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. (In fact at the time of Jesus there were several differing understandings of the role of the Messiah, Judaism being much more fluid a religious path than it later became.) On the whole many Christians seemed to regard "Christ" as a surname and not as a function. It was only after I had read some theology that I could begin to tease out the various elements of all of this and then let them speak to me personally and affect my life. By this time, my late teens, I had started attending Quaker meetings for worship (though at first this lasted only for a brief period). This added a new depth to my own search to make sense of things.
So what does Jesus and this "Christ thing" mean to me today, after years of thinking, reading, arguing, studying other religions, listening to so many ex-Christians trying to make sense of what they had rejected? Jesus is first and foremost a historical character in the tradition of the prophets. He preaches against the established Jewish sects of his day in the name of a time or state of being he calls the Kingdom of Heaven, and which I call the Divine Commonwealth. He is from the margins, socially and geographically.
The preaching of Jesus has the effect of changing the lives of those who hear him, so much so that, after the manner of their days, they begin to see him as extraordinary and supernatural. He begins to express an age-old longing for a deeper way of living and relating, both to God and to the community. He does this in a way that is both in continuity with his tradition and radical in that he challenges some of the old teachings in the name of a deeper, more inward commitment—but he is not unique in this, as Jeremiah and Isaiah preached in a similar way. Some of his followers go so far as to break down the boundaries of the community in which they live, admitting those who previously were considered unclean and alien. Some even see him as a man-God, which I do not believe he saw himself to be. Like many of the rebels against the status quo he is murdered by the authorities for challenging one kingdom in the name of another. After his death his earliest followers tried to understand his extraordinary life, and so little by little began a religion using the imagery and concepts of that ancient world. I do not think Jesus thought he was inaugurating a new religion. The signpost pointing to a reawakened relationship became itself the object of worship for many. The miracle for me is that Jesus will not let the church keep him locked away in a building; he keeps bursting out of the theological concepts that strive to imprison him.
When I think of the word "Christ," I think of a universal anointing in a less historical, more mystical way. In Britain Yearly Meeting’s Advices and Queries, the phrase "the spirit of Christ" is used, though few Quakers in Britain today use it in everyday speech. Jesus was, as it were, anointed to perform his task of prophecy and transformation, but that anointing is part of the condition of all those who, in Quaker language, are turned to the Light. Thus, Jesus as one filled with the "spirit of Christ" is an archetype of how it is to be a human reaching outwards (and inwards) to the Divine. Christ is not the object of worship, more a challenging way of living that has a cost, a way of living that I constantly betray and that is resurrected as a daily, this-world reality. However, we are not Jews of the first century; we have to find our own way, our own understanding of the spirit of anointing for the time and place in which we are now living. We have to find our own way of being Christ in and to the world. Jesus is historical and particular; Christ is timeless and universal.
It is my conviction that simply by being born we have a role to perform, though it may be many years before we know what that role may be—if we ever know. This is our anointing. It does not matter what we call it or if we think of it as part of the Christian tradition or some other path. It is not a matter of which religion we follow, but which Kingdom or Commonwealth we are trying to live in and to bring about.
This article was one of a set of essays by 19 Friends, all on the theme "What Jesus means to me," that appeared in The Friends Quarterly, July 2003; ©2003 "The Friend" Publications Ltd; reprinted with permission. A forthcoming book by Harvey Gillman, Consider the Blackbird: Essays in Spirituality and Language, is scheduled to be published at the end of 2006.