On what made Jesus so alarming

Karen Armstrong warns against putting Christianity, or any tradition, in a box.



Karen Armstrong warns against putting Christianity, or any tradition, in a box.


You see, these traditions are all so complex, and they’ve grown so much. We know very little about what Jesus was doing or saying, we have it – we have the Gospel stories, that show he could get quite cross. He could utter terrifying words against the scribes and the Pharisees, for example – ‘hypocrites’ etc. And in his … he goes into the temple and causes a violent demonstration there, which probably brought him his death.

So he was not some … we often sentimentalise Jesus and depict him with a lamb tucked under one arm and patting a child on the head with the other. But the gospel story is a frightening story. He is surrounded by people who are suffering and screaming in pain. The end of the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, he can’t leave the town because everybody from the surrounding districts who are sick or mentally deranged, or suffering from over-taxation, and poverty, and injustice have thronged to him. And it’s a story of people struggling with oppression. And Jesus is killed by a Roman governor. And so … and the first Christians are persecuted. And then you come to Constantine and then religion becomes an imperial … complete turnaround – Christianity then is sucked into the ethos of imperial control.

And that has been … so a tradition isn’t just one pure thing. There’s a movement away from this in academic work, it’s called an essentialist approach, you know, Christianity’s “essentially” all about peace. The way the tradition has grown and developed, it’s like human beings, we’re a mixture of all these things. And you have that in every tradition. Certainly there’ve been outstanding people who have stood out against violence, but others have been just as Jesus was sometimes, really rough, and an alarming figure. I think many Christians would be pretty alarmed if Jesus came back. I often wonder what he’d say if I showed him round the Vatican for example. This was not what he had in mind, but that is now part of Christianity.

So I think we have to look at these traditions that grow and morph – and if they didn’t grow and morph they’d die, because they have to adapt and go to … into different situations, we’re living in an entirely different world now from first-century Galilee.