Jesus Christ Our Great Exemplar
by: James Thompson (1834-1882)
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THE PEOPLE who fancy themselves Christians are continually holding up to us Jesus as the Great Exemplar, the perfect pattern, whom all humankind should seek to resemble. It is true they also tell us that he differed essentially in nature from humanity, being at once God and man, incapable of sin; so that it is hopeless to try to reach his standard. However, we should all strive to approximate to it as closely as possible. Thus the "Imitation of Christ" [by Thomas à Kempis] has been probably the most frequently printed and the most influential Christian book ever written; more influential than the New Testament itself, having been devoutly studied by countless thousands who never saw the Bible in their own language, and were unable to read it in the original or in the Vulgate.
Now, surely the Exemplar for the whole human race ought to have lived a life covering immense fields of experience, in order that his example could be of practical use to the greater number of the diversified classes of mankind. His biography, too, or biographies, ought surely to be very dear, exact, and full of details, in order to furnish as much instruction as possible for the guidance of those expected and commanded to tread in his steps. But the life of Jesus covered a very small field of experience, and was intensely singular instead of typical. We have four biographies, or reputed biographies of him, three probably copied, with variations, from the first, all very brief and vague; and the fourth giving a totally different spirit and meaning to his life from those prevailing in the others. These are strange guide-books for a subject of supreme and infinite importance.
Let me note briefly a few of the main defects in the experience of Jesus. There is no record, though there is tradition, that he ever worked for his living, or engaged in trade of any kind, and if he really did in his youth, he abandoned it in his manhood; so that all who have to labour can find nothing in his conduct to assist them in withstanding the trials and temptations of business, and in the hard attempt to earn an honest livelihood. If they followed his example, they would all strike work and go wandering about the country, preaching to one another and denouncing the respectable classes.
He was not a husband and father, and seems to have thought all sexual relations sinful, or at least inimical to holiness (Matt. xix. 12). If the world had followed his example in this respect, it would indeed have come to an end almost as soon as he thought it would. In all the cares and troubles of married life no guidance or good inspiration is afforded by him. Having had no children he furnishes no example to parents. He did indeed once say. Suffer little children to come unto me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven; but it is easy to have a sentimental moment for young ones when you haven't to feed, clothe, tend, nurse, and rear them; and if the Kingdom of Heaven is full of mere innocent little babes, it is no place for virtuous men and women, who have grown wise and strong in struggling with the tremendous difficulties of life.
As a son and a brother he furnishes very dangerous example and doctrine, publicly disowning his mother and brothers (Matt. xii. 46-50); teaching that all relatives the nearest and dearest should be forsaken for him (Matt. x. 37, xix. 39); and proclaiming that he was not come to send peace on earth, but a sword, to set a man at variance against his father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. (Matt. x. 34-36).
He counselled to take no thought for the morrow (Matt. vi. 25-34); so that all prudent Christians who save up for a rainy day, who insure their property or assure their lives, are disobeying him. He told a young man that if he would be perfect he must sell all that he had and give to the poor (Matt. xix. 21). So in a world of perfect Christians, the rich would sell all they had and give to the poor; this would make the rich poor and the poor rich; the poor grown rich would at once return their newly-acquired property to the rich grown poor; there would thus be a continual giving and returning, wasting time and property, only made impossible (as most specially Christian precepts are seen to be when one looks at them practically) by the fact that there would be no one left to buy when all the rich wanted to sell. It was of course easy for Jesus, who had nothing because he took care to earn nothing, to preach this absurd doctrine.
He taught. Resist not evil (Matt. v. 39); Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's (Matt. xxii. 21); which his great apostle carried out quite logically into the doctrine. The powers that be are ordained of God, whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive unto themselves damnation (Romans xiii. i, 2). So that all political striving, all patriotism, and championship of liberty, have been against Christian teaching; which declares that such men as Wallace, Eliot, Pym, Vane, Milton, Cromwell, Washington, Kosciusko, Mazzini, Garibaldi, shall receive to themselves damnation for resisting the ordinance of God. In the same spirit he taught. The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do: but do not ye after their works: for they say and do not (Matt. xxiii. 2, 3). By the bye, this is a clear injunction to his followers to observe the whole Mosaic ceremonial law; and the Jews, in this respect, always are and have been the only orthodox Christians.
It must be noted that a great deal of his moral teaching is based upon a delusion, in which he and his disciples firmly believed, and which he most explicitly proclaimed (though with characteristic honesty, Christian advocates refuse to read his plain meaning in his plain words); the delusion that the end of the world was close at hand. He tells his disciples that the Son of man shall be seen coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, that he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds; and he adds. Verily, I say unto you. This generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled (Matt. xxiv. 34). Can words be plainer? Compare 1 Thessalonians iv. 15-17, to see that the great apostle believed this just as firmly. As above remarked, had every one followed the example of Jesus in remaining childless, and the doctrine already alluded to of Matt. xix. 12 (see also 1 Cor. vii.), the world would have come to an end, for the human race at least, with the passing away of the then living generations. Cherishing this delusion, it is no wonder that Jesus and his immediate followers had no care for thought of the morrow, for marriage and posterity, for patriotism; the wonder is how modern professing Christians dare to pretend that the delusion is not to be read clearly in the Gospels and Epistles. Well may Prof. Newman observes (in his "Phases of Faith," I think) that if any classes of men had an interest in disputing the accuracy of the Fifth Proposition of the first Book of Euclid, they would find some means of doing it, and unblushingly employ them.
Had the biographies of Jesus shown that he worked hard, and got an honest livelihood as a carpenter; that he proved himself, under great difficulties, a good sweetheart, husband, father, citizen, patriot, making the best of the world as he found it; that he was modest and sensible, while enthusiastic for the good of his fellows; that the sordid and wearing circumstances of a life of toil and trouble left his mind serene and his heart noble, so that he was ever preaching lofty and liberal truth; that he died bravely as he had lived; then he would indeed have been a Great Exemplar for millions of poor men and women struggling to be good and true in all the natural and common i.e. nations of life.
To sum up: This poor sexless Jew, with a noble feminine heart, and a magnificent though uncultivated and crazy brain, did no work to earn his bread; evaded all social and political responsibilities, took no wife and contemned his own family; lived a vagabond, fed and housed by charity (if by miracle, it is clear that we cannot imitate him: would that we could!); uttered many beautiful and even sublime moral truths and more impracticable precepts; preached continually himself, and faith in himself alone as the one thing necessary; and died with the lamentable cry of womanish desperation, perhaps the most significant confession in history of a life of supreme self-illusion laid bare to itself at the point of death. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? He founded a sect which holds him up as the Great Exemplar of mankind, and scarcely one member of which even tries to tread in his footsteps. I have much love and reverence for him as a man; but am quite certain that if everyone really set about following his example, the world (which is surely mad enough already) would soon be one vast Bedlam broken loose.
Most of these things have been often said before, but they must be repeated again and again while a spurious Christianity not only corrupts the honesty and softens the brains of its adherents, and absorbs the wealth which should educate the people, but opposes science and progress at every step.