Preachers in flowing robes put him through a mock trial. Priests “all condemned him as deserving death.” Religious scholars were falsely certain he had blasphemed their Temple.
For Jesus’ accusers, the Temple had ceased to be a poetic portal into the Transcendent; it’s architecture no longer thrilled them with visions of mercy. Rather, the Temple was just a symbol of their rigid dogma which justified their prejudices.
Jesus died turning the tables on such religion. My grandfather never looked more like Jesus than when he stood up to a similar religious bunch by helping a divorced woman they had shunned. He told me, “It’s a terrifying thing to tell anyone they are not fit for the Kingdom of God.” I have no doubt the woman my grandfather welcomed had accusers who were as sincere as those who crucified Jesus. They thought they were preserving the dignity of the church-temple which Jesus said he would rebuild. Yet, unexamined certitudes like theirs trained people to quit coming to congregations.
But leaving church didn’t make Americans more patient. Shedding the yoke of organized religion didn’t make us nice. Peter Beinart in a piece in the Atlantic does an analysis that strongly suggests that as we leave the church, believe it or not, we sometimes can become even more abrasive. On all sides of the political spectrum we now make uncritical and uncompromising demands of other people and institutions with a coarseness which would have shocked my grandfather. It turns out that abusiveness isn’t caused by church attendance. The capacity for self-righteousness runs deep within us all. And, since nobody lives without making moral claims, can we be so sure that being part of a community which scrutinizes moral inquiry is a narrow thing? Believing their Lord was killed by toxic religion might produce a church full of mercy. Is it possible a faith community might even serve as a check on the very meanness so many of us thought we were leaving when we quit church?