On Community Organizers, Myth, History, and Politics

Over the past month I’ve seen a meme making its way across the interwebs. Not a meme in the questions-passed-from-blog-to-blog sense that “meme” usually means online, but a meme in the more traditional sense, an idea that’s spreading and taking root.

The meme?

“Jesus was a community organizer. Pontius Pilate was a governor.”

This is, of course, a reference to the backgrounds of Senator Barack Obama, Democratic candidate for President, and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Republican candidate for Vice President. You can even get that phrase on tee-shirts, buttons, bumper stickers, and more, along with other awesome anti-Palin goodness.

The meme is meant to counter the Republican talking point that, as a governor of a state, Palin has more executive experience than Obama, whose executive experience is being a community organizer in Chicago.

The meme is also meant to be snarky — I imagine that the American Taliban that makes up the bulk of Palin’s supporters would find much to offend them in the comparison of the second coming of St. Ronnie to the Roman prefect who sent their messiah to his death.

Ironically I, who am not a Christian, am uncomfortable with the meme. I’m not offended by it; it gives me a bit of a squick, though.

The reason? It’s nothing to do with my atheism. It’s everything to do with having an historian’s outlook and perspective.

“Pontius Pilate was a governor” — no problem there.

“Jesus was a community organizer” — big problem there. The statement assumes there was a Jesus.

Historically, there’s little reason to think that Jesus ever existed. The only reason, honestly, to think there was someone named Jesus is that there’s an entire religion founded upon his existence. Only, if Christianity were an off-shoot of Gnosticism, as appears likely from the Dead Sea Scrolls and other Gnostic writings, then there doesn’t need to have been an historical founder.

What brings this to mind is random chance, actually. Last night, while arranging some books, I came across my copy of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, his 18th century attack on Christianity.

Paine was not an atheist, as he professes in his opening chapter. He was a Deist. There was a god, this god set the universe in motion, but god didn’t give a flying shit for anyone or anything once he’d set the wheels in motion:

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

But, lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

In the third chapter, Paine writes about Jesus and his history. While he writes that the “story, so far as relates to the supernatural part, has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it,” he goes on to say that “such a person as Jesus Christ existed, and that he was crucified, which was the mode of execution at that day, are historical relations strictly within the limits of probability.” Paine takes Jesus’ existence as being largely a matter of historical fact, even if the New Testament isn’t wasn’t factual.

Paine, writing two centuries, didn’t have the benefit of the Biblical scholarship of the past two centuries. There’s simply no contemporary evidence for Jesus’ existence. It’s easy enough for me to think, “Paine, if only you knew, you’d have written The Age of Reason differently,” but he didn’t know, and he takes the Testimonium Flavium — that being the few lines in Flavius Josephus’ histories of the Jews — as being accurate.

The point is, for me the historical question is settled — Jesus was a myth, not an historical figure.

Seeing “Jesus was a community organizer” making the rounds online strikes me as a little strange. I realize that few people ever explore the history, and I imagine that there are many who would be interested but, if faced with the evidence (or rather, the lack thereof), would simply reject it because it couldn’t possibly be true.

I wouldn’t use “Jesus is a community organizer,” simply because, in my mind, it’s obviously false.

To be honest, even for someone who thinks it’s true, I can’t imagine why they would propogate the idea. The reason is very simple — the Christian fundamentalists who are backing Sarah Palin. The idea of the meme — and I admit, it’s a clever idea — is to equate Jesus and Obama in some fashion. But that can be a very dangerous thing; McCain has already made an ad that tries to link Obama to the Anti-Christ. (I’m not going to link to it. Do a search for “Obama the One McCain” and you’ll probably find it pretty quickly.) The danger is that propogating the meme will only feed into the religious dog whistles the McCain campaign is trying to use.

And in the current climate, where McCain sees that he’s tanking and tanking badly, the worst thing that anyone can do is to inflame McCain’s supporters. Because that could drive them out to vote. Better they be depressed come Election Day and stay home. šŸ™‚

Is there a takeaway to any of this? Or am I simply rambling?

I’m thinking the latter, actually. šŸ˜‰

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