Jesus and Stoicism
Scripture gives us a savior who grieved and who felt obvious despair in the Garden. The world is desperate for a Jesus they can connect with, that is the Jesus of Scripture and History, the very one whom we are called to imitate.
Rev. Jonathan Faulkner
One of aspects of the Chosen I have come to love is that, unlike many of the popular depictions of Jesus there is an attempt to balance both the human and divine aspect and serious research and effort is being put in, by Dallas Jenkins and the Biblical Scholars advising the project to get us as close to Jesus and his world as we possibly can get. With all the data and information available to us from the explosion in archeology and historical study, they have been able to get pretty close. The result is a Jesus who laughs, cries, celebrates, even dances at the wedding party at Cana. You get the sense that this Jesus would actually eat with Tax Collectors, and he does, Matthew is an important feature in the first season One of the first times we see Jesus he is in the local watering hole where all the rough and tumble fisherman hang out and it is inside this establishment that he meets Mary for the first time and right outside it that he heals her. Jenkins has done a good job restoring Jesus humanity while at the same time giving us the sense that He is who He says He is, the son of the Living God. The problem with most characterizations of Jesus in the twentieth and twenty-first century film industry is that you get the sense that he is this powerful stoic who shows little to no emotion ever, calm and steady the entirety of his ministry. One adaptation even has Jesus, in a moment that the bible portrays as holy anger, as smiling while he flips tables and runs out the money changers. Obviously, the Chosen is not perfect, but one appreciates the care Jenkins has chosen to take in his presentation of God Incarnate. This is likely why the show has gained so many followers and supporters, to date the show has been watched almost 53 Million times.
Because this Jesus and his followers stand in stark contrast to how Christians approach the world today and how we have seen Jesus portrayed in Christian Media. The portrayal, as stated above, is one of a stoic defined as: “The endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings or complaint.” Stoicism was one of many Schools of Philosophy present in the time of Jesus. Founded Athens in the 3rd Century B.C. by Zenu of Citium. The entire Stoics were not a people of emotion, they endured whatever came about, be it pleasure or pain, with indifference, seeing true detachment from this world as the end goal. Their opposites were the Epicureans who believed in the dictum: “Eat and drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” As far as Greek approaches to life go in Hellenism, one cannot be one any more opposite of the spectrum. Jesus, living in a Hellenized culture likely had opportunities to interact with both groups and it cannot be said in any way that he belonged to either. There is an epicurean portrayal of Jesus by the way, 2014’s Son of God produced by Roma Downey of Touched By An Angel fame. This is where the aforementioned scene of a smiling Jesus turning tables is taken. But if Jesus did not belong to either group why are we so quick to portray him as one or the other?
Perhaps we are more influenced by the Ancient Greeks then we want to believe. That is, Western Culture, through the Enlightenment and the Scottish Common Sense Philosophy and Theology have syncretized Ancient Greek teaching like Stoicism into our modern teachings both in the culture and in Christianity and has denied us the ability to either grieve or demonstrate grief in a healthy way. This can be demonstrated in a season two episode of the hit procedural drama NCIS when a piece of evidence in a missing persons/murder investigation called “The Good Wife’s Guide” urges wives to: “Carry on and be strong in their husbands stead.” This is Stoicism, the message is that your feelings are not important, so pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get back to work in your husband’s stead. There has been an equal and opposite reaction to this as Jonathan Chait in “The Coddling of the American Mind” notes how “fragile” our youth has become and how we need to do a better job at teaching them to be “Anti-Fragile” that is a halfway point between the Stoicism of older generations and the unbridled Emotionalism of the younger. This is the problem with the “Snowflake” designation, one cannot expect younger people to interact and respond to tragedy in a healthy way, if they are not shown how.
There is another adverse effect of Stoicism that keeps us as believers from responding to the world around us in a biblical manner, that is, after the example of Jesus. Stoicism, by its very teaching, requires one to be detached from what is happening in the world which often makes us dismissive of what is going on. The Stoics response to a Plague in the ancient world would be that “people die, there is nothing we can do about it, best not to grieve and just get on with our lives.” The Epicurean would have the same response, “People die, best celebrate life to the fullest in the meantime.” Both dismiss the dire circumstances in which the speaker may find themselves in. By the way, one can hear both in discussions about the current Coronavirus Pandemic, both the Stoic response: “People are going to die, when your time is up, better just move on.” And “People are going to die, party hard and if you get it, well, I guess I get it.” This kind of fatalism is detached from the real-world experiences of so many people and if you have the ability to hold one of these views, you may have not been impacted directly. There is a reason that it was Elites in Greek society who belonged to these schools, just as today it is the elite to middle class who can make statements like this. Most of the people in this country and around the world do not have the ability to ignore the incredible amount of human suffering that is going on due to the Pandemic, economic downturn, an already depressed state of mental health and all the uncertainty that comes from this.
The Church has an answer to these concerns, if we are willing to lay down and put off the syncretistic tendencies we have inherited from our ancestors and follow the upward call of God in Christ Jesus through the downward mobility of Christ. If we are willing to put our convictions about human life mattering in every way shape and form into practice and live as the Christ of Scripture, not the Stoic Christ of culture, Because the Christ of Scripture wept over the death of a close friend (John 11:35). Jesus sweat blood out of the agony of the sinfulness of humanity being placed on his shoulders, while praying a prayer that comes from the depths of human despair akin to Psalm 88 (Matt 26:36-46). Jesus showed holy outrage over the desecration of the temple by the exploitation of human beings coming to sacrifice in the temple, disrupting worship of the Almighty God (Matt 21:12-17). Jesus told a group of followers. Jesus does not tell the people to just shrug off the deaths of 18 individuals when the tower of Siloam collapses but uses it to issue and emotional call for repentance from sins that were no worse than the 18 that died (Luke 13). Finally, Jesus also cried out on the cross, emotional pleas for the forgiveness of his persecutors, and unlike the Stoics who would forgo food or drink when they were killed, he asked for a drink. Cries of pain and suffering, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant on full display for all the world. Were Jesus a Stoic, he would not be able to refer to himself as a “Suffering Messiah” because suffering was something to be indifferent too.
The real Jesus, the one we find in scripture and other pages of history, the one who cried out. He is the one the world needs and because He is with us today in the person of the Church we should again take up our crosses like Him and suffer with those who are suffering without trying to diminish or downplay their suffering with greeting card spirituality. It is poignant to me that Paul writes the words he does in Philippians 4 from a prison cell, chained to a guard, while waiting to hear if he is going to be set free or killed. The secret to contentment in the Christian Life is to face head on the pain and suffering of this world with only Christ as your source of strength. This is not Stoicism, but a gritty reliance on Christ, which includes His Church which is eternally bound to Him through the Holy Spirit. Paul is not detached from his circumstances, but has learned to secret dwelling in them, and that secret is Christ.
But too many Christians look at the rising death toll and increasing suffering of the current year and dismiss it out of hand. Playing down what is happening our world denies the chance to see Christ who did not downplay the sin and suffering of his time or of our own but went to the cross for it. He did what was necessary, but too many Christians are not willing to set aside even the smallest comfort for the sake of another, The world is watching and continues to pour out of our church buildings because they are not seeing Christ, but something else, and they do not like it. Reasoned approaches are ignored or called suspect. It is unfortunate for a people bearing the name of the suffering servant that this is the route we have chosen.
There is one final problem that the syncretism between Christianity and Stoicism has created. That is that less than 33% of Churched Gen Z feels as though they have formed meaningful relationships with older Christians. They are craving deep relationships, and they should be able to find them in the church, but they are often met with a cold detachment to the world around that reminds them more of Mr. Spock than Jesus. They read in Scripture of a suffering Servant and then see Christians not only refuse to grieve with those who are grieving but grieve at all. There is no comfort for the mourner in many churches today, and that has turned many off to Christianity. As Gandhi told Martin Luther King Jr. the up and coming generation is fond of Jesus but is not fond of Christians.
For meaningful connections to form again, we must learn to lament and grieve again. We cannot approach the suffering of our neighbors with indifference, but must do what the Good Samaritan did and get down in the mud and blood and dirt of the beaten and broken man and pick him up and place him on our donkey. Take him to inn and pay for whatever is necessary to heal him and care for his needs. Because God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, there is literally no lack of resources in the universe to meet the needs of human suffering from His perspective, and it is His perspective which we are to adopt as we imitate Christ. Christian, God is who He says He is, and He will do what He says He will do. That means separating the sheep from the goats of those counted among his people based on how they treated Christ in the midst of His suffering when He came to them in the form of a prisoner, beggar, ill or poor. It is the Stoic Christian who has been indifferent to Christ and who is thus ignored His suffering in these various forms who is told to depart. May it not be so with you Brothers and Sisters.
Christian, be willing to learn how to grieve the way Jesus did, be willing to look at the thief next to you on the cross and meet the deep spiritual need along with the deep physical need (keep in mind, in coming to salvation, the thief receives a glorified physical body). Let us not leave Christ out in the cold, suffering from the Pandemic which we think is “overhyped” or “under reported” or whatever side of this pathetic culture war you on is. Be Christ to the masses, full stop, so that on the day you stand face to face you will not be sent away, but hear “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center