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The Character of Jesus: Part 2

By Horace Bushnell

      But Christ, in opposition to all such impressions, manages to connect these non-resisting and gentle passivities with a character of the severest grandeur and majesty; and, what is more, convinces us that no truly great character can exist without them.

      Observe him, first, in what may be called the common trials of existence. For if you will put a character to the severest of all tests, see whether it can bear without faltering, the little common ills and hindrances of life. Many a man will go to his martyrdom, with a spirit of firmness and heroic composure, whom a little weariness or nervous exhaustion, some silly prejudice, or capricious opposition, would, for the moment, throw into a fit of vexation, or ill-nature. Great occasions rally great principles, and brace the mind to a lofty bearing, a bearing that is even above itself. But trials that make no occasion at all, leave it to show the goodness and beauty it has in its own disposition. And here precisely is the superhuman glory of Christ as a character, that he is just as perfect, exhibits just as great a spirit, in little trials as in great ones. In all the history of his life, we are not able to detect the faintest indication that he slips or falters. And this is the more remarkable, that he is prosecuting so great a work, with so great enthusiasm; counting it his meat and drink, and pouring into it all the energies of his life. For when men have great works on hand, their very enthusiasm runs to impatience. When thwarted or unreasonably hindered, their soul strikes fire against the obstacles they meet, they worry themselves at every hindrance, every disappointment, and break out in stormy and fanatical violence. But Jesus, for some reason, is just as even, just as serene, in all his petty vexations, and hindrances, as if he had nothing on hand to do. A kind of sacred patience invests him everywhere. Having no element of crude will mixed with his work, he is able, in all trial and opposition, to hold a condition of serenity above the clouds, and let them sail under him, without ever obscuring the sun. He is poor, and hungry, and weary, and despised, insulted by his enemies, deserted by his friends, but never disheartened, never fretted or ruffled.

      You see, meantime, that he is no Stoic; he visibly feels every such ill as his delicate and sensitive nature must, but he has some sacred and sovereign good present, to mingle with his pains, which, as it were, naturally and without any self-watching, allays them. He does not seem to rule his temper, but rather to have none; for temper, in the sense of passion, is a fury that follows the will, as the lightnings follow the disturbing forces of the winds among the clouds; and accordingly, where there is no self-will to roll up the clouds and hurl them through the sky, the lightnings hold their equilibrium, and are as though they were not.

      As regards what is called preeminently his passion, the scene of martyrdom that closes his life, it is easy to distinguish a character in it which separates it from all mere human martyrdoms. Thus, it will be observed, that his agony, the scene in which his suffering is bitterest and most evident, is, on human principles, wholly misplaced. It comes before the time, when as yet there is no arrest, and no human prospect that there will be any. He is at large, to go where he pleases, and in perfect outward safety. His disciples have just been gathered round him in a scene of more than family tenderness and affection. Indeed it is but a very few hours since that he was coming into the city, at the head of a vast procession, followed by loud acclamations, and attended by such honors as may fitly celebrate the inaugural of a king. Yet here, with no bad sign apparent, we see him plunged into a scene of deepest distress, and racked, in his feeling, with a more than mortal agony. Coming out of this, assured and comforted, he is shortly arrested, brought to trial and crucified; where, if there be any thing questionable in his manner, it is in the fact that he is even more composed than some would have him to be, not even stooping to defend himself or vindicate his innocence. And when he dies, it is not as when the martyrs die. They die for what they have said, and remaining silent will not recant. He dies for what he has not said, and still is silent.

      By the misplacing of his agony thus, and the strange silence he observes when the real hour of agony is come, we are put entirely at fault on natural principles. But it was not for him to wait, as being only a man, till he is arrested, and the hand of death is upon him, then to be nerved by the occasion to a show of victory. He that was before Abraham, must also be before his occasions. In a time of safety, in a cool hour of retirement, unaccountably to his friends, he falls into a dreadful contest and struggle of mind; coming out of it finally to go through his most horrible tragedy of crucifixion, with the serenity of a spectator!

      Why now this so great intensity of sorrow? why this agony? Was there not something unmanly in it, something unworthy of a really great soul? Take him to be only a man, and there probably was; nay, if he were a woman, the same might be said. But this one thing is clear, that no one of mankind, whether man or woman, ever had the sensibility to suffer so intensely; even showing the body, for the mere struggle and pain of the mind, exuding and dripping with blood. Evidently there is something mysterious here; which mystery is vehicle to our feeling, and rightfully may be, of something divine. What, we begin to ask, should be the power of a superhuman sensibility? and how far should the human vehicle shake under such a power? How too should an innocent and pure spirit be exercised, when about to suffer, in his own person, the greatest wrong ever committed?

      Besides there is a vicarious spirit in love; all love inserts itself vicariously into the sufferings and woes and, in a certain sense, the sins of others, taking them on itself as a burden. How then, if perchance Jesus should be divine, an embodiment of God's love in the world -- how should he feel, and by what signs of feeling manifest his sensibility, when a fallen race are just about to do the damning sin that crowns their guilty history; to crucify the only perfect being that ever came into the world; to crucify even him, the messenger and representative to them of the love of God, the deliverer who has taken their case and cause upon him! Whosoever duly ponders these questions, will find that he is led away, more and more, from any supposition of the mere mortality of Jesus. What he looks upon, he will more and more distinctly see to be the pathology of a superhuman anguish. It stands, he will perceive, in no mortal key. It will be to him the anguish, visibly, not of any pusillanimous feeling, but of holy character itself; nay, of a mysteriously transcendent, or somehow divine character.

      But why did he not defend his cause and justify his innocence in the trial? Partly because he had the wisdom to see that there really was and could be no trial, and that one who undertakes to plead with a mob, only mocks his own virtue, throwing words into the air that is already filled with the clamors of prejudice. To plead innocence in such a case, is only to make a protestation, such as indicates fear, and is really unworthy of a great and composed spirit. A mar would have done it, but Jesus did not. Besides, there was a plea of innocence in the manner of Jesus, and the few very significant words that he dropped, that had an effect on the mind of Pilate, more searching and powerful than any formal protestations. And the more we study the conduct of Jesus during the whole scene, the more shall we be satisfied that he said enough; the more admire the mysterious composure, the wisdom, the self-possession, and the superhuman patience of the sufferer. It was visibly the death-scene of a transcendent love. He dies not as a man, but rather as some one might, who is mysteriously more and higher. So thought aloud the hard-faced soldier--" Truly this was the Son of God." As if he had said--" I have seen men die--this is not a man. They call him Son of God--he can not be less." Can he be less to us?

      But Christ shows himself to be a superhuman character, not in the personal traits only, exhibited in his life, but even more sublimely in the undertakings, works, and teachings, by which be proved his Messiahship.

      Consider then the reach of his undertaking; which, if he was only a man, shows him to have been the most extravagant and even wildest of all human enthusiasts. Contrary to every religious prejudice of his nation and even of his time, contrary to the comparatively narrow and exclusive religion of Moses itself, and to all his training under it, he undertakes to organize a kingdom of God, or kingdom of heaven on earth. His purpose includes a new moral creation of the race--not of the Jews only and of men proselyted to their covenant, but of the whole human. race. He declared thus, at an early date in his ministry, that many shall come from the east and the west and sit down with Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob, in the kingdom of God; that the field is the world; and that God so loves the world, as to give for it his only-begotten Son. He also declared that his gospel shall be published to all nations, and gave his apostles their commission to go into all the world, and publish his gospel to every creature.

      Here, then, we have the grand idea of his mission --it is to new-create the human race and restore it to God, in the unity of a spiritual kingdom. And upon this single fact, Reinhard erects a complete argument for his extra human character; going into a formal review of all the great founders of states and most celebrated lawgivers, the great heroes and defenders of nations, all the wise kings and statesmen, all the philosophers, all the prophet founders of religions, and discovering as a fact that no such thought as this, or nearly proximate to this, had ever before been taken up by any living character in history; showing also how it had happened to every other great character, however liberalized by culture, to be limited in some way to the interest of his own people, or empire, and set in opposition, or antagonism, more or less decidedly, to the rest of the world. But to Jesus alone, the simple Galilean carpenter, it happens otherwise; that, never having seen a map of the world in his whole life, or heard the name of half the great nations on it, he undertakes, coming out of his shop, a scheme as much vaster and more difficult than that of Alexander, as it proposes more and what is more divinely benevolent! This thought of a universal kingdom, cemented in God--why, the immense Roman empire of his day, constructed by so many ages of war and conquest, is a bauble in comparison, both as regards the extent and the cost! And yet the rustic tradesman of Galilee propounds even this for his errand, and that in a way of assurance, as simple and quiet, as if the immense reach of his plan were, in fact, a matter to him of no consideration.

      Nor is this all; there is included in his plan, what, to any mere man, would be yet more remote from the possible confidence of his frailty; it is a plan as universal in time, as it is in the scope of its objects. It does not expect to be realized in a lifetime, or even in many centuries to come. He calls it understandingly, his grain of mustard-seed; which, however, is to grow, he declares, and overshadow the whole earth. But the courage of Jesus, counting a thousand years to be only a single day, is equal to the run of his work. He sees a rock of stability, where men see only frailty and weakness. Peter himself, the impulsive and always unreliable Peter, turns into rock and becomes a great foundation, as he looks upon him. "On this rock," he says, "I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." His expectation, too, reaches boldly out beyond his own death; that, in fact, is to be the seed of his great empire--" except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth," he says, "alone." And if we will see with what confidence and courage he adheres to his plan, when the time of his death approaches--how far he is from giving it up as lost, or as an exploded vision of his youthful enthusiasm--we have only to observe his last interview with the two sisters of Bethany, in whose hospitality he was so often comforted. When the box of precious ointment is broken upon his head, which Judas reproves as a useless expense, he discovers a sad propriety or even prophecy, in what the woman has done, as connected with his death, now at hand. Bat it does not touch his courage, we perceive, or the confidence of his plan, or even cast a shade on his prospect. "Let her alone. She hath done what she could. She is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying. Verily I say unto you, wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that this woman hath done shall be told for a memorial of her." Such was the sublime confidence he had in a plan that was to run through all future ages, and would scarcely begin to show its fruit during his own lifetime.

      Is this great idea then, which no man ever before conceived, the raising of the whole human race to God, a plan sustained with such evenness of courage, and a confidence of the world's future so far transcending any human example-- is this a human development? Regard the benevolence of it, the universality of it, the religious grandeur of it, as a work readjusting the relations of God and his government with men--time cost, the length of time it will cover, and the faroff date of its completion--is it in this scale that a Nazarene carpenter, a poor uneducated villager, lays out his plans and graduates the confidence of his undertakings? There have been great enthusiasts in the world, and they have shown their infirmity by lunatic airs, appropriate to their extravagance. But it is not human, we may safely affirm, to lay out projects transcending all human .ability, like this of Jesus, and which cannot be completed in many thousands of years, doing it in all the airs of sobriety, entering on the performance without parade, and yielding life to it firmly as the inaugural of its triumph. No human creature sits quietly down to a perpetual project, one that proposes to be executed only at the end, or final harvest of the world. That is not human, but divine.

      Passing now to what is more interior in his ministry, taken as a revelation of his character, we are struck with another distinction, viz., that be takes rank with the poor, and grounds all the immense expectations of his cause, on a beginningmade with the lowly and dejected classes of the world. He was born to the lot of the poor. His manners, tastes, and intellectual attainments, however, visibly outgrew his condition, and that in such a degree that, if he had been a mere human character, he must have suffered some painful distaste for the kind of society in which he lived. The great, as we perceive, flocked to hear him, and sometimes came even by night to receive his instructions. He saw the highest circles of society and influence open to him, if he only desired to enter them. And, if he was a properly human character, what virtuous, but rising young man would have had a thought of impropriety, in accepting the elevation within his reach; considering it as the proper reward of his industry and the merit of his character--not to speak of the contempt for his humble origin, and his humble associates, which every upstart person, of only ordinary virtue, is so commonly seen to manifest. Still he adheres to the poor, and makes them the object of his ministry. And what is more peculiar, he visibly has a kind of interest in their society, which is wanting in that of the higher classes; perceiving, apparently, that they have a certain aptitude for receiving right impressions, which the others have not. They are not the wise and prudent, filled with the conceit of learning and station, but they are the ingenuous babes of poverty, open to conviction, prepared, by their humble lot, to receive thoughts and doctrines in advance of their age. Therefore he loves the poor, and, without descending to their low manners, he delights to be identified with them. He is more assiduous in their service than other men have been in serving the great. He goes about on foot, teaching them and healing their sick; occupying his great and elevated mind, for whole years, with details of labor and care, which the nurse of no hospital had ever laid upon him--insanities, blind eyes, fevers, fluxes, leprosies, and sores. His patients are all below his level and unable to repay him, even by a breath of congenial sympathy; and nothing supports him but the consciousness of good which attends his labors.

      Meantime, consider what contempt for the poor had hitherto prevailed among all the great statesmen and philosophers of the world. The poor were not society, or any part of society. They were only the conveniences and drudges of society; appendages of luxury and state, tools of ambition, material to be used in the wars. No man who had taken up the idea of some great change or reform in society, no philosopher who had conceived the notion of building up an ideal state or republic, ever thought of beginning with the poor. Influence was seen to reside in the higher classes, and the only hope of reaching the world, by any scheme of social regeneration, was to begin with them, and through them operate its results. But Christ, if we call him a philosopher, and, if he is only a man, we can call him by no higher name, was the poor man's philosopher; the first and only one that had ever appeared. Seeing the higher circles open to him, and tempted to imagine that, if he could once get footing for his doctrine among the influential and the great, he should thus secure his triumph more easily, he had yet no such thought. He laid his foundations, as it were, below all influence, and, as men would judge, threw himself away.

      And precisely here did he display a wisdom and character totally in advance of his age. Eighteen centuries have passed away, and we now seem just beginning to understand the transcendent depth of this feature in his mission and his character. We appear to be just waking up to it as a discovery, that the blessing and upraising of the masses are the fundamental interest of society--a discovery, however, which is only a proof that the life of Jesus has at length begun to penetrate society and public history. It is precisely this which is working so many and great changes in our times, giving liberty and right to the enslaved many, seeking their education, encouraging their efforts by new and better hopes, producing an aversion to war, which has been the fatal source of their misery and depression, and opening, as we hope, a new era of comfort, light, and virtue in the world. It is as if some higher and better thought had visited our race--which higher thought is in the life of Jesus. The schools of all the philosophers are gone, hundreds of years ago, and all their visions have died away into thin air; but the poor man's philosopher still lives, bringing up his poor to liberty, light, and character, and drawing the nations on to a brighter and better day.

      At the same time, the more than human character of Jesus is displayed also in the fact that, identifying himself thus with the poor, he is yet able to do it, without eliciting any feelings of partisanship in them. To one who will be at the pains to reflect a little, nothing will seem more difficult than this; to become the patron of a class a downtrodden and despised class, without rallying in them a feeling of intense malignity. And that for the reason, partly, that no patron, however just or magnanimous, is ever quite able to suppress the feelings of a partisan in himself. A little ambition, pricked on by a little abuse, a faint desire of popularity playing over the face of his benevolence, and tempting him to loosen a little of ill-nature, as tinder to the passions of his sect--something of this kind is sure to kindle some fire of malignity in his clients.

      Besides, men love to be partisans. Even Paul and Apollos and Peter had their sects or schools, glorying in one against another. With all their efforts, they could not suppress a weakness so contemptible. But no such feeling could ever get footing under Christ. If his disciples had forbidden one to heal in the name of Jesus, because he followed not with them, he gently rebuked them, and made them feel that he had larger views than to suffer any such folly. As the friend of the poor and oppressed class, he set himself openly against their enemies, and chastised them as oppressors, with the most terrible rebukes. He exposed the absurdity of their doctrine, and silenced them in argument; he launched his thunderbolts against their base hypocrisies; but it does not appear that the populace ever testified their pleasure, even by a cheer, or gave vent to any angry emotion under cover of his leadership. For there was something still, in the manner and air of Jesus, which made them feel it to be inappropriate, and even made it impossible. It was as if some being were here, taking their part, whom it were even an irreverence to applaud, much more to second by any partisan clamor. They would as soon have thought of cheering the angel in the sun, or of rallying under him as the head of their faction.

      On one occasion, when he had fed the multitudes by a miracle, he saw that their national superstitions were excited, and that, regarding him as the Messiah predicted in the Scriptures, they were about to take him by force and make him their king; but this was a national feeling, not the feeling of a class. Its root was superstition, not hatred. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, attended by the acclamations of the multitude, if this be not one of the fables or myths, which our modern criticism rejects, is yet no demonstration of popular faction, or party animosity. Robbing it of its mystical and miraculous character, as the inaugural of the Messiah, it has no real signification. In a few hours, after all, these hosannas are hushed, Jesus is alone and forsaken, and the very multitudes he might seem to have enlisted, are crying "Crucify him!" On the whole, it cannot be said that Jesus was ever popular. He was followed at times, by great multitudes of people, whose love of the marvelous worked on their superstitions, to draw them after him. They came also to be cured of their diseases. They knew him as their friend. But there was yet something in him that forbade their low and malignant feelings gathering into a conflagration round him. He presents, indeed, an instance that stands alone in history, as God at the summit of the worlds, where a person has identified himself with a class, without creating a faction, and without becoming a popular character.

      Consider him next as a teacher; his method and manner, and the other characteristics of his excellence, apart from his doctrine. That will be distinctly considered in another place.

      First of all, we notice the perfect originality and independence of his teaching. We have a great many men who are original, in the sense of being originators within a certain boundary of educated thought. But the originality of Christ is uneducated. That he draws nothing from the stores of learning, can be seen at a glance. The impression we have inreading his instructions, justifies to the letter; the language of his contemporaries, when they say, "this man hath never learned" There is nothing in any of his allusions, or forms of speech that indicates learning. Indeed, there is nothing in him that belongs to his age or country--no one opinion, or taste, or prejudice. The attempts that have been made, in a way of establishing his mere natural manhood, to show that he borrowed his sentiments from the Persians and the eastern forms of religion, or that he had been intimate with the Essenes, and borrowed from them, or that he must have been acquainted with the schools and religions of Egypt, deriving his doctrine from them--all attempts of the kind have so palpably failed, as not even to require a deliberate answer.

      If he is simply a man, as we hear, then he is most certainly a new and singular kind of man, never before heard of; one who visibly is quite as great a miracle in the world as if he were not a man. We can see for ourselves, in the simple directness and freedom of his teachings, that whatever he advances is from himself. Shakespeare, for instance, whom we name as being probably the most creative and original spirit the world has ever produced, one of the class, too, that are called self-made men, is yet tinged, in all his works, with human learning. His glory is, indeed, that so much of what is great in history and historic character, lives and appears in his dramatic creations. He is the high priest, we sometimes hear, of human nature. But Christ, understanding human nature so as to address it more skillfully than he, derives no help from historic examples. He is the high priest, rather, of the divine nature, speaking as one that has come out from God, and has nothing to borrow from the world. It is not to be detected, by any sign, that the human sphere in which he moved imparted any thing to him. His teachings are just as full of divine nature, as Shakespeare's of human.

      Neither does he teach by the human methods. Ho does not speculate about God, as a school professor, drawing out conclusions by a practice on words, and deeming that the way of proof; he does not build up a frame of evidence from below, by some constructive process, such as the philosophers delight in; but he simply speaks of God and spiritual things as one who has come out from Him, to tell us what he knows. And his simple telling brings us the reality; proves it to us in its own sublime self-evidence; awakens even the consciousness of it in our own bosom; so that formal arguments or dialectic proofs offend us by their coldness, and seem, in fact, to be only opaque substances set between us and the light. Indeed, he makes even the world luminous by his words--fills it with an immediate and new sense of God, which nothing has ever been able to expel. The incense of the upper world is brought out, in his garments, and flows abroad, as perfume, on the poisoned air.

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   Part 1
   Part 2
   Part 3
   Part 4
   Part 5


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