03/20/2006 11:01 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cousin Jesus

The science of genetics tells us that, strange as it may sound, most of us are related to anyone that was alive anywhere on Earth two thousand years ago. There's no evidence that Jesus had children, but there is plenty of evidence that he existed, and had cousins. That makes most of us His cousins a few million removed -- and therefore, of course, each other's.

"Yeah," some people might say, "but just on his mother's side."

Steve Olson explains the science in discussing the Da Vinci Code, and the possibility that Jesus has living descendants. There's no scholarly evidence to suggest that he does, since there's no record of marriage or children. But there's decent documentation of kinship structures in Jewish villages, and the probability that Jesus of Nazareth had cousins on his mother's side is very high.

As for other side of His family: Christian belief says that Jesus is the Son of God, but also says "The kingdom of God is within us." Not that it will be within us if we believe x, y, and z, but that it's there already, waiting to be discovered. That leaves us with a lot in common, doesn't it?

Muslims consider Jesus the penultimate great Prophet, before Muhammad. They traditionally believe in the Virgin Birth and the Miracles, but not the Trinity or the Crucifixion. Regarding the Virgin Birth, Annemarie Schimmel described the Sufistic belief that Jesus -- who Muslims call the Spirit of God -- was conceived when Mary received the Breath of Spirit (or ruh) from Gabriel. That ruh is the same essential spirit or Higher Self that exists in each one of us.

Sounds cousinly to me. And as for Judaism -- Jews have long believed that Jesus was a Jewish teacher whose biography has been re-interpreted over time, a perception that's borne out by scholarship. Anyone like me who has Jewish ancestry is a closer relation to Jesus than most others, but -- that's OK, Rev. Falwell, don't get up ...

Whether you believe that the foundational texts of these monotheistic religions are literally true or are allegorical literature, they can be interpreted as supporting progressive beliefs -- including the unity of all humanity. After all, Jesus didn't ask for religious bona fides before helping strangers. Yet many Christians and Muslims use their shared beliefs to divide themselves -- not only from each other, but from the rest of humanity.

These thoughts are on my mind after spending the weekend attending a conference on religion and the progressive movement sponsored by the Irmas Foundation. There I was fortunate enough to meet with provocative and interesting thinkers like Ira Glasser, Howard Moody, Prof. john powell, Kavita Ramdas, Sam Harris, and others no less compelling.

Through Patrick Mrotek I learned of his Christian Alliance for Progress, which is doing fine work building the foundation for a progressive Christianity (and no, the two words aren't the oxymoron most Americans believe they are). They are an excellent example of what I call America's hidden Christians, and could use your support.

I also met Lori Lipman Brown and learned of her work leading the first lobbying group for atheists, the Secular Coalition for America. If you are a Christian and who believes the story of the Jesus and the Samaritan, or a Muslim who believes the Quran's injunction that "there shall be no compulsion in religion," Lori's work is deserving of attention and support, too.

Secular leaders like Lori and religious activists like Patrick have important roles to play in building a new progressive movement. My own spiritual impulse calls me in a different direction. I strongly believe that the message and spirit of faith can be a clarion call to progressivism, and that religion gives us a lexicon -- of words, symbols, music, and images -- that can communicate a new message to the American people. But so does secularism, and the bias faced by nonbelievers in this country is a shame.

Even fundamentalists aren't a completely lost cause, as shown by the work of sociologists like Nancy Davis and Robert Robinson. They found that fundamentalist Christians feel strongly about core issues like abortion and gay rights, but didn't differ from other Americans in their opinions on other matters -- and in fact were more progressive than average on economic issues (perhaps since so many of them were lower income).

All progressives oppose the Religious Right, of course. Where I part ways with secularists is when a few of them insist that all that can be known essentially is known, and that all faith is inherently blinding and misleading. That, to me, represents a missed opportunity for the Left. It's "throwing the holy Infant out with the bathwater."

I stand with Tom Fox, with Tariq Ramadan's condemnation of the cartoon rioters, with Michael Lerner, and all of their colleagues in every faith. As for the hijacking of our common cousin Jesus by the Pat Robertson crowd, I'll repeat my often-used William Blake quote: "That Vision of Christ which thou dost see/is my Vision's greatest enemy."

And since we're all cousins, it's our common struggle. To paraphrase Madeleine Kahn as Lily von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles: "Shalom. Salaam. C'mon in ..."


UPDATE: A number of people have challenged my statement that "there is plenty of evidence that Jesus existed ..." I understand the objection. While a great many (probably most) historians believe there was a historical figure with that name, others do not. The topic is open for scholarly debate. My point is the same whether or not such evidence exists.

Historians aren't disturbed by the lack of contemporaneous written evidence for something. Oral histories that are recorded later are acceptable, although acknowledged as less conclusive than primary sources. I know that Bertrand Russell doubted the historicity of Jesus, but there's been a lot of research since then. Nevertheless some scholars contend that there's no evidence for his existence, and it's only fair to acknowledge that.

In retrospect, I probably should've just something like this: "Regardless of whether you believe Jesus was a) the Son of God, b) a historical figure whose biography is consistent with that of an itinerant Jewish rabbi of that time, or c) never existed at all ..." and then gone on to make my points.

Christians don't need scholarly evidence to believe. Proof that such a person existed would be irrelevant for atheists, too. If you're an atheist, the argument's no different whether you say there's no proof of his existence or just no proof he's the son of God. The argument would still be based on lack of proof.

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