A close friend recently lamented in conversation that the Republicans have “stolen God”. Maybe, I thought, but at least they haven't yet stolen Jesus.
While many on the righteously rigid religious right say they’ve “found” him, the story of Jesus too many have found is the one they’ve written themselves – the one in which a vengeful Jesus wields his cross as a sword and a shield. That’s not the Jesus I know, nor the one known by many Americans, irrespective of their political affiliations.
I personally know at least a dozen Republicans who voted against their party in the past several national elections in part because they recognize this. They recognize that their party has been hijacked by those who’ve taken scissors to their Bibles, and cut them so severely, that their version now begins with the Old Testament and ends with Revelations, with little resembling Jesus’ teachings left in between.
America in 2007 might be better understood not as a nation divided into red states and blue, but as a nation divided by two Christianities. While acknowledging and celebrating the presence of millions of Americans practicing religions other than Christianity, or practicing no religion at all, the simple fact remains that most Americans define themselves as Christian.
How terribly unfortunate it is for non-Christian Americans, and for the world, that the conflict between the two American Christianities will direct the events of the 21st century.
Americans who consider themselves Christian may be broadly and perhaps overly generalized as thinking about Jesus in one of two distinct ways.
For many, Jesus was a divine spirit who died for their personal sins. To accept him as your savior is to be saved, and the pursuit of one’s personal salvation is paramount to all other concerns. One’s personal and exclusive relationship with Jesus matters far more than his admonitions to care for the poor, the weak, and the oppressed.
But for a smaller number of Americans, Jesus is believed as a peasant revolutionary who lived by example, and died for grace and compassion. To model your behavior after his is to bring heaven closer to earth. To turn away from your fellow human beings is to turn away from his teachings, and from God. This is the Jesus I believe in.
Raised Christian but now identifying myself as Unitarian, I have long been struck by the smallness of Jesus – no, not small in any physical or inferior sense, but small in an unassuming sense; small enough to fit inside each one of us and yet be noticed by so few of us. The more magnificent our abundance, the more unnoticed he is.
The Jesus I believe in was born of the most humble beginnings and raised in poverty. Throughout his life, Jesus was concerned with the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed. He was the friend of sinners, of the undesirables, and of the outcasts. Ridiculed, scorned, betrayed, condemned and crucified, his life was defined by suffering.
The Jesus I believe in honored the victims, the sufferers, and the soul. In America today, we honor the victorious, the successful, and the body. Jesus glorified the dignity of all, whether he agreed with them or not. In America today, we largely shame the dignity of those we disagree with.
Jesus resisted all temptation toward spectacle. No dazzling, pyrotechnic displays of omnipotence from him! In fact, Jesus refused the temptation of coercive power, knowing respect and faith are garnered through patience and compassion, rather than compelled through fear. Using power and the promise of security to force obedience was the way of Herod, the Rome-installed “King of the Jews”.
Jesus instead preached the way of God, the way of nonviolence. He was quite explicit in his pacifism: “Love your enemy”, and “resist not evil”, he said. Jesus refused the temptation to destroy evil by force, preferring to destroy it by faith, and love.
To this Jesus, a nation that rains down destruction upon another people, and then waxes triumphant, could not possibly be becoming in God’s eyes. A leader who claims war as his providential mission is a leader whose Christianity, as well as that of his followers, needs to be born yet-again.
Blessed are the conquerors! Blessed are the strong! No, Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek”, and “Blessed are the peacemakers”.
The Jesus I believe in saw people not as citizens of nations, but of Mankind. Nations he considered inventions of men; no one truly favored over another by God. I wonder if Jesus would have considered it vainglorious to say “God Bless America”, as if America were divinely entitled – singled out for and deserving of special blessings, especially during wartime.