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Stealing Jesus

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A close friend recently lamented in conversation that the Republicans have "stolen God". Maybe, I said, but at least they haven't stolen Jesus.

While many on the political right say they've "found" him, the story of the Jesus they've found is the one they've largely 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.

I personally know many on the right who 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 2006 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 perhaps be overly generalized as thinking about Jesus in one of two distinct ways, or perhaps both. For some 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.

For others Jesus is understood 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 understand.

The Jesus I understand 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 understand 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, cannot 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 understand would consider it vainglorious to say "God Bless America", as if America were divinely entitled - singled out for and deserving of special blessings, especially during wartime. Somehow I cannot imagine God up there in the cosmic bleachers as war plays out down here on earth. Look! There's God! He's cheering for us! He's waving our flag!

The Jesus I understand was impartial, even to a fault. If he showed favor, it was towards the weakest and most humble members of humanity. This country once welcomed such people, as evidenced by Emma Lazarus' eloquent invitation to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, and the homeless inscribed at the base of our Statue of Liberty. Now these are the people our nation has forsaken.

If the political left is to win this 21st century conflict, we cannot let anyone steal the Jesus we know. It's up to us to insistently restate and defend the true Christian principles - Jesus' principles - of justice, humility, grace, and compassion.

It's up to us to walk with the poor, the sinners, and the undesirables.

It's up to us to call national attention to the gulf between what Christians and anyone else awed by Jesus's teachings are called by Jesus to do - be peacemakers, lift up the hungry and impoverished - and the unjust, war-mongering, wealth-favoring policies of our self-proclaimed "born-again Christian" political leaders.

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Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and publications throughout the Pacific Northwest.
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