Illustration by Winston Smith
Jesus has been appropriated by false prophets and infidels, and I want Him back. Other liberals talk about taking back the flag or wresting control of the country’s identity from the greedy little fists of the neocon state. I want to reclaim Jesus.
Not that I’m a Christian, exactly — at least no more than I’m a Jew or a Sufi or a Tantrist — which is to say that, in some ways, I’m a very good Christian: Like C.S. Lewis, I have no need to deny other faiths to bolster any of my own; like the titular hero in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, I have not failed to find the beauty in any religious doctrine I’ve paid more than a month’s attention to. I have reveled in the Talmud, memorized a little Sanskrit and thrown the I-Ching for guidance when my life was in shambles; I have come close to converting to Catholicism (1969), Judaism (1977 and 1999) and Sufism (2001). But I have also been saved (at 12), sung in a Lutheran church choir and memorized more hymns — because I just happen to like them — than some of my more devoutly raised peers. And I can say this with a straight face and without reservation: Christianity suits me.
I’m aware of how this sounds. “Jesus? You can have him,” spat a left-leaning journalist at a left-leaning fund-raiser when I confessed my wish, even while a man of the cloth standing behind him talked about his work at Planned Parenthood. Christianity has become so perversely associated with intolerance and small-mindedness that many freethinking Americans will do anything to avoid calling themselves Christians. So they call themselves “spiritual not religious,” or identify as Buddhists or Hindus or Taoists, never recognizing that the Taoist recipe for abating conflict — let evil consume itself — is precisely the same as what Jesus advises in Matthew 5:39, “Resist not evil: Whoever will smite you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” The Christian faith has been recklessly abused as a cover for imperialist ambitions ever since the newly Christianified Emperor Constantine gathered his bishops at Nicaea in 325 to decide exactly what the faith should mean. From that came the Nicene Creed (“I believe in One God, the Father, Almighty, maker of heaven and earth . . .”), the conviction that Jesus offered the only path to salvation, missionaries. But none of that was Jesus’ doing. Jesus preached tolerance, abhorred greed and rewarded humility. Jesus encouraged dissent. Opposed war. Believed a woman who washed His feet with her hair deserved more honor than the government official plying Him with food and drink. Jesus was not a patriot.
Nevertheless, we hear from people in high places these days that we are a “Christian” nation. Lieutenant General William “Jerry” Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, became briefly famous for declaring it so last October before an audience of the Oregon faithful, and sharing with another audience the superiority of Christianity over Islam: “I knew that my God was bigger than his,” Boykin said, referring to a Muslim warlord. “I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has implied that he has been summoned to do God’s will in the legislature. Meanwhile, the president, according to Stephen Mansfield in The Faith of George W. Bush, has been found down on the floor of his office, praying with a fervor that marks him as a bona fide born-again Methodist, as opposed to a fraud who converted during the Reagan era merely to capitalize on the electoral might of fundamentalists.
None of these people, however, refer much to anything Jesus actually said. In fact, they don’t seem to know what Jesus actually said. “Christ changed my heart,” says onetime presidential candidate Gary Bauer. “There is no king but Jesus,” declares John Ashcroft. “I’ve accepted Jesus as my personal savior,” says Bush. But no one ever says, “Well, you know, as Jesus Christ once said, ‘Whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.’” Or, “As it says in Matthew 6:2, ‘Don’t sound a trumpet when you give alms!’” Or, “In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, ‘Do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again, and your reward shall be great.’” In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s speechwriters had him coin the phrase “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” a rough paraphrase of something Jesus said in Matthew 12:30. But the ninth chapter of Mark has it different: “Whoever is not against us,” Jesus assures His disciples, “is for us.”
Even Herobuilders’ Talking Jesus Action Figure, made by the Vicale Corporation in Danbury, Connecticut, can’t bring itself to utter anything so Christ-like as “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Pull the string 10 times, and you instead get the Ten Commandments, each of which were conveyed by Moses.
After combing through the Congressional Record, transcripts of television interviews, and magazine articles on the Bush administration and its faith-based politics, I’ve come to suspect that the Bush administration and its allies in the legislature have no real interest in Jesus. They’re quite happy to have fashioned a whole religion out of political expediency, and called it Christianity for the name recognition. They don’t quote the Bible because the words of Jesus are not useful to them.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1785, James Madison, future father of the Constitution and fourth president, wrote to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia to demand that it abandon its plans to collect a tax from its citizens on behalf of its Christian leaders. Such a tax, Madison wrote, would not only inhibit liberty in the new union; it would constitute “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” The Virginians had somehow established that “Christian knowledge hath a natural tendency to correct the morals of men” (a view upheld by neither anecdotal nor statistical studies), and therefore government-funding for Christian teachers would strengthen the new society. Madison thought otherwise, not because he foresaw the day when that significantly noncustodial parent Michael Newdow would sue to strike “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. Madison wrote as a recovering Anglican who had witnessed the persecution of Baptists in Culpeper County and knew what could happen to a faith when it was used for political effect. “Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest luster,” he demanded of the Virginians. “Those of every sect point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy.”
Back in Madison’s day, the people who called themselves evangelicals — heretical by Virginian standards — stood with him. Not anymore: On June 21, the National Association of Evangelicals published a draft of a document called “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” a selective reinterpretation of Old and New Testaments advocating political action among Christians. “Jesus calls us as His followers to love our neighbors as ourselves,” it says. “Our goal in civic engagement is to bless our neighbors by making good laws.” Though the document makes a noble effort to kindle compassion for the poor and concern for world peace in the evangelical community, and takes pains to re-associate Christian values with aid to the poor and sensitivity to the environment, it also calls upon Christians to “work for laws that protect and foster family life, and against government attempts to interfere with the integrity of the family.
“We also,” the paper confirms, “oppose innovations such as same-sex ‘marriage.’”
As usual, there is no word from Jesus to support this notion. There can’t be, because no version of Jesus, be it the “radical egalitarian” who emerges from Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography or the mystic described in The Gospel of Thomas, said anything about what constitutes a marriage. According to Crossan, Jesus was an itinerant Mediterranean peasant who considered the family an instrument of oppression, a microcosm of political hierarchy, and he sought to destroy it. (“From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three,” he foretold in Luke 12:52.) The real Jesus is frightening, revolutionary, inimical to the economic doctrines upon which we base our lives. Churches, which as Emerson observed, “are not built on His principles, but on His tropes,” are wise to have little to do with Him. Governments should have even less. And the less churches and governments have to do with each other, the better for Jesus’ reputation.
But if presidents and legislators can’t be persuaded to see Jesus this way and give Him up altogether, then perhaps they can at least start taking the words he allegedly handed down in the Gospels a little more seriously. DeLay, for instance, might be compelled to examine his desire to further slash welfare according to Mark 10:21, “Give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven.” Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback could rise up and shout, “Woe unto you who are rich!” And ultra-pious Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma would respond wisely to Bush’s assertion that the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were the actions of a “few bad apples” with the Lord’s words from Matthew 7:18: “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit.”
It’s not so far-fetched, when you think about it — I mean, it’s not as if Jesus is rigorously kept out of the congressional debate. A search of the Congressional Record reveals that Jesus Christ was invoked 57 times in the House and Senate in the last year, mostly by Republicans, and mostly in prayer and in passing. Curiously, though, while Republicans seem to have a lock on Christian values, only Democrats seem to have the stomach to recite Bible verses, and their most God-fearing colleagues do not like it when they do. President Jimmy Carter told Playboy’s Barry Golson and Robert Scheer in 1976 that “Christ said, ‘I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery,’” and subsequently admitted that he himself had “looked on a lot of women with lust,” which doesn’t make him better, in Christ’s estimation, than all the men who have left their wives and “screwed” slews of women. The remark earned him nothing but the scorn of the Jesusfolk.
Democratic Senator Mark Dayton of Minnesota recently told his colleagues, “I have recently re-read the four Gospels, and I cannot find anywhere that Jesus Christ condemns homosexual relationships or gay marriages.” Still, marriage surfaces on the most progressive treatise of the evangelical nation.
For Christ’s sake and ours, it’s probably altogether better if we agree to keep Him out of our political lives. As Jesus himself said, according to Matthew 22:21, as the Pharisees connived to corner Him into betraying some political ambition, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” (After that, they left Him alone.) But if we have to be inculcated daily in the Puritan notion that Americans hold human life in higher esteem than the barbarian nations, that we stand for justice and mercy (and the humane treatment of prisoners) because we are a Christian nation, then we should hold our nation-builders to His word: As you judge, so shall you be judged.