Published on Friday, December 26, 2003 by CommonDreams.org
Pick Your Favorite Jesus
by Ira Chernus
Who was this fellow Jesus, born, so they say, on December 25th? Christians have been disagreeing about it for nearly two thousand years. Here are just a few of the leading contenders:
A supernatural son of God in human form, offering immortality to everyone.
A truly human being filled with divinity, sent by God to pay off our debt of sin.
A wise teacher who never claimed to be divine, but was deified by his followers.
The head of a spiritual army committed to destroying every evildoer.
History's greatest example of perfect love for others.
The first nonviolent revolutionary, teaching us how to use love as a political tool to overthrow the system.
Christians even disagree about Jesus' skin color. They have depicted him in every color imaginable (though it's a safe bet he was as brown as your average Palestinian or Oriental Jew).
Jesus is the great Rorschach inkblot of Western civilization. Look at him and tell me what you see. Your answer won't tell me any objective truth about who Jesus really was. It will tell me a lot about who you are.
It's no different in any other religion. Every religion is really a big debating society, an endless struggle to control the meaning of crucial symbols.
But the Christian debate about Jesus has special importance for all of us here in the United States, even if we are not Christian. The Christians have tremendous influence in our political life. Across the political spectrum, they consult their own Jesus when they form their political views. How could they not? A Christian's Jesus is the embodiment of his or her deepest values.
It gets more complicated when they publicly invoke their various Jesuses to justify their political positions. When they argue that our government should do this or that because Jesus was this or that, they breach the wall between church and state. To keep that wall high and strong, we should base our political arguments only on logic, not on our favorite religious images.
When Jesus does enter the political arena, the result may not be so bad, if you are a progressive. Much of Christian politics is liberal or even leftist. Before the Iraq war, most Christian groups said very publicly that their Jesus would not send troops to attack Iraq. Some of them said that their Jesus taught them war is never the answer, no matter how dangerous the problem. Of course, some Christians think Jesus is smiling down on the U.S. troops who use guns to bring freedom to Iraq.
No matter what positions Christians take, though, bringing Jesus into the public arena has the same effect: it makes him an important public figure for all of us. Whether or not we are Christian, our lives are directly influenced by the prevailing image of Jesus. We all have a stake in who Jesus is today. So we all have the right to get involved in the debate. Perhaps we even have the obligation. It's part of being a good citizen. Good citizens get involved in every debate that affects communal life. The debate about Jesus is a big one.
If you haven't entered this arena yet, it's high time that you pick your favorite Jesus. Then get out there and start lobbying for him.
As every good lobbyist knows, the first step is to get your facts straight. Everyone can invent their own Jesus because there are no definite facts about his life. Even expert historians of religion ultimately shape the data to fit their preferences. But some versions of Jesus are more plausible than others. So get yourself well educated about the facts that support your favorite Jesus. Then go out and campaign for him.
You can do the same for the Maccabees, the heroes of the war commemorated in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Jews have a big debate going about them, too. Some say they were the first Zionist soldiers, fighting to secure a Jewish homeland against anti-semites. One Jew I know recently praised them because they were right-wing extremists, war-mongers who supported an uncompromising violent nationalism. But another praised them as an indigenous band of committed and idealistic freedom fighters who defeated a mighty and oppressive empire.
Were the Maccabees moderate nationalists, ultra-right religious zealots, or radical freedom fighters akin to today's Palestinians? You can take your pick. And you should. The story of Hanukkah always gets tangled up with people's views of Israel and the Middle East conflict, which costs U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars every year and plenty of worry about where our troops might take their guns next. So even if you aren't Jewish, you have the right, and perhaps the obligation, to lobby for your favorite Maccabees too.
I bet your particular Jesus and your particular Maccabees would get along together just fine. Religion just seems to work that way.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. email@example.com