A close friend recently lamented in conversation that the Republicans have “stolen God”. Maybe, I said, but at least we still have Jesus.
While many on the righteously religious right say they’ve “found” him, the story of the Jesus they’ve 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 last November’s 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 2005 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 can be 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.
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, 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 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 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 their 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 believe in is impartial, even to a fault. If he shows favor, it is only 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 Christian 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 are called 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.
It’s up to us to refute the myth widely-held amongst the powerful and wealthy that power and wealth are somehow a mark of having established a personal relationship with Jesus, and that poverty and suffering are punishment for having not. To believe in this manner simply dishonors the teachings of Jesus, who chose a life of poverty, and gave his life for grace and compassion.
It’s up to us to insistently call attention to the planks Jesus would see in our national eye: our growing numbers of homeless and impoverished, our increasingly ill-fed and ill-educated schoolchildren, our evermore neglected disabled veterans and chronically ill.
It’s up to us to finger those on the righteously religious right as hypocrites for abusing the name of Jesus to promote their personal bigotries, hatreds, and revelational fantasies. It’s up to us to finger them as hypocrites for claiming to follow the Prince of Peace by serving the God of War.
It’s up to the Christian Left to talk more, much more, about spirituality and about Jesus. Protecting separation of Church and State does not require that religion be banished from public discourse. If it’s true what my friend said, that the righteously religious Republicans have stolen God, then by continuing to let them control the religious conversation we'll soon let them succeed at stealing Jesus, too.
Todd Huffman, MD is a pediatrician living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular political columnist for numerous publications.