"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."
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
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
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
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.
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