Q1 ’06: Christ Among the Partisans
Religion and politics are the most toxic of mixtures, having brought the world countless abominations such as the Inquisition, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and now global Islamic terrorism. Throughout history, more blood has been shed in the name of God than for all other causes combined.
As we approach election season ’06 and start warming up for the ’08 presidential marathon, the religious left is gearing up a campaign to claim Jesus as a leftie and counter the long running dominance of the religious right in political discourse. This will only further inflame partisan passions and widen the partisan divide in America. The so-called religious right has done a pretty good job of discrediting itself. We don’t really need an equally deranged religious left. What we need in our national debate is more wisdom and less spin, religious or otherwise.
Garry Wills, professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University and the author, most recently of “What Jesus Meant,” has penned a truly wise commentary on the partisan battle for Jesus. In recent years we have heard endless obsequious references to the “faith” of this or that person. Politicians and the press have been bending over to show their politically correct respect for all expressions of “faith” in the political arena. What no-one has been willing to say publicly until now is that this political activity in the name of religion is a betrayal of the fundamental purpose of religion. Wills concerns himself with solely with Jesus and Christian scripture, but the core impulse of all religions is one and the same, and the essence of Wills’ comments are applicable to all religions.
Following is the text of Wills’ essay, published on April 7th in the New York Times. As a public service I make this offering to political and religious integrity as my Q1 commentary. I hope that it finds wide distribution.
THERE is no such thing as a “Christian politics.” If it is a politics, it cannot be Christian. Jesus told Pilate: “My reign is not of this present order. If my reign were of this present order, my supporters would have fought against my being turned over to the Jews. But my reign is not here” (John 18:36). Jesus brought no political message or program.
This is a truth that needs emphasis at a time when some Democrats, fearing that the Republicans have advanced over them by the use of religion, want to respond with a claim that Jesus is really on their side. He is not. He avoided those who would trap him into taking sides for or against the Roman occupation of Judea. He paid his taxes to the occupying power but said only, “Let Caesar have what belongs to him, and God have what belongs to him” (Matthew 22:21). He was the original proponent of a separation of church and state.
Those who want the state to engage in public worship, or even to have prayer in schools, are defying his injunction: “When you pray, be not like the pretenders, who prefer to pray in the synagogues and in the public square, in the sight of others. In truth I tell you, that is all the profit they will have. But you, when you pray, go into your inner chamber and, locking the door, pray there in hiding to your Father, and your Father who sees you in hiding will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6). He shocked people by his repeated violation of the external holiness code of his time, emphasizing that his religion was an internal matter of the heart.
But doesn’t Jesus say to care for the poor? Repeatedly and insistently, but what he says goes far beyond politics and is of a different order. He declares that only one test will determine who will come into his reign: whether one has treated the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the imprisoned as one would Jesus himself. “Whenever you did these things to the lowliest of my brothers, you were doing it to me” (Matthew 25:40). No government can propose that as its program. Theocracy itself never went so far, nor could it.
The state cannot indulge in self-sacrifice. If it is to treat the poor well, it must do so on grounds of justice, appealing to arguments that will convince people who are not followers of Jesus or of any other religion. The norms of justice will fall short of the demands of love that Jesus imposes. A Christian may adopt just political measures from his or her own motive of love, but that is not the argument that will define justice for state purposes.
To claim that the state’s burden of justice, which falls short of the supreme test Jesus imposes, is actually what he wills — that would be to substitute some lesser and false religion for what Jesus brought from the Father. Of course, Christians who do not meet the lower standard of state justice to the poor will, a fortiori, fail to pass the higher test.
The Romans did not believe Jesus when he said he had no political ambitions. That is why the soldiers mocked him as a failed king, giving him a robe and scepter and bowing in fake obedience (John 19:1-3). Those who today say that they are creating or following a “Christian politics” continue the work of those soldiers, disregarding the words of Jesus that his reign is not of this order.
Some people want to display and honor the Ten Commandments as a political commitment enjoined by the religion of Jesus. That very act is a violation of the First and Second Commandments. By erecting a false religion — imposing a reign of Jesus in this order — they are worshiping a false god. They commit idolatry. They also take the Lord’s name in vain.
Some may think that removing Jesus from politics would mean removing morality from politics. They think we would all be better off if we took up the slogan “What would Jesus do?”
That is not a question his disciples ask in the Gospels. They never knew what Jesus was going to do next. He could round on Peter and call him “Satan.” He could refuse to receive his mother when she asked to see him. He might tell his followers that they are unworthy of him if they do not hate their mother and their father. He might kill pigs by the hundreds. He might whip people out of church precincts.
The Jesus of the Gospels is not a great ethical teacher like Socrates, our leading humanitarian. He is an apocalyptic figure who steps outside the boundaries of normal morality to signal that the Father’s judgment is breaking into history. His miracles were not acts of charity but eschatological signs — accepting the unclean, promising heavenly rewards, making last things first.
He is more a higher Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, than a higher Socrates. No politician is going to tell the lustful that they must pluck out their right eye. We cannot do what Jesus would do because we are not divine.
It was blasphemous to say, as the deputy under secretary of defense, Lt. Gen. William Boykin, repeatedly did, that God made George Bush president in 2000, when a majority of Americans did not vote for him. It would not remove the blasphemy for Democrats to imply that God wants Bush not to be president. Jesus should not be recruited as a campaign aide. To trivialize the mystery of Jesus is not to serve the Gospels.
The Gospels are scary, dark and demanding. It is not surprising that people want to tame them, dilute them, make them into generic encouragements to be loving and peaceful and fair. If that is all they are, then we may as well make Socrates our redeemer.
It is true that the tamed Gospels can be put to humanitarian purposes, and religious institutions have long done this, in defiance of what Jesus said in the Gospels.
Jesus was the victim of every institutional authority in his life and death. He said: “Do not be called Rabbi, since you have only one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, the one in heaven. And do not be called leaders, since you have only one leader, the Messiah” (Matthew 23:8-10).
If Democrats want to fight Republicans for the support of an institutional Jesus, they will have to give up the person who said those words. They will have to turn away from what Flannery O’Connor described as “the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus” and “a wild ragged figure” who flits “from tree to tree in the back” of the mind.
He was never that thing that all politicians wish to be esteemed — respectable. At various times in the Gospels, Jesus is called a devil, the devil’s agent, irreligious, unclean, a mocker of Jewish law, a drunkard, a glutton, a promoter of immorality.
The institutional Jesus of the Republicans has no similarity to the Gospel figure. Neither will any institutional Jesus of the Democrats.