Los Angeles Times
April 26, 2005
What would Jesus filibuster? The question is bizarre, of course, but the fact that many prominent religious and political leaders believe that there is an answer surely marks our time as pretty strange.
How quickly it has all happened — that the media, particularly television, has convinced itself that Christianity is little more than a Republican political action committee. When the pope died, CNN's Wolf Blitzer introduced former Clinton aide Paul Begala and right-wing pundit Robert Novak this way: "Bob is a good Catholic; I'm not so sure about Paul Begala." At the bottom of the screen, CNN ran an informative factoid for the audience: "Many Catholic doctrines are conservative."
Broadcast media prefer to cast Christianity in the role of "right-wing values PAC" because it's so neat and tidy. They don't much like even to say the name Jesus on air because then we might have to talk about his ideas. "Evangelical Christianity" is much simpler because you can treat it as just another special-interest group, like the Teamsters or the neocons.
Leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson have used the media to redefine Christianity as the "Republican base" — all between commercials hawking family-values videotapes or pleading for more contributions.
Gosh, WWJD? It makes me wax nostalgic for the days when people wore those bracelets and asked the question, "What would Jesus do?" At least people said his name then and pondered his ideas, using the question as the beginning of an engaged moral debate. Few would have appreciated those bracelets as much as the man himself — Jesus, who preached a new way of thinking about religion. Instead of taking orders from temple chieftains, Jesus provoked his followers into thinking for themselves. His preferred media outlet? A literary genre called the parable. It's a style of Q&A wherein the teacher doesn't give the answer but challenges the listener with a half-finished story that forces him to think through to the answer by himself. The radical right has swapped out this genius preacher for some easy listening. They insist that everything will be fine if we just nail the Ten Commandments above every courthouse.
Curious. Jesus updated the Ten Commandments in his most famous speech, the Sermon on the Mount. In it, one finds the Eight Beatitudes. Why don't we ever hear about nailing those somewhere? Here's why: It's not simply the law in the Ten Commandments that attracts fundamentalists. Rather, it's the syntax. The authoritarianism of so many "Thou Shalt Nots."
The syntax of Jesus' Eight Beatitudes is not so easy (Blessed are the poor in spirit . Blessed are the peacemakers). These words invite the kind of hard questions that Jesus loved to tweak his followers with. How are they blessed? And why? It's just like Jesus to leave us with questions instead of answers.
The Jesus who speaks in the Gospels is nothing like the fuming Republican Jesus I see on TV now. Jesus was a leader who understood that ambiguity and doubt are not to be feared but are, simply, facts of life that a great teacher exploits to guide his followers on their own paths toward conviction and belief.
Here is a quote from Jesus that you almost never hear: "What do you think?" It's right there in the Bible. Jesus asks this question all the time.
One parable Jesus taught was this one, from Matthew: "What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' And he answered, 'I will not,' but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, 'I go, sir,' but did not go." Jesus' disciples all strenuously raised their hands. They knew the answer! The first son was the most virtuous!
Whereupon Jesus (whose sense of humor is underrated) replied: "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you."
What does that parable mean? Frankly, I am not sure. I have my own thoughts, but they all feel tentative, and I can only hope I'm right. Jesus doesn't accuse his disciples of being wrong; he just mocks the easiness of their quick answer.
Taken as a whole, it's not a parable with a clear and right answer. None of them are, and that is the point. You have to sort of toss it around in your head, think about people you've dealt with who've said one thing and done another, and then try to come to some answer. Chances are that few will agree in their interpretations, an outcome that is rhetorically so sly. Jesus makes you work through your own doubt and hesitation to arrive at an answer that becomes the very foundation of your own certainty.
This guy's good, isn't he?
But that Jesus is nowhere to be found on our televisions or in our newsweeklies. Ironically, mass-market Christians rarely cite or emphasize the living Jesus, the Jesus who speaks. They like their Christ dead. Or nearly dead, as in Mel Gibson's movie. In that film, the entire Sermon on the Mount — the most important words Jesus spoke — is relegated to a few seconds of flashback.
Yet the living Jesus always finds a way of getting past the money-changers, doesn't he? Every generation produces a Jesus to suit its own purposes. How fitting that in the Age of Information our broadcasters have marketed a Jesus so narrowly defined that he resembles little more than a lobbyist loitering outside Tom DeLay's office hoping for a few minutes of the great man's time.
But these people always underestimate the actual words that Jesus spoke. They are right there in the Gospels for those willing to hear Jesus, rather than rely upon videotape salesmen to re-interpret him as a furious political hack. The living Jesus will come again. It's the other meaning of being reborn.