Which Jesus Do You Follow?

Apr 8 2012 @ 3:12pm

The_Last_Supper_Spools

David Sessions offers a thoughtful reply to my essay. It deserves to be read in full, but here are a couple paragraphs to grapple with:

Andrew describes Jesus’ ideas as "truly radical," for example, "love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth." His project is to convince us that these "radical" ideas are also "apolitical," that when salvaged from the tangle of theological and political movements that have distorted them, they are something pure, spiritual and otherworldly. Like a good liberal individualist, he reads all of these virtues as a kind of private interior experience, something I’m not sure Jesus ever intended them to mean.

Jesus’ ideas are not anti-worldly in the sense that they help guard ones inner peace against the chaos of the Internet, but in the sense that they challenge the way most human societies work. This is certainly why Jesus was executed, and why the spread of Christianity was met with bloody resistance: he claimed to have a kingdom, threatened to "destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days," and preached a kind of forgiveness and self-sacrifice that upended and undermined established Jewish law. It is almost impossible to imagine Jesus "without politics," as Andrew would have him, or that practicing his "pure" ideas would be anything less than an affront to an established political order—as they are invariably perceived wherever they manifest themselves.

So the pure, radical Jesus does not seem to be the one Andrew is really recommending. I would argue that there is another Jesus in the picture who is as much a modern political construction as the god of Rick Santorum. He goes without a name in Andrew’s essay, much like he does in America’s founding documents. Most often when Andrew is describing "good" Christianity, his Jesus seems to dovetail with pragmatic moderate-liberal politics. He wants Christians to be "faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one." It is immensely revelatory that he opens with an admiring retelling of Thomas Jefferson’s cutting out the "good parts" of the New Testament—leaving only the words of Jesus that amount to, in Jefferson’s words, a "benevolent code of morals." I would argue that it’s this Jesus, not the historical, radical one that Andrew is most interested in.

I wish I understood David's argument better, but we're both reduced to making arguments about vast subjects in short essays and posts. But I disagree on a couple of core points. David writes:

Jesus’ ideas are not anti-worldly in the sense that they help guard one’s inner peace against the chaos of the Internet, but in the sense that they challenge the way most human societies work. This is certainly why Jesus was executed, and why the spread of Christianity was met with bloody resistance: he claimed to have a kingdom, threatened to “destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days,” and preached a kind of forgiveness and self-sacrifice that upended and undermined established Jewish law. It is almost impossible to imagine Jesus “without politics,” as Andrew would have him, or that practicing his “pure” ideas would be anything less than an affront to an established political order—as they are invariably perceived wherever they manifest themselves.

I don't buy this. The Romans executed Jesus reluctantly in the Gospel account, and the Gospels tell us they did not regard him as a political threat. Moreover, his injunction to give to Caesar what is his, and to God what is God's under imperial rule couldn't be less political. It shocked his contemporaries that he was indifferent to the distinction between colonist and colonized. He even made a point of hanging out with the empire's most reviled apparatchiks, the tax-collectors; and declared the faith of a Roman centurion as remarkable. He was executed at the behest of the Jewish authorities who rightly regarded Jesus as a threat to their faith. What Jesus did at the last Seder meal was blasphemous enough. Pope Benedict is right that the political actor before Pilate was not Jesus but Barabbas – and it was Barabbas who was freed.

Lastly, of course the ideas underpinning modern liberal democracy have Christian roots. But they also have very anti-Christian ones as well. Machiavelli pioneered a politics divorced from morality and metaphysics. Locke insisted that Christianity required liberalism because only in such a state could religion be genuinely held without coercion. And my view is that our political crisis is due to the re-emergence of metaphysical claims in the political space. The direction I'm pointing in is away from that space toward, yes, an interior faith but also a practice of Christianity in the social/civil sphere: helping the poor, tending to the sick, visiting prisoners, abandoning materialist motives.

Is there tension here? You bet there is. But my liberalism has no metaphysical foundations, just conservative ones. A few societies in history have been lucky enough for all sorts of reasons to have devised liberal polities over the centuries. Life for most of us is more comfortable, less fearful and remarkably stable in this order, compared with theocracies or totalitarianisms. That's all I need to defend it. And although it failed in late nineteenth century Germany does not mean that it has failed in America or England or France.

Some think this requires a tame form of religion. I actually think Jesus' radicalism is in his anti-political insistence on a kingdom not of this world. Politicians coopt this at their peril. They know not what they do.

(Image by Devorah Sperber)