Jesus in America

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if Jesus had come to earth in our modern times rather than in ancient Judea. What if He walked across modern America as He did Israel? I think the reactions to Him would be just as bad, if not worse. We’d like to think in our modern times that we’re enlightened and above those silly ancient Jews who had Jesus murdered; but we too would end up killing Him.

When He first started teaching, He would teach the Beatitudes to modern people. The news would cover it, with commentators on Fox wondering if Jesus was attempting to subvert Capitalism. Glenn Beck would somehow link Jesus to Obama in a vast socialist conspiracy. Those over at MSNBC would blast Jesus for talking about “spiritual” goods and not addressing social ills. Rachel Maddow would rhetorically ask why Jesus was concerned about self-holiness rather than worrying about the oppressed. One side would accuse Him of being too much of a socialist, while the other would blast Him for not being socialist enough, for telling the poor to be content because their riches were in Heaven, rather than telling them to overthrow the Bourgeoisie.

Assuming churches somehow existed, He would walk into the most conservative churches and trash their bookstores and coffee shops. He’d ask why they hadn’t spent a dime on the poor. He’d ridicule them for their giant palaces to themselves. He would then walk into the dying mainline churches during a funeral and raise someone from the dead, at which point He’d be promptly ridiculed for performing an illusion (for we all know miracles can’t really exist) and for not seeking permission from the administrative board prior to performing such an illusion. He’d be too natural for the conservatives, too earthy for them to deal with. But He’d be too supernatural for the liberals, too Heavenly for them to take Him seriously.

Many social conservative Christians would show shock and revolt when Jesus chose to be around the homeless, the prostitutes, the homosexuals, the abject poor, and many others. The line would be crossed when He would go to dinner with a known homosexual and a known prostitute. But those who believe in “free-love” would applaud His actions, but quickly turn around and accuse Him of being part of the Capitalistic system when He went to visit Bernie Madoff in prison. They would be disgusted when He spent time with multiple banks CEOs and attended the dinner parties of the elite on Wall Street. To one group He would wreak of the poor while to another He would wreak of the rich.

Many preachers and theologians would accuse Him of preaching a “feel good” message, saying that the Kingdom of God is for sinners. They would say, “Yes, yes, for sinners and all, but only if they do x, y, and z. Only if they follow the rules.” But many pop psychologist would ardently disagree with the preachers and argue that Christ was too down on human nature, that He didn’t promote a message of self-esteem. The preachers would miss the point of grace, that it transforms us in a process, that we do not take steps towards grace, but that grace takes us over. The psychologists would miss the point that in reality, the low self-esteem of the human race is really just good common sense.

The NRA would hate Him for telling us to turn the other cheek. The Capitalists would hate Him for telling them to sell all their possessions and give them to the poor. The skeptics of metaphysics would mock Him for consistently speak of Heaven and Hell. The liberals would be scandalized by His insistence on personal responsibility. Jesus would be hated, ridiculed, mocked, and most likely eventually killed (though not by a government). He would be called a universalist by one side and a close-minded exclusivist by the other.

If you think you wouldn’t be part of the crowd mocking Him, then you either worship an idol of Christ or you think too highly of yourself. Were Jesus walking the earth today as He did 2,000 years ago, He would offend you in some way; if you don’t believe that, then either you are without sin or you have created an idol of Christ in your mind.

It seems that many of us think that He would offend other people more than He would offend us. We base this on the fact that when we read His words, we’re not that offended. This is either due to the fact that we’ve conformed completely to His image, or we’re misinterpreting what He said. Chances are, we haven’t conformed completely to His image. A disciple isn’t someone who finds the teachings of Jesus easy, a disciples is someone who recognizes they are hard teachings, but follows Him anyway because they know they can’t go anywhere else, and though difficult they accept His words because they know He is God (John 6:67-69).

I keep saying “if Jesus walked the earth,” but Jesus isn’t dead. The words He spoke still speak out to us. He is still alive and reigns from the right hand of His Father. His Spirit still stirs our souls, convicts us, and comforts us. Yet, we are like the Pharisees in John 6 when we come across a difficult saying of Christ and we debate, “Did He really mean this?” Certainly not everything Jesus said was meant literally, but there are always clues in the text as to whether or not He was being literal or not. When He says “truly, truly,” He’s not speaking in a metaphor. When He teaches on a consistent theme, He’s not using a metaphorical technique. Much of what we claim is figurative is probably something Jesus meant to be taken literally, but we refuse to do so because to do so would offend us greatly.

With that, we are left being no different than the Pharisees, attempting to explain away Christ. He have pacified Him, we have humanized Him, we have deified Him, but most ghastly of all, we have sanitized Him. Perhaps He is not sanitized for those we disagree with, but He is sanitized for us. The Marxist who just can’t give up the teachings of Christ suddenly sees Jesus as a revolutionary for the workers. Jesus is read as a pre-Marxist, someone arguing that the government should treat everyone equal in wages and property. Of course, Jesus never taught this. The Capitalist who just can’t give up the teachings of Jesus, sees that Jesus never said anything about moral obligations concerning companies or about the free-market system. Jesus is read as someone who teaches personal holiness and has no implicit opinion on the economy. Of course, Jesus had quite a few things to say about greed.

Jesus becomes a battering ram that we use to promote our viewpoint. We interpret Jesus to fit our cause rather than letting Jesus interpret us and changing us for His cause. And don’t let anyone fool you, such actions happen among liberals, conservatives, emergent, or anyone else. Everyone is guilty of it to some degree, but some more than others.

While we do need to interpret the words of Jesus, I would argue that it’s sometimes better to take those words literally unless it’s blatantly clear that it’s meant as a metaphor; that is, within the text and the tradition of interpretation, it’s been seen as metaphorical or at least as pointing to a bigger truth. Otherwise, we must prove that something is metaphorical. But if we take this approach and find a teaching unpalatable or difficult, this doesn’t give us reason to cast it aside, but instead to conform ourselves to that teaching.

Christ is alive, He did raise from the dead, and He has sent His Spirit to hover over the darkness of this earth, shedding light. We are not reading an ancient text that must be reinterpreted for our modern understanding, but instead we are reading a timeless text that allows us to interpret our modern culture. We must let the words of Jesus speak to us, even if we find them offensive, because those words are alive, more alive than we currently are, and in accepting those words we will find life.