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“Christ Among the Partisans”

As an undergraduate, I was drawn to Christianity because it’s so scary and weird and unfamiliar—unfamiliar to me, anyway. Sure, I had grown up with friends who went to church and a Baptist great grandmother, and I had the bare-bones version of the Jesus story residents of Western culture just kind of absorb, but I had never read the Gospels, and I had no idea of just how nutty they are.

Thanks to The Da Vinci Code, everybody’s all excited about non-canonical texts with their images of Mary Magdalene triumphant and the heroic Judas, but the stories that made it into the New Testament are just as strange and unnerving—if you actually read them, rather than simply listen to the heavily homogenized, white-bread holiday versions. This is why I have always been baffled by the What Would Jesus Do? movement: Jesus was not a nice kid, a clean-cut young man who did his homework, said “No” to drugs, and went to True Love Waits meetings. He sure as hell wasn’t interested in the “traditionalfamily. He was a rabble-rouser and a troublemaker and a generally freaky guy.

Jesus is not, Garry Wills argues in an op-ed piece from yesterday’s New York Times, the kind of guy you want to take out on the campaign trail. Not only does he make Howard Dean look like the very picture of calm, reasoned governance, but to add him to your ticket is to reject or ignore his mission and his words:

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.

Lord knows, I would like to see Democrats win some damn elections, and it drives me insane that Republicans have been able to own the concept of “values.” And, like a lot of Democrats, I would like to see my party get over its fear of religion. I agree with Wills, though, that drafting Jesus is not a winning strategy. It’s not just that I don’t believe that Democrats can sell such a move—although I don’t—it’s also that I think Jesus has no place in politics. Jesus deserves better than that.

April 10, 2006 | Permalink

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