Occasionally I am asked if I believe in Jesus. My standard answer to this is “as much as I believe in evolution,” which serves the dual purpose of both answering in the affirmative and usually annoying the person who asks the question. There is no doubt that Jesus lived; I have no doubt Jesus died, and did so with the belief he was doing so for the sins of the world. Whatever one feels about the divinity of Jesus, this is a staggering assumption of moral responsibility, in the face of which one must feel humbled. I’ve read the words of Jesus, to benefit from his wisdom and also to try to understand this most influential of men.
I also read his words to understand the actions of some of those who claim to be his followers, and who are, at the moment and alas, trying to jam a certain suspect iteration of “Christianity” down the throats of all the rest of us — “all the rest of us” being non-believers, believers in other faiths and those Christians whose understanding of the teaching of Jesus does not appear to require such militant intolerance as is being practiced by this evanescently powerful minority.
As far as I can tell, the primary source of power for this group lies not in the teachings of Jesus, since what they do has little to do with that, but the simple fact that they feel they own Jesus, and have been reasonably successful in propagating the idea that their particular perspective on his teachings is both predominant and correct, neither of which is necessarily true. Nevertheless, by implicitly and explicitly claiming ownership of Jesus, these folks have made any attack on their agenda or their practices an attack on Jesus, using Him as a flak guard for policies and practices that would, frankly, appall this shepherd of all men.
Well, of course, these people don’t own Jesus. He died for the sins of the whole world. Nor do they have a corner on the understanding of his words or his work. The Jesus I know and whose words I have read and striven to understand would not sign off on a much of the agenda of those who now parade Him around like a fetish, and in doing so have created this other Jesus, a vacuous, empty vessel for an uncharitable worldview.
But this implicitly asks a question: What would the Jesus I know do, confronted by this Fetish Jesus? Would he fight him? Argue with him? Denounce him? Engage in a mystical battle of miracles?
The answer is: None of the above, of course. The Jesus I know would do the hardest thing imaginable: He would forgive.
He would forgive this Jesus, who inspires His followers to persecute those they fear.
He would forgive this Jesus, who would demand His followers declare some people unfit to love, to care for children, to serve their nation, or to be full members of their society.
He would forgive this Jesus, who appears happy not only to let His followers be blind to the natural miracles around them — the subtle handiwork of God that took billions of years to achieve — but also to force their blindness on everyone, in His name.
He would forgive this Jesus, whose followers reflect His high opinion of His own righteousness without the appropriate reflection or doubt, and who aren’t shy about letting others know that fact.
He would forgive this Jesus the overweening pride He feels in saving His followers, and the pride His followers feel in being saved, a pride they believe sets them above all others, even though pride famously goes before the fall.
He would forgive this Jesus the idea that all of His flock must act, think, and vote a certain way at all times, without exception, or they are not one of His flock.
He would forgive this Jesus the small ways He tries, though His followers, to denigrate, isolate and diminish those who do not conform to His whims.
He would forgive this Jesus all large ways he tries, through His followers, to hurt, humiliate and destroy those who fight to keep their own point of view.
He would forgive this Jesus the fact that He has stood by while His followers have lost the view of the Kingdom of Heaven, in a drive to gain treasure in this world — even as the least among them suffered.
And finally, He would forgive this Christ the loss of His divine self that comes from allowing His name to devolve into a shibboleth for grasping opportunists, a bludgeon to cow those who are doubtful of the wisdom of His followers’ agenda, and a mask to hide unethical practices that have nothing to do with the Gospel and promises of the next world, and everything to do with mere, banal power in this one. He would forgive that this Jesus had diminished Their mutual name, the beauty of Their message, and the astonishing power of Their sacrifice, two millennia in the past, a sacrifice for all people, not just this small and frightened tribe who demands that they and only they know Jesus and what He wants.
What an act of forgiveness this would be! And what an act of forgiveness for the rest of us to attempt to emulate.
This is what I will try to do from now on. When someone confronts me with the proposition that their faith in Jesus demands intolerance, ignorance or fear, I will simply say “My Jesus forgives your Jesus these things.” And when they become indignant and retort that there is only one Jesus, I’ll probably say “you don’t say,” and let it hang there in the air a good long time. And when they come back at me with more intolerance, ignorance and fear, I’ll just remind them again that my Jesus forgives their Jesus these things.
At no point will I cede ownership of Jesus to these people, or the idea that the Jesus I know supports the intolerance, ignorance or fear they claim He does. They don’t own Jesus, and I strongly believe He doesn’t support their intolerance, ignorance or fear. And I think it’s perfectly reasonable to let these folks know this, in a way that explicitly undercuts the proposition that they hold the monopoly on understanding Jesus.
If you feel the same way, then you might consider doing the same thing. Proudly proclaim your relationship with Jesus, in whatever form that may take, and let everyone know the Jesus you know is not who they claim Him to be; He’s someone better. Reclaim Jesus for yourself. He’s not private property, His words aren’t copyrighted, and He’s not the exclusive trademark of religious conservatives. He’s yours if you want Him.
And when they get angry at you for doing it, the solution is simple: Forgive them. That’s what the Jesus I know would do.
(Like the “bumperstickers” with this entry? Here, have them — use them however you want. My gift to you.)