by Teresa Whitehurst by Teresa Whitehurst
Rev. Jerry Falwell is worried that Christmas isn’t in the public square, when the real problem is that it isn’t in our hearts: American Christians increasingly see the babe in the manger as sweet but irrelevant when it comes to the way we treat others at home and abroad.
Many Christians today see Jesus as their ticket to heaven, and little more. When it comes to political philosophy, they much prefer the wrathful, violent images of God that are found in selected verses from other parts of the Bible.
But in all fairness, some who go along with mean-spirited campaigns are privately uneasy with the changes they’re seeing in their faith, from their own pulpits and from the White House itself, but fear the backlash if they speak out.
And they’re right to worry. Many Christians from conservative churches have written to me, to describe that backlash they’ve had to endure from churchgoers and family members whenever they’ve dared to stand up for Jesus’ teachings…particularly those that are inconvenient to certain political agendas.
Different Quotes for Different Folks: Biblical Ammo
For leaders of the radical religious right and its representatives in the Bush administration, the Bible isn’t so much a spiritual guide as an ammunition storehouse. Verses are handpicked from here and there (carefully ignoring those scriptures that might get in the way of their own “godly” image and political ambitions) to justify whatever they want to do.
And since there are commands in various parts of the Bible to do terrible things that Jesus never condoned – like stoning your rebellious children to death, or stoning gay people, or killing everyone in an enemy’s village except the young virginal girls…well clearly, there’s something for everyone, no matter how cruel, no matter how vile.
Favorite books of the Bible for the majority of Christians who’ve gotten swept up by the seductive words of racist, pro-war, gay-persecuting, woman-silencing and child-beating proponents include: Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Proverbs, Romans, Thessalonians, and Revelations.
Non-favorites of the majority that are quoted less often and very selectively, because they’re filled with teachings of nonviolence, respect for those who are different, love of neighbor and enemy alike, true humility and liberal compassion, are: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
So how did Jesus get demoted, and why? A reading of the gospels will make that quickly apparent. The Sermon on the Mount alone presents tremendous difficulties for those who would use the Bible to enforce their personal prejudices, take from the poor to give to the rich, or justify pre-emptive wars.
Jesus was a troublemaker in his day and in ours because he stood up for those who were reviled and persecuted by religious authorities under the banner of faith. He taught people to see God as a compassionate, accepting parent to love, not as an angry, violent, punitive authority figure to fear.
How Jesus Got Demoted by the Religious Right
Leaders of the decidedly nonconservative “conservative” right avoid focusing on what Jesus actually said; his teachings would prohibit their campaign to forcibly remake others – Christian and nonChristian alike – into their own image.
But they can’t just come out and say “don’t pay any attention to Jesus’ teachings” because this would alarm the majority of Christians. So rightwing religious leaders are doing what tyrants aiming to divide and conquer Christians have always done:
(1) They distract us away from Jesus’ teachings and commands by focusing exclusively on his birth, death, and ticket-to-salvation role,
(2) They claim to be biblical literalists, “Bible-believing Christians” to pre-empt criticism, yet blatantly pick and choose only those verses that serve their purposes, and
(3) They refer constantly to “God” rather than “Jesus," a potent subliminal strategy that convinces Christians to focus on a violent disciplinarian God rather than a gently shepherding Jesus. By instilling the terror of God’s punishment instead of the love of Jesus’ guidance, rightwing Christian leaders have convinced American Christians that the wrathful, violent God portrayed in pre-Christian times is the one they'd better obey, while they need only to believe in Jesus (easy), not obey him (difficult).
In these ways, Jesus has been demoted in the current strain of “conservative” Christianity. Such Christians deny this of course, exclaiming that they do obey Jesus’ teachings – in their hearts. They’ll say that Jesus never expected us to actually implement those teachings, that they were more or less spiritual insights: We can persecute and kill, so long as we do it with a pure heart.
Leaders of the radical right give all manner of creative reasons for disobeying Jesus’ teachings. This is especially apparent when they pick and choose scriptures that condone sexism, oppression, war, slavery, domestic violence and the domination of others.
Most damaging of all to our faith – and to Christians everywhere, in the long run – rightwing leaders are inserting the word “Jesus” into their ugliest campaigns in the US and around the world.
“Let’s get Jesus back” Bill Moyers
Contrary to George W. Bush’s view of Jesus, in a comment that brings to mind the phrase, “damning with faint praise," Jesus was not a “political philosopher." Jesus is, for believing Christians, the Messiah, in case we’ve forgotten. For Christians, Jesus isn’t just another philosopher to read and discuss and put back on the shelf.
Christianity in America has been infected with an insidious virus that’s eating away at the very cornerstone of our faith. If you listen carefully to the words of radical rightwing Christian leaders, you’ll detect a subconscious disrespect for Jesus and something akin to atheism regarding his divinity: Were Jesus truly believed to be divine, his teachings would be granted the same respect and obedience as those of the wrathful God taught in other parts of the Bible.
If “conservative” Christian leaders really believed that Christians must give top priority to Jesus’ teachings, they wouldn’t dare urge us to endorse contradictory attitudes and behaviors. But they do, and it’s time we called them on it. There comes a time, particularly when pre-emptive wars are waged in Jesus’ name, when silence is betrayal.
Christians who take seriously the Sermon on the Mount may not be in The Moral Majority, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong: It means we’re The Christian Minority, following Jesus at a time when many Christians are following men.
This Christmas, let us celebrate the passions of the Christ – the teachings he gave to a troubled world – and honor him by bringing him back into Christmas, and into Christianity, too. Jesus called for a revolution of the heart and the soul. Let it begin with us.
“For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Jesus
Dr. Teresa Whitehurst [send her mail] is a clinical psychologist and the author of Jesus on Parenting: 10 Essential Principles That Will Transform Your Family (2004). She offers parenting workshops and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values." Visit her website.