Monday, April 10, 2006

Christ Among the Partisans

Garry Wills writes a must-read op-ed about Christ and politics. It is an unsettling and brutal evaluation of the distance between the radical teachings of Jesus and the attempts to domesticate his message. Yes, Jesus was a Nietzschean before the fact. Some excerpts:

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.....

But doesn't Jesus say to care for the poor? Repeatedly and insistently, but what he says goes far beyond politics and is of a different order. He declares that only one test will determine who will come into his reign: whether one has treated the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the imprisoned as one would Jesus himself. "Whenever you did these things to the lowliest of my brothers, you were doing it to me" (Matthew 25:40). No government can propose that as its program. Theocracy itself never went so far, nor could it.

The state cannot indulge in self-sacrifice. If it is to treat the poor well, it must do so on grounds of justice, appealing to arguments that will convince people who are not followers of Jesus or of any other religion. The norms of justice will fall short of the demands of love that Jesus imposes. A Christian may adopt just political measures from his or her own motive of love, but that is not the argument that will define justice for state purposes.

To claim that the state's burden of justice, which falls short of the supreme test Jesus imposes, is actually what he wills — that would be to substitute some lesser and false religion for what Jesus brought from the Father. Of course, Christians who do not meet the lower standard of state justice to the poor will, a fortiori, fail to pass the higher test....

Some may think that removing Jesus from politics would mean removing morality from politics. They think we would all be better off if we took up the slogan "What would Jesus do?"

That is not a question his disciples ask in the Gospels. They never knew what Jesus was going to do next. He could round on Peter and call him "Satan." He could refuse to receive his mother when she asked to see him. He might tell his followers that they are unworthy of him if they do not hate their mother and their father. He might kill pigs by the hundreds. He might whip people out of church precincts.

The Jesus of the Gospels is not a great ethical teacher like Socrates, our leading humanitarian. He is an apocalyptic figure who steps outside the boundaries of normal morality to signal that the Father's judgment is breaking into history. His miracles were not acts of charity but eschatological signs — accepting the unclean, promising heavenly rewards, making last things first.

He is more a higher Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, than a higher Socrates. No politician is going to tell the lustful that they must pluck out their right eye. We cannot do what Jesus would do because we are not divine.

It was blasphemous to say, as the deputy under secretary of defense, Lt. Gen. William Boykin, repeatedly did, that God made George Bush president in 2000, when a majority of Americans did not vote for him. It would not remove the blasphemy for Democrats to imply that God wants Bush not to be president. Jesus should not be recruited as a campaign aide. To trivialize the mystery of Jesus is not to serve the Gospels.

The Gospels are scary, dark and demanding. It is not surprising that people want to tame them, dilute them, make them into generic encouragements to be loving and peaceful and fair. If that is all they are, then we may as well make Socrates our redeemer....

He was never that thing that all politicians wish to be esteemed — respectable... The institutional Jesus of the Republicans has no similarity to the Gospel figure. Neither will any institutional Jesus of the Democrats.

Amen, Garry, amen. Instrumentalizing Jesus is what so many regimes have done throughout the centuries, and every one of them is wrong in doing so. What I read above describes the vision of faith that I was raised in - something that challenged and disturbed the soul, something that was anything but triumphal. The radical interrogation of the heart and mind is precisely what politics cannot, must not, do. It must live on the surface and concern itself with mundane things, that which is of this world. The hubris that one knows the will of God, and can therefore dispense divine retribution upon others, is the fastest ticket to Hell I can imagine.

Read the whole thing.


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