Probably no other historical figure has collected as many titles as the holy child of Bethlehem. Pacifist, holy crusader, enlightenment philosopher, Marxist revolutionary–all have been applied to Jesus. The signs are abundant this season that his essential teachings are again being dragooned by the politics of the moment.
For many conservatives, Jesus is the great moralist. His campaign against sin inspires, among other things, the public display of the Ten Commandments and fuels opposition to gay marriage. (One evangelical leader has called the Federal Marriage Amendment “our Gettysburg.”) Hollywood remains an abomination unto the Lord: If Christian radio is any guide, Jesus must think that ABC’s Desperate Housewives is the next great threat to Western civilization.
Liberals believe in a more socially minded messiah. He wants more government spending on social-welfare programs and supports the minimum wage. In the war against terrorism, their Jesus blanches at talk about good and evil. Indeed, he sympathizes with the grievances of Islamic radicals, though reserves special scorn for superpower hubris. “The price that Americans are going to have to pay for the kind of arrogance that we are operating out of right now is going to be terrible indeed,” predicts Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwaus. “And I think we will well deserve it.”
We’ve heard these judgments before, during a season of similar upheaval. Delegates to the Baptist World Alliance, for example, returned from a 1934 meeting in Berlin impressed with the new German fuehrer. As the Alliance noted: “It is reported that Chancellor Adolf Hitler gives to the temperance movement the prestige of his personal example, since he neither uses intoxicants nor smokes.” A year earlier Hitler had burned down the Reichstag, declared a one-party state and begun excluding Jews from government and public life. Yet a Boston pastor praised the Nazis for enforcing public morality. “It was a great relief,” he said, “to be in a country where salacious sex literature cannot be sold.”
The Jesus of more liberal imagination, however, proved equally myopic. He was too obsessed with the failings of Anglo-American democracy to measure the fury of Hitler’s gathering storm.
Editors at the Christian Century magazine, for example, savaged “the mistaken and irrational assumption” that the Allied cause could be “a war for the preservation of anything good in civilization.” Even as Nazism threatened to engulf all of Europe, ministers such as John Haynes Holmes called a German victory “the punishment for our transgressions.” Their Prince of Peace practiced diplomacy, non-violence and international cooperation. Thus intoned Albert Palmer, president of Chicago Theological Seminary: “Can military force do much against soul force which folds its arms and bides its day?” he wrote in June 1940. “Without military opposition, the Hitlers wither away.”
It’s hard to imagine the historical Jesus talking this way. Whatever else might be said of him, he represents–even to doubters–moral insight at its zenith. The gospels portray a figure profoundly wise, and unsparing, against the pretensions of ruthless men. His teachings about the human condition still cut to the bone: poignant, lucid, severe, utterly realistic. “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world,” he once asked, “and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:25)
No wonder liberals and conservatives both have trouble with him. The Jesus of the Bible offers forgiveness to murderers, but drives hucksters out of a temple with a whip. He dines with prostitutes, but promises hell-fire for religious hypocrites. He blesses the pure in heart, though never fails to call evil by its name. Wherever he goes, devotion and bitterness seem to follow. “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,” said one sage upon seeing him, “and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many will be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).
Even today, nearly everyone wants Jesus on his side of an argument. But the babe in the manger, the man worshipped as Deity by millions, goes his own way–and bids that we follow.
–Joseph Loconte is fellow in religion at the Heritage Foundation and editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.