Above the Fray
A historian argues that Jesus was not a social reformer.

Reviewed by Stephen Prothero
Sunday, May 28, 2006


By Garry Wills

Viking. 143 pp. $24.95

The Library of Congress holds close to 17,000 books on Jesus, and about the best thing that can be said about Garry Wills's What Jesus Meant is that it is probably not the worst. Wills tells us in his foreword that Jesus is "a divine mystery walking among men," but rather than reveling in that mystery, he tries to solve it -- dissolve it, actually -- in a strange brew of devotional cant and historical Jesus clichés.

For decades, participants in the quest for the historical Jesus have been arguing that Jesus was a radical egalitarian -- a '60s-style rebel who left his home and his job to seek, in the company of a small cadre of equally disreputable comrades, the kingdom of heaven on earth. This, too, is the Jesus according to Wills: an "outcast among outcasts," a "man of the margins" who broke bread not with the rich and the powerful but with lepers and prostitutes.

What distinguishes What Jesus Meant from books by the likes of John Dominic Crossan (who has also fashioned Jesus in the image of Jack Kerouac) is its insistence that Jesus was allergic to politics. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says that he has come "to preach good news to the poor . . . to proclaim freedom for the prisoners . . . to release the oppressed." But apparently Jesus does not always mean what he says. What he means to say, according to his latest amanuensis, is that he came "to instill a religion of the heart, with only himself as the place where we encounter the Father." Jesus came not to establish a church or to preach a new politics but to bring in "heaven's reign," which, according to Wills, is characterized by love and love alone. "In the gospel of Jesus, love is everything," Wills writes, adding that this love "is not a dreamy, sentimental, gushy thing. It is radical love, exigent, searing, terrifying." Yet Wills's Jesus has no real radicalism in him. His is a purely interpersonal and domesticated love, divorced entirely from the exigencies of politics and economy.

To be fair, it should be noted that Wills (a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who is Roman Catholic) allows his Jesus to hold forth on ecclesiastical politics; to plump for married clergy and for women priests; and to denounce the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of the Catholic Church, its history of bribery and warfare, and the haughty disdain of its holier-than-thou hierarchy for ordinary believers. In early Christianity, there were no priests, no bishops and certainly no pope, Wills observes. Benedict XVI, "like his predecessors, is returning to the religion Jesus renounced."

Though Wills allows Jesus to rail against the papacy's gluttony for power -- what else can we expect from the author of Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit ? -- he stifles his savior entirely when it comes to the broader arena of politics and society. Jesus "had no political program," Wills insists. He was "not a social reformer." If the question is "What Would Jesus Do?" and the context is political and economic life, then the answer is absolutely, positively nothing.

Wills is trying to undercut efforts by the religious right to cast Jesus as a conservative Republican. In one of the strongest passages in this surprisingly flaccid book, Wills likens recent efforts by evangelicals to dress Jesus up "in borrowed political robes" to the burlesque of the Roman soldiers who adorned him with a crown and scepter while mocking him as "king of the Jews." Whereas Jim Wallis (the author of the influential God's Politics ) and others on the religious left have criticized evangelicals for getting Jesus's politics wrong, Wills insists that Jesus had no politics to get, that "his reign is not of that order." Wills wants to see a great wall constructed between American religion and American politics, and he is determined to have Jesus do the heavy lifting.

There are two problems with this approach. First, as Wills's own Under God demonstrated, U.S. religion and politics cannot be separated so neatly. Except in the mind of Jefferson and his most fanatical acolytes (Wills included), church and state have been intimates here from the moment George Washington put his hand on a Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. Efforts to make religion politically impotent have always been futile in this country, as have efforts to make politics religiously irrelevant. Second, it is just not true that the Jesus of the Gospels has no politics. As Wills himself argues, Jesus spoke repeatedly about inequality and injustice. He "renounced theocracy." He was "opposed to war and violence." He was "a threat to power."

But how much of a threat can you be if you refuse to act -- or even to speak -- for or against the powers of this world? (What would have become of the abolitionist or civil rights movements if every ounce of the prophets had been emptied out of Jesus?) Since the late, great "faith-based" election of 2004, in which "values voters" reportedly secured a born-again president's reelection, Democrats have been wringing their hands over what to do next. Should they get religion, translate their policies into the rhetoric of revelation and inform American voters that they have values and even faith, too? Or should they stick to the party line of rights and reasons and continue to insist that religion and politics have always been and must forever remain separate?

What Jesus Meant is an ill-conceived brief for the latter view. As such, it tells us far more about Wills than about Jesus, more about Wills's devotion to our third president than about his faith in the second part of the Trinity. Rather than putting his hand in the hand of the man from Galilee, Wills puts his hand in the hand of the man from Monticello. In the process, he misleads the Democrats and misreads the Gospels. ·

Stephen Prothero teaches in the Department of Religion at Boston University and is the author of "American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon."

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