It was a surreal experience; like simultaneously living in two alternate realities and seeing how Christianity was being weaponized by both the right and the left of American politics.
As a scholar of the New Testament and a professing Christian, I simply do not recognize the plethora of American “Jesuses” spawned by the political left and right. What I see is neither the Jesus of Nazareth I know from history nor the Christ of faith that I know from my church.
To begin with, I am not remotely convinced by the Jesus of American conservative culture. A Jesus who sounds like a deified version of Ronald Reagan. A Jesus who believes that God helps those who help themselves. A Jesus who rejects biological evolution but ostensibly believes in an economic contest of survival of the fittest.
Then, among progressives, their Jesus is often described in ways that would probably best fit the long-lost love child of Lenin and Lady Gaga who grew up to become an Antifa activist. The industry of progressive politics trades in a secular Jesus sanitized of anything that sounds too religious.
I understand that everyone wants Jesus on their political side. In fact, I find it heartening that Jesus is still the endorsement that everyone wants! But there are immense costs being paid when politicians and pundits claim Jesus for their own side.
The primary problem is, of course, the absurd anachronisms.
Claiming that Jesus supported private gun ownership or a price on carbon is like saying that Thomas Jefferson invented the Internet.
Now, there are good reasons for and against gun control, as well as how to balance economic growth and environmental protection, and religious texts and religious ethics can contribute to those discussions. But claiming that Jesus supports one view and not another is simply outlandish and irresponsible.
Similarly, I am vexed as to how someone could possibly claim that Jesus was white, Jesus believed in tough immigration policy, Jesus supported user-pay health care or, if Jesus had a gun, he would have defended himself against the Romans.
I’m deeply puzzled to hear too that Jesus was a 1st-century brown-skinned Aramaic-speaking Jew who believed in same-sex marriage and decriminalizing cannabis. Plus, there’s the enduring trope of Jesus the Marxist as if 18th-century European politics and economics is the right setting to locate Jesus within.
What we see here is the image of Jesus being constantly twisted and contorted in unbearable fashion.
Sadly, many want Jesus to be the personal chaplain to a Republican emperor, or else, Jesus is invoked to sanction a Jacobin purge on anyone suspected of not being progressive enough for the public square. Jesus is re-created in either the image of Caesar or Che Guevara.
I cannot help but think that the Apostle Paul had a word of rebuke to America and its attempt to invoke the memory of Jesus to support its politics: “If a person comes and preaches some other Jesus than the one we preached, or if you receive a different Spirit than the one you had received, or a different gospel than the one you embraced, you put up with it so easily!” (2 Corinthians 11:4-5).
It is far more likely that Jesus, historical man and exalted Lord, does not neatly fit into any side of the political spectrum. The Jew from Nazareth cuts across traditional political lines. No party owns him — as if the Lord of the cosmos could be owned. Jesus does not answer to political super PACs and cannot be made to utter political endorsements on cue.
Jesus cannot be mapped onto, let alone owned, by the American political divide.
For people who are serious about following Jesus and how to live out their faith in him, it is not a question as to whether Jesus believes in our politics; rather, the real question has to be whether we believe in Jesus and in his kingdom as a challenge to our politics.
In other words, for Christians, the point of contention should not be whether Jesus is more conducive to Republican or Democratic parties, but whether we are prepared to break from the polarization of our politics to engage in a more authentic mode of discipleship.
To follow Jesus will inevitably require us to walk away from long-held political loyalties to reorder our lives around a new constellation of values shaped by Jesus’ teaching, his example, his death and resurrection, and his lordship over all things.
Following Jesus does not mean being apolitical, becoming disinterested in the affairs of government — quite the opposite, in fact. Being a follower of Jesus means trying to forge our own political values based upon the story and symbols of Jesus himself, according to his kingdom, his teaching, and according to the faith delivered once and for all to the saints. Jesus’ way is the way of love for the poor and prophesying truth against the tyrant.
If that is the case, Christians should not imbibe their political convictions from charismatic ideologues who either stir up rage within them or who scare them into prejudice. Christians should instead be prayerfully and thoughtfully considering what it means to follow Jesus in their own nation and neighborhood. Then, together with our church family, seek after things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable (Philippians 4:8), and humbling asking God to give us the wisdom and courage to pursue them (James 1:5).
As a theologian, I can tell you that in Christ, there is neither Republican nor Democrat, Libertarian nor Green, Dixiecrat nor Republocrat, but we are all one in Christ Jesus. All of us, whether of the red or the blue, of the elephant or the donkey, must discern within the precincts of our own consciences what a follower of Jesus should do about health care, gun violence, the opioid epidemic, foreign policy and immigration. Not naming Jesus as our patron, but faithfully figuring out how to follow him in a context far removed from his own.
Politics informed by religion is a means to a common good, but politics with Jesus haphazardly tacked on at the end does not make for a good religion. Instead, we heed Jesus’ call for his church to be “the light of the world” and “a city on a hill” (Matthew 5:14) by setting forth a vision of human vocation and value that honors the God who made us and redeemed us in Christ.
The Rev. Dr. Michael F. Bird is Academic Dean of Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia, and Senior Research Fellow with the Australian College of Theology. He is co-author with N.T. Wright of “The New Testament in its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians.” He can be followed @mbird12.