Let's stop appropriating Jesus

Uploaded by ZJemptv on 18.01.2012

Whenever a self-proclaimed Christian says or does something that's particularly ignorant,
hateful or inhumane, it can be pretty tempting to reply: "So that's what Jesus would do?"
I know I've done it before. It's quite a satisfying thing to say, isn't it? In just a few simple
words, you can shock them with the revelation that they themselves have failed to act in
accordance with the will of their own divine leader. It really should be rather crushing.
Yet for all of its succinct elegance, this particular point usually seems to fail at
actually changing anyone's mind. Why? I suspect it's because this just isn't a very good argument
after all. As is often the case, my mistake became obvious to me once I saw someone else
committing the same error. In an open letter to the family who disowned them, a certain
blogger asked why they would accept a savior who spent his time in the company of tax collectors,
prostitutes, outcasts and sinners, while rejecting their own child for being transgender, homeless,
a sex worker, and addicted to drugs. While their family's decision to abandon them is
appalling, this question immediately shifted my perspective on this sort of argument, and
made the situation quite a bit clearer. As a desperate plea for humanity to people who
lack all semblance of it, it's certainly understandable in its motivations, but nevertheless unlikely
to be effective. Here's why: Both right-wing Christians and more liberal individuals who
make this argument are referring to Jesus by name, but the characters they envision
are so dissimilar, they can scarcely be said to be talking about the same person. While
people who ask these Christians why they're not acting more like Jesus may see him as
preaching a message of universal love, radical inclusion, social justice, economic equality
and non-aggression, the Christians they're addressing are more likely to view Jesus as
judgmental, intolerant, narrowly dogmatic, homophobic, obsessed with chastity, and only
merciful and loving in a way that can somehow be expressed by eternal torture. If we hadn't
been explicitly told that the individuals described here are actually supposed to be
the same person, we probably wouldn't come to that conclusion on our own. In this area
of dispute, people are using the name "Jesus" to express two distinctly different notions.
That's why challenging intolerant Christians with the idea of an all-loving Jesus doesn't
get you very far - they simply don't subscribe to that concept. It fails to reveal any kind
of hypocrisy on their part, because they aren't actually being hypocritical. Subsequently,
this often tends to become an argument about what kind of person the historical Jesus really
was, and whose characterization of Jesus is more accurate. Taking the discussion in this
direction would be a serious mistake, because it only serves to validate the assumption
that this should matter. If we did try to tackle this on a theological level, simple
claims like "Jesus loved everyone" and "Jesus hung out with sinners" would likely be met
with a plethora of detailed rebuttals. Misguided as they may be, Christian apologists have
had plenty of time to practice and refine their tactics. But no matter who's correct
about what Jesus really meant to say - assuming this can even be decisively resolved - it
still doesn't mean that his message possesses any exceptional force to determine what's
right and wrong. On a secular level, the teachings of Jesus have no unique bearing on ethics
beyond those of others, and in many respects, they stand out as especially bizarre and disturbing.
Regardless of your own moral stance, attempting to show that Jesus was more in line with your
values means trying to take ownership of someone who, according to the Bible, said you should
sell your clothes so you can buy a sword. This is someone who said that anyone who doesn't
follow him will burn in Hell. This is someone who called a woman a "dog" because she was
of a different race. This is someone who said that his religion would turn families against
each other and tear them apart. This is someone who said you have to hate your parents, your
children, your partner, and even your own life in order to follow him - and even under
a less literal interpretation of the word "hate", this still suggests that we should
value *this* man above anything else in our lives. Here, C. S. Lewis may have actually
had a point: Unless Jesus was of a divine nature such that his proclamations can define
morality, he wasn't exactly a "great moral teacher" as a human being. So how did people
who would likely disavow these hateful and intolerant doctrines find themselves in the
position of fighting to have Jesus on *their* side? Yet again, while the argument may be
faulty, the motives are understandable. Given that the character of Jesus is so deeply admired
in our culture, people have every reason to try and harness that respect to support their
own preferred values. As long as Jesus is considered the purest embodiment of virtue,
there's bound to be conflict over whose virtues he embodies. Is this really something we want
to encourage? Arguing that Jesus would endorse our ethics over those of others only reinforces
the assumption that his alleged moral outlook is important to us and worth fighting about.
It shouldn't be, and trying to gather support for your own values by redefining the idea
of Jesus that people have chosen to believe in is a kind of intellectual dishonesty and
rhetorical deception that should be beneath all of us. We can do better than this. So:
what would Jesus do? Who cares?