It has come to my attention that Bill O’Reilly will be publishing a book on the life and death of Jesus. This news has been making the rounds on the interwebs and of course I’m concerned. It isn’t necessarily because I don’t like O’Reilly, or because I find his views on generally everything to be atrociously flawed and morally questionable, but I am concerned because the last thing we need to happen is a “Which way would Jesus vote?” debate start dominating the conversation about the figure of Jesus.
Of course I’m aware that Jesus is often called upon by various politicians of all affiliations. But politicians most likely use this rhetoric to reflect what popular culture supports and, unfortunately, culture supports some crazy ideas. Consider sites like Rapture Ready (a website for fundamentalist Christians who believe the world will end within their lifetimes) which make the following (generally popular) claims about Jesus found in certain wings of evangelical Christianity:
There is one thing certain we can state, based upon the integrity of Bible truth. Jesus would never endorse or be a member of any party whose platform supports abortion, gay rights, and a general hostility to Bible-believing Christians.
Interestingly, Jesus is portrayed to have spoken thousands of words between all four Gospels, yet not one of those words was about abortion or gay rights. So what should one do about people who are hostile to Bible-believing Christians? Well, it gets a little hairy in this area, but there is that oft-quoted phrase “turn the other cheek.” So I’m not sure how certain anyone can be about endorsements for any particular political party.
When it comes down to it, scholars have enough trouble coming to any sort of consensus on what Jesus may have said and what he might have done, let alone what his political views might have been.
And those politicians on the right side of the aisle are not the only culpable ones. While Jesus spoke of social change in theological terms, he was not the liberal, leftist ideologue that some would suggest (like those at Jesus is (was?) a Liberal believe). He did not come to bring class equality, he did not come to preach against the corporate state (‘render unto Caesar’ and all that), he did not bring it to ‘the man’ (‘the man’ crucified him). He did not resolve to rid the world of poverty, he only eased their suffering by promising them a better world when they died (of leprosy, of starvation, of a beating by a slave owner, etc…); he certainly never promised the poor their freedom from their current, earthly state of poverty-stricken existence.
Yes, the authors of the Gospels portray him as feeding the multitudes, but he only does that occasionally as a demonstration of his similarity (sameness?) to Elijah/Elisha, who both performed similar miracles, and to show the power of god (which the poor would see when they died). He never lifted a finger to end poverty. The Jesus of the Gospels could care less about class warfare; in heaven, he would argue, the tables would turn. Here on earth, well, you’re stuck with what you have–even if that is nothing.
And while it may shock some of you, on occasion, he got involved in a little saber rattling. Jesus was not portrayed as a pansy. He had his moments of testosterone (can god have testosterone?) fueled rage and sometimes he was pretty blunt about what to do with those who crossed him (“those who are not with me are against me” and “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” and “these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence”).
Many of these verses were used during the inquisition to torture heretics and were justifications to launch the crusades. Whether they were right or wrong (wrong, in my opinion) it just demonstrates how that liberal, hippie (not to be confused with ‘hipster’) Jesus with the ‘anti-war’, pacifist attitude is a myth (in John 2.15, Jesus made a whip out of cord and he whipped the crap out of people for goodness sake!). But it is a myth in the same sense as the conservative, anti-gay, pro-guns Jesus that the right loves so much.
As Candida Moss has pointed out, Jesus did offer some semblance of free health care, healing poor and curing people without ever taking a cent. Obviously there were some caveats, because god, but these were largely faith-based (you don’t see poor people acquiring a referral because of their HMO in order to be touched and healed by Jesus, for example). So the whole concept that Jesus wouldn’t stand behind universal health care seems a little out of place.
The Gospels are also pretty clear that being poor and being a Christian are sort of hand-in-hand. He tells a rich man that in order to follow him, he must give up all his possessions (because he will be rewarded ten-fold by his faith after death in heaven):
“Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.”
After this man left, he states that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” In other words, according to Jesus, get poor or GTFO! This doesn’t quite jive with conservative capitalism, does it?
Similarly, while not in the Gospels, god (and therefore Jesus) advocates communism over capitalism and those who refuse to adhere to it cannot be a part of the Christian church. Period. Do not pass go, do not collect eternal life. And if you refuse to give up all your possessions and then lie about it, well, god strikes you dead.
So am I concerned about O’Reilly’s foray into historical Jesus studies? Oh, god yes. I’m terrified. But I’m terrified because of the way lay people and politicians will continue to construe and deconstruct the Jesus we have–even as unstable and contradictory an individual as he may be–and scholarship will continue to remain within a relatively isolated community of experts. In other words, books by the Bill O’Reillys and the Clint Willises (author of Jesus Is Not a Republican) of the world are the only books on Jesus that anyone will read. Because they will be the only books available and accessible.
Besides, broadcasters and talking heads don’t have the facts straight when it comes to their actual jobs (reporting the news). Bill O’Reilly can’t seem to figure out what causes the tide, so just how well do you think he’ll do getting the historical Jesus right? Keep in mind, scholars can’t even seem to figure it out entirely–and they’ve spent their professional career trying to find answers. I’m betting that O’Reilly will not produce a very accurate picture.
He is already imaging Jesus much like how he views himself, a “beloved and controversial young revolutionary” who is constantly persecuted, but who fights for that in which he believes. It is a stunning pseudo-autobiographical portrayal of Jesus through O’Reilly’s eyes. And had O’Reilly been trained in the field, he would know that George Tyrrell pointed out this troublesome factor of historical Jesus scholarship decades ago. But O’Reilly isn’t a scholar, nor even an educated layman on the subject; he is a pundit on a news network with an agenda (like all politicians and political-pundits). That is precisely the problem.
Jesus’ portrayal in the Gospels is multifaceted because we have at least four portrayals. But the nuance of the figure of Jesus is much greater, and so limiting Jesus to particular synchronic values does nothing but narrow his value to everyone. Even as a secular student of history, I can find value there because the study of these nuances is important to all–not conservatives, not liberals, not any particular sectarian group. So this is my plea to everyone: leave Jesus out of politics. You are not salvaging history, you’re destroying the future (of history).