As the religious rhetoric of the culture wars escalates, New York Times bestselling author and eminent scholar Garry Wills explores the meaning of Jesus’s teachings
In what are billed as "culture wars," people on the political right and the political left cite Jesus as endorsing their views. Garry Wills argues that Jesus subscribed to no political program. He was far more radical than that. In a fresh reading of the gospels, Wills explores the meaning of the "reign of heaven" Jesus not only promised for the future but brought with him into this life. It is only by dodges and evasions that people misrepresent what Jesus plainly had to say against power, the wealthy, and religion itself. Jesus came from the lower class, the working class, and he spoke to and for that class. This is a book that will challenge the assumptions of almost everyone who brings religion into politics—"Christian socialists" as well as biblical theocrats.
But Wills is just as critical of those who would make Jesus a mere ethical teacher, ignoring or playing down his divinity. Jesus without the Resurrection is simply not the Jesus of the gospels. Wills calls his book a profession of faith in the risen Lord, the Son of the Father, who leads us to the Father. He argues that this does not make people embrace an otherworldliness that ignores the poor or the problems of our time.
What Jesus Meant will no doubt spark debate about our understanding of Jesus and the Scriptures, especially as we head into midterm elections that will certainly prompt many heated discussions on the role of religion in our society.
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Garry Wills is one of the most respected writers on religion today. He is the author of Saint Augustine’s Childhood, Saint Augustine’s Memory, and Saint Augustine’s Sin, the first three volumes in this series, as well as the Penguin Lives biography Saint Augustine. His other books include “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power, Why I Am a Catholic, Papal Sin, and Lincoln at Gettysburg, which won the Pulitzer Prize.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Foreword: Christ Not a Christian
In certain religious circles, the letters WWJD serve as a password or shibboleth. Web sites sell bracelets and T-shirts with the cryptic motto. Some politicians tell us this watchword guides them in making decisions. The letters stand for ìWhat Would Jesus Do?î We are assured that doing the same thing is the goal of real Christians.
But can we really aspire to do what Jesus did? Would we praise a twelve-year-old who slips away from his parents in a big city and lets them leave town without telling them he is staying behind? The reaction of any parent would be that of Jesusí parents: ìHow could you treat us this way?î (Lk 2.48). Or if relatives seek access to a Christian, should he say that he has no relatives but his followers (Mk 3.33ñ35)? We might try to change water into wine; but if we did, would we take six huge water vats, used for purification purposes, and fill them with over a hundred gallons of wine, more than any party could drink (Jn 2.6)? If we could cast out devils, would we send them into a herd of pigs, destroying two thousand animals (Mk 5.13)? Some Christians place a very high value on the rights of property, yet this was a massive invasion of some personís property and livelihood.
Other Christians lay great emphasis on family valuesóshould they, like Jesus, forbid a man from attending his own fatherís funeral (Mt 8.22) or tell others to hate their parents (Mt 8.22, Lk 14.26)? Or should they go into a rich new church in some American suburb, a place taking pride in its success, and whip the persons holding out collection plates, crying, ìMake not my Fatherís house a tradersí martî
(Jn 2.16) or ìa thievesí lairî (Mk 11.17)? Would it be wise of them to call national religious leaders ìwhitewashed tombs, pleasant enough to outer appearance, but inside full of dead bones and every rottennessî (Mt 23.27)? Are they justified in telling others, ìI come not imposing peace, I impose not peace but the swordî (Mt 10.34)? Or ìI am come to throw fire on the earthî (Lk 12.49)? Should they imitate Jesus when he says, ìHeaven and earth will pass away, but never will my words pass awayî (Mk 21.333)? Or when he says, ìI am the resurrectionî (Jn 11.25) or ìI am the truthî (Jn 14.6), or ìI have the authority to lay down my life and I have the authority to take it up againî (Jn 10.18)? None of those who want to imitate Jesus should proclaim that ìI am the light of the worldî (Jn 8.12) or that ìI am the pathî to the Father (Jn 14.6).
These are just a few samples of the way Jesus acts in the gospel. They were acts meant to show that he is not just like us, that he has higher rights and powers, that he has an authority as arbitrary as Godís in the Book of Job. He is a divine mystery walking among men. The only way we can directly imitate him is to act as if we were gods ourselvesóyet that is the very thing he forbids. He tells us to act as the last, not the first, as the least, not the greatest. And this accords with the common sense of mankind. Christians cannot really be ìChristlike.î As Chesterton said, ìA great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it.î The thing we have to realize is that Christ, whoever or whatever he was, was certainly not a Christian. Romano Guardini put it this way in The Humanity of Christ:
If Jesus is a mere man, then he must be measured by the message which he brought to men. He must himself do what he expects of others; he must himself think according to the way he demanded that men think. He must himself be a Christian. Very well, then; the more he is like that, the less he will speak, act, or think as he did; and the more he will be appalled by the blasphemy of the way he did behave. If Jesus is mere man as we are, even though a very profound one, very devout, very pureóno, let us put it another way: the measure of his depth, devotion, purity, reverence, will be the measure in which it will be impossible for him to say what he says... . The following clear-cut alternative emerges: either he isónot just evil, for that would not adequately describe the caseóeither he is deranged, as Nietzsche became in Turin in 1888, or he is quite different, deeply and essentially different, from what we are.
To read the gospels in the spirit with which they were written, it is not enough to ask what Jesus did or said. We must ask what Jesus meant by his strange deeds and words. He intended to reveal the Father to us, and to show that he is the only-begotten Son of that Father. What he signified is always more challenging than we expect, more outrageous, more egregious. That is why the Catholic novelist Fran½cois Mauriac calls him ìof all the great characters history places before us, the least logical.î Dostoyevskyís Grand Inquisitor knew this when he reproached Christ for puzzling men by being ìexceptional, vague, and enigmatic.î
It is true that Saint Paul tells us to ìput [our] mind in Christís when dealing with one anotherî (Phil 2.5). But looking to the mind of Christ is a way of learning what he meant, on many levels. We can learn what he valued in the human drama as he moved among his fellows. According to the gospels, he preferred the company of the lowly and despised that of the rich and powerful. He crossed lines of ritual purity to deal with the uncleanówith lepers, the possessed, the insane, with prostitutes and adulterers and collaborators with Rome. (Was he subtly mocking ritual purification when he filled the water vessels with wine?) He was called a bastard (Jn 8.41) and was rejected by his own brothers (Jn 7.3ñ5) and the rest of his family (Mk 3.21). He was an outcast among outcasts, sharing the lot of the destitute, the defiled, the despised. ìHe was counted among the outlawsî (Lk 22.37).
He had a lower-class upbringing, as a cabinetmakerís son. That was a trade usually marginal and itinerant in his time. He chose his followers from the lower class, from fisher- men, dependent on the seasonís catch, or from a despised trade (tax collection for the Romans). There were no Scribes or scholars of the Law in his following. Jesus not only favored the homeless. He was himself homeless, born homeless and living homeless during his public life: ìFoxes have lairs, and birds have nests in air, but the Son of Man has nowhere to put down his headî (Mt 8.20). He depended on others to shelter him. He especially depended on women, who were ìsecond-class citizensî in his culture. He was not a philosopher. He wrote nothing for his followers in a later age. He depended on his uneducated followers to express what he meant. He knew that the Spirit moving them had no need of men with Ph.D.s or with grants from learned foundations (1 Cor 1.20).
His very presence was subversive. He was born on the run, fleeing Herod. As the Anglican bishop N. T. Wright puts it, he ìcame into the world with a death sentence already hanging over him, as the paranoid old tyrant up the road got wind of a young royal pretender.î Jesus would later move through teams of men setting traps for him, trying to assassinate him, to crush his following, to give him the same treatment given the beheaded John the Baptist. He had to ìgo into hidingî (Jn 12.36). He was in constant dangeróof being kidnapped (Jn 7.30, 7.44), of being arrested (Mt 21.46, Jn 7.32), of being assassinated (Mt 12.14, Lk 13.31, Jn 7.1, 11.53), of being stoned for his irreligion (Jn 8.59, 10.31ñ33), of being thrown off a cliff (Lk 4.29). Herod Antipas, who killed John the Baptist openly, plotted to kill Jesus secretly (Lk 13.31).
Jesus was called an agent of the devil, or the devil himself (Mk 3.22, Jn 7.20, 8.48, 10.20). He was unclean (Lk 11.38), a consorter with Samaritans (Lk 17.16) and with loose women (Lk 7.39). He was a promoter of immorality (Mk 2.16), a glutton and a drunkard (Lk 7.34), a mocker of the Jewish Law (Mt 12.10, Jn 5.16, 9.16), a schismatic (Jn 8.48). He was never respectable. In fact, he shocked the elders and priests of the Temple when he said, ìIn truth I tell you, tax collectors and whores are entering Godís reign before youî (Mt 21.31). Even when a Pharisee was well disposed to Jesus, he was afraid to be seen with the radical by daylight (Jn 3.1). Jesus seemed to prefer the company of the less-than-respectable, since he said that his Father ìfavors ingrates and scoundrelsî (Lk 6.35). I am reminded of the journalist Murray Kempton, who relished the company of rogues. A political leader once said that Murray would have liked him if only he had a criminal recordóthough I am sure Murray liked him anyway, from the way he used to tell me good-bye by saying ìGod bless you,î as if we would never meet again.
For two years, Jesus slipped through all the traps set for him. He moved like a fish in the sea of his lower-class fellows. He kept on the move, in the countryside. If I think of a music to be heard in the background of his restless mission, it is the scurrying agitato that opens Khachaturianís violin concerto. He went into cities as into alien territory. He was a man of the margins, never quite fitting in, always ìout of context.î He sought the wilderness, the mountaintop. He gave the slip even to his followers (Mk 7.24). The puzzled disciples trotted behind, trying to make sense of what seemed to them inexplicable, squabbling among themselves about what he was up to. It would never have occurred to them to wear a WWJD bracelet.
Jesus ghosted in and out of peopleís lives, blessing and cursing, curing and condemning. If he was not God, he was a standing blasphemy against God. The last thing he can be considered is a ìgentle Jesus meek and mild.î To quote Chesterton again:
We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse...
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