Saturday, January 17, 2015

Who Would Jesus Vote For?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 20, 2005

Well, more than anything, little Johnny wanted a new bike. So much so, that it became sort of an obsession with him.
He asked his parents, but they said “No, we can’t afford it.”
He tried doing odd jobs around the neighborhood, and cashing in returnable bottles at the store, but by the end of the first week, he’d only saved up $ 1.02—and at that rate, it would take him years to save enough for the bike he wanted.
Then, he decided to try praying for a new bike, so he’d gotten down on his knees, by the side of his bed, in front of the crucifix that hung on his bedroom wall (for this was a good Catholic home), and he prayed to Jesus to get him a new bike. (He even told Jesus the kind he wanted, all the specifications.)
Well, he did this every night for two weeks! But at the end of that time, he seemed no closer to getting the bike that ever. Then Johnny (good child of American television and popular culture that he was) had an idea. He spied the small statue of the Virgin Mary that his mother had also put on his bureau in his bedroom. He rose from his knees, walked over to the bureau, took the statue of the Madonna, and quickly stuffed it into the top drawer of his bureau, under all the socks and t-shirts and what-have-you. Then, he went back to his bed, got on his knees again, and gazing up at the crucifix, he prayed: “Listen Jesus, if you ever want to see your mother again, you’d better get me that bike!”
Well, we’re not talking this morning about someone stealing Mary (though that could be a future topic of discussion). I think it’s Jesus who has been kidnapped, more likely than not. Sometimes, as I look out at the machinations of the Religious Right, and listen to some of the nonsense and bigotry being dished out in Jesus’s name, I am reminded of the words of one of the characters in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, when he says: “If Jesus came back, and saw what was going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up."
For me, these issues have become only more pronounced since the last election, which, according to most analysts was decided the way it was because “people of faith”, or “regular churchgoers”, or “committed Christians”—call them what you will—voted by overwhelming majorities for President Bush and other Republican (usually conservative Republican) candidates.
Sometimes, I think that I inhabit a different universe, and sometimes, I wonder if I’ve read the same Bible as they have. Sometimes, I think that these right wing religious zealots, and the antics they do in the name of Christ, are going to put me over the (theological) edge, and are going to make a “real Christian” out of me, after all.
Because I really believe, deep inside, that their philosophy—their lying-to-go-to war—to hell with the poor—give alms to the rich—smear your enemies—trash homosexuals—defile the Alaska wilderness—forget about the environment—build bigger and bigger weapons of mass destruction—philosophy does real violence—not just in the life of our world, but also to the basic teachings of the Great Man of Nazareth, as I read them, at least.
These antics stir within me a deep desire—an almost primal need, really—to “rescue Jesus”, as it were, from those things being done in his name by some of his most vociferous so-called “followers”. Because of their folly, Jesus has become more dear to me, and the abiding lessons of the Christian tradition have moved again, slowly but surely, back toward the center of my own personal religious philosophy.
I used to have little patience for those self-proclaimed Christians who paraded around in t-shirts, and wore lapel buttons emblazoned with the letters “WWJD?”—short for “What Would Jesus Do?”.
But gradually, I have come to see the real power behind that question—the real relevance of that inquiry. It truly does help to shape the way in which I lead my life—and the way in which I apprehend the world. For example, last year, when Archbishop O’Malley of Boston decided he was no longer going to wash the feet of women as part of the annual Holy Thursday ritual (he has since changed his mind this year), I immediately framed the question this way, almost as a reflex: Could you imagine Jesus saying to his disciples, those so many years ago: “Just bring me the men. I’m only washing their feet.” I don’t think so!
If there was anything we can affirm about the Great Man of Nazareth, called the Christ, the anointed one, by so many, it is this: Jesus was the perhaps most radically inclusive and open-armed exemplar that history has given us. He was the man who shocked the establishment of his own day by dining with prostitutes and the outcasts of the society in which he lived; the man who befriended women in a society that said that women were unclean; who called for compassion for the much-loathed Samaritans, whom many in his society considered living abominations. Jesus is “precious to the world,” wrote our Unitarian forebear Theodore Parker, because he “dare[d] to live fully and love deeply.”
Of course, none of us can presume to know, really, what Jesus would do in a given situation. None of us—not Jerry Falwell, or George W. Bush, or the Pope, or even I—can presume to know, with 100% infallibility what Jesus would do; or who Jesus would vote for; or even if he would vote at all. As Richard Gilbert has written:
“Of course, we cannot really know what he would say or do, for Jesus lived in a first century agrarian society, while we live in a 21st century post-industrial culture. He taught primarily an inner spirituality and a personal ethic. He was not really a social ethicist, nor did he aspire to political power. It is dangerous for anyone of any theological or ethical or political persuasion to presume to be doing what Jesus would do – including… liberal social justice activist[s] like [ourselves].”
At the turn of the 20th century, Albert Schweitzer—scholar, musician, missionary, doctor—wrote a book called The Quest of the Historical Jesus, in which he detailed his study to find the “real” Jesus of history. Ultimately, Schweitzer declared that his search was a failure, for those who go looking for the “real” or “historical” Jesus always end up finding simply what they want to find. It’s not peering down into a deep, dark well, Schweitzer said; the face you see reflected back at you will most likely be your own.
“I set out in quest of the historical Jesus,” Schweitzer wrote, “believing that when I had found him I could bring him straight into our time as a Teacher and Savior. I loosed the bands by which he had been riveted for centuries to the stony rocks of ecclesiastical doctrine, and rejoiced to see life and movement coming into the figure once more, and the historical Jesus advancing, as it seemed, to meet it. But he does not stay,” Schweitzer concludes, “He passes by our time and returns to our own.”
So, Schweitzer cautioned, it will always be: Jesus ultimately was a man of his time, and not of ours. But that is not to say that he does not have significance to our time. The profundity of prophetic women and men lies both in their relevance to their own day, and in their applicability to the times that will come after them. That is what makes them prophets.
In the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, the god Krishna says:
“When goodness grows weak,
When evil increases,
I make myself a body.
In every age I come back
To deliver the holy,
To destroy the sin of the sinner,
To establish righteousness.”
Perhaps the more important question isn’t “What Would Jesus Do?” or “Who Would Jesus Vote For?”, but rather, what impact does the life and teaching of Jesus (or of any great religious figure) have upon how I am leading my public and private life, right now?
Why do people still remember Jesus? Why do people still honor him, and argue about him, and retain him as such an important part of their spiritual lives? What is it about him that has endured, in spite of everything else that has changed in this world?
Jesus has survived because of the radical nature of what he taught. “Radical” not in a narrowly political sense, but in the primary meaning of the term “radical”: going to the root, fundamental, basic. Jesus sought to reduce life to its most basic elements, and to live life in the light of its most basic imperative-- in light of what was really important.
The message of Jesus has endured because he proposed (for his time and for ours and for all time) a fundamentally changed notion of what is of value and what is worthwhile.
None of the other “Very Important Parts” of life were all that important to Jesus. Not power and control over other people. Not domination and exploitation of the weak and oppressed. Not manipulation and “spin”. Not “being seen” with the coolest, the hippest, the most socially acceptable people. Not political power. Not accumulating lots and lots of capital and real estate and stuff. Not lording it over others. Not intimidating others. Not judging others. Not “watching out for number one”. Not getting the biggest tax break we can. Not building the biggest church in town or in the denomination, or building a giant political movement to force our opinions down the throats of others.
No, more important than any of these, Jesus said-- most important of all was our radical humanity--, which meant our claim as sons and daughter of the Divine-- as sons and daughters of a God whose greatest gift to us is love.
Jesus proposed a fundamentally new arrangement in human relations which was very troubling to the Powers-That-Be of his own day (remember: he was executed by the Romans not for blasphemy [a religious crime] but for treason [a political offense]). I think it is a new paradigm that would be no less troubling to the Establishment of our own time, however much they might pay lip service to his teachings.
Jesus had a vision of a human community where we overcome all that separates and divides-- where we do not remain stuck in outward, superficial forms of age and race and gender and nationality and lifestyle-- but go deeper-- look deeper-- to our basic, radical humanness-- where we do not live according to the old law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth”/”what’s in it for me?”-- but rather, where we strive to live every moment in a spirit of love-- forgiveness, reconciliation-- with one another.
If Jesus were to come and be among us again, he would probably leave it to us to choose for ourselves the political and economic system to best meet our own needs. But we know, I think, what his "bottom line" would be: Not how much money will it make, but how good will it make you, how much closer will it bring you to your God, who is in Heaven? How much more like Heaven will it make this Earth your God has given you?
He would not as us what we did to maintain and protect the status quo, to serve the rich and powerful. He would ask us now what he asked those around him way back then: "How well did you meet the unmet needs of your sisters and brothers all around you?"
In her poem, “Back From the City”, Jane Kenyon writes of a visit to New York:
At the Cloisters I indulged in piety
while gazing at a painted lindenwood Pieta -
Mary holding her pierced and desiccated son
across her knees; but when a man stepped close
under the tasseled awning of the hotel,
asking for a "quarter for someone down on his luck"
I quickly turned my back.
Now I hear tiny bits of bark and moss
break off under the bird’s beak and claw,
and fall onto already-fallen leaves.
"Do you love me?" said Christ to his disciple.
"Lord, you know that I love you."
"Then feed my sheep."
In spite of all that the centuries have wrought—in spite of all the warfare and strife and bitterness and enmity-- the example of that Galilean carpenter-prophet has never ceased to dance in our hearts and minds. The vision he inspired—the possibilities which his life presents—the possibility of loving our neighbors as ourselves—of doing the will of God in our own daily lives—of understanding all the people of the Earth as children of God—that vision continues to haunt us, entice us, and inspire us. Jesus presented to us a vision of humanity at its best, at its most godlike, of humanity drawn just as close as it could be to our divine Creator.
Jesus presented to us a vision of humanity at its best. Not of life at its easiest. It is not a vision of an eternal life which avoids this earthly, human life. Rather, it is a vision which lives this life to its full, which feels its pain, its rejection, its bitterness and scourging, even unto Gethsemane and to Calvary. It is a spirit which survives the crucifixion of the body to live again—to love again—to rise and smile again over the face of the Earth, in spite of the despair and disorder, which powers and principalities, and terror-mad souls and our own addled, narrow, bigoted minds might wrought.
It is time to join once again with men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit to rescue Jesus, before it is too late. It is time to join with our truly-Christian brothers and sisters, and our Jewish and pagan brothers and sisters, and those who are Buddhist, and Muslim, and of every faith, and who claim no faith, to carry the light of love in these dark times, and to continue the struggle against all that would separate and divide and diminish and destroy the indivisible unity of our great human family.
We do that as private religious men and women, and we do it as public citizens. It is a call both to piety, and to justice. And it is a call we each answer in our own way, in our own lives and times. 

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