Over the previous two weeks, we have looked at a number of common propositions about Jesus which, while attractive to some, have the fatal flaw of bearing no relationship to the Jesus actually described by those whom Luke describes as “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”. I think it important, for the sake of accuracy, to dispel such wishful thinking by comparing it with what the gospels themselves report Jesus said and did.
But I also think it important to understand what the inventors of this Latest Real Jesus are reacting to and why. And as I have said repeatedly, I think what they are reacting against is not biblical Jesus, but the appalling antichrist spectre of MAGA Jesus, who any decent person should hate and reject.
Look again at what the critic both hates and desires as you survey the list of complaints about what “the Church” has supposedly done to “the real Jesus”:
That his vision for a transformed society, which he called the “kingdom of God”, got twisted into an afterlife fantasy about heaven.
That a religion was formed to worship his name, instead of a movement to advance his message.
That the religion that claims his name, teaches that his wisdom and teachings are the only legitimate way to know truth and God.
That people think there is magical potency in uttering the name of Jesus, rather than accessing our own natural powers and capabilities to effect change.
That people are waiting on Jesus to return to save the world and end suffering, rather than taking responsibility for saving the world and solving suffering ourselves.
Plainly, what the critic wants to see is Christians obeying Jesus in the here and now, not using him as a magic talisman to relieve them of their guilt for ignoring him. Jesus shares that view, warning:
“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’” (Mt 7:21–23).
Which is the worse sin, to be pious and disobedient, or to desire to obey Jesus while getting piety about the afterlife wrong? Jesus seems to suggest the former to me.
That the gospel says his death solved the problem of humankind’s separation from God, instead of saying that his life revealed the truth that there is no separation from God.
That the religion bearing his name was conceived by the theories and doctrines of Paul, instead of the truth Jesus lived and demonstrated.
That he was said to exclusively be God in the flesh, putting his example out of reach, rather than teaching that we all share in the same spirit that empowered his character and life.
The idea that humankind stands condemned before God and deserving of God’s wrath and eternal conscious judgement, requiring the death of Jesus to fix it.
What lies behind these objections is the perception of a religion bent on erecting a barrier between God and us, rather than a revelation of Emmanuel, God with us. This is, again, an objection not to biblical Jesus, but to MAGA Jesus, who is a proprietary totem and wholly-owned subsidiary of MAGA Christians who claim exclusive copyright on him and whose energy is entirely devoted to making sure as many people as possible are driven away from the moats and barricades of Fortress Khristus. Refugees, poor pregnant women needing food stamps, LGBTQ, climate activists, BLM, liberals, feminists, D&D enthusiasts, people who like the wrong movies and music and television, Critical Race Theorists, Biden voters, democratic socialists, and a host of others designated for rejection on a weekly basis by the moral arbiters at FOX, EWTN, and sundry other Right Wing Thought Police are routinely barred from having any relationship with him. Only the purist of Pure MAGA are reckoned to be Of the Body. This wrongly gets blamed on Paul and “the Church”, but it is a perfectly accurate description of MAGA antichrist religion’s intense need to exclude and condemn. The Church does not teach that Jesus died to save us from his Father, but to save us from sin. In Scripture, God the Father is not itching for an excuse to damn us, only to be distracted by bright shiny bauble of the chance to torture his own Son to death. We chose the cross for him. God simply took our choice into account in the unified will of all the Persons of the Trinity to save us. His goal is to gather us in, not to drive us out.
Bottom line: Every single one of these propositions is false about the biblical Jesus and the Jesus proclaimed by the apostles and the Tradition, but the tenth one explains why the critic get it wrong and what goods he rightly desires:
That people have come to associate Jesus with church, theology, politics and power, rather than courage, justice, humanity, beauty and love.
The key words in that sentence are “politics and power”. That is the core evil at work, not only in MAGA Christianity, but in perverted Christianity down the ages. Everywhere throughout history, the devil has proposed to Christians that he will give them all the kingdoms of the earth if they will bow down and worship him and throughout the ages some have accepted that bargain. MAGA antichrist religion is a blatant and ugly manifestation of that and that is what this critic is reacting to.
At the same time, because the critic is simply reacting, he gets some things right (courage, justice, humanity, beauty, and love are all good and desirable) while getting other things disastrously wrong (such as the idea that church–which Jesus founded–and theology–which Jesus taught and which the critic is practicing badly (as do all humans))–are somehow inherently evil.
The solution, as ever, is not simply to react against one’s culture war enemies, but to learn what the Tradition actually teaches. I hope the past two weeks have afforded a chance for you to do that a bit.