As people were leaving Mass one Sunday, a man pointed to a copy of our newsletter and asked me, “Where do you get all that peace crap?”
“From Jesus,” I replied timidly.
“Jesus?” he scoffed, “He died a long time ago.”
South Park’s Jesus
Despite Time magazine’s famous cover asking, “Is God dead?,” Jesus remained a vibrant character throughout my youth. His biography made it to the big screen in King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told. He enjoyed extended runs on Broadway and then again on the big screen in Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar.
English classes still featured novels by Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Sinclair chuck full of Christ figures. In college, I read non-Christians as diverse as Kurt Vonnegut and Mahatma Gandhi who were inspired by Jesus. The only picture Gandhi allowed in his spartan dwelling was of Jesus. Vonnegut punctuated his novel Jailbird with a reference from Saint Matthew’s Gospel. Theologians of liberation mined the life of Jesus for a road map on how to lift up the poor and oppressed in Latin America and elsewhere. Jesus was very much alive.
Outside niche markets like Christian rock, Jesus seems to be getting much less face time nowadays. What He does get is rarely serious. Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical character Borat asks Texas fundamentalists if “Mr. Jesus” can help him get to California to meet Pamela Anderson. Steve Coogan, in Hamlet 2 shakes up a high school musical with a number titled, “Rock Me Sexy Jesus.” Saturday Night Live featured Jesus in a robe, sports socks, and running shoes visiting the Denver Bronco’s locker room to tell quarterback Tim Tebow that his evangelicalism was cloying. The only repeat bookings Jesus gets are on South Park where He battled Satan in a boxing ring and, more recently, appeared wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed, “Free Pussy Riot” (the jailed Russian human rights punk band).
Face it, the scriptural Jesus just doesn’t seem to be getting exposure nowadays.
Much of the blame for Jesus’ trivialization probably rests with Christians. Millions of Jesus’ modern disciples belong to the NRA and the Tea Party, and even outright sexist, racist, and anti-environmental organizations. Many more portray Jesus in a mushy sentimental or a harshly judgmental mode. Either extreme is off-putting, to say the least. Aside from a recent campaign against global warming during which evangelicals asked, “What kind of car would Jesus drive?”, few denominations make concerted public efforts to present Jesus as relevant to current events. Consequently, more and more young people understand Jesus as a plastic figurine or a guru for reactionaries and old folks. They’d be hard-pressed to describe His philosophy or life’s work. Christ just doesn’t figure in their economic, political, or personal choices. In social settings, Jesus is a major non-starter. When was the last time anybody under 30 described Jesus as their hero?
This is tragic because the actual Jesus described in the New Testament is witty, intelligent, brave, creative, funny, theatrical, humble, commanding, compassionate, physically fit, fully human, and divine. He’s a great story teller, who makes sure there’s plenty of wine at a wedding and food at a picnic. He won’t tolerate racism or sexism. He freely associates with outcasts, but does not confine his outreach to the fringe. He is an orthodox Jew with the wisdom not to be trapped by legalism. He sees human misery and acts to ameliorate it. He challenges one of history’s largest empires without ever using or endorsing violence. He walks on water and bleeds when He falls. He knows what it is like to be hungry and thirsty. He identifies with workers and the poor. He chastises the rich and powerful. He inspires change without taking up governmental office or joining a political movement or party. He sees beyond ideology to find goodness in a soldier and rich man. He elevates love to the highest of all virtues. He suffers a martyr’s death, as millions still do, but, unlike most, holds to nonviolence to the end. Ultimately, He is resurrected as an example to all of us that God will not allow evil to prevail. His message and personal example remain one of, if not the most powerful, in human history. I believe it grieves Him to watch human beings flail around with violent and greedy value systems that are capable only of increasing human misery.
Ultimately, the question of whether or not the integrity, philosophical wholeness, and wisdom of Christ slips into obscurity or irrelevance is not up to the media. It is up to those of us who claim to be His followers. Our lives need to be so closely modeled on His that people can find the opening to Him in us. We should be great introductions to the Gospels. And when we are inevitably asked why we live counter-culturally, why we eschew war, and welcome the poor into our homes, we should be able to respond like Vonnegut’s protagonist, “Why, the Sermon on the Mount, of course.” Ω
Reprinted from The Catholic Radical