- "We all have a stake in who Jesus is today. So we all have the right
to get involved in the debate. Perhaps we even have the obligation.
It's part of being a good citizen. Good citizens get involved in
every debate that affects communal life. The debate about Jesus is a
Pick Your Favorite Jesus
by Ira Chernus
Who was this fellow Jesus, born, so they say, on December 25th?
Christians have been disagreeing about it for nearly two thousand
years. Here are just a few of the leading contenders:
A supernatural son of God in human form, offering immortality to
A truly human being filled with divinity, sent by God to pay off our
debt of sin.
A wise teacher who never claimed to be divine, but was deified by his
The head of a spiritual army committed to destroying every evildoer.
History's greatest example of perfect love for others.
The first nonviolent revolutionary, teaching us how to use love as a
political tool to overthrow the system.
Christians even disagree about Jesus' skin color. They have depicted
him in every color imaginable (though it's a safe bet he was as brown
as your average Palestinian or Oriental Jew).
Jesus is the great Rorschach inkblot of Western civilization. Look at
him and tell me what you see. Your answer won't tell me any objective
truth about who Jesus really was. It will tell me a lot about who you
It's no different in any other religion. Every religion is really a
big debating society, an endless struggle to control the meaning of
But the Christian debate about Jesus has special importance for all
of us here in the United States, even if we are not Christian. The
Christians have tremendous influence in our political life. Across
the political spectrum, they consult their own Jesus when they form
their political views. How could they not? A Christian's Jesus is the
embodiment of his or her deepest values.
It gets more complicated when they publicly invoke their various
Jesuses to justify their political positions. When they argue that
our government should do this or that because Jesus was this or that,
they breach the wall between church and state. To keep that wall high
and strong, we should base our political arguments only on logic, not
on our favorite religious images.
When Jesus does enter the political arena, the result may not be so
bad, if you are a progressive. Much of Christian politics is liberal
or even leftist. Before the Iraq war, most Christian groups said very
publicly that their Jesus would not send troops to attack Iraq. Some
of them said that their Jesus taught them war is never the answer, no
matter how dangerous the problem. Of course, some Christians think
Jesus is smiling down on the U.S. troops who use guns to bring
freedom to Iraq.
No matter what positions Christians take, though, bringing Jesus into
the public arena has the same effect: it makes him an important
public figure for all of us. Whether or not we are Christian, our
lives are directly influenced by the prevailing image of Jesus. We
all have a stake in who Jesus is today. So we all have the right to
get involved in the debate. Perhaps we even have the obligation. It's
part of being a good citizen. Good citizens get involved in every
debate that affects communal life. The debate about Jesus is a big
If you haven't entered this arena yet, it's high time that you pick
your favorite Jesus. Then get out there and start lobbying for him.
As every good lobbyist knows, the first step is to get your facts
straight. Everyone can invent their own Jesus because there are no
definite facts about his life. Even expert historians of religion
ultimately shape the data to fit their preferences. But some versions
of Jesus are more plausible than others. So get yourself well
educated about the facts that support your favorite Jesus. Then go
out and campaign for him.
You can do the same for the Maccabees, the heroes of the war
commemorated in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Jews have a big
debate going about them, too. Some say they were the first Zionist
soldiers, fighting to secure a Jewish homeland against anti-semites.
One Jew I know recently praised them because they were right-wing
extremists, war-mongers who supported an uncompromising violent
nationalism. But another praised them as an indigenous band of
committed and idealistic freedom fighters who defeated a mighty and
Were the Maccabees moderate nationalists, ultra-right religious
zealots, or radical freedom fighters akin to today's Palestinians?
You can take your pick. And you should. The story of Hanukkah always
gets tangled up with people's views of Israel and the Middle East
conflict, which costs U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars every year
and plenty of worry about where our troops might take their guns
next. So even if you aren't Jewish, you have the right, and perhaps
the obligation, to lobby for your favorite Maccabees too.
I bet your particular Jesus and your particular Maccabees would get
along together just fine. Religion just seems to work that way.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of
Colorado at Boulder. chernus@...