By Paul S. Ropp
Mahatma Gandhi, the great apostle of nonviolence who sought to end British rule in India by peaceful means, once said in a moment of striking candor: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Admittedly, it’s not easy to live up to the ethical altruism that Jesus taught, but Gandhi thought that Christians, of all people, should at least exemplify the compassion of Jesus.
As the Christian right has risen to prominence in American politics, it has increasingly attacked the values that Jesus taught. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann loudly proclaim their Christian faith, but the main point of their faith is that Jesus assures them of an eternity in Heaven while anyone who holds views different from their own is assured of an eternity in Hell. This turns Christianity into the narcissistic pursuit of personal salvation.
In the Gospel of Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says it is not those who say “Lord, Lord” but those who do the will of the Father who will inherit the kingdom of Heaven. He also makes it clear with his parable of the Good Samaritan that God’s will is for us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be compassionate toward people we might not even know or like.
The biblical scholar Marcus Borg, in his book “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” writes that Jesus attacked the religious purity system of his own day, and argued for a religion centered not on purity but on compassion. Samaritans were seen as impure in first-century Judaism, and so was death. A priest and a Levite pass an injured victim of robbery on a roadside in part because the man is near death, and death was seen as impure and polluting.
In making an impure Samaritan the hero of his parable of compassion, the one who throws caution to the wind and rescues the dying stranger, Jesus attacked the emphasis on purity and piety in the established religion of his day. He was criticized for socializing with sinners and the impure, “the least of these,” and for breaking the strict rules of the Sabbath.
My father was a farmer, a devout Mennonite who taught Sunday school, read the Bible daily, and frequently quoted Scripture to make sense of things or explain his actions and feelings. One of his favorite Bible quotes was the verse from Matthew 25 in the King James Version: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” I didn’t even understand this sentence the first time I heard it, but early on I became aware of its importance in my dad’s worldview.
The verse comes near the end of Jesus’ parable about people facing God’s judgment, and being judged, not by their particular beliefs, but by the degree to which they feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, befriend the stranger and visit the imprisoned. When the people being judged are puzzled, Jesus quotes God as saying, whatever you do to the stranger, the poor, downtrodden and imprisoned, you do to God.
Our politicians who shout “Lord, Lord!” with the greatest intensity proclaim their deep faith in Jesus as their personal savior, while they explicitly contradict the ethical lessons that Jesus taught. Their ire is directed at precisely those Jesus called “the least of these,” the stranger (undocumented immigrants), the poor (welfare freeloaders), and the imprisoned (criminals).
I don’t question the sincerity of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, but I see little evidence that they understand or believe the teachings of Jesus. They pray not in a closet as Jesus advised, but shout their prayers into megaphones from mountaintops. They frequently appeal to fear (of terrorists), resentment (of liberals and welfare cheats), and anger (at our first black president, at “socialized medicine,” at federal bureaucrats).
The Christian right has made Christianity into a civil religion where Jesus’ declaration, “The first shall be last” is replaced with “We are No. 1.” “Love your neighbor as yourself” is replaced with “Don’t tread on me.” “Love your enemy” is replaced with “Carry a big stick and don’t be afraid to use it.”
It may be effective politics to appeal to hate, fear and resentment in hard economic times, but it clearly contradicts the ethical teachings of Jesus.
Paul S. Ropp is research professor of history at Clark University.