In retrospect, I realize it wasn’t fair that the shooting in Arizona two weeks ago was immediately blamed on the poisonous quality our political discourse has taken over the past number of years. But I also can’t lie — my knee jerk reaction on hearing about the shooting was that the crime was indeed a crazed ideologue committing this heinous act. And the fact that I was far from being alone in making that immediate assumption does bespeak of a larger issue going on in the nation.
While wrestling with the question of how to proceed, I spotted a bumper sticker. It said, “Don’t Drink and Derive… Alcohol and Calculus Don’t Mix.” That one didn’t help me out too much, but then I saw another bumper sticker that seemed to help me: “WWJD?”
Indeed, “What Would Jesus… um… Discourse?” Though I’m certain the bumper sticker meant another more quaint phrase we’re all familiar with, it did get me thinking. I began to reflect on the nice version of Jesus on which I was raised. You know, the James Taylor version who always wore Birkenstocks and sang John Denver songs. This is the Jesus who says in the Gospel of Luke, “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” And it is that sentiment that appears to be missing from much of our political debates… and even some of our religious debates. That moment when the person who is making the argument steps back and wonders if she or he really does have the complete truth. After reflecting on that passage, I felt good about striving to live the life the “James Taylor” Jesus would have me lead.
But then, I started reading other chapters in the Bible. And a very different picture emerged. It turns out that Jesus IS in fact a lot like James Taylor… if James Taylor were a rude dinner guest, insulting his hosts and trashing public places because he doesn’t like the vendors. In fact, in a lot places he comes off more like a “Rick James” Jesus.
Seriously! Jesus spends a lot of time telling people in no uncertain terms what he thinks of them. He tells the main religious leaders of the day that they are nothing but a bunch of hypocrites — and he says these things to them when they’ve invited him into their homes for dinner. (You can almost picture the Dave Chappelle sketch in your mind.) And that’s to say nothing of the fit Jesus threw in what is now known as the “Cleansing of the Temple”. It’s not like Jesus lit a candle and sat outside while singing “We Shall Overcome” in protest of the abuses he saw; he grabbed a bat and started swinging for the Green Monster! I’m not saying that Jesus was wrong for doing so, but it does make it difficult for an argument of a gentle, Christian response against the kind of discourse popularized by the Jerry Springer Show.
And so I find myself bouncing between the two aspects of Jesus. Jesus first calls for passion when discussing matters of justice and the matters in which he truly believes; after all, whenever Jesus did get mad, it was always because he was motivated out of a sense of love. At the same time, Jesus simultaneously realizes that we all have to follow Michael Jackson’s advice, that we all have to deal with the “Man in the Mirror” before offering a full-throated argument on any given issue or disagreement.
I have to say that there have been plenty of times when I have over-identified with one over the other… to the detriment of doing what was right at the end of the day. There have been times when I have looked at my own mess a little too much instead of being able to vocalize injustice to the crowd. There have been other times when—as Bob Dylan sang in My Back Pages, “lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull,” while the truth was as illusive to me as a decent parking spot in Manhattan. In those moments, all I can do is pray that I am led towards the right path. Jesus always maintained his balance by rooting his actions in his relationship with God, not in his own self-aggrandizement; I can only strive to do the same.
Fortunately, there has been another member of the Jewish faith who has also offered his insights on this very dilemma, someone from my home state of New Jersey. Wherever you may land on the X-Y (and sometimes Z) axis of political or religious opinion, Jon Stewart spoke very prophetically about the problems of our current state of discourse at the close of his now-infamous Rally to Restore Sanity last October. When Stewart used the imagery of a series of cars trying to negotiate going through a narrow tunnel in a collaborative way, I got the feeling that Jesus would approve. At the very least, it has helped me avoid giving in to my own knee-jerk reactions when disagreements present themselves.