For centuries, portraits of Jesus have provided not only a good look into the history of art, but also the chemistry produced when theology meets culture. Depictions of Jesus' humanity pull from a cross-section of society, including every race, ethnicity, and culture, and a variety of ideological and theological positions.
From the God-Human Byzantine of the famous Christ Pantocrator to the American conservative of McNaughton's "One Nation Under God," Jesus is the most adaptive figure of all history. He is, for all intents and purposes, whatever and whomever you want him to be.
At least, that is what it feels like.
It is not surprising, then, that amid economic injustice, poverty, and rising class warfare that Jesus is regularly co-opted for a particular economic system or political agenda. From the worldviews of the Tea Party to the protests of Occupy Wall Street, Jesus becomes metamorphic.
For example, last week, House Budget Committee Chairman, Paul Ryan, claimed that the highly conservative Republican budget plan was "moral" and inspired by the principles of his Catholic faith. This set off a flurry of conversation as to whether Jesus would cut services to the poor as Ryan's plan does. This week, around 60 Catholic bishops opposed the Ryan budget in a signed statement arguing that it is "morally indefensible and betrays Catholic principles of solidarity, just taxation and a commitment to the common good."
In the last year there have been no shortages of case-making online for Jesus' conservativeness or liberalness. At the end of last year, for example, a CNN Belief Blog piece by Family Research Council president, Tony Perkins, claimed that "Jesus was a free marketer, not an Occupier," while an article by Lisa Miller at The Washington Post's On Faith section argued the opposite.
How is it that one individual can engender the support of such disparate positions?
Consider one example of how easy it is to read Jesus from these differing perspectives. In Matthew 20 appears the parable of the vineyard owner. According to Matthew's gospel, the owner of the vineyard went out early in the day and hired several workers to harvest his crop. After some time, he realized that he needed more workers than he had planned, so he went to where he found his initial workers and hired more. And being the poor planner that he apparently was, he decided he needed additional workers, so he went out a third time in the day and found more eagerly awaiting employment.
Finally, at the end of the day's work, he gathered the laborers and paid them all the same wage. The complaint that followed might be expected. Some said they worked all day and wondered why they were getting paid the same wage as those who worked only part of the day; it seemed rather unfair.
His response? "Did I not give you what we agreed upon? Am I not allowed to do with my money as I please?"
One prominent interpretation of this passage (found in many Bible commentaries) is that Jesus is telling his disciples that whether one becomes a Christian at the beginning or end of his or her life, everyone receives the same amount of grace. Grace is that which is Jesus' right to give and it has nothing to do with how many years someone was in his employ.
Another interpretation is from the margins. For the undocumented worker, Jesus might be saying something like this: "The vineyard owner provides for his workers, knowing that they were ready to work and that they eventually need to feed their families. He doesn't horde his wealth, rather he ensures that those he hires for the job are taken care of properly despite his lack of planning."
I can imagine yet one other interpretation, the free-market version, which might look something like this: "Jesus is speaking out against governmental standards that dictate what a business owner must provide for his or her employee. Given a truly free market, employers will do the right and fair thing with their employees."
Much like the many portraits of Jesus over the centuries, we should never underestimate the ability of human beings to rewrite Jesus' words into their own ideologies.
A recent study from Stanford University in California (see, The Guardian "One Jesus for liberals, another for conservatives") shows that the Jesus of liberal Christianity is very different from the Jesus embraced by conservative Christians. Republican and Democratic Christians both see Jesus as sharing their opinions---well, mostly. Surprisingly, they also recognize that there are points where their distinct political views might differ from Jesus'. For conservatives, according to this study, Jesus might be a little nicer to the poor, and for liberals, he might be a little less flexible on gay rights.
So why not change your position if your God does not share it? The study argues that this ability to maintain an opinion different from Jesus' is the result of "dissonance reduction." The uneasiness brought on by the disconnect felt when one holds onto conflicting ideas is called "cognitive dissonance." Dissonance reduction, however, is the solution; individuals grasp onto one idea as more of a priority than another, and find it easier to do so when done as part of a community.
Still, there are serious problems when people look for the divine stamp of approval for their very human systems. Perhaps it is just best to acknowledge that Jesus is not a spokesperson for every notion we conjure up. This is not to say that there is nothing to learn from Jesus, and this is not to say that Republican and Democratic Christians are not picking up on portions of his teachings. Rather, I think we need to recognize that Jesus did not address every life situation in detail.
Free market systems or the abuses of Wall Street are not the specific questions of his context. To expect Jesus to package up an answer for every future problem in a nice red bow is to expect more of him than he expected of himself.
Even the gospel writers, the sources of Jesus' teachings, provide us with four different portraits (remember, Jesus never wrote a single book). This means that Jesus is not only addressing issues that differ from our current political climate, but he is doing so in the distinct voices of others. Matthew has a Jewish audience and portrays Jesus as the new Moses, while Luke is addressing a Gentile audience, and Jesus comes across as the one welcoming the poor and marginalized.
Matthew's famous "Sermon on the Mount" and Luke's parallel account, which is said to occur on a plain, show some of these significant differences. In Matthew's (5:3-6), Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" and "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," while Luke's (Luke 6:20-21) reads, "Blessed are you who are poor" and "Blessed are you who are hungry now" (emphases mine). This contextualized Jesus (one aimed at a spiritual status and the other at one's physical status) limits the scope and direction of the gospels and the application of Jesus' words today.
It is hubris to think that if Jesus addressed our current dilemmas he would side strictly with one position without a problem. Jesus is, to borrow the words of C.S. Lewis's Narnia, "not a tame lion." He has a way of throwing a curveball at the listener's expectations no matter which gospel you read.
Perhaps no one may be able to turn Jesus' words into an exact manifesto of their economic and political ideologies, but that does not mean there is nothing of value in the gospels for today. Some points are just universal and relevant to the rich or poor, Republican or Democrat, free market conservative or Occupier. I'm guessing that Jesus would ask everyone to admit their own guilt in our nation's problems first. He might wonder if we mourn with those who mourn and if you love your neighbors as yourself, whether they are part of the 1% or the 99%.
He might also ask us to stop forging his name onto our agendas.
Follow Brandon G. Withrow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bwithrow