Years ago the religious right kidnapped Jesus. They blindfolded him, bound and gagged him and currently hold him in a windowless room in the church basement. They make him sign confessions that he hates homosexuals, opposes gun control, backs all of America's military adventures, loves free market capitalism, loathes taxation and thinks the poor are poor because they are lazy, dope-peddling good-for-nothings. That is the bad news. The good news is that the guy in the basement isn't Jesus at all. Jesus escaped two millennia ago.
That is because the founder of Christianity is a spiritual Houdini. He slips out of any straitjacket you put him in. Nobody has yet devised the manacles that can hold him, not even the church. Lock Jesus in an iron safe and throw it into the Hudson river and he will end up grinning at you high and dry from the Jersey shore.
As Christmas approaches, the minds of many of us turn to the founder of Christianity, whose birthday we celebrate. Yet 2011 years after his birth, the real Jesus remains oddly elusive. The person we think is him is often little more than an idol, a shadowy projection of our own views and purposes onto an historical figure who can no longer complain however grotesquely we misrepresent him -- or mangle his message.
So is Jesus a liberal, a conservative, a Tea-Party wannabe, or a Wall Street Occupier? The answer is "none of the above." Mind you, I say this not because I believe -- as George Will, for example, has argued -- that Jesus was "apolitical," that he cared nothing about challenging political injustice and economic inequity, that he was not interested in subverting the power structures that imprison us.
On the contrary, Jesus was committed so passionately to freeing people from all bonds that he didn't limit himself to railing against the Roman empire, or challenging the rabbis and religious authorities of his age, as other Jewish dissidents had done. Jesus was no reformer content to tidy things up around the edges, he was a Truth-speaking liberator who aimed for nothing less than overturning the money-changer tables of the corrupted human heart. He wouldn't settle for changing the world -- he wanted to transform the human animal, which is a whole lot harder.
Liberator and liberal have the same root, but they are not the same thing. Liberation is what happens when all of the rugs get pulled out from under us and we are thrown back upon ourselves, our own deepest and most authentic selves. The liberator tells us that we are not to depend on any external authority -- not the government, not the nation, not the free-market economy, not even our own minds with their chronic and conditioned fears and whipped up hatreds, their advertiser-created cravings and media-induced delusions. The liberator tells us to drop all that and become radically free.
And oddly enough this is precisely the definition of the word "liberal." We're not talking about what the term has come to mean in our own eviscerated political discourse. Forget about the shrinking violet liberals as we know them. We're talking here about the dictionary; here is what it says:
* The dictionary defines liberal as, "Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry."
Jesus challenged Jewish dietary laws saying that no food that we eat can defile us (Mark 7:17-19). He violated religious dogma by healing people on the Jewish Sabbath asserting that, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27).
* The dictionary says to be liberal is to be "tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded."
Jesus hung out with lepers, prostitutes, Samaritans and Roman soldiers. He told a mob that was threatening a woman accused of adultery, "Let he who is without sin throw the first stone." He said, "Judge not, lest you too be judged." (Matthew 7:1). He also taught, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which persecute you; (Matthew 5:44).
* The dictionary says that to be liberal is to be "favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible."
Jesus asserted that he had come "to preach good news to the poor... to proclaim freedom for the prisoners... to release the oppressed." (Luke 4:18 & 19). He instructed his followers to, "Know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free." (John 8,32).
* The dictionary tells us that the word "liberal" derives from the Latin liberalis ("generous"). It states that liberal means "characterized by generosity and willingness to give in large amounts: a liberal donor."
Jesus said, "When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just." (Luke 14:13 &14).
So you tell me. Was Jesus a liberal?