Jesus. Some people love him. Some people hate him. Somehow a rabbi from 2,000 years ago on the fringes of the Easternmost reaches of the Roman Empire still elicits a strong reaction at the very mention of his name.
In present-day America, Jesus and his teachings on poverty, and on those people who find themselves on the margins of our culture and society, seem to get lost or ignored. What’s even stranger is that a narrative remains that claims America is the Promised Land, a “Christian nation,” bound together by the salvific promise and teachings of Jesus. Jesus is, in some minds, the lynchpin holding America together and the vehicle by which American influence and power travels.
But a simple, passing glance at American-Christian attitudes on culture, politics, and our relative wealth would make any reasonable person wonder if Jesus has had any lasting impact on the flock that claims him in the United States..
So many of Jesus’ followers — this writer included — struggle with self-absorption, greed in some form or another, fear or over-ripe nationalism. We take a few too many selfies, hoard our resources to the point of overconsumption, and pledge allegiance to our flag before ever taking a moment to pray for peace and guidance. We trust our governments more than we trust Jesus’ teachings, and we don’t really trust our governments all that much. Poor Jesus.
A politics of fear has created a toxic environment where every woman, man, and child is left to believe that their only option is to thrash in anger against forces outside of their control. It’s hard to live out Jesus’ teachings when one is always gripped by fear. Usually that fear leads to lasting and harmful contradictions when it comes to practicing what Jesus preached.
All of these struggles have contributed to a growing belief among those who don’t follow Jesus and the general American public that self-centeredness, overconsumption, hypocrisy, meanness, and fervent nationalistic religion are all part and parcel of the Good News that Jesus came to share.
That, of course, is profoundly unfair to Jesus and his message.
His followers sadly have diluted many of his teachings in an effort to justify their own belief systems and behaviors. We have twisted and turned as we have used Jesus’ teachings as a weapon against others rather than a bridge to build relationship and understanding between our neighbors, especially among those neighbors who are the hardest for us to build relationships with and to understand.
For Christians, the celebration of Holy Week this week began with Palm Sunday, Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem before the Passover feast, and his eventual execution on a cross. Many of his followers will gather at churches and then at home with family and friends, saying “grace” over a meal, with fried chicken to spare, to mark his burial and testify to his resurrection. It is an occasion of great joy and meaning.
But as they pass the mash potatoes and gravy on Easter Sunday, where can we find Jesus’ teachings’ influence in America? How would he have his followers respond to poverty? Do we intentionally ignore some of the most radical teachings of Jesus out of our own self-preservation, our disdain for the poor, or our politics?
Jesus on abundance and scarcity
There is no question that the income inequality gap is growing in America. For much of middle-class America, we wonder when it will strike our livelihoods and wreak havoc on our futures. The fear is real and its consequences loom large in the American psyche. The fear is even starker among the poorest of the poor. It creeps up the economic food chain, where even the wealthy feel the need to store up earthly treasure in case bad fortune should descend on their bank accounts.
But Jesus turns the conversation on scarcity and points instead to abundance.
In the gospel of Mark, after teaching at the temple and critiquing the teachers for the hypocrisy in their teachings, Jesus pulls up a seat next to the treasury and watches as many wealthy individuals give large sums for the operations of the temple.
But then Jesus observes a widow toss in two mites, hardly enough to make much difference. Still, Jesus claims that she has “has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.“
Jesus hones in on the lack of many who live in abundance to give to the point of scarcity where there is great need. This paradox shows us the deeper understanding of Jesus’ view on economic fears: if everyone that has plenty shared in their abundance with extravagant generosity, scarcity wouldn’t exist.
Giving in the United States to charitable organizations or religious organizations has teetered between 2 to 3 percent of total adjusted gross income for the past few years, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics. As a whole, Americans aren’t particularly generous; additionally, there’s very little difference in the level of giving among non-religious and religious givers. The only real difference between religious and non-religious giving was that religious givers were more likely to give more frequently. But the giving percentages don’t budge.
As a result, charitable organizations and churches responding to the need of vulnerable populations like the homeless, under-employed, hungry, and multi-generational poor have had limited resources to mitigate these societal problems.
Researchers at the Science of Giving Institute at the University of Notre Dame note that understanding and relationship with vulnerable populations results in more giving. When gaps in relational and income links appear, the likelihood that someone will give goes down. This leads to the surprising outcome that lower income families were more likely to give at least 1 percent of their income than those in the middle-income and upper-middle income levels.
Jesus’ approach to abundance and scarcity is hardly easy to practice. As he says to the rich young ruler, “give your belongings to the poor and follow me.” This interaction leaves the rich ruler in despair. Clearly Jesus asks followers to let go of their dependence on worldly resources and participate more broadly in relational giving with those in need.
Jesus and nationalistic, tribal religion
Jesus presents a direct challenge to the American political status quo, too. His defiance of earthly authorities and his warnings against too much dependence and trust of earthly authorities is undeniable.
But many Americans see Jesus as a validator, not the source, of their political leanings. There is a tendency, on both ends of the political spectrum, to turn Jesus’ teachings into a rallying cry that pits one political tribe against the other. One’s politics soon reflect a dangerous nationalistic religion, where their personal political beliefs are the logical end to Jesus’ teachings. On issues of trade, immigration, abortion, gay rights, and taxes, Jesus is always on your side; how could it be any other way?
This perspective is particularly onerous when applying political ideology to global affairs, where differences between peoples and cultures are much more sharply defined. It is easy to slide into an “us versus them” political dichotomy between religions and cultures.
Candidates and their consultants are all too aware of these tendencies and sow in semi-religious language into every speech, associating their religion with their vision for America.
From Trump’s bungling of “two Corinthians” in an effort to galvanize support among conservative evangelicals at Liberty University, to Hillary Clinton’s occasional mentions of her practice of Methodism, you don’t have to go very far to find a candidate hocking religion.
Jesus teaches something different. He has very little faith in and a deep wariness of earthly powers. In John’s gospel, Jesus defies Pilate when he suggests he has power over Jesus’ fate in his trial. Jesus puts it simply: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above,” that his kingdom is beyond earthly matters of power. Earlier in his ministry, Jesus indicates that his followers should think first of God’s kingdom, not political authorities, saying to “render to Caesar what is due Caesar and render to God what is God’s.” Political authority can be informed by, but cannot meet, the demands of discipleship to Jesus.
In the end, to apply personal religious understandings to politics and dress them up as Jesus’ own ignores the more radical posture of Jesus’ teachings. It relegates the political conversation to a fight between warring factions, rather than building up communities of relationship and care for your neighbor, no matter what they believe.
Untangling Jesus from the political morass is difficult; passions and beliefs run deep. But to lose these broader meanings of his teachings leaves us all less in touch with one another, our world, and its problems.