Searching for Bush's Jesus

Laid in a manger, abridged in the White House

I walked out of my Anglican-church confirmation classes when I was 13, thinking I'd put religion out of my life for good, because the "devout" Christians I was being counseled by couldn't hide the hate in their eyes. Still, because I do admire much of Jesus's teachings, I've been angry at George Bush for a long time for claiming to be a follower of Jesus while doing so many things that He would surely have disapproved of. So recently, blessed with many lazy beach hours on the island of Tortola, I decided the time had come to challenge Bush's version of Christianity. It was a deliciously ironic coincidence that back in the late '70s and early '80s, when Bush was just married and way before Christ had "changed" his heart, he would jog along this very beach on Sundays, heading from his friends' house to the tiny mustard-colored Methodist church, with its simple wooden cross propped at the pinnacle of its gabled roof, way at the other end of town.

I recently talked on the phone with the pastor who served there at the time. He claims no memory of George, though you'd think an exuberant white guy would have been painfully obvious sitting among the local little girls, in the same starched and frilly white dresses I wore at their age, the age when little girls want to go to church. Others in the area do remember his visits to Tortola but they are considerately silent, meaning of course that there's lots to tell. Perhaps Bush attended his first Methodist service there, after switching to Laura's religion, though if he'd taken a little more care he'd have discovered that Methodists are proudly anti-war, and indeed church bishops met with him early in 2003 to try to talk him out of going to Iraq. Maybe Bush told them to check their Bibles more closely. Indeed, since the ruins of Babylon, a biblically wicked city, are in Iraq, and since Bush feels that he's been chosen "to do the Lord's will" and that his election was "another manifestation of divine purpose," we may soon hear yet another justification for this war: the United States is engaging in the final battle between Good and Evil.

Since Bush famously claims Christ as his favorite philosopher, and since I distinctly remembered Jesus being a gentle man who preached endlessly about helping the poor, honoring little children, and the impossibility of the rich getting into heaven, along with blessing those who mourn and promising that the meek shall inherit the earth, I decided to spend some of my beach hours re-reading the copy of the New Testament that a Methodist church member kindly lent me, looking for perhaps long-forgotten verses that Bush might approve of. Of course, brilliant biblical scholars have long been busy exploring the contradictions between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of Bush and other Evangelical Christians, and there's a lot of fascinating literature out there. But my concern is more as an ordinary person who was taught as a child that one of the most important lessons of the Bible is to treat others as I would want to be treated myself. So when the debate monitor followed up Bush's "Christ" answer with a suggestion that he elaborate, and Bush said, "If you don't understand, it's hard to explain," I was really surprised. Even a biblical literalist, if that's what Bush is, could easily have found example after example of Jesus's caring philosophy. He could have cited, for example, his agreement with Jesus's very admirable acceptance of women as equals.

illustration: Lady Alexandra Palace

Now, if Bush had just stuck with God as his savior, instead of specifically naming Jesus, I wouldn't have been so upset, since he, of course, could find anything he wanted in the Old Testament. He clearly prefers the Ten Commandments to the Eight Beatitudes, but, as I discovered, Jesus was consciously transforming some Old Testament teachings. In the Gospel According to St. Matthew, Jesus says clearly: "Ye may have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever should smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (5:38-39), as well as "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (5:43-44). And just to top it off, "For if you love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans [great choice of word!] the same?" (5:46). Clearly Jesus had his own agenda. He is definitely one of history's great social reformers, in a class with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and for the most part he appears much closer to a pacifist communist (which most Christians will never acknowledge) than a stock-market gambler.

But I did indeed find Jesus a little contradictory. For instance, he shocked me by saying, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I come not to send peace, but a sword" (Matt. 10:34). And then there's, "Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you" (John 15:14), which I'm sure Bush loves, and "He that is not with me is against me" (Matt. 12:30), which Bush has repeatedly used (though I personally prefer the version in Luke 9:50: "He that is not against us is for us" ). "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13) could be used as a justification for sending young men to war, I suppose. And then there's "Whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire" (Matt. 5:22), which Bush probably gets some comfort from today with all the critical stuff going on.

I suppose he could have decided to isolate the verses that seem to say that just believing in Jesus is enough ("He that believeth on me hath everlasting life," John 6:47, etc. etc.). In my childhood I did meet a number of Christians who believed Jesus taught that all they had to do was profess "faith" to be automatically good and moral, and it is possible to isolate that interpretation. But my minister emphasized that, as James reminded followers after Jesus's death, "It is not enough, my brother, to say you have faith, when there are no deeds…. O vain man … faith without works is dead." Bush and other Christians also seem able to completely ignore Jesus's warnings "That a rich man [kindly changed to 'person' in some new translations] shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19:23) and "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (Matt. 19:24).

But surely these few Bible verses weren't enough to convince Bush to ignore Jesus's more dominant teachings, even though the evangelist who talked to him in 1984, fresh from a Guinness Book of World Records honor for wheeling a cross across six continents, must have been very convincing.

So, as I read on and on about Jesus demanding that his disciples forgo any thoughts of family or wealth, plus endless examples of behavior which surely must seem wimpy to Bush if he took them literally, I realized that what he might be finding "hard to explain" are the contradictions between Jesus's teachings and Bush's own actions. Maybe Bush had, of necessity, found a new way to interpret all this. If changing 'Thou shalt not kill" to "You shall not murder" somehow justifies all versions of war from self-defense to pre-emptive, plus the death penalty and even timely torture, maybe the same sleight of hand could be used more extensively. After all, Christianity has gone through so many revisions in 2000 years that it's possible in our day for believers to be as polarized in their teachings as Martin Luther King and Pat Robertson.

I did find a few obvious verses that Bush could reinterpret: With "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matt. 5:9), he could say he's bringing peace to Iraq. "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal" (Matt. 25:46) is a good one, since righteousness is so subjective, and Jesus does seem willing here to inflict punishment. "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32) depends of course on your definition of truth, while "Be not afraid" can be applied to suit any situation.

Many other verses are confusing enough to elicit any meaning Bush might want: "But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first" (Matt. 19:30 and 20:16); "For whosoever exalted himself shall be abased: and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Luke 14:11); "He that loved his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal" (John 12:25); "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it" (Matt. 16:25); and on and on.

And then of course there are the confounding parables. Take the one about the "talents" in Matthew. After a man complains that one of his servants didn't invest the money he was left while the master was away—so that "I should have received mine own with usury"—the shocking conclusion is: "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." The Christians I asked for an interpretation, after reminding me that of course it's only a pesky parable, mumbled a Jesus-friendly interpretation such as, "We should not bury our skills and riches, but instead use them wisely." Or, as the New International Version of the Bible explains this passage: "Those who seek spiritual gain in the gospel for themselves and others will become richer, and those who neglect or squander what is given them will become impoverished, losing even what they have." (There doesn't seem to be an attempt to explain the ending to this parable, where, as one new translation has it: "And as for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.")

The soldier stuff seems particularly hard to misunderstand. But could Bush and Cheney have chosen to avoid combat, I ask with tongue not too far in cheek, because they decided to literally believe verses such as: "For all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword" (Matt. 26:52)? And, since Jesus's advice to soldiers to "Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages" (Luke 3:14) is "clarified" in one new translation by omitting the "do no violence" part, Bush could perhaps find here a justification for his resistance to increasing soldiers' pay.

But as you can see, much of what I found would have to be severely distorted for Bush to claim any strong affinity with Jesus. So, after all my research, I am still in shock. I still have no idea how it has been possible for him to so grossly distort my devoutly religious parents' teaching of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

I've been thinking for some time now that perhaps, when Bush and Robertson accuse Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez of undermining his country's economy by sharing some of its oil riches with the poor, Chavez, a good Catholic, should say he is simply implementing Jesus's teachings. And now apparently Chavez has taken my advice. When Jesse Jackson visited Venezuela recently, Chavez said to him, "You can be sure we will continue fighting for the ideas of Martin Luther King, for Christ the Redeemer's idea of loving one another and building a society of equals through our peaceful and democratic revolution."

So, to carry on in this vein, when Bush accuses Canada or Spain, say, of not doing their share in the War on Terror, perhaps they should remind him that Jesus taught us that a more effective approach is to love our enemies. And when Bush brings up the very real horrors inflicted on the United States in 2001, the countries that opposed the Iraq war as a solution could remind him that Jesus was against retaliation, always insisting, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone" (John 8:7). Also, it might be an intelligent new approach for those running in 2006 against Bush's policies to point out that a true New Testament literalist would automatically provide health care and decent wages for everyone.

Of course, there's another even wilder explanation of the disconnect between Jesus's teachings and Bush's claim to be a follower. It could just be that, always proud to proclaim himself a nonreader, he never really got around to reading the whole New Testament. At the very least he should spend some vacation time refreshing himself. Then he would surely discover the gentle Jesus of my childhood and, instead of congratulating a woman for being such a great hard-working American when she explained that she needed three jobs to support herself, he might finally give us the four-day work week that was being promised way back in the 1950s.

We are far too complacent, allowing ourselves off the hook by pretending that we aren't involved in the acts that our leaders perform. We should be outraged. We should never again let Bush forget Jesus's scary warning: "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Matt.16:26). The United States still has the potential to be the greatest influence for good the world has ever known. And Bush himself, if he so chose, could lead us there. Let us and Bush not forget that Jesus said simply, "If a man love me, he will keep my words" (John 14:23).

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