Anderson Cooper: I do have to … press the question, … What would Jesus do? Would Jesus support the death penalty?
Mike Huckabee: Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office, Anderson. That’s what Jesus would do.
— from the November 28, 2007 CNN/YouTube Republican debate
[Jesus said]: “Show Me a Roman coin. Whose picture and title are stamped on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. “Well then,” He said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” — Luke 20:24-25, NLT
I’m not surprised that the CNN producers of the recent Republican YouTube debate permitted two questions about Christianity. One was “What would Jesus do about the death penalty?” The other was “Do you believe the Bible completely and literally?” Both fit CNN’s leftish stereotypes about Republicans and the Religious Right as Bible-thumping buffoons.
They were gotcha questions from a group that is tone-deaf to the meaning of Christianity and the long traditions that apply it to public life.
The Christian church has been asking itself questions like these for two millennia, and has not yet agreed on everything that might be said in response to “What would Jesus do?”
CNN’s producers are not dying to understand Jesus, they just wanted to make the candidates squirm. Only Mike Huckabee answered well, and since he is a former Baptist minister, he had something of a home-court advantage.
But the honest answer to the question “What would Jesus do” about — the death penalty, the death tax, illegal immigration, Iran, ethanol, pork (the earmark variety, not the 4-footed kind) — fill in the blank, is probably, nothing. Jesus’ laser-like focus in the Gospels is always on two things: our relationship to God, and our relationship to each other. That’s about it.
Jesus didn’t live in a social democracy; he was a citizen of an occupied country living under a military dictatorship. Think France or Poland during World War II. Jews were not usually participants in Roman politics, nor did they dare criticize it.
(It’s an interesting footnote that the Apostle Paul was a Jewish Roman citizen who used his status to gain an audience with Rome, to testify about his faith in Jesus.)
Rome made enthusiastic use of the death penalty. Though Jesus himself became a victim of the Roman execution machine, he is never recorded as uttering a single word of criticism against it, though Rome executed tens of thousands of mostly political prisoners.
Was Jesus a coward? Quite the opposite, in fact. He frequently criticized the Jewish religious authorities for their practices, their laws, and their misguided leadership as God’s representatives to Israel.
Like the Sharia courts in the Sudan who are right now judging and punishing a school teacher for insulting Islam, the religious leaders of Israel had the power to punish those who broke Jewish religious law or insulted Jewish religious leadership. Jesus knew that, but spoke out harshly against them despite the risks.
His criticisms, however, were never about public policy. They always focused on the charge that Judaism had strayed from the true path of faith — had lost its love for God.
In fact, Jesus’ primary beef was that Israel had become so bogged down in the minutia of laws and policies and traditions and observances and prohibitions that it had lost sight of its identity and purpose: it was a people loved by God, created to love God in response.
I am very interested in the beliefs and faith practices of the candidates. I believe these things tell us something important about the men and women who are running for political office.
Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to ask these sorts of questions at a political debate. They cheapen and distort Christian faith. The Bible is not a compendium of platitudes. The Bible is not a recipe book for social democratic policy. By tossing it so lightly into political debate, we create the impression that the Bible is on the same level as Maureen Dowd’s latest rant in the New York Times.
I have no doubt that CNN’s leftish producers have a more reverent attitude towards the High Priestess Dowd than for the Old and New Testaments. That’s their right.
And frankly, it isn’t the Left who started us down this road.
It was the Religious Right, the Falwells and Robertons and Dobsons, who cheapened Christianity by giving the erroneous impression that the Bible is a political road map to godly government. In fact, the Bible says nothing that helps determine whether, for instance, it is better to have a privately- or publicly-funded health care system.
What would Jesus do? He would remind us that we are first and foremost not Republicans or Democrats or Greens or Libertarians, not Americans or Mexicans or Iraqis, but citizens of Heaven. Children of God. Followers of Christ.
He would remind us that while we have duties to our country and government, and civic responsibilities that we must honor as citizens of a republic, most of us have forgotten our duties to God. We have lost our focus.
What would Jesus do? He would tell us that who wins the next election isn’t as important as who wins your soul. He would remind us that we might not even live to see the results of this 2008 campaign, and he would ask us where we have put our ultimate hope — in Him, or in politics? (See Luke 12:16-21)
Genuine Christianity makes a difference in the lives of men and women of faith. If Christianity hasn’t made you more loving and compassionate towards your neighbor, more generous and concerned for the poor, more humble about yourself, more thankful, and more in awe of God’s handiwork, and his hand on our lives, you haven’t discovered the heart of Christianity.
Christian faith changes people. Therefore, it changes citizens, candidates for public office, viewpoints on public policy, and the attitudes of a pluralistic society as it tries to agree on the common good.
Christian faith is in one sense above all the partisan nonsense that makes up a representative democracy. But in another sense, Christianity wants to be in that process as it soaks into the pores and sinews and neurons of each of us as we live out our American citizenship.
What would Jesus do? He would urge us to take our citizenship seriously. And he would remind us that long after there is no more America, we will still be citizens of an ancient monarchy, whose King is the Lord of Hosts, the God who loves us.
Graphic credit: ProdigalSheep.com
The Pharisees and Sadducees often asked Jesus questions trying to bait him. This is also a favorite tactic of the media. Tie the candidate in knots, create dissension among Christians, and do the best to distract from the real issues. Often Jesus responded to them with a question of his own. Perhaps Christian candidates might take a cue from the Lord.
Whether candidates or just the average guy talking to someone about Jesus, we need wisdom in meeting these challenges. When confronted with a question of how God was going to treat someone who never heard the Gospel, a friend replied, “The question is not what is going to happen to others who’ve never heard. The question is how are you going to respond to Christ’s offer of salvation?”
Beautifully said, Charlie!
Da’h, but who would he vote for?
Another very nice observation. It seems that election years make us even crazier than normal, with everyone rabid to decide which candidate is “the best Christian” or supports “Christian values”.It isn’t too often that someone points out what you have in this post–that, while we have to choose the candidate who most matches our values and morals, lip service to Jesus does not necessarily equal Christianity.
I’ve noticed that, while Jesus was criticized for spending so much time talking with prostitutes and thieving tax collectors, we don’t read about him trying to combat prostitution or corruption in Rome’s system of taxation. As you say, he was more concerned about the orientation of the individual (e.g., of me) than the condition of the government.
Jesus did not resist the demands of government upon him, and I don’t think he would have stayed home from the polls if he had lived in a democratic society. But politics was never the focus of his mission, nor could it have been.
Jesus seems to have reserved his strongest criticisms for the religious government of his day. He told the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees, “You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” In saying this, he was adding very little to what the prophet Micah had said 500 years previously to God’s people Israel: “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
If Jesus were on earth today, I doubt his message would change in the least. E.g., someone would ask him about illegal immigration. He would ask about the person who violates the integrity of a nation by crossing its borders illegally and about the people who hate him for doing so but who care nothing for his wellbeing. He might also have something to say to those who exploit these wrongs to their own advantage. But a political solution would not be his interest. Politics doesn’t save people. Jesus saves.