Why “Jesus” is to Blame for the Government Shutdown

October 8, 2013
If you’ve been paying attention recently, you may have heard that conservative talking head, Bill O’Reilly, has written a new book about Jesus. The book, entitled Killing Jesus— which argues that, among other things, Jesus was killed over taxes—is already at or near the top of numerous best-seller lists in its category. If previous sales of O’Reilly’s books are any indicator, this new book is destined to be a big money maker. If you’ve been paying attention recently (and even if you haven’t), you may have also heard that the U.S. Government went into meltdown mode last week, shutting down for the first time since 1996. Over the past week I have watched O’Reilly defend the thesis of his book, while taking on so-called “socialist” critics and, in the process, offering a confusing dichotomy between what constitutes “religion” and what constitutes “history.” During that same period I have also been exposed to one-sided sound bites from congressional leaders, over-the-top social media rants, and the endless opining of my friends about the reasons for and motivations behind the government shutdown. You may wonder how (or even whether) these news items have any relation to one another, but I believe there is a symbiotic relationship between the two which begs for a closer look. Amid the cacophony of voices I have come to the following conclusion: Bill O’Reilly’s Jesus is to blame for the recent government shutdown. Let me explain.

O’Reilly is a hero for many right-wingers and the Jesus he presents will quickly, even if uncritically, be embraced. However, O’Reilly’s Jesus is essentially an American capitalist dressed up like a first-century Palestinian Jew. He is a man out of time with religious and political views that oddly reflect those of O’Reilly and his devotees. Nowhere were these perspectives more clearly on display than in the recent tête-à- tête O’Reilly had on his television show with Notre Dame professor, Candida Moss. Throughout the conversation O’Reilly attempted to present his Jesus as “historical” while distancing himself from “religion” and “theology.” He also proffered the unqualified, and I would say, patently unhistorical assertion that Jesus “stayed out of politics.” These comments, coupled with their taking place in the context of a debate with a “liberal” professor, no doubt won great applause from O’Reilly’s constituency. However, when pushed by Professor Moss on the difficult saying, “blessed are the poor,” O’Reilly hastily responded, “you’re taking it literally when these are parables” (by the way, the saying in question was not a parable, but a beatitude). At this point, O’Reilly’s conservative Christian constituents were probably so busy celebrating his political views that they likely missed the fact that he had denied their overarching interpretive method, which is to take what is written in the Bible quite literally.

As a professor and scholar, and as a member of the Christian clergy, I have continually encountered professing Christians who would rather spiritualize (and thereby avoid putting into practice) words attributed to Jesus, while literalizing, and even politicizing religious traditions rooted in words Jesus never spoke. For instance, we often find it easier to spiritualize the commands to “turn the other cheek,” and “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:39, 44, respectively) while, at the same time, insisting on our inherent rights to bear arms and defend ourselves (sentiments that, as far as I can tell, were not shared by the historical Jesus). Taking things a step further, many Christians in the United States are quick to sacrifice their theological views on the altar of political expediency, and nowhere is this practice more rampant than in Christian circles whose members might express an affinity for Bill O’Reilly and his political ilk. Now, how does this relate to the government shutdown?

There is little doubt that the single biggest political issue giving rise to the current state of gridlock in US politics has been the Obama administration’s desire to provide health care for every American citizen. Despite numerous conservative attempts to halt this process, it has become the law of the land with the backing of even the Republican heavy Supreme Court. However, if you listen to the sound bites of congressional leaders and other talking heads who both oppose universal healthcare and also identify as “Christian,” you can hear echoes of Bill O’Reilly’s Jesus. Apparently, the Jesus that baptizes Bill O’Reilly’s political views is the same Jesus who smiles approvingly at the congressional temper tantrum which has led to the government shutdown. That same Jesus sees universal healthcare as “unethical” because it undermines the work ethic of others who receive healthcare at their places of business and in the process rewards the lazy and slothful among us. It is interesting to note that, in all of the healing narratives in the New Testament, there is not one place where Jesus asks an individual about his/her job or work ethic before deciding to heal.

On September 20, 2013, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Rep. Jim Jordan (R, Ohio), while speaking about the necessity of defunding Obamacare, made the following comment: “When the American people get engaged, they have a way of making elected officials see the light, find the Lord, and do the right thing. This bill is the right thing.” Later in the interview he states, “I think there’s guys in the Senate…who are going to find Jesus and do the right thing.” In eastern North Carolina, where I live, we often hear people talk about having a “come-to-Jesus meeting,” by which is meant a serious discussion. But I think more is implied by Rep. Jordan in these comments. His sort of religiously-charged language is more than just political rhetoric. There is an ethos that pervades the ultra-right wing of the Republican party which, akin to the flawed early American doctrine of “Manifest Destiny,” illegitimately sees America as God’s new chosen nation with a Jesus-as-free-market-capitalist calling the shots. One problem with this whole scenario is that Jesus was a Jewish peasant who lived in a land dominated by the brutal Roman empire. The ethics of Jesus were formed in the crucible of oppression to which the inhabitants of Roman colonies were subjected. It seems banal to say—though I think many miss—that the United States in the 21st century has a great deal more in common with 1st century Rome than 1st century Palestine.

Even in my own personal experience, the most outspoken opponents of universal healthcare have been
 self-proclaimed “born again Christians” who are quick to tell you that they read the Bible literally. Mind you, they don’t generally read the parts about caring for the poor and marginalized literally, though certainly the parts about cataclysmic end-times events (see this gem from Michelle Bachmann just this morning). Ironically, these same individuals also proclaim that “Jesus wants to save the world,” though we should keep in mind that such salvation, like much else in their reading of the New Testament is “spiritual” more than anything else.

The Jesus of Bill O’Reilly and other ultra-right-wingers is a Jesus who stands at the head of our nation, approves of our affluence, nods with acceptance at our disregard for the disenfranchised, embraces our imperial policies, and insists that his words shouldn’t be taken literally, at least not when it comes to turning the other cheek or giving sacrificially to the help the less fortunate. According to O’Reilly—and he said as much in his discussion with Prof. Moss—it doesn’t work because it’s simply too hard. The Jesus I read about in the New Testament and more importantly, the one I attempt to follow in my own life, wants—I believe—to be taken seriously (and literally) on things like caring for the disenfranchised among us. He also wants to engage the world on something much greater than simply a “spiritual” level. The Jesus I read about is immediately relevant for more than just “heavenly” or “spiritual” concerns. This recognition is often missing in both our religious and political discourse where Jesus is concerned. The Jesus of Bill O’Reilly and other politically-conservative Americans lies at the very heart of decisions that have led to our recent government shutdown. Perhaps reflective Christians can be a part of the solution, but this will mean abandoning the Jesus of Bill O’Reilly and Fox News for the Jesus we find in the New Testament.


Popular posts from this blog

Spikenard Sunday/Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut

The time when America stopped being great

Idolatry of the Family