The Soapboxer

Jesus loves me, and my image of him

Obviously Jesus was a hippie. Just look at the pictures of him, all earnest and long-haired. With his sandals and his groovy tunic. Always going on about peace and love and expanding people’s consciousnesses. No doubt he could do wonders with a hacky sack.

Obviously Jesus was a hippie. Just look at the pictures of him, all earnest and long-haired. With his sandals and his groovy tunic. Always going on about peace and love and expanding people’s consciousnesses. No doubt he could do wonders with a hacky sack.

For a long time I really embraced that caricature – well, except for the part about the hacky sack. I had Jesus pegged as a peace-loving, social justice advocate with no time for the rich. So, he was kind of like me. But then it struck me that it was just a bit too convenient that Jesus’ political and social views mirrored mine so well.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m still convinced that Jesus was a lefty. But I’m not so arrogant as to believe that anyone who has a different take on him is necessarily out of line. In fact, leaving out the nuances of our differing interpretations of the man, there are some pretty explicit contradictions that make him impossible to pin down.

Contrast, for example, my hippie-Jesus with the Jesus of Revelation, where he’s a warrior on a horse, with a sharp sword in hand so he can slaughter evildoers until the streets fill with blood. Whoa.

There are other less dramatic contradictions, of course. Like, he was a radical egalitarian – but he couldn’t be bothered to include any women among his 12 disciples. And he promoted harmony and love – but also encouraged parents to abandon their children (Matthew 19:29) and came to earth “to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:35). He brought a message of unprecedented inclusiveness – but spoke in parables to confuse and confound “those on the outside” so that the “secret of the kingdom of God” wouldn’t be revealed to them (Mark 4:11-12). He came to turn authority on its head – but he famously instructed us to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). Finally, how am I supposed to square this with my hippie-Jesus formulation: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the Earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).

All of this is open to interpretation, of course. And therein lies the key to our propensity to project all kinds of characteristics on Jesus to suit a chosen image of him. We fashion Jesus’ sayings and teachings to fit our line of thinking, and if we don’t like the face value of his words, we can always add the caveat: “what he really meant when he said that was [insert theological interpretation here].”

Because Jesus is such a potent symbolic figure for religious and non-religious people alike, he’s constantly used as an instrument to further a point of view – political, religious, or otherwise. Sometimes we resort to outright fabrication to skew Jesus a certain way, like the time animal rights group PETA made the dubious claim in an ad campaign that “Jesus was a vegetarian.” But most of the time, characterizations of Jesus that rub us the wrong way can’t simply be written off as disingenuous or duplicitous – no matter how unreasonable we may find them.

This point struck me a few years ago while listening to a right-wing preacher use Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to justify the war in Iraq. Seriously. Prior to that day, I had always figured the Beatitudes served as a pretty unequivocal “checkmate” for those of us in the Jesus-was-a-peacenikhippie camp. But here was this preacher using them to justify war. As in “Blessed are the merciful.” And it was merciful to invade Iraq. As preposterous as I find the notion, and as cynical as I am about the motivations behind the invasion of Iraq, I don’t doubt that those responsible were convinced they were acting mercifully. So whatever my thoughts, I can’t categorically say that the preacher was wrong.

What’s most fascinating to me, though, is that using Jesus to justify violence isn’t restricted to a particular political persuasion. The Marxist priests steeped in liberation theology who helped mould Colombia’s guerrilla National Liberation Army (ELN) also felt that Christ’s liberating power could be expressed through armed conflict. One of them, Father Camilo Torres, famously stated, “If Jesus were alive today, he would be a guerrillero.” Torres was killed in his first combat experience, but several other priests followed him to the ELN.

A warmonger. A guerilla. These examples show that when you take the complexities and contradictions of the figure of Jesus himself, and combine them with our presumptions and contemporary sensibilities, he can end up being whoever you want him to be. A superhero. A revolutionary. A magician. A carpenter. All those things and more. For myself personally, all I can say for certain is that Jesus was an end-times preacher who offered up some radical, compelling shit. Beyond that, it gets pretty hazy.

Nicholas Klassen is a principal at Biro Creative and a former senior editor at Adbusters magazine.

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