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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” whoJesus saves money 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 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.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Drew permalink
    October 8, 2013 1:21 pm

    Fantastic post, Chris!

    • October 8, 2013 1:31 pm

      Thanks, Drew. Just some thoughts that got stirred up after watching Candida on the O’Reilly factor last week. Hope you’re well.

  2. Terry permalink
    October 8, 2013 3:34 pm

    Chris, I am going to use your piece in my Christology class; thanks for your insight!

  3. Chris permalink
    October 8, 2013 3:36 pm

    This is what I needed to help me in my debates with so called Christians who oppose everything that helps the poor.. Great job Professor on this article and I hope it circulates to FOX,MSNBC and CNN because this is a truth that you write.

    • October 8, 2013 4:04 pm

      Many thanks for the kind words. I just hope it helps others think about the way we use Jesus for our own political ends.

  4. October 8, 2013 7:11 pm

    well done, Chris! thanks for this

  5. Wendy P. permalink
    October 8, 2013 11:04 pm

    Excellent post, Chris!

    I about howled in laughter and indignation when O’Reilly stated Jesus wasn’t interested in politics! In first-century Palestine, to a pious Jew politics and religion were inextricably intertwined – pretty much the same thing. God was the only true King or ruler of men.

    And it’s a shame that most modern fundamentalist Christians, because they are “believers” and thus are “saved”, they are overly focused on the future: Heaven and how to get to there, or what life will be like in some post-apocalyptic new world free of non-believers.

    They seem to have forgotten that the Jesus of the New Testament was focused on bringing Heaven/the Kingdom of God TO EARTH, NOW; God’s will be done on Earth as it *is* in Heaven — i.e., NOW, not necessarily or solely as it *will be* in some distant future. And it’s up to all of us — we are the vessels, the conduits who must bring the light and love and compassion of God into this world, now, in each moment. God desires to act through each one of us to bring Heaven TO Earth — for all people, to level the playing field! Not just for the righteous or wealthy, but especially to elevate the poor and oppressed! That’s what Jesus was teaching us to be and do, to act with compassion and change the world.

    It’s sad that the religion and passion of Jesus for social justice, and trust in what Jesus himself taught about the “good news” (of the coming of the Kingdom and justice and abundance for all people) became a religion ABOUT Jesus and belief IN him for salvation.

    We need more posts like this, Chris, to re-educate today’s Christians on what Jesus really taught 2,000 years ago as opposed to beliefs and dogma introduced later. What Jesus taught is still valid today! Perhaps we need to remember also what saying is attributed to James (the brother of Jesus, and leader of the movement in Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion? And perhaps said in contrast to St. Paul’s teachings that only belief in Jesus as Messiah was all that was needed for salvation?): “Faith without works (of compassion for our neighbors) is dead.”

    If we the people are the government (that ideally represents us, including Christians), then the government, by extension, is also responsible to care for its — OUR — neighbors.

    Thanks again for a fantastic post. Keep it up!

    • October 8, 2013 11:11 pm

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my thoughts here, Wendy. I agree with many of your reflections. I do hope that such thoughts will stimulate modern Christians to think more critically about their faith and where it does (and does not) line up with the teachings of Jesus in the NT.

    • John permalink
      November 3, 2013 2:09 am

      I’m sorry. I thought the Church has, had and will have a significant and successful mission to take care of our neighbors. I choose to take care of my neighbor through my charity to the Church and other organizations, not by having the government take my money and choosing (mostly wrongly) who gets to have it.

  6. Jenny Monahan permalink
    October 9, 2013 3:19 pm

    Thank you for this, so many of us feel the same way. Jesus’ parting words to us over and over in scripture is “feed my sheep”.

  7. October 10, 2013 4:33 pm

    Can’t love this piece enough. Very insightful and eye opening!

  8. Mags permalink
    October 10, 2013 11:42 pm

    I believe that is the mystery in all of us. We all have a brain we all have our own different way of interpreting the words of The Lord. Who judges who is thinking the right and Christian way. We all have our own thoughts about we believe we are led by the different things we read from all religions……what is real……what is not real…….does one suffer in the end for believing in one religion when they should have believed in another……I also find that there is not one religion that can tell you about the life of Christ outside of the written word…….. Interpretation? Have we been selected as individual judges to tell another person what is right and what is not right…….what to believe and what not to believe…..I was never offered that job. I live my life by my inner spiritual feelings…I treat people as how I would like to be treated. I know Jesus is in my heart, I feel him in my heart with every breath I take……..I have faith in The Lord to help me, myself be the person He would like me to be. I don’t know who He is, but I love him

  9. October 11, 2013 8:04 pm

    Your observations about the “spiritualization” of the Kingdom of God for political gain underscore a fundamental problem with evangelicals – they incorrectly emphasize heaven (spiritual) over resurrection (physical). The problems you observe, I think, are an off-shoot of this Platonic slaughter of the Kingdom of God. Eternity is spent on a new earth in a physical body, not in heaven in a spiritual body. If we come to grips with this truth, perhaps this ship can be turned around.

  10. bogglespinks permalink
    October 15, 2013 12:32 am

    Insightful and thoughtful peace on the actual nature of Christ. Thank you for this.


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