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Vail Daily column: Make America great

Jack Van Ens

“Jesus simply had nothing to do with religion,” declared biblical scholar Karl Barth in a 1920 lecture for students in Switzerland.

Jerusalem’s religious hierarchy despised Jesus because he challenged conventional religion. Guardians of tradition wanted to make Judaism great again by retreating to the past. In contrast, Jesus made his religious quest great by breaking with crusty tradition.

After Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, fans surged toward their hero. Such hero-worship caused a rift with religious higher-ups. Jesus’ motto was: Make God’s kingdom on Earth great. He dropped the word “again” because it riveted the first Palm Sunday’s crowd on past glories. Instead, Jesus anticipated God’s future possibilities.



The giddy crowd’s hosannas (meaning, “God save us”) hooked them on the past. They wanted Jesus to act like King David to restore former political glories and make their nation great again. The Romans tried to keep a precarious lid on this cauldron boiling over with Jewish nationalism. Still, Jews adoring Jesus were fixated on the past.

Although Jesus respected Judaism’s customs, he didn’t let them define his ministry. Jesus upset Jewish leaders by throwing money-changers out of the temple. He angered authorities who collected fees from hucksters peddling pigeons. Consequently, “The chief priests and the scribes … sought a way to destroy him” (Mark 11:18).



Jesus built on the past by looking to the future. He reflected the Roman god Janus’ two-sided look. Janus sported two faces: One looking backward and the other peering ahead. Janus-faced Jesus respected tradition by releasing its energies pointing toward God’s future plans for Christians and Jews.

Jesus was convinced history is more than a tired litany of dull facts. History unfolds and interprets what lies ahead. Novelist William Faulkner noted how “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past.”

Jesus and Thomas Jefferson shared Faulkner’s conviction. What awaits us is built on the best of what has happened. Jefferson drove this point home in his March 4, 1801, first inaugural address. He declared that our young nation was the “world’s best hope.” Imagine believing that when the U.S. was still in its infancy!



Jefferson pressed on to make America great by using the past as a springboard for future expectations. In a June 29 lecture at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, Jefferson biographer Jon Meacham caught the difference between making an American great and making America great again.

Jefferson pitched his vision to the future, as did Jesus. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan with its emphasis on “again” chains him to the past.

“He (Jefferson) was the father of the idea of American progress, of the animating national spirit that the future could be better than the present or the past,” declared Meacham. “The greatest of American politicians in ensuing generations have prospered again and again by projecting a Jeffersonian vision that the country’s finest hours lie ahead.”

Donald Trump, however, wants to retrieve our nation’s finest past. His campaign slogan is: “Make America great again.”

Trump’s followers put national security and combating terrorists at the top of their agenda. Using martial taunts, The Donald sounds like a 19th century Prussian general. He’ll force Mexico to build a wall to block immigrants. He’ll bring terrorists to their knees with America’s military might. He’ll restore a society where traditional marriage still prevails. He’ll rule over an economic empire run by white guys.

Starting in the autumn of 1769, Jefferson dived into the future by excavating Monticello’s foundations, located on a hilltop skirting the frontier, just beyond the civilized colonial world. His work took almost a half century to finish. Jefferson pitched his home toward an unexplored westward continent. Behind its pillars at Monticello’s main entry stood the known world.

“Perhaps nothing says more about Jefferson and his house than that it faces away from that old world and into the unknown emptiness of the new,” notes sometimes quirky historian Bill Bryson.

Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) teaches Americans a history lesson Donald Trump hasn’t learned. “There are people in every time and every land,” wrote Kennedy, “who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present and invoke the security of a comfortable past — which in fact never existed.”

Embrace emerging national possibilities rather than cling to our country’s nostalgic past.

Endorse Jesus and Jefferson by recognizing the huge difference between making America great and making America great again.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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