Vail Daily column: Pope and politician have different takes on Jesus
February 27, 2016
How does Jesus act?
Pope Francis sees him through the lens of a selfless servant who helps destitute people. The pope agrees with 20th century Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote in "The Cost of Discipleship" (1937), "Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only insofar as he shares his Lord's suffering and rejection and crucifixion."
Using another lens to size up Jesus, Donald Trump regards him as a motivational enabler. Jesus blesses disciples with success, says Trump.
On a recent visit to Mexico, the pope walked his talk about Jesus' ministry to poor, homeless immigrants. Officiating at a Mass in Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican border town near El Paso, Texas, Pope Francis approached a cross. It was located between two groups of people — one American; the other, Mexican. The pope built a bridge of prayer connecting these crowds split by a border.
Flying back to Rome, Pope Francis testified to how Jesus sides with immigrants who are "walled in" and denied a better future. Christians shouldn't erect walls that separate the rich from the poor, insisted the pope. Jesus commands Christians to build bridges for refugees to cross-over.
"A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be," reprimanded the pope, "and not building bridges, is not a Christian." He responded to a reporter's question about the pope's take on Trump's plan to deport undocumented immigrants and block their entry into the U.S. by erecting a border wall. "This is not the Gospel," he declared.
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Jesus upset the well-fed religious establishment in his first sermon at a synagogue in hometown Nazareth. He identified with a figure the prophet Isaiah foresaw: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me," declared Jesus, "because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor … " (Isaiah 61:1-2, Luke 4:18-19).
Anchored in Roman Catholic social beliefs, Pope Francis regards Jesus as an advocate for homeless people. Each life possesses equal dignity. A bank account's size doesn't determine personal worth. God's favorite people are the poor. Humanity is composed of one human family with Jesus seated among them.
Reacting to what he regarded as a riptide of papal insults, Donald Trump lashed back with an undertow of condemnation. He called the pope's words "disgraceful." He responded by saying he was "proud to be a Christian," and that he "will not allow Christianity to be attacked and weakened."
Trump's Jesus protects disciples from suffering and blesses them with success. Trump sees Jesus as a religious ego-booster who blesses followers with "Attitude!" That's what our nation needs to recover, preaches Trump. As president, he'll bless the U.S. with "Attitude!" by separating winners from losers through marketplace competition.
This take on Jesus emphasizes how blessed his followers are. Some preachers speak glowingly about our birthright of "original blessedness." Others teach how Americans are exceptional because the U.S. is superior, ranking higher than other nations. How do we protect our national blessed status? Americans need to wall themselves off from refugees who contaminate Trump's gene pool, he infers.
This exceptional bias runs through popular brands of American Christianity. Some Christians invest in Jesus who promotes the "The Prosperity Gospel." Kate Bowler, assistant professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School, thoroughly researches this perspective on Jesus in her book "Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel."
This slant depicts Jesus who wants us to be rich. "Put simply," writes Bowler, "the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith." When tapped into, this faith provides financial rewards and high social status. Jesus bestows this blessedness on his favorite people; achievers such as Donald Trump.
The self-starter Jesus who blesses us generates enormous appeal. This take on the Gospel is peppy, motivational and congratulatory. Trump's faith feels like a retirement party when work colleagues gloss over our weaknesses and heap on praise.
Professor Bowler, a young mother and wife, has Stage IV cancer and finds she's not as "blessed" as the Prosperity Gospel wants her to believe. She's dying and needs Jesus to identify with her plight, a suffering servant who doesn't magically cure her but takes her hand.
Twentieth century Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr rejected the Trumpian Jesus who thinks we are swell rather than sinful. Long before Donald Trump turned to politics, Niebuhr chastised Christians who minimize God by maximizing their self-worth. When God becomes too small, He begins to look a lot like us, warned Niebuhr. Supersized, we con ourselves into believing we are so blessed that we are divine. Trump's Jesus looks and acts like The Donald.
Better to put trust in a big God, advised Niebuhr, as the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards did (1703-1758). Grateful Christians thank God for identifying with their plight through the suffering servant Jesus.
Who is Jesus, really? Pope Francis and Donald Trump raise the right question.
Jesus befriends the poor. He doesn't act like a self-esteem coach who blesses believers with status that prosperity confers.
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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