The Colbert Report always makes me laugh uproariously, but a recent segment made my heart sing as well. Its title was "Jesus was a Liberal Democrat," and it made me happy for a number of reasons. First, of course, it's hilarious. Secondly, though, it makes an argument that as both a religious and a political liberal I am all too happy to hear. It is Stephen Colbert--a person universally known and, among my generation in particular, almost universally esteemed and, yes, respected--calling out those who profess to be Christians yet espouse policies that further neglect or oppress those in the lowest income brackets. Beneath (and also because of) its satirical aim, this is a powerful argumentative blow to some on the religious and/or political Right. Many politicians take seriously--or loudly profess to take seriously--the question of WWJD: What Would Jesus Do? I and some of my fellow frustrated religious liberals have been tempted to answer that, for one thing, the prince of peace who commanded that people love their enemies would not start a military offensive; that this meek and merciful transcender of national boundaries would not be quick to be "patriotic"; and that he who, in all that he is said to have spoken, spoke most about the dignity, the "blessedness," of the poor, would have advocated--for starters--feeding them.
This got me thinking--because at my divinity school finals have not yet ended and I am still in the mode of over-thinking--about the theological uprightness of this kind of argument. Colbert proclaims, in-character as conservative pundit, that liberal congressman Jim McDermott "used the baby Jesus to push his pro-poor people agenda!" The scary thing is, I can imagine some saying this in seriousness. And, recalling how frustrated I myself become when I hear a religious figure used to push a genuinely dubious agenda by those on the end of the political spectrum opposite to mine, I start to wonder if there really is something perilous about all religious talk in the political arena.
When I hear religious figures or scriptures used to justify something which I find repellent, it bothers me for two, quite different, reasons. The first reason is that the argument usually does seem flimsy even in terms of the foundation it claims to be standing on, which is the New Testament. For instance, Colbert attacks Bill O'Reilly's counterargument to McDermott by pointing out that "God helps those who helps themselves"--a line tacitly attributed to Jesus by O'Reilly--is not Biblical at all, and that Jesus is nowhere written about as a "help only those who deserve it" kind of guy. Similarly, the sweep of the New Testament narrative seems really to have a pro-peace, pro-love, "pro-poor people agenda"... the Biblical Jesus really is "always flapping his gums about the poor." Thus, it seems to me that to miss Jesus' concern for the poor is to miss something crucial. Liberation theologians seem to make a similar argument about Jesus as a an anti-oppression figure: This may be a world in which there is a plurality of Christologies, but to have a Christology of oppression is effectively to have missed the boat. At a certain point, we can say--this radical line of thinking goes--that one has a Christology without Christ. To be a self-proclaimed Christian and also an oppressor is theologically dishonest. Can we perhaps say the same thing about the Christian who looks callously on those living in poverty?
You can doubtlessly guess my own answer to that. Yet, the second part of being theologically honest has to do with maintaining the germ of agnosticism with regard to our own interpretations. This seems important especially where sacred texts are concerned, as the multiple interpretations possible are part of what is integral--and, potentially, life-sustaining--about them. Religious liberals like myself always decry the perils of reading scripture literally. As we very well know, there is always another interpretation, often a quite poetic, allegorical, or even koan-like one. Such an allegorical interpretation can even be found in such seemingly basic Christian tenets as Jesus' declaration, "blessed are the poor" (see Meister Eckhart's... a truly remarkable work and one of my favorite pieces of religious writing ever). Thus, if we want to make the argument that Jesus was indeed "a Socialist deity redistributing the loaves and fishes," however scriptural we may find it we must still bear in mind that some day soon the shoe will be on the other foot, and we'll be gritting our teeth upon hearing that "Jesus was a Tea Partier." Such are the perils of identifying a particular religious complex with a particular political party: if religious language is co-opted by one political wing, it can be co-opted by the opposite wing as well. At a certain point, to identify almost any great spiritual leader with one specific political group is absurd. I am as tempted to laugh on hearing that "The Buddha was a Democrat" as at "The Buddha was a Republican." At a certain point, the relative convincingness of each group's argument is immaterial, because the move itself is dubious.
So where do we go on this? On the one hand, perhaps we could do with more wariness on everybody's part--whatever one's religious or political leanings--of identifying religion and politics too closely, of being too quick to read scripture literally, and of brushing aside the dimension of mystery inherent in all great religious traditions, which resists being pinned down by concrete declarations. On the other hand, if those of us to the left on the religious spectrum can make arguments that refute harmful statements claiming scriptural justification on their own terms, perhaps we can at last challenge the too-prevalent belief that religion is exclusively the property of those on the Right, and take a stance in discourse... even so much as to affirm, with Colbert, the radical statement that if conservatives cannot stomach Jesus' "agenda" of compassion to those who are struggling, they might want to "replace him with something easier to swallow--how about a honey-baked ham?"