Whenever a self-proclaimed Christian says or does something that’s particularly ignorant, hateful or inhumane, it can be pretty tempting to reply: “So that’s what Jesus would do?” I know I’ve done it before. It’s quite a satisfying thing to say, isn’t it? In just a few simple words, you can shock them with the revelation that they themselves have failed to act in accordance with the will of their own divine leader. It really should be rather crushing.
Yet for all of its succinct elegance, this particular point usually seems to fail at actually changing anyone’s mind. Why? I suspect it’s because this just isn’t a very good argument after all. As is often the case, my mistake became obvious to me once I saw someone else committing the same error. In an open letter to the family who disowned them, a certain blogger asked why they would accept a savior who spent his time in the company of tax collectors, prostitutes, outcasts and sinners, while rejecting their own child for being transgender, homeless, a sex worker, and addicted to drugs.
While their family’s decision to abandon them is appalling, this question immediately shifted my perspective on this sort of argument, and made the situation quite a bit clearer. As a desperate plea for humanity to people who lack all semblance of it, it’s certainly understandable in its motivations, but nevertheless unlikely to be effective. Here’s why: Both right-wing Christians and more liberal individuals who make this argument are referring to Jesus by name, but the characters they envision are so dissimilar, they can scarcely be said to be talking about the same person.
While people who ask these Christians why they’re not acting more like Jesus may see him as preaching a message of universal love, radical inclusion, social justice, economic equality and non-aggression, the Christians they’re addressing are more likely to view Jesus as judgmental, intolerant, narrowly dogmatic, homophobic, obsessed with chastity, and only merciful and loving in a way that can somehow be expressed by eternal torture. If we hadn’t been explicitly told that the individuals described here are actually supposed to be the same person, we probably wouldn’t come to that conclusion on our own. In this area of dispute, people are using the name “Jesus” to express two distinctly different notions. That’s why challenging intolerant Christians with the idea of an all-loving Jesus doesn’t get you very far – they simply don’t subscribe to that concept. It fails to reveal any kind of hypocrisy on their part, because they aren’t actually being hypocritical.
Subsequently, this often tends to become an argument about what kind of person the historical Jesus really was, and whose characterization of Jesus is more accurate. Taking the discussion in this direction would be a serious mistake, because it only serves to validate the assumption that this should matter. If we did try to tackle this on a theological level, simple claims like “Jesus loved everyone” and “Jesus hung out with sinners” would likely be met with a plethora of detailed rebuttals. Misguided as they may be, Christian apologists have had plenty of time to practice and refine their tactics. But no matter who’s correct about what Jesus really meant to say – assuming this can even be decisively resolved – it still doesn’t mean that his message possesses any exceptional force to determine what’s right and wrong.
On a secular level, the teachings of Jesus have no unique bearing on ethics beyond those of others, and in many respects, they stand out as especially bizarre and disturbing. Regardless of your own moral stance, attempting to show that Jesus was more in line with your values means trying to take ownership of someone who, according to the Bible, said you should sell your clothes so you can buy a sword. This is someone who said that anyone who doesn’t follow him will burn in Hell. This is someone who called a woman a “dog” because she was of a different race. This is someone who said that his religion would turn families against each other and tear them apart. This is someone who said you have to hate your parents, your children, your partner, and even your own life in order to follow him – and even under a less literal interpretation of the word “hate”, this still suggests that we should value this man above anything else in our lives.
Here, C. S. Lewis may have actually had a point: Unless Jesus was of a divine nature such that his proclamations can define morality, he wasn’t exactly a “great moral teacher” as a human being.
So how did people who would likely disavow these hateful and intolerant doctrines find themselves in the position of fighting to have Jesus on their side? Yet again, while the argument may be faulty, the motives are understandable. Given that the character of Jesus is so deeply admired in our culture, people have every reason to try and harness that respect to support their own preferred values. As long as Jesus is considered the purest embodiment of virtue, there’s bound to be conflict over whose virtues he embodies.
Is this really something we want to encourage? Arguing that Jesus would endorse our ethics over those of others only reinforces the assumption that his alleged moral outlook is important to us and worth fighting about. It shouldn’t be, and trying to gather support for your own values by redefining the idea of Jesus that people have chosen to believe in is a kind of intellectual dishonesty and rhetorical deception that should be beneath all of us. We can do better than this.
So: what would Jesus do? Who cares?