Rescuing Jesus From The United States: A New Zealand woman’s missive to America
Guest Post by Gina Colvin
It’s no secret that people’s lives have long been expunged in the name of Christianity. Pagans; Saxons; peasants; Turks; the Gaelic Irish; Hungarians; Jews; Muslims; heretics; ‘witches’; protestants; and Catholics, from Palestine to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to Tenochtitln, women, children and men have died in the name of the church that bears His name. Persecution; ethnocentrism; colonialism; patriarchy; capitalism; slavery; illicit invasions of sovereign states have all been underwritten in one way or another by an appeal to Jesus Christ.
Its called ‘bending the narrative’ – this habit of pulling Jesus into national politcs and shaping military and economic discourses around and through Christianity – like a branding strategy. I understand the motivation. If you make Jesus a citizen of your country, or the head of your political campaign He makes it easy to recruit followers. Christians love Jesus and if you can push him out in front, everything you associate him with ends up feeling divine. Not that Jesus would have been complicit in the above atrocities – far from it. In any event the ‘Jesus’ card has been played continuously in the game of Western empire building, and Jesus’ effigy has been paraded relentlessly to justify all manner of evil. And this Jesus (by American reckoning in general, and Mormon calculations specifically) currently resides in the United States.
As a non-American member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I grew up having to crane my neck to watch out for the American Jesus. We New Zealand Mormons are permanently calibrated in that direction, we face a North East direction toward the Pacific ocean and over the rocky mountains to Salt Lake City where the American Jesus is in charge of our eternal salvation. From somewhere on Temple Square, he stands at the head, guiding, directing and fully in charge of Mormon affairs. This American Jesus has been continuously on the lips of the American Mormons who get to speak, instruct and direct the rest of the Mormon world from large podiums festooned with flowers or from the pages of glossy monthly magazines. American words have been landing in the ears of the non-American Mormons throughout my entire lifetime – and it’s wearing thin.
I’m by no means a perfect Christian but the idea of Jesus has really compelled me so that for the last 30 years I’ve made his life a matter of continuous interest. I came to the conclusion long ago that the Jesus I have come to adore would make no nation state his home. Nations, empires, and colonies are too tenuous and unpredictable, and their ability to construct and hold a community of the spiritually transformed is often fleeting. In all probability should He return to Israel he would likely be incarcerated and made a political prisoner for his insurgent politics. When Jesus proclaimed, ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36) I choose to believe he was distancing himself from the Palestine of his day that that enjoined multiple forms of oppression, corruption, classism, violence and sexism. For this reason I want to rescue Jesus from the United States because he doesn’t belong there either. He belongs in the Zion that we are supposed to be creating. I’m tired of watching out for Jesus through the thinly veiled veneer of an American white, capitalist, corporate patriarchy. Jesus was always in the company of women whom he treated with radical kindness. Jesus was a social prophet who pronounced woes upon the religious and political elite of his day. Jesus was a friend to the poor, the needy, the sick and the afflicted and preferred their food and company over the tinkling catered meals consumed in the red-carpeted upper rooms of the religious establishment. Jesus bought nothing with him but friends, his convictions, women, and the angels of God to sustain him and minister to him. His chosen form of transport was his feet; feet that carried him throughout the towns and districts of Galilee, through Samaria and down to Jerusalem. He didn’t need business class carriage, and chauffeured drivers with limitless credit cards to make his way in the world. He attracted followers because of his message of social justice and heavenly love and the hope that the earth could be, if we had the will, a kind of paradise.
One of the more troubling issues we have in Mormonism however is the doctrine of the Prophet/Jesus substitute. Doctrine and Covenants 1:38 sets up a theological paradigm that allows for the ‘servant’ to stand in for Jesus Christ. Our relationship with Christ is therefore mediated through the figure of a white American middle class male in corporate uniform. Furthermore, the habitual and largely sanctioned substitution of the ‘church’ with the ‘gospel’ indicates some latitude within Mormon culture for conflating the Mormon religious organization with Jesus’ ante-meridian public response to political and social evil. ‘I’m so grateful for THIS gospel’, is intoned again and again at church – as if there were a number of gospels to choose from. In any event the ‘servant/Jesus’ and the gospel/church substitutions incline us to be more loyal to an American corporation and its American governors than to a transformative and divine way of being recommended by an impecunious brown, peasant lay preacher, from an unremarkable village in the Roman empire.
As a New Zealand Mormon I have noted over the years an unchecked inclination in the church toward naked free market economic practices; militarism; imperialism; property acquisition; an increasing intolerance for ideological diversity. Mormonism has also produced some of the most narrow minded, fearful and unconscionably bad mannered people with whom I have had the displeasure of associating. Yet these are the same who are often lauded in the church simply because of their fidelity to the organization and their ability to do the business of religious population management and governance. Of course the opposite is true. Mormonism produces some fine people, but it doesn’t necessarily applaud fine thinking, and any fine thinking from the fine Mormons I know is shared in a hallway whisper, or is excused with a small chuckle, or it waits for safe conversations over meals away from church spaces where prying eyes are on the alert for cultural dissent. In contemporary Mormon discourse chaste and temperate behavior replaces mental acuity and informed dialogue so that the end result is a kind of corporatized mass produced buttoned up compliance that works to incline us to accept the whole American Mormon package as the beginning and the end of Jesus’ social vision.
Obviously I’m exercised about this because I find the United States problematic. More so in the recent decade as the United States fails to repent of its international atrocities, its indiscriminate sell-off of democracy to the highest corporate bidders, and its arrogance in assuming that the world needs its endless spew of asinine cultural products, its violence toward its own and others, its nauseating cruelty to those who struggle – as if poverty was a personal decision. I despise the way it positions itself at the centre of the world like some whining brat who refuses to believe that their time with microphone has long since run down. The United States is in moral crisis, and a church that holds on to a bygone post-WW2 halcyon day as some justification for the continued infiltration of the nation’s increasingly debased state practices into its religious and organizational arrangements has failed to apprehend the full import of the gospel message. Jesus Christ proposed an earthly kingdom of heaven wherein a woe was pronounced upon the disproportionate distribution of the social, spiritual, economic and ideological power that was appropriated by the elites. A church that bears His name ought to do the same and I have been constantly disappointed that despite the ample evidence that abounds, that calls the United States into question, Mormon leaders have failed, time and time and time again to see that the nation they love is on the highroad to Babylon.
Yet Jesus wasn’t afraid to hold his national/religious leaders to account accusing thing them thus: Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? (Matt 23:33). The charge of course was that while they were strict in matters of Rabbinic law but they had neglected the weightier matters which were justice, mercy and faithfulness to God. In Jesus’ own words they were white washed sepulchures, polished and spotless on the outside yet they were filled with dead men’s bones.
The yardstick for the measurement of faithfulness to the message of Jesus Christ must be our affinity for the entirety of his teachings. It’s simply not enough to imagine a strawberry blonde post-resurrection Jesus with arms extended as the beginning and end of his ministry. Mormonism has sadly erased the cross from our religious imagination because of our preference for the visage of the risen Lord. I understand that. But the consequence is that we have sadly emptied our discourse of one of the most compelling reasons for our discipleship. We seem to have passed over the mortal Jesus in favour of the resurrected Christ – to our detriment. Jesus was a Jew who belonged to a nation that was in the throes of a moral and spiritual death. Jesus’ bold and radical message drove a stake into the heart of the despoiled polity – and as a result stakes, a spear and the lash were driven into his body. This is something that we would do well to remember if we sincerely wish to remember his flesh and blood.
I’m a proud New Zealander. I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. But if there were a competition between my country and Jesus I would choose Jesus every time. I don’t require Jesus to make sense of my nation or to justify its interests. This crass habit of bending Jesus into national discourse has to change in favour of a powerful Christian discourse that is transformative and compassionate while it is calculatedly direct about its antipathy of all forms of oppression. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy many aspects of the United States as a tourist might. I have a huge affection for many of its people. But it’s not my country, I don’t wish to live there, its narrative and mythologies are not mine, I don’t love it, nor do I envy it. Yet my church asks me over and over again to attach myself to the United States through endless Mormon stories of America, by its American leaders whose narratives and mythologies have historically worked to justify America’s colonial past, its incursion into other people’s spaces and its appropriation of other’s resources in the name of Jesus. His message to the nations is timeless, His woes pronounced upon the wicked in high places is universal, His compassion for the least is endless. But it is only in rescuing him from The United States that the Jesus of the gospels comes into sharp relief. Its only when I liberate him from the contemporary cultural practices of the American church that I can hear his message with exquisite clarity.