A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
“…Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
Bow head at His name.
Finish the Hail Mary.
Make the sign of the cross.
Blow out the votive candle.
Crawl into bed.
Thus would end my nightly routine as a child. I’d kneel on my chubby, dimpled knees in my flannel nightgown in front of my homemade altar. There I displayed my rosary, my ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary holding her baby, my cream-colored plastic Jesus with two broken-off blessing fingers, and my red-caped Infant of Prague palming the globe.
I blessed Mommy and Daddy, my sister, all my relatives – especially those who had died, so their souls would be released from purgatory. I prayed we wouldn’t be bombed, a fear instilled by the air raid drills at school. I recited rote prayers, including the Our Father and Act of Contrition.
Jesus was my Lord and Savior. He was the Son of God who died for my sins. MY sins! I felt responsible for his bloody palms and feet nailed to the cross. I wore a gold cross around my neck and gold cross earrings. Friends playfully called me Sister Mary Patricia. (In high school, the Virgin Patty.)
I was obsessed with Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, although I didn’t fully grasp how Jesus could be God and God’s son at the same time. As the Doobie Brothers reprised, Jesus was just alright with me.
But in my thirties, I became confused when Jesus got hijacked by Evangelical Christians. They coopted his name and message to be used as weapons against oppressed people – people he’d defended in his parables. Jesus’ name was suddenly invoked whenever there was the opportunity to sidestep social justice. Since their political advance, the Religious Right made it their mission to deny marriage to gays, equality to women, a safety net to the poor, scientific study to students, health care to sick people, stem-cell treatments to the disabled, sanctuary to immigrants, reproductive choice to couples, and religious freedom to non-Christians.
Some “good” Christians even put white hoods over their heads to murder blacks, gays, and Jews, while burning a cross. Then praised Jesus in church on Sunday.
The praise and glory of Jesus’ name for self-serving and politically-conservative reasons revolted me. He no longer seemed like that guy I’d get into that fishing boat with. Either I’d had him figured all wrong (and so had my nuns) all these years, or his message was being bastardized. Like he’d been abducted and forced to read a ransom note someone else had written.
Even though I’d denounced both my church and my faith, I remained fascinated by Jesus because his story forever divided the world into Christian and “Not.” I read The Passover Plot and The Mystical Life of Jesus. I attended a session with the Episcopal bishop and author John Shelby Spong who challenges the fanciful stories of Jesus’ birth and resurrection. I questioned the holes in the Biblical story: Why were those Bible pages censored explaining where Jesus had been from childhood until appearing at the temple eighteen years later? And how did Mary get pregnant exactly? (By then, I was no longer the Virgin Patty.)
Skipping ahead in my own story another thirty years, I read the New York Times’ bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013) by Reza Aslan, a Muslim who converted to Fundamentalist Christian, later returning to his faith of birth. Zealot traces the life of Jesus in historical and cultural terms. It was a time of widespread healing and miracles – a spiritual Renaissance – as well as a time of horrific violence and oppression. While Dr. Aslan has faced scrutiny over his credentials to be an authority on Jesus, he concludes, as do many Biblical scholars, that Jesus was a talented and effective organizer of a rebellion against the oppressive Roman government and the religious ruling class of Israel.
By placing Jesus in context with that setting, Dr. Aslan gave me a new way to view him: As a resister. A man born into poverty to an unwed mother. A man who knocked over the money changers’ tables, defended an adulteress when others stoned her, and delivered the Sermon on the Mount: Love your neighbor as yourself. A man of faith who healed others and blessed the poor, humbly washing their feet. A man with the God-like quality of unconditional acceptance of those less fortunate, coupled with fierce resistance to those who would oppress their freedoms.
But that’s not the Jesus the Christian Right hides behind. In fact, they’re more likely to demonstrate fierce resistance to those less fortunate, coupled with unconditional acceptance of those who oppress their freedoms. Jesus spoke not a word about abortion, although women were arranging them even in his day. He did, however, harp on the sins of the rich – their likely exclusion from Heaven should they not repent their selfish ways. Evangelicals, mesmerized by the Prosperity Gospel, have strayed so far from Jesus’ message that they might not recognize him if he returned today, as they hope he will. In the parable-book by Roland Merullo, The American Savior: A Novel of Divine Politics, Jesus returns to run for president only to be killed by an Evangelical who deems his message of empathy and compassion to be weak and blasphemous.
At the end of Zealot, Aslan writes, “…the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man – is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”
I’d rejected Jesus because his followers had distorted his message, throwing their redeemer-baby out with the baptism water. Zealot resurrected Jesus for me, reunited me with a Jesus I could believe in. Churches couldn’t do it; Evangelicals preaching The Word couldn’t do it. Their hypocrisy only further alienated me. The writings of Aslan, a Muslim scholar, brought me back to my practice of praying to Jesus, whom I now revere as an ascended master or spiritually-enlightened being.
For me, Jesus is a son of God, just as we are all children of God – or however one chooses to characterize the Source of Universal Energy. He’s a principled dissenter, revolutionary, model for civil disobedience, preacher of social justice and compassion. He wasn’t killed because he claimed to be the son of God; he was killed because he challenged injustice and Emperor Caesar Augustus. His throng of followers had become a serious threat to governmental and religious institutions. He had to be eliminated, like Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Mahatma Gandhi.
I once again have an altar with a votive candle, displaying a rosary, my childhood statue of Mary, glass and ceramic angels, a statue of Jesus with open arms, a crucifix, a brass Quan Yin, and the Qur’an. Jesus would approve of the company he’s keeping. On my arthritic knees, I pray to heal a culture irresponsibly using his name and teachings as a shield and divisor – taking his name in vain. I pray for his intervention in a world filled with oppression. I pray that the bombing stops all over the world.
My resurrected Revolutionary Jesus is geared up to take on changeling Evangelical Jesus. I invoke my Jesus’ name in response to oppressive language and inhumane government initiatives. I ask “What would Jesus do?” reverting back to the time when following Jesus was synonymous with the moral imperative to be forgiving, kind… and resolute about social justice.
Hearing my invocations, some progressive and/or non-Christian friends worry that maybe I drank the wine. I assure them that my goal is to use his name in the true spirit of his time on Earth and as a role model for fighting oppression through civil disobedience today. Not as a vehicle to judge, justify, hate, divide, or exclude.
I invite people of all faiths to remind the so-called religious right of Jesus’ true message.
He is risen. In his name, let’s raise some hell against injustice.
Copyright 2017 Patricia A. Nugent
Patricia A. Nugent is the author of They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad.
The author’s current altar.