I once heard a fantastic sermon at my alma mater, Indiana Wesleyan University, the kind that stays with you over half a decade.
I would credit the man who gave it if I could remember his name. He spoke about the nativity, about those wooden, glass, or plastic figurines we place on our mantles or in our yards at Christmas; the ones with the serene faces. He noted how clean and calm they were. The message revolved around the idea that as followers of Jesus Christ, we like to see him in this light. The ubiquitous plastic lit-up lawn Mary always has a smile, is fully clothed, and has not the slightest trace of blood, excrement, or sweat most likely involved in giving birth inside a cave or barn. The lit-up Joseph looks unperturbed, as though he hasn’t just watched in terror as his bloodied son emerged from his screaming wife. There is no dirt, there is no grime.
“We do not wish to see Jesus degraded, because we do not wish to be degraded with him. We don’t want to sink ourselves into the messy and difficult parts of life, into Christ’s suffering for us, so we sanitize him. And, we make him more like us,” the pastor said.
He went on to remark on the variety of nativity sets he had seen. In Hawaii, he’d seen sets with darker skin and traditional Hawaiian garments. In Japan, Mary and Joseph wore kimono and were fair-skinned.
“Instead of conforming ourselves to his image, we have conformed his image into our likeness,” he continued. As soon as he said these words, I knew they were true. I wondered, what would the American nativity look like?
The American Jesus is overwhelmingly masculine. But Jesus was a man you may say. Granted. However, Jesus was not toxically male the way he is often portrayed in evangelical churches. An insidious syncretism has combined the ideals of American masculinity with the, often incompatible, principles of the gospel.
Thomas Jefferson is often ridiculed for his Bible out of which were taken huge chunks, since he did away with the miracles and passages he considered contradictory. If I were to make such a version catering to the average American male, I imagine it would require removing the part where Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a pathetic donkey instead of a glorious steed. I would need to excise the episode in the Garden of Gethsemane in which Jesus scolded Peter for cutting the Roman soldier’s ear off while defending his Lord.
Instead of Jesus restoring the ear, this toxic masculinity version would place the sword in Jesus’ hand, and he would make a final stand among the olive trees. He would never submit himself to be interrogated, beaten, or crucified by the Roman invaders. Highlight the bravery, strength, and authority; minimize the self-imposed weakness; make him as we desire him to be.
A few years back, I sat in a pew as the pastor of a local church delivered an impassioned sermon. He centered his message on the then newly released film, Exodus: Gods and Kings. This man took exception to the directorial choice to cast a 12-year-old boy as the voice of God.
“Hollywood is diminishing the power and the might of God! No offense boys, or ladies for that matter, but you simply can’t recreate the power — the booming voice of God!” he shouted. Rancor filled my thoughts mingled with confusion.
Didn’t God sometimes present himself as a still small voice? Didn’t Jesus represent himself as the lamb slain as an offering for us? Especially galling was the insinuation of God’s masculinity, and an adult masculinity at that. Women and boys, as the pastor’s implicit argument went, were not reflected in the Godhead despite Jesus’ coming to earth as a helpless infant through the womb of a godly woman.
The American Jesus is also overwhelmingly white. I recently introduced my husband to the movie, A Knight’s Tale, starring Heath Ledger. My favorite line occurs when the characters are having an argument in a pub. The French adversaries declare that the pope is French and, therefore, France is superior to England. One of the protagonists replies, “The Pope may be French, but Jesus is English!” The absurdity of this statement is humorous, yet we do not often recognize how we similarly reshape Jesus’ image into our own likeness because we take our cultural contexts and ideologies for granted.
A celebrity newswoman infamously declared that “Jesus was a white man,” without the understanding that the western idea of “whiteness” would not begin to be created by the rub of history and culture until the burgeoning of the transatlantic slave trade in the early 16th century.
Another example comes from the irreverent musical, Avenue Q. In the middle of a song about racism, one of the puppets (a la Sesame Street) remarks that Jesus “was a fine upstanding black man.” Another puppet responds, “But Gary, Jesus was white!” They argue back and forth between themselves, each defending their respective identities through the vehicle of Jesus’ supposed race. Finally, a third character shouts, “Guys — Jesus was Jewish” and they all laugh.
In revealing Jesus as he really was, a Jewish man in an occupied territory, a member of an often-reviled ethnicity, the privilege meant to be invoked by his name has been deflated. The truth this dialogue highlights is that it is never about Jesus or his background. It is about the centering of one’s own culture by molding Jesus into it. It is about the centering of ourselves.
We need to understand that Jesus was wholly unlike us, not merely in his perfection, but in culture also. We cannot simply read him or the Bible through our limited cultural lens.
The American Jesus is also overwhelmingly conservative. Jesus is a Republican, after all. He’s for lower taxes and building walls.
I found this out the hard way during the last presidential election. But, in a sense, it has always been this way in America. Jesus was once a slaveholder, too. He was also in favor of Jim Crow laws and hated the civil rights movement at the time, but lauds it now that racial tensions are supposedly in the past.
Jesus hates Black Lives Matter protests. He hates those feminists and those gays ruining this country. He is surprisingly fine with philanderers, with liars, and those in power who exploit their positions for political and personal gain. Jesus is only interested in those sins which you can see. That’s convenient for a God who is able to look on the heart.
The American Jesus is merely “me” — my wants, my desires, my beliefs plastered over the facade of a lifeless figurine.
American Jesus, stay away from me.