Will They Ever Stop 'Hijacking' Jesus?
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Reviewed: The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate by Dan Wakefield (Nation Books, 2006).
It's become commonplace, in recent years, to describe religions as "changing," or "being hijacked," or -- in a lovely bit of irony -- "evolving." Yesterday's Hindu sweetheart of the New Age set is today's Hindutva BJP fascist. Former CIA darlings like the Dalai Lama wrap themselves in the colourful cloaks of sappy benignity (while sometimes slipping up, citing "karma" for disasters like Katrina).
Religious Jewish scholars like Dr. Marc Ellis speak of the emergence of a "Constantinian Judaism" -- a formerly stateless religion invoked in service to the Israeli government. Everyone from George Bush to left-leaning Muslims will tell you that Islam has been taken over by the Wahabi fanatics.
And, speaking for progressive Christians, author and journalist Dan Wakefield uses his new book, The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate , to remind us that less than 50 years ago, America's best-known religious political figure was the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. As these religions "change," though, their foundational texts remain conspicuously static.
It seems fair to assume, then, that there is no "essential" Hinduism/Buddhism/Judaism/Islam/Christianity. What we have, instead, are texts and traditions -- deep (sometimes too deep) wells from which political actors across history can draw whatever it is that they're thirsty for. During the death squad era of Latin American politics, for instance, liberation theologians quoted the same Bible as the conservative Catholic hierarchy that acted to defend the continent's elites (and their northern benefactors).
Thorny church politics
Wakefield's book is an interesting exposition of Church dynamics in America, amassing a wide array of interviews with largely Protestant Christians, both "mainline" as well as hardline evangelical. Taking the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement he led as the apotheosis of active, progressive Christian activism in recent American history, Wakefield helpfully delves into the world of inter- and intra-church politics to explain how it is we got from the gospel according to MLK to the depths of James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (though unlike the biblical Noah, Wakefield's narrative doesn't have much of an arc; the vicissitudes of the story can therefore sometimes be hard to follow).
Wakefield is an experienced journalist and practising Christian, and the engaging quality of his prose can be just as impressive as his access to religious figures on both sides of the mostly Christian religious debate in America.
Nevertheless, the essay doesn't quite work. The biggest problem isn't its arclessness. Nor is it the author's irritating penchant for passive-aggressive derision of secular atheists for our condescension towards the religious. (As though we weren't reacting reasonably to the condescension we'd received over the years -- from those unable to accept a Godless moral code as coherent, and occasionally even from those convinced that we're saps for believing in fossils.)
Paved with good intentions
Instead, Wakefield is undone by his naÃ¯ve insistence on a "true" Christianity, epitomized, for him, in the proto-socialist Sermon on the Mount, which grounds The Hijacking of Jesus . The piece works in terms of the How the Religious Right... Promotes Prejudice and Hate part of the subtitle. That's certainly made very clear. The problem is that the Distorts Christianity portion is an unwinnable proposition, as unattainable as, oh, I don't know, some sort of Grail.
I can't remember which verse it is in Proverbs that said "Lo, and if ye roll in the shit with pigs, ye shall both get dirty, but the pig likes it." Megalomaniacs such as Falwell and Dobson want nothing more than to engage in a debate over the "true" nature of Christianity, because it feeds the notion that theirs is a politics borne of religion, and not the religion borne by politics we're truly dealing with.
The spirit that animates Wakefield's book is clearly one of good faith, some sound historical insight and useful reminders about the role that religion has played in American politics. In short, he clearly has the best of intentions. But we all know where that sort of paving leads to, don't we?