When I read the teachings of Jesus, two primary messages come through: (1) love God (Matthew 22:37), which includes avoiding the kinds of ostentatious displays of piety that will make other people regard you as religious (Matthew 6:5-8); and (2) love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 7:12), which includes taking care of people who may not be worth all that much in the eyes of society (Matthew 25:40). Jesus teaches all of this while affirming a theology that says there's no such thing as a good person (Luke 18:19), that wealth is a threat to our souls (Matthew 19:24) and that the world will end up in the hands of the meek, not the violent (Matthew 5:5).
You're not going to hear Jesus' actual message preached very often—not even from the pulpit, because churches don't get much pledge money from poor folks. Politicians describe Jesus as a bloody-minded cosmic hit man for the rich and powerful—someone we can rely on to obediently torture the poor, who in turn will be marginalized in hell for eternity if they don't obey their earthly masters.
"Be careful who you vote for," I heard one young member of the clergy tell his wealthy congregation from the pulpit last year. The power of heaven, his sermon implied, rests completely in the hands of those who hold power on Earth—and his views are shared, almost to a person, by Christianity's loudest, wealthiest and most frequently quoted gatekeepers. They have literally purchased institutional Christianity, and they see Jesus as somebody they can reinvent and command—not someone to follow and obey.
Their Christianity has no place for the man who stood with the woman accused in adultery (John 8:3-11). They say Jesus would throw stones at people accused of sexual impurity, and we believe them. There is no room in their Christianity for warning of the rich man who went to hell for not giving a beggar a drink of water (Luke 16:19-26); they say Jesus would have kicked dirt in the beggar's face, and we believe them. There is no room in their Christianity for the Jesus who said "blessed are you poor" (Luke 6:20); they believe God curses the poor with poverty, and blesses the rich with wealth.
The Jesus who warned of public prayer (Matthew 6:5) has no place in their Christianity; they believe he abandons anyone, even children in public schools, if they do not show off their piety in public. Neither is there room in their Christianity for the Jesus who said, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (5:9), and who warned that living by the sword means dying by the sword (Matthew 26:52). Their Jesus wields a sword. And the Jesus in their Christianity is crucified only as a passive-aggressive display—in a "real" fight, he'd be the one hammering in the nails.
Often their prophet is not Paul or Moses or Isaiah; it's Ayn Rand, whose political philosophy (best summed up in her dark masterpiece "The Virtue of Selfishness") is a corollary to Anton LaVey's Nine Statements. When LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, writes, "Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it instead of love wasted on ingrates!" these Christians could substitute "Jesus" for "Satan." When LaVey writes, "Satan represents vengeance instead of turning the other cheek!" these Christians could substitute "Jesus" for "Satan."
LaVey intentionally preached what he thought was the opposite of Christian doctrine. Today, many of Christianity's gatekeepers have done the same thing—but they've done it in the name of Jesus.
So how are we to interpret Gov. Phil Bryant's claim that he has "a divine responsibility" to pursue his agenda—one that harms the poor and benefits the rich, deprives the sick of hospital care, defunds schools to make room in the budget for new prisons, and makes sure violent people can carry guns with them everywhere they go?
Bryant's pronouncements probably shouldn't surprise us. He accurately represents the values of a peculiar version of Christianity, one that a violent, consumerist culture has handed to us for the past 40 years. It is a Christianity that condemns the life and teachings of the real Jesus, and hands us a money-loving, sex-obsessed and violence-addicted alternative.
Until we're willing to confront this lie and stand up for the real values Jesus taught, this casserole of messy, self-serving pseudo-religious doctrines will be the only version of Christianity some people ever see.
Tom Head, Ph.D., is a Jackson native. He is author or coauthor of 25 books, including "The Absolute Beginner's Guide to the Bible" (Que/Pearson, 2005, $26.99).