Jesus the trump card

In April of 2010, Tony Abbott invoked the name of Jesus in an attempt to validate his stance on refugees and immigration.[1] Jesus, Mr Abbott claimed, knew how to say no to people as evidenced by his clearing of the temple. When the people next took to the streets to protest Australia’s offshore detention policy, many did so holding placards reading “Jesus was a Refugee”. Two years later, and a little further north, Ross Gittins, the Economic Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote a piece on Jesus’ “Sabbath Economics” and their apparent odds with modern capitalism.[2] Two further years passed and writers at the Sydney Morning Herald would not lose interest in the relationship between Jesus and Capitalism. This time Sam De Brito put ink to paper to declare that the historical Jesus was not a “big fan of consumerism”, something we should consider when consuming our usual, capitalistic Christmas traditions.[3] That same year, Tony Jones hosted an episode of Lateline featuring scholar Reza Aslan, discussing the Jesus of history, the Christ of faith, illiteracy, crucifixion, and whether Jesus pushed for a political uprising.[4] In April of this year, architecture critic and essayist, Elizabeth Farrelly paused, pre-Easter, to speculate whether Jesus was a woman; displaying Jesus’ track record for featuring more traditionally female traits than male.[5]

When we search for a pattern linking these various individuals, one thing we will not find (with the exception of Reza Aslan) is a mention of Jesus in their job description. It is within none of their purviews or obligations to mention, advocate, educate, interrogate or proclaim the Jesus of history or the Christ of faith. So why did they do it? Why, when making arguments concerning Australia’s politics of immigration, the tenants of Western Capitalism, gender roles, or public holidays, did they evoke the memory of Jesus with the assumption that people would at once understand and care? In each of these discussions Jesus was introduced as a stamp of approval for the speaker’s position, an attempt, we might say, to play an authoritive trump card in a discussion held in a secular environment. This is a puzzling phenomenon. The question of why these individuals called on the memory of Jesus (and why they believed that memory would resonate with people) is one that the church should consider, and, in response to this cultural backdrop of Christocentric name dropping, the church should consider what claims about Jesus it wishes to offer to these public discussions. In two parts, I will attempt to dissect why it is that the memory of Jesus remains a cultural reality in secular and pluralistic Australia, and, how the church might make a positive contribution to further discussions on the figure of Jesus. 


Part One – How did we get here?

There is a scene in the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, which succinctly encapsulates how detailed, nuanced, and borderline incomprehensible ideas developed in the isolation of ivory towers manage to trickle down into the comprehension and consumption of the general public.

Andy Sachs: You know, it's just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. You know, I'm still learning about all this stuff and, uh...
Miranda Priestly: 'This... stuff'? Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select... I don't know... that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise. It's not lapis. It's actually cerulean. And you're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent... wasn't it who showed cerulean military jackets? … And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.

Through this section we will explore a series of defining moments, mostly realised within the academy, that I believe slowly, but surely, made their way into the public psyche. Though most of these examples took place outside of Australia, and were published in works that most people have never read, as the generations passed, the ideas, like the colour cerulean, embedded themselves into general consumption and understanding. It is these thinkers, ideas, and moments that have set the backdrop for the use of the memory of Jesus in current conversations.

After Schweitzer

But it was not only each epoch that found its reflection in Jesus; each individual created Him in accordance with his own character. There is no historical task which so reveals a man's true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus.[6]  

This observation provided by Albert Schweitzer, in his groundbreaking work on the historical Jesus, is important to keep in mind. Historical Jesus research has proven just how malleable representations of Jesus can be. It is not a 21st Century uniqueness for people to argue that Jesus was more or less like them. Hence, one of the reasons that the memory of Jesus remains a cultural reality, is that, perhaps more than any other figure in history, Jesus is most able to be successfully argued to fit with one’s previously held worldview. Thus, Tony Abbott can present Jesus as a hard nose conservative who knew how to hold people at bay, and Elizabeth Farrelly can claim Jesus opposed all seats of power through culturally eschewing practices, and neither memory will be dismissed outright.

After William Wrede and Friedrich Nietzsche

These thinkers had the two-fold effect of creating a sense of discontinuity and dissimilarity between Jesus and Paul (who could also stand in as the figure of institutional Christianity). Wrede, in 1907 credited Paul for Christianity’s enduring prominence, and gave him the moniker of the “second founder of Christianity”.[7] In The Antichrist, Nietzsche casts Paul as the one who essentially undid all of Christ’s good teaching, becoming the “very opposite of the ‘bearer of glad tidings’”.[8] Paul took what Christ had begun and then, with “rabbinical impudence”, centred everything on the most “unfulfillable promises, the shameless doctrine of personal immortality”.[9] By doing this, Wrede and Nietzsche (among others) managed to spare Jesus from the impropriety of the church (and religion by and large). This has led people to believe (rightly or wrongly), that it was never Jesus’s intention to start a religion with rules, rites, and rituals, and that he would have opposed the institution of the church. Jesus was a good man, with insightful teaching, and Paul (and through him, the church) created a religion in Jesus’ name. The effect of this is that, people who stand diametrically opposed to the church’s confessions and practices can still call on the untouched memory of Jesus. Australia’s move away from Christianity has not demanded a move away from Jesus. As Gandhi allegedly quipped: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ”.     

After The Jesus Seminar

Following on, the Jesus Seminar has also contributed to the current climate of Christocentric name-dropping. This collective, predominantly composed of historians and New Testament scholars, shifted the perception of the historical Jesus from an apocalyptic prophet to a wisdom sage.[10] For many within the Seminar, Jesus was not interested in the end of the world, but rather taught ethical lessons addressing how people would live in the here and now. If Jesus spoke about judgment, it was not eschatological, but rather a present condemnation of social, economic, and religious injustice and elitism[11] (unsurprisingly perhaps, this criticism, in many ways, mirrors that leveled against much of the contemporary church). Though the Seminar was a movement within the academy, many of its members (for instance Macus Borg and John Dominic Crossan) published works for the general public. These works, which present a very different Jesus to traditional Christian confession, continued processes already identified: Jesus maintained his malleability, coming to look much like the progressively minded and socially conscious 20th Century Seminar personnel. Jesus was argued to be rather dissimilar to his Jewish contemporaries (and predecessors) and Christian followers.[12] Much as we saw with Wrede and Nietzsche, the trickle down effect of this movement has allowed contemporary commentators to draw upon a memory of Jesus removed from the broader Biblical narrative. This removal occurs at both ends. Jesus is uprooted from his own Jewishness, a trend displayed par excellence by Elizabeth Farrelly, who characterised Jesus’ work as showing people how to escape the “Old Testament world of vengeful mayhem”, replacing “tribal vengeance” with “radical love”.[13] At the other end, Jesus is distanced from his earliest followers, who are accused of imposing apocalypticism. Jesus is represented as the type of man, who, if he showed up today, “might take the time to feed the poor, visit a hospital or nursing home, perhaps build an access ramp for a disabled person [and] maybe he'd slip in a beer in between stops”.[14]

Once again Jesus comes to resemble less the church’s poster boy, and more the thorn in its side. Contemporary commentators draw on the memory of Jesus in public conversations despite the increasing shift away from Christianity, because for them, Christianity has increasingly shifted away from Jesus. Therefore, if politicians and public personalities are going to continue to self identify as Christian, and invoke that identity as a reason for policy and approach, then their opponents are going to evoke the memory of Jesus in response. However that memory of Jesus will not be the confessional Christ, but one deeply shaped by the series of movements we have identified. As we conclude part one, we are left with one overarching impression of the playing field: people may not be able to agree on who Jesus is, but they certainly want him on their side.


Part two – what does the church have to offer?

This background should intrigue the church and provoke it to contribute to these discussions positive claims about Jesus. This is equally as important in response to non-Christian public figures like Ms. Farrelly, as Christian public figures, such as Mr. Abbott; who showed that confessing the risen Christ does not make one immune to questionable assertions about Jesus.

Claim: The Continuity of Jesus

Ms. Farrelly demonstrated the tendency to remove Jesus from his time and place (and race), echoing certain troubling trends in both theology and historical Jesus studies. A memory of Jesus, which is at odds with, or removed from, Jesus’ Jewish upbringing, identity, and surroundings, should not go unquestioned. The Gospel writers, along with the earliest recorded Christian writer, Paul, identify Jesus as Jewish. More significantly, they stress that whatever significance Jesus may hold on the world, is tied to his place within the broader Jewish story (Matthew’s fulfillment motif, Peter’s address in Acts 2, Romans 9-11). The Synoptic Gospels portray Jesus as Torah observant, and as participating in Jewish life (including Jewish rites of passage – Luke 2:21-24, Synagogue attendance – Mark 6:2, and observance of Jewish festivals – Mark 14:12). Moreover they proclaim Jesus as the anticipated Jewish Messiah (Mark 1:1-8) (though there is some reworking of traditional messianic expectations). Paul follows suit, arguing that Jesus is the climax of the story of Israel, and thus the history of the world (again Rom 9-11, Gal 3:15-29). Therefore, any contributions that the church may seek to make to discussions about Jesus and Christianity in the public sphere, must identify and emphasise the Jewish roots of both Jesus and Christianity, and resist any lure of good/bad dichotomies. Discourses holding that Jesus rejected and broke with the Old Testament (or Jewishness), consigning it as bad, restrictive, and tribal, and superseded it with a new way of love, inclusion, and equality must be opposed and exposed, whether they appear in churches or in the Sydney Morning Herald.

At the other end of the continuum is the movement begun in Jesus’ name, Christianity, and the institution through which it is practiced, the church. As we saw in part one, there is a pattern in contemporary commentary to distance Jesus from his followers (both immediate and latter). With this position, there seems to come a great deal of picking and choosing, assigning certain beliefs and attitudes to Jesus, and others to his more moralistic followers.[15] Some of this is performed with academic rigour and technique, other times it appears indiscriminate and based on personal preference (sometimes those lines are not clearly marked). The church should admit and discuss the way theological concerns and contextual situations shaped the Biblical representations and early church confessions of Jesus. Nevertheless, the church needs to also discuss that confession of the risen Christ, and belief in Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, involves and encapsulates more than the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Should the church wish to engage in historical discussions, there is reason to hold that the early Christian memory of Jesus is likely to be deeply true, if not superficially exact.[16]  

Claim: The Fullness of Jesus

Jesus was more than a sage.[17] This point follows well from our conversation on continuity. Just as Jesus cannot be removed from his past and present, neither can one element of Jesus’ teaching be removed from the rest of his message (let alone his deeds, death, and – importantly for Christians – resurrection). Jesus was certainly interested in ethics, and taught, from time to time, as a wisdom teacher would. However, it is also hard to look past the immense apocalyptic tradition attached to the memory of Jesus and carried on by the early church. Many hold that Jesus’ ethical instructions, rather than being independent teaching units (which can easily be picked up from the First Century and plopped down wherever we should so chose), fit within this apocalyptic framework.[18] Jesus taught people how to live in light of the coming Kingdom of God, which would displace all worldly institutions of power. To follow the teachings of Jesus, to live in light of the reign of God, was a rehearsal for things to come, not the show itself. The church needs positively to contribute this understanding of the fullness of the memory of Jesus, which, beyond teaching, included healings, exorcisms, suffering and death. One element of the memory of Jesus should not be used as a trump card in public conversation at the expense of the many varied other elements.

Claim: The Troublesomeness of Jesus

This brings us to our final claim, which centres whether Jesus should be used as a trump card at all? Jesus is part of a much larger story; he is, for Christians, the centerpiece of that story. The rich memory of Jesus the Christ, expressed through the complexity of Christology, the puzzling claim that the second person of the Trinity took on the flesh of a First Century homeless Jewish man, incarnate and Immanuel, should not fit neatly into a one-phrase slogan to score political points.

During Pope Francis’ recent trip to the US, one commentator remarked that the Pope is equally troubling to the Right and Left of American politics.[19] Neither side could completely claim his endorsement because each held policies with which he would agree and disagree. Without lauding the current Pontiff too highly, perhaps one thing that the church can contribute to current discussions is to expect the same from Jesus, expecting Jesus to be troublesome, to disturb; not allowing Jesus to be pinned down by advocates of the Right or Left, by pro or con, for or against. The Gospels remember Jesus as enjoying the company of tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:16), of sharing meals with the Pharisees (Luke 14:1), of earning the esteem of Centurions (Luke 7). Yet, Jesus also condemned the religious and political elite (Matt 23), made some questionable statements about or to non-Jewish people (Matt 5:47, Matt 15:26), called all people to repentance (Luke 13:5), dodged questions, obscured answers in riddles (John 3:1-17), and referred to one of his closest friends as Satan (Mark 8:33). The memory of Jesus is most fully understood and articulated when it retains the potential to be troublesome – when it maintains the power to disturb both sides of a political and cultural debate.

How might this trouble be caused? The public figures who invoke the memory of Jesus to promote ‘traditional family values’ or ‘Christian marriage’, should remain troubled by Jesus’ overall indifference towards marriage (Matt 19:10-12, added to the fact that Jesus was unmarried) and his pattern of calling people (particularly young men) out of their familial units and into a new community of believers (Mark 10:17-22, also on redefining family: Matt 12:46-50). Those who use the figure of Jesus in support of a ‘pro-life’ anti-abortion agenda, yet do not extend said support to opposition of the death penalty and war, should be troubled by the memory of Jesus, which calls for forgiveness and non-violence (Matt 5:38-48, 26:51-56). Finally, those who use the influence of Jesus to oppose the commercialisation of Christmas, or who respond viciously to every story of a nativity set being removed from a public space, should not ignore the fact that Jesus never called people to remember and celebrate his birth.

Complexity is perhaps the most important contribution the church can make to discussions of Jesus and Christianity in the public sphere. Time and again, both Christians and non-Christians seek to win arguments by playing Jesus as a trump card. For the church, the best course of action may not be to challenge the Jesus trump card of the press with the Jesus trump card of the church, but rather to challenge the notion that Jesus is a trump card to begin with; that Jesus is an endorsement to be won. As we have explored, the memory of Jesus is deeply complex, rich in tradition and debate. For Christians who proclaim the risen Christ, Jesus is not a slogan, but the centre of a story, a living, breathing centre of a story, which began before time and has not ended. Perhaps we need to return to the efforts of Albert Schweitzer, and begin to counter the propensity of people to create a Jesus in their own image, by presenting pictures of the memory of Jesus; continual, full, and troublesome.



[1] Q&A, ABC TV April 6, 2010, (accessed 13 October 2015).

[2] Ross Gittins, “What Jesus Said About Capitalism”, Sydney Morning Herald, April 9, 2012. (accessed 19 October 2015).

[3] Sam De Brito, “Jesus Wasn’t a Big Fan of Consumerism”, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 December 2014, (accessed 19 October 2015).

[4] Lateline, ABC TV, 22/05/2014, (accessed 20 October 2014)

[5] Elizabeth Farrelly, “Could Jesus Have Actually Been a Woman”, Sydney Morning Hearld, 1 April 2015, (accessed 13 October 2015).

[6] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, trans. W. Montgomery, (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1911), 10.

[7] William Wrede, Paul, trans. E. W. Lummis, (London: Philip Green, 1907) 179.

[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, trans. H.L. Mencken, (United States: Createspace, 1923) 42.

[9] Ibid., 41.

[10] David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, (Salem: Westar Institute, 2012), 30.

[11] Richard Horsely, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 67.

[12] Charles Heck, The Wisdom of Jesus, (Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 135.

[13] Elizabeth Farrelly, Christian? Revolutionary? Let Me Count Thy Ways.

[14] DeBrito, Jesus wasn’t a Big Fan of Consumerism.

[15] Farrelly, “Revolutionary? Christian? Let Me Count Thy Ways”. For a more academic version of the argument, see Charles Heck, The Wisdom of Jesus.

[16] Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus, (London: SCPK, 2010), 14.

[17] Ibid., 31.

[18] Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 162.

[19] David Deane, “The Pope Before Congress: An Opportunity Missed?”, ABC Religion and Ethics, 24/11/15, (accessed 27 October 2015).