Government & Politics
 

How to escape political paralysis: Jefferson Bible points toward common ground

Thomas Jefferson kept slaves but also defended their legal rights. His religious views were similarly complex: A deist who disdained the supernatural, he held Jesus to be the highest moral authority.

Today’s young secular Democrats would do well to seek common ground with the millions of Republicans who vote against their candidates, many of them for religious reasons.

Pundits blame recent Democratic election losses — in Georgia, South Carolina, Montana and Kansas — on their secular-only talk. The same thing has happened in past Louisiana elections.

But how to find that common ground? Democrats could do worse than to study and absorb Thomas Jefferson’s early 19th-century tome, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.

You could not accuse Jefferson of being a Christian. As a Deist, he went through the Gospel narratives cutting out all of the statements attributed to Jesus that could be interpreted as supernatural. The stories of Jesus that showed him as a great moral teacher Jefferson kept. The Jefferson Bible is once again widely read and quoted.

Quoting and promoting the best of Jefferson’s Jesus would provide secular Democrats with a basis for alliances with voters for whom religion is a paramount concern. One of the great New Testament passages that Jefferson kept pretty much intact was the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). It begins with what we have come to call the Beatitudes, nine ways in which God blesses the people (Matthew 5:1-12). For Jefferson, these verses did not come from God, but from the man he considered the greatest moral teacher ever to walk the earth: Jesus of Nazareth.

Since the November election, as an Episcopal clergy I have been preaching, writing and talking about three of the nine Beatitudes that, if taken seriously, would bring much healing and direction to our polarized and angry nation. And I love to give examples of “Beatitude people” who show the way. I hold forth in secular as well as church settings.

Western culture generally says, “Blessed are those who those who are self-satisfied, independent, rugged individuals.” Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3). He is saying that the blessed include those who know they are poor — those who know they need the help and support of others, the support of God.

We are all “poor” in the way Jesus uses that term. But we tend to act like the rich man who can’t give money to those who need it most. (And lest we feel superior for being charitable, bear in mind that Jesus even found room in his heart(Mark 10:17-22) to love the stingy rich man.) Similarly, in the parables Jesus praises the despised, poor-in-spirit tax collector more than the powerful and self-righteous religious leaders called Pharisees (Luke 9-14). The tax-collector is blessed to know his need for God’s forgiveness and help. The Pharisee? Not so much.

Western culture tends to say, “Blessed are the proud, the macho, those who know they are right 100 percent of the time and act with this “knowledge” 100 percent of the time. Think today’s politics.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:4). The meek of whom Jesus speaks approach life with a healthy kind of humility. They are not doormats. Rather, they are like Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, who desperately throws himself at the feet of Jesus in hopes that the great teacher and healer will save his little girl (literally in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, his “lamb child”). When Jairus throws himself at the feet of Jesus, ironically he stands tall (Mark 5:35-43).

Western culture tends to bless those who look out for themselves only, those who believe in accumulating things for their own selfish pleasure, who say, “Greed is good” (a mantra from the movie “Wall Street,” later used as the title of a popular book on investing.) They believe other people were made for us, not us for others.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). Jesus made clear at the very outset of his ministry what he meant by righteousness: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he said, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release of the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4: 18).

Western culture seems to say, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. Lock ‘em up and throw away the key. Mass incarceration is good! The punishment must fit the crime. Get even! Hang on to your grudges.” Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful — those who can learn to forgive — for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5: 7).

He showed mercy to the woman about to be stoned after she was caught in adultery. “Let anyone among you who is without sin, cast the first stone,” he said. The executioners all departed (John 8: 1-11).  He showed mercy even to the Roman soldiers who were crucifying him. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23: 34).

I claim as partners secular voters who attempt to live these Beatitudes, even though they may not recognize them as sayings of Jesus. And I am sure many of these partners do better at making them their own than do many of my Christian sisters and brothers.

As part of my ministry, I lead small groups in both churches and secular settings, including prisons. One of the ways I engage participants in these conversations is to ask them to think of a harsh wilderness experience they have endured. Then I ask who were the “angels” (the people) who ministered to them and helped them persevere — like the angels who ministered to Jesus when he was driven into the wilderness to endure 40 days and 40 nights “with the wild beasts” and Satan after him (Mark 1: 12-13).

I worked with one such group in the Lowell Corrections Institute in Florida, a women’s prison. When the ladies (as they like to be called) were telling their stories of wilderness and angels, I was, as always, blown away by many of them. But one in particular will always stay with me. I learned a lot about what the Beatitudes mean from the inmate named Holly. She had hardly said anything for the first day of the gathering, but when it was her turn to speak, she said this:

“When I came to this prison 13 years ago, I was pregnant and just 19. I didn’t know who the father was and my own family had long ago abandoned me. When the child, a girl, was born they took my baby from me. You can imagine that wilderness experience, sentenced to prison for many years and losing my only child. But then a family from a Christian foster care organization agreed to take my little girl into their family.

“And then an amazing thing happened. They started visiting me in Lowell Prison regularly, making me part of their family. And when my child, Alice, was old enough, they started bringing her to see me most every month. Alice is now 13, she calls me Mom. I am her mother.”

As Holly spoke of her “angels in the wilderness,” the family that accepted her and her daughter, she burst into tears. So did we all. Holly will be in prison many more years, but her story teaches us all about “the poor in spirit,” healthy humility, righteousness, and, most of all, mercy.

Secular Democrats, please listen! You do not need to be a person of religious faith to embrace the teachings of the Jefferson Jesus. But if you do, you will find common ground with religious people, many of whom vote Republican. And who knows, as we start talking about the teachings and sayings of Jesus and telling our stories, we may find ourselves making new friends all across the political spectrum. How healing that would be for our city, state and nation.

William Barnwell’s most recent book, “Called to Heal the Brokenhearted: Stories from Kairos Prison Ministry International,” was published last year by the University Press of Mississippi. This fall the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press is publishing Barnwell’s next book, “Angels in the Wilderness: Young and Black in New Orleans and Beyond.”

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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