Wills’s brief new book, What Jesus Meant is not, properly, a response to that movement. Rather, as he puts it in the Introduction, it is a devotional book, the writings of a thoughtful believer who has spent long hours with the gospels. But in these times of hyper-politicized religion, any honest attempt to explain what Jesus meant will necessarily call out the contemporary conservative Christian movement for perverting the teachings of the man it claims to follow. As a non-believer compelled by Jesus, yet repelled by many of those who claim to act in his name, I found it fascinating.
Opening this way, however, is not quite being fair to the book; rather, it’s taking the marketing plan for the book at face value. Arguments about contemporary politics are simply a necessary side effect of Wills’s true focus: what Jesus is reported to have said and done, and what that means for believers. The search for the historical Jesus is not for him. While there may be historical and cultural lessons to be learned through such endeavors—why and how certain stories gained or lost prominence in the century or so during which the gospels were written—such considerations do little for faith itself. “The only Jesus we have,” Wills writes, “is the Jesus of faith. If you reject the faith, there is no reason to trust anything the gospels say.”
Those teachings, he demonstrates, are simple yet utterly radical. Jesus’ vision is, first of all, radically egalitarian. There are to be no distinctions between people on the basis of position, wealth, ethnicity, gender, or even piety. There are to be no priests, no division among the faithful: “Do not be called rabbi, for one is your teacher, and all of you are brethren” (Matthew 23:8). Everyone is equal before God. Such is clear to anyone who reads the gospels attentively, but Wills adds his deep knowledge of the period and the Bible itself, providing context for Jesus’ radicalism and the challenges it posed for the religious and secular powers of the time.
Then there is Jesus’ nonviolence: “I say to all who can hear me: Love your foes, help those who hate you, praise those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who punches your cheek, offer the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). As Wills says, “Tremendous ingenuity has been expended to compromise these uncompromising words.” Violence is never acceptable: Jesus forbids Peter to draw his sword to defend him, and if violence to protect God himself is not acceptable, when would it be? All violence is violence against Jesus. Love is at all times the only answer.
That leads us to one of Wills’s recurrent points: Jesus viewed himself as sent by God to bring a new reign, based on love, a reign not rooted in earthly power or politics, but utterly separate from them, God’s love made manifest not just in Jesus, but, ultimately, in all of creation. Jesus did not have a political program or plan, and he cannot legitimately be conscripted in support of one:
Many would like to make the reign of Jesus belong to this political order. If they want the state to be politically Christian, they are not following Jesus, who says that his reign is not of that order. If, on the other hand, they ask the state simply to profess religion of some sort (not specifically Christian), then some other religions may be conscripted for that purpose, but that of Jesus will not be among them. His reign is not of that order. If people want to do battle for God, they cannot claim that Jesus has called them to this task, since he told Pilate that his ministers would not do that.
Such an assertion, of course, must lead Wills back to politics. He notes that both left and right have attempted to make use of Jesus, but, as the conservatives lately have been the ones to take upon themselves the mantle of Jesus, they come in for far more pointed denunciations. I see no way anyone could read this book and still believe that Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell or Fred Phelps—or George Bush or Benedict XVI—are truly following Jesus.
Such perversions—and even honest misunderstandings—of Jesus’ message are endemic, their very ubiquity a demonstration of how unsettling his teachings are. Even his apostles, the people who knew him best, are frequently shown in the gospels simply not getting it. They continue to think in terms of hierarchies and purity, us and them:
John said, “Master, we found a man casting out devils in your name, but we stopped him since he was not of our party." But Jesus answered him: ‘Do not stop him, since anyone who does not oppose you supports you’” (Luke 9:49-50).
From such failures of understanding grow, in later centuries, organized churches, the priesthood, excommunication, the Inquisition, religious war, even George Bush’s flat reversal: “You're either with us or against us.”
Where Wills and I differ, ultimately, is on the role of these teachings for one who does not believe. For him, Jesus’ singularity—and his importance—is rooted in his actuality as the son of God, in his death and resurrection:
If that is unbelievable to anyone, then why should that person bother with him? The flat cutout figure they are left with is not a more profound philosopher than Plato, a better storyteller than Mark Twain, or a more bitingly ascetical figure than Epictetus. If his claims are no higher than theirs, then those claims amount to nothing.
I disagree. For me, even if Jesus’ claims about a life beyond are spurious, even if he was nothing but a man—a man whose humanity shines vividly, interwoven with his uncanny strangeness, throughout the gospels—his message is no less strong. Though Wills emphasizes that Jesus was not telling us how to organize and manage this world—he was not, in other words, giving us a political program—that does not negate the force of his teachings in this world. There is no reason that the absence of a world beyond this one need necessarily make an attempt to live radically by love any less important.
Jesus’ followers believed in the resurrection, and that is why his message was preserved. But with that message before us, nonbelievers, too, can see how our lives fall short and can attempt to live with more love for others. Is that taking only a portion of Jesus’ message, while leaving out the more important part? Wills might argue so, and I can see his point: his analysis makes clear that Jesus's teachings about this world were always seen as a preparation for the world of God's reign. Would this message be more powerful if I believed in Jesus' divinity? I'm sure it would.
But I don’t see how lack of belief makes the portion one does take—that one should love unconditionally—any less compelling, any less useful, any less awe-inspiring. It may not be a political program. It may be unworkable on this earth, even on an individual level. But it remains a useful guide.
Even the following passage, which is predicated on the idea of an eventual day of judgment, when all are rewarded or punished, loses no power for me if severed from the idea of a divinity or an afterlife:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."
Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"
The King will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25: 35-46).
When we deny anyone, we deny everyone. When we aid anyone, we aid everone. Such is always our duty, regardless of belief. Absence of punishment or reward does nothing to mitigate our failure. We will fail, but that must not prevent us from trying.