April 7, 2008

He's no messiah

[img id="80443" align="alignleft"] David Cardero was prophetic when, in early 2007, he put his life-sized sculpture of Barack Obama depicted as Jesus on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. The messianic overtones of Senator Obama’s campaign have since led some to see Obama as a modern-day Jesus, who, in Cardero’s words, “is sort of a potential savior that might come and absolve the country of all its sins.”

The Obama campaign has not been shy about stoking this millenarian fervor, with Michelle Obama claiming that her husband is a leader who can bring spiritual healing to his broken country. “We need a leader,” she said, “who’s going to touch our souls, who’s going to make us feel differently about one another, who’s going to remind us that we are one another’s keepers.” Echoing Mrs. Obama, Oprah Winfrey once asked the Senator while campaigning for him at his side, “Are you the one?” She continued, “It’s a question the entire nation is asking—is he the one? South Carolina, I do believe he’s the one.”

To think of Obama as the messianic “one,” of course, is to misunderstand entirely the candidate. The much greater misunderstanding, however, is of Jesus himself.

When explaining his decision to depict Obama as Jesus, Cardero said, “He’s sort of emerged as this really sort of charismatic and really popular person. I think that people really like him, and I think it’s because of his message of unity and sort of his political platform.” Really popular person? The Jesus of the New Testament reached a rather different conclusion about himself, perhaps in anticipation of his brutal execution at the hands of Roman soldiers and his being handed over to such a fate by an angry mob: “The world hated me,” he concluded.

Message of unity? Here are Jesus’s own words: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Matthew 10:34–36).

Political platform? Here again are Jesus’s own words: “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Mike Huckabee was right on target when he said that “Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office.” “Take up the cross and follow me” was never a winning political platform.

The Jesus of the New Testament is indeed very different from the Jesus of popular imagination, the one who feeds a vast multitude with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread but asks nothing in return. All gain, no pain. This popular Jesus is the one who the Obama campaign has of necessity expropriated, for Obama as a candidate is “not worthy” of the Jesus who he and the majority of Americans worship as their Lord and Savior.

It is not Obama but John McCain who sounds most like the New Testament Jesus when he calls upon Americans in one of his favorite refrains to “serve a cause greater than their own self-interest.” McCain’s message grates on the ears, as did the words of Jesus on the ears of the rich man who “went away grieving” after Jesus instructed him to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor. But Obama preaches smooth words; he is the graceful candidate, the one for whom the seas have parted in life and whom everyone loves. The Jesus of the New Testament was not so graceful in life; he did not ride the tide like Obama, but crashed violently against the waves of mighty Rome and human degradation.

Such is the price of moral authority. If Obama is to exorcise our demons, he must begin with his own: a conceit we cannot believe in.

Nathan Bloom is a third-year in the College majoring in NELC.