Monday, July 27, 2009

Joe and the Jesi

“I can see Putin sitting in Moscow saying, ‘Jesus Christ, Iran gets the nuclear weapon, who goes first? Moscow, not Washington.’” - Vice President Joe Biden 
“We oughta be ashamed, We oughta be ashamed,We use and abuse such a wonderful name.” - Johnny Cash and Elvis Costello duet

Say it ain’t so, Joe. A nice Catholic boy like you, using and abusing such a wonderful name?

I’d like to say I was shocked by your use of Jesus Christ in a recent Wall Street Journal interview. But that would be a slight exaggeration. Most of us hear the name used every day, often devoid of its intended theological significance. For many, the name has lost its power.

Even so, Mark Tapscott, the editorial page editor of the Washington Examiner was sorely offended by the Vice Presidents use of the JC word and asked, “How many more stupid comments does it take before his handlers in the White House realize it’s time for this dunce to retire?”

Of course Joe is no dunce, but I was puzzled why he let his guard down during a press interview. Didn’t he remember his constituency is now larger than Wilmington and there might be folks out there who would be deeply pained by the casual way he used the wonderful name?

For many, this kind of rhetorical carelessness leaves scars that last for decades. 

In 1974,  American Baptists organized a theological communications center in Green Lake, Wis., and invited media luminaries like Dick Gregory and Norman Cousins, who came, and ABC science reporter Jules Bergman, who didn’t. In lieu of Jules, the agency sent Ashley Montagu, the British anthropologist and humanist known for his appearances on Johnny Carson and who changed his name from - and I’m sure that wouldn’t have bothered Baptists in the slightest had we known - Israel Ehrenberg. 

Ashley and his saintly wife Marjorie spent a week at Green Lake, Marjorie memorable for her sweetness and Ashley for his Bermuda shorts, black knee socks and surly disposition. Ashley was, as I recall, a brilliant presenter, but for decades I would run into conferees who were still angry about only one of his sentences: “I am a Unitarian,” he told us, “and the only time you hear Jesus Christ mentioned in my church is when the janitor falls downstairs.”

So let’s not forget that a faux pas like Joe’s will hurt and dismay a lot of folks.

Ashley’s reference may have been insensitive, but I think he understood Who he was talking about when he said “Jesus Christ.”

I suspect it might have been different with Joe. If you grow up in certain parts of the United States - including blue collar Wilmington and Philadelphia - you quickly learn there’s more than one Jesus. Joe probably moves back and forth between them, deferring with due respect to the Savior and relating more casually to the others.

There is, of course, the second Person of the Trinity Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the World, the figure Baptists know as a “personal Savior” and Catholics like Joe encounter in prayer, hymns and the awesome power of the Eucharist. Believe me when I say (and listen up Mark Tapscott of the Washington Examiner), Joe Biden is not dunce enough to speak that name with disrespect. Without delving too analytically into Joe’s political record, it’s obvious it reflects a good Christian upbringing and an understanding that Jesus Christ loves and accepts everyone, notwithstanding a bias for the poor, and calls on us to treat one another like good neighbors. I am sure Joe would never take the name of that Jesus in vain.

But there are Jesus figures that Joe also knows, and they have little to do with the One who was in the Beginning with the Word.

First of all, of course, there is the Jesus of the epithet whose name often springs to tongue but who is not regarded by those who use it as the Second Person of the Trinity. It is a name used for emphasis, as in, “Putin is sitting in Moscow saying, ‘Jesus Christ,’” or for emotional release when you need a quicker way of saying, “Please, dear, stop spilling your molten coffee into my lap.”

Then there is the unJesus whose name is removed in vain from Christmas and Easter so it doesn’t get in the way of holiday marketing, or the nonJesus whose name is used by televangelists Pat Robertson to justify “taking out” foreign leaders, or the fauxJesus quoted in George W. Bush’s State Department reports, often adding to the fog of war.

And let’s not forget Action Jesus, Bobblehead Jesus, and I don’t care if it rains or freezes Jesus.

When my wife was in seminary in the early 80s, she and her suite mate would exchange stories of their educational experiences, including student pastorates and clinical pastoral education. The suite mate’s CPE assignment was a psych ward where she encountered the full range of mental illnesses: addiction, depression, agoraphobia, obsessive compulsive disorder and the classic delusions of schizophrenia. Citing patients of special interest, she reported, “I have three Jesi.”

No doubt each of them preferred to be called Jesus Christ, and that’s just one reason the name has lost its power. But names are merely words and words only have the power we assign to them.

I don’t think Joe Biden’s use of the words Jesus Christ implies in any way a disrespect - or a lack of awe - for the Second Person of the Trinity. He may think twice about using them in a press interview again - but that would be a political judgment, not a matter of faith.

In the context of faith, the power of the Trinity will never diminish.

The power of words, on the other hand, is subject to individual understanding, and context. In my own context, when I was growing up I never heard Jesus’ name spoken disrespectfully. My mother’s angriest condemnation was, “Piffle,” which was embarrassing enough. But the anglicized name of the Lord was always used with respect, and I still wince when I hear it used as an epithet.

But Ive got to wonder: does - He - wince when he hears it? 

But Jesus never heard it uttered during his time on earth. 

The name he answered to was Yeshua Bar Joseph.

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