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Biblical Jesus Must Now Save the United States from American Jesus

CJ Werleman argues that the New Gospel figure of compassion and fairness who inspired the Civil Rights movement could help Black Lives Matter combat the Christian Right

The casket of George Floyd is put into a hearse to a cemetery in Houston, Texas

Biblical Jesus Must Now Save the United States from American Jesus

CJ Werleman argues that the New Gospel figure of compassion and fairness who inspired the Civil Rights Movement could help Black Lives Matter combat the Christian Right

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It is almost as though the 10 biblical plagues that were visited upon ancient Egypt are being unleashed on the world’s most populous Christian country.

First came the Coronavirus, and then the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression, which has helped to ignite the most large-scale social unrest since the Vietnam War.

But whereas the Pharaoh turned his back on God, US President Donald Trump turned his back on science in calling COVID-19 a non-threatening “hoax” at the same time other countries were declaring a national emergency. The rest is history, but the present tells of 115,000 Coronavirus deaths and 40 million lost jobs, while the future promises of further carnage to come, given that new cases of the virus and hospitalisations are rising in 20 states.

Saving the US from Trump’s destructive recklessness and long-standing racial and economic injustices will take more than a victory by former Vice President Joe Biden in November. It will also take more than the Black Lives Matter movement. 

What the US needs in this moment is Jesus. But not the crass impersonation of Christ found almost exclusively in America, and embodied by the Christian Right, but the one found in the New Testament of the Bible and exemplified by the words and deeds of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, Pope Francis, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Harvard Divinity School’s Professor Cornel West, an African American who described President Barack Obama as “the black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs”.

Like Jesus Christ, these religious figures have led great social change by putting morality before politics; the interests of the downtrodden and disadvantaged before the interests of the rich and powerful; inclusiveness before tribalism; justice before power.

As an agnostic, I’m not a religious person. But it is clear to me that more than ever the US needs a spiritual revival – but one driven by Jesus’ teachings and examples and not the kind of toxic and perverted form of Christianity that is fuelled by an American invented ‘prosperity gospel’ which worships at the altar of individualism, materialism, capitalism and oppressive political power.

The Role of Religion in Protest Movements

Liberal and black churches played a central role in turning protests against racial segregation and apartheid into legislation and domestic policy achievements in the 1960s, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, alongside President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programmes, Medicare and Medicaid. 

Certainly, the Black Lives Matter movement has already achieved a great deal. It has not only channelled outrage towards racial injustice into a coherent message, but it has also put an end to police chokeholds in several major cities, as well as helping to implement policies and reforms that place greater oversight on police departments. 

That said, there remains a risk that the movement becomes little more than a convenient slogan to be co-opted by the Democratic Party in its approaching contest against Trump and their Republican opponents. The future wellbeing of the United States depends on the Black Lives Matter movement transforming into something greater than symbolism and a torn-down Confederate era statue.

“Without the centralised leadership, oratorical strength and widespread influence organised religion has historically provided to black liberation struggles, it has been difficult for the movement to sustain itself on a national front,” observed Bianca Vivion Brooks in The New York Times. “I fear that, absent the structural and rhetorical power offered by organised religion, it will become increasingly difficult for the left to fight the growing ideology of right-wing extremism, an ideology that has always been heavily undergirded by its own religious dogma.”

The Reactionary Right

The events of the past several weeks have made it clearer than ever that the Christian Right, a political movement that runs 180 degrees counter to New Testament scripture, stands firmly alongside Trump, white dominant power structures and a militarised police state.

The religious movement, often described as Christian nationalism, makes no pretence of its disdain of honesty, humility, equality and harmony. It seeks only to vanquish the same people Trump hates, including liberals, immigrants, academics, feminists, coastal elites and of course black people.

Over the past four years, the Christian Right has proved that there is no moral or ethical transgression that it is unwilling to endorse – not Trump’s long list of documented falsehoods; his boasts about sexually assaulting women; his praise of neo-Nazi counter-protestors; his racist vilification of non-white federal judges, athletes, and deceased US servicemen; his tear-gassing of peaceful protestors; his support of violent police; his pardoning of war criminals; his odes to brutal dictators; nor his deadly disinformation regarding COVID-19.

The Christian Right not only saved Trump from impeachment, it has also helped the Republican Party ram through a legislative agenda that has empowered the country’s most destructive forces, including environmental polluters, gun manufacturers, defence contractors and the profiteers of hate. They pray that their acquiesce will be rewarded in laws that punish gay people and single women.

To save itself from the coming fourth, fifth, and tenth biblical plagues, the future wellbeing of the United States depends on a counter-response from churches that actually ascribe to Jesus’ teachings of compassion, equality and fairness. The mobilising power of organised religion has proven to be vitally important cog in the wheel of social and political progress, and Jewish and Muslim organisations have demonstrated in their support of Black Lives Matter that they are at the ready to be called upon.

Calling Jesus: is anybody home?

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