By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Thomas Jefferson considered Jesus the greatest of all moral teachers, and also divine. Webster defines divine as being of or like God. Jesus referred to God as his Father, a mystical, merciful and all-powerful spiritual power that could reconcile and redeem all people through the transforming power of God’s love and enable them to experience the kingdom of God.
Was Jesus divine? The Jews were expecting a long-awaited messiah to free them from Roman oppression and restore the power and glory of the ancient kingdom of Israel. It would have been unthinkable for any Jew to claim to be of or like God; and Jesus never made any such claim. It was the early church that made Jesus a surrogate Christian God.
Paul’s atonement doctrine depicted Jesus as God’s blood sacrifice to atone for original sin, then John’s Gospel presented Jesus as the mystical Logos. Later the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed made belief in Jesus Christ as the Trinitarian alter ego of God a condition of salvation, but neither creed mentioned following the altruistic teachings of Jesus in the gospels.
Thomas Jefferson considered the moral teachings of Jesus a universal moral code relevant to politics, but he considered the divinity of Jesus a mystical matter best kept private. Whether Christians consider Jesus a prophet, the messiah (Christ is the Greek word for messiah) or the divine alter ego of God, they should follow his teachings as the word of God.
Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who called his disciples to follow him, not to worship him. The hymn O Young and Fearless Prophet depicts Jesus as a prophet who taught and exemplified the word of God. That’s what prophets do. And Jews and Muslims consider their prophets, as well as Jesus, as divine sources of God’s word, but not as God in human form.
The church has always sought to be popular, and following the teachings of Jesus on sacrificial love (discipleship) has never been popular. The church remedied that problem by subordinating the duty of discipleship to worshiping Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. But such exclusivist belief in Jesus as God without discipleship is a form of cheap grace.
Most Christians believe that their religion is the one true faith and that their salvation depends upon their belief in exclusivist church doctrines that Jesus is the alter ego of God. Such exclusivist beliefs have been important to the popularity and political power of Christianity in democracies, but they have made religious reconciliation very difficult.
In a world of increasing religious diversity, there’s no place for religious beliefs that condemn unbelievers. Jesus never suggested that God favored one religion over others, and he taught the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves. That’s a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The Abrahamic religions all have exclusivity issues. Jews consider themselves God’s chosen people, Christians believe that God sent Jesus as God’s word made flesh, while Muslims believe their holy book, the Qur’an, is God’s word made book. But the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus are universal and should be the moral foundation for religious reconciliation.
Mystical matters of belief are interwoven with the moral imperatives of faith that define legitimacy (what is right and wrong). Christianity lost its moral compass in America in 2016 when white Christians ignored the teachings of Jesus and sacrificed him on the altar of partisan politics. They elected a president whose morality is antithetical to that taught by Jesus.
Those white Christians who supported Donald Trump have discredited Christian morality and undermined political legitimacy in America. It will take others to restore the greatest commandment as a universal common word of faith and politics. It is needed to resurrect the Jesus of The Jefferson Bible, whose moral teachings are given precedence over his divinity.
Thomas Jefferson considered himself a Christian. “In a statement of his faith, Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush: ‘I am a Christian in the only since that he [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.’” Taken from the Preface to The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth by Forrest Church, Beacon Press,1989.
The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy is an interfaith sudy guide posted in Resources at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/p/resources.html. The role of Jefferson’s Jesus in the study guide is described in the Introduction at pages 10-15.
O Young and Fearless Prophet (S. Ralph Harlow, United Methodist Hymnal, p 444) depicts the moral teachings of a divine prophet, but not the alter ego of God who was a blood sacrifice to atone for our sins:
1. O young and fearless Prophet
of ancient Galilee,
thy life is still a summons
to serve humanity;
to make our thoughts and actions
less prone to please the crowd,
to stand with humble courage
for truth with hearts uncowed.
2. We marvel at the purpose
that held thee to thy course
while ever on the hilltop
before thee loomed the cross;
thy steadfast face set forward
where love and duty shone,
while we betray so quickly
and leave thee there alone.
3. O help us stand unswerving
against war's bloody way,
where hate and lust and falsehood
hold back Christ's holy sway;
forbid false love of country
that blinds us to his call,
who lifts above the nations
the unity of all.
4. Stir up in us a protest
against our greed for wealth,
while others starve and hunger
and plead for work and health;
where homes with little children
cry out for lack of bread,
who live their years sore burdened
beneath a gloomy dread.
5. O young and fearless Prophet,
we need thy presence here,
amid our pride and glory
to see thy face appear;
once more to hear thy challenge
above our noisy day,
again to lead us forward
along God's holy way.
Related commentary on the greatest commandment and love over law:
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(10/13/18): Musings on a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Christians and Muslims
(2/23/19): Musings on Loving Your Enemy, Including the Enemy Within
Related commentary on religion, morality and politics:
(12/29/14): Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(6/28/15): Confronting the Evil Among Us
(7/12/15): Reconciliation in Race and Religion: The Need for Compatibility, not Conformity http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/07/reconciliation-in-race-and-religion.html
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(8/23/15): Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict
(8/30/15): What Is Truth? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/what-is-truth.html
(11/15/15): American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion?
(1/16/16): Religion, Politics and Public Expectations
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
4/30/16): The Relevance of Religion to Politics
(5/7/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(5/28/16): Nihilism as a Threat to Politics, Religion and Morality
(7/2/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in the Wake of Globalization
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/08/how-religion-can-bridge-our-political.html
(9/24/16): The Evolution of Religion and Politics from Oppression to Freedom
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(12/31/16): E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-does-it-matter.html.
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17): Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/29/17): Speaking God’s Truth to Man’s Power
(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism
(8/19/17): Hate, History and the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/a-21st-century-reformation-to-restore.html.
(10/21/17): The Symbiotic Relationship between Freedom and Religion
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
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(1/13/18): Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religion: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(2/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religion, Freedom and Legitimacy
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(5/19/18): Musings on Morality and Law as Symbiotic but Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy
(7/21/18): Musings on America’s Moral and Political Mess and Who Should Clean It Up
(8/4/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religious Problems and Solutions in Politics
(8/11/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Changing Morality in Religion and Politics
(8/25/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Moral Priorities in Religion and Politics
(9/1/18): Musings on the American Civil Religion and Christianity at a Crossroads
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(10/27/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Migrant Tidal Wave
(11/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and the Legitimacy of Democracy http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/11/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on.html.
(1/5/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Building Political Walls or Bridges
(2/16/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America the Blessed and Beautiful--or is it?
(3/30/19): Musings on What the Mueller Report Doesn’t Say About Trump’s Wrongdoing
(4/12/19): Musings on Religion, Nationalism and Libertarian Democracy
(4/20/19): Musings on the Resurrection of Altruistic Morality in Dying Democracies
(4/27/19): Musings on the Legitimacy of Crony Capitalism and Progressive Capitalism
(5/4/19): Musings on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
(5/11/19): Musings on the Relevance of Jefferson’s Jesus in the 21st Century
(5/18/19): Outsiders Versus Insiders in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics