During a 1999 appearance on VH1 Storytellers, during which artists would not only play songs but also talk about the inspiration and meaning behind them, Matthews included “Christmas Song” in his setlist. While introducing the song, he stated that his inspiration for it came from a quote by Oscar Wilde: “If Christ was alive now, the one thing he wouldn’t be is a Christian.”
Per Matthews in the song, Jesus shares his own sense of purpose, which is to enlighten and inspire; to show people how to live and how to treat one another, as well as perhaps provide a sense of hope. However, Jesus also voices a concern that the way people will receive and implement his message will be very different, and much more violent. Rather than bring hope, peace, and love to a hurting world, people will interpret or use Jesus’ life for purposes such as angling for political power or governmental control, excluding those who are different, withholding help from the poor, hurting, and hungry, and using coercive and deadly force to convert or control. All of this in Jesus’ name, as if invoking him will make it all okay, no matter how divorced from what he said it actually is.
Here is where Wilde’s quote about Jesus probably not being a Christian comes in, because a lot of what self-identifies as “Christian” today seems to have very little to do with Jesus. Here was a man who during his life said things like “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matt 5:7) and “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). Here was a man who had no problem interacting with a Samaritan woman, despite his own ethno-religious background forbidding it (John 4:5–42) and who elsewhere made a Samaritan the hero of one of his best known stories (Luke 10:25–37). Here was a man who taught about a father who welcomed back his irresponsible and disrespectful son with open arms, rather than shunning him, as the culture would have demanded (Luke 15:11–32).
Over the centuries, many calling themselves Christian have either forgotten or chosen to forego these sorts of teachings and the many instances in which Jesus hung out with prostitutes and “sinners”; who saw them all as people seeking love and redemption. As a result, many have experienced Jesus wielded at them like a weapon, rather than emulated in acts of kindness, welcome, and justice. This includes women, racial minorities, those who adhere to other faiths or no faith, and those who identify as LGBTQ. At times the blood spilled in the name of Jesus has been literal; at other times the wounds have been emotional or spiritual.
And if Jesus were alive today, would he be welcome in most churches? Would he be able to bring his leper and prostitute friends with him without being turned away at the door, or avoided in the pews? If he served as guest preacher, could he stand up and talk about loving enemies without ridicule or accusations of being too offensive? Or could he challenge the values of today’s empires without facing backlash or even being crucified all over again?
These questions lie behind Wilde’s claim that Jesus probably wouldn’t call himself a Christian. A lot of what Christians do nowadays looks and sounds little like the person who inspired the religion that bears his name.
Both Matthews and Wilde are calling attention to the way people of faith approach Jesus; how they receive who he was, and how they live while striving to follow him. We could name more than two ways of doing so, but I’ll focus on just two. Both profess a belief that Jesus was special, and worth listening to. Some from both groups may have faith that he was somehow God in human form, or otherwise had a unique role given to him by God. So what I am trying to name is less an issue of belief, and more one of action.
The people Jesus describes here are the first set I want to talk about: they are the ones who use him as a brand, as a name to slap on whatever they want to do, whether it looks much like what he did and taught in the Gospels or not. Often, this group will use Jesus to justify what they’ve already decided, rationalizing that they are on his team, wearing the uniform, and saying the right things about him.
In these instances, Jesus’ likeness is a means of selling something, even if it is diametrically opposed to what he stood for. Politicians may do it to convince people to buy in to a policy that harms those in poverty or who are part of minority groups. Religious leaders may do it to justify excluding groups of people from participating in their faith communities. Individuals may do it to make themselves feel better about how they treat others on a daily basis. Jesus’ example is nowhere to be found in these cases, only his name.
The second way of following Jesus is to give attention to his ethics. This takes his words more seriously, if not imperfectly. This way recognizes that what he taught was more than a series of nice things to pass the time while waiting for the events of the crucifixion to begin. After all, he had to have said or done something to have gotten the authorities’ attention to begin with. So he gave hope to those downtrodden by religious rules and civil policy; he encouraged a different way of treating one another aside from the hierarchical system that people were familiar with, showing people a system of values based on love, forgiveness, peacemaking, and justice, rather than one of power, discrimination, coercion, and fear.
To follow this in any serious way, as more than a brand name, is to see people differently. It is to stand up for the troubled and struggling. It is to let the voiceless tell their story and take it seriously. It is to occasionally encounter resistance to a radically different way of interacting with the world. An ethical approach to Jesus is to begin with the baby boy and see where his life takes him, rather than skip to the end or turn to what other Biblical writers say about him. It is to start with the difficult things he said, the surprising people he ate with, the countercultural way he saw people. It is to look at his vision of love spreading to everyone regardless of status or worth, and wondering how we can help bring it to fruition.