Temptation in the Desert: the Epiphany of George W. and J.C.
In the 2000 presidential election, George. W. Bush named Jesus his favorite philosopher. We might be wise to take him seriously and compare George W. with J.C., his philosopher king.
An American idol resurrected for society, for politics. Much has been made of Jesus Christ in recent years: Al Gore's W.W.J.D. mantra, South Park's meek J.C., servant leader Jesus CEO, the bloody human body of The Passion. He remains, oddly enough for a 1st Century homeless Jew, a key touchstone for a large portion of America - red, blue, and even black, but especially yellow jacket (aka WASP). In the 2000 presidential election, George. W. Bush named Jesus his favorite philosopher. As the President has a term under his belt and is seeking reelection, we might be wise to take him seriously. Let's swerve out of the current debate over issues and rhetoric and compare George W. with J.C., his philosopher king.
Jesus . . .
Jesus is more than a bona fide saint; according to popular and traditional Christianity, he is the Son of God, Christ, fully God and fully man; he is humanity's savior and king, the world's non-democratically elected president whose only checks and balances are human weakness and unwillingness.
So Christ is God Incarnate, but what's his platform? To frame Christ's earthly agenda, we look not to the finale of the cross and resurrection but to the inauguration of his ministry, his baptism. Tradition names Christ's baptism as Epiphany. There God reveals Jesus as His Son, crowning him with the Holy Spirit in the sign of a dove. After this glorious illumination of the Trinity, the Spirit leads the King of Kings not to the royal city of Jerusalem, oddly enough, but into the empty desert. There awaits a three-part showdown between the tempting devil and the clever Jesus - sly as a serpent, peaceful as a dove. As it plays out, Jesus renounces Satan's lures, commencing his victory over the world. Only later does Jesus gain his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, albeit he ends up betrayed and publicly executed.
. . . Bush . . .
After the baptism of 9/11, President Bush christened himself King George II, a ruler with a divine mandate. The epiphany of George W. luckily comes with the naming or renaming or un-naming of Satan . . . I mean, Osama bin Laden as "the evil one." W.'s post-9/11 speeches: these new gnostic gospels tweak Christ's crucified spin "forgive them for they know not what they do" into the retributive smoke 'em out, kill 'em, and nothing short of divine justice. We mobilize for an eschatological triumph of democracy over the minions of evil and their sheikhs of terror. In short, a holy crusade against the axis of evil - sic Jihad. So how does Bush's battle "for civilization itself" compare to the ministry of Jesus? Let's frame this question around how Bush, in his own words and actions, has publicly confronted the same temptations Jesus faced in the desert?
. . . and the devil.
Satan is a damn tricky fellow, a false angel of light, dark prince of the world, a totally unrepentant liar of liars. Jesus' first task as God-appointed Messiah is to face this vermin out in the desert. An ascetic word-slinging spaghetti Western. First, the devil tempts Jesus to prove his divine son-ship by turning stones to bread; Jesus renounces supernatural power, entrusting his existence wholly to his heavenly Father. Again, the devil challenges him to verify he is the Son of God by cliff diving, banking on God's devoted angels to act as cushions; once more Jesus says no, he will not test God nor attempt to confirm his celestial credentials. Lastly, Satan promises Jesus dominion over the earth if only Jesus will bow to him; with a paradoxical self-denial and self-assertion, Jesus refuses worldly power and commits himself solely to the will of God. In this fashion, Jesus began his active ministry, confronting the devil's lies.
Comparing temptation results. On one hand, Jesus renounced the powers of the earth, the pseudo-divine prerogatives of bread, miracles, and dominion. On the other hand, Bush unilaterally accepted the three temptations as morally coherent standards. As boy king, he hoped to beat these political dares with bready tax cuts (for the rich); miraculously defensible spending (mostly going to his political cohorts); and a lust for power characterized by preemptive war, nation building, unilateralism, and global dominance. According to Christian tradition, Jesus, asserting no self-defense, saved the world by freely sacrificing his life. According to the pulp fiction of the White House, George W. believes he can save the world by sticking to his guns, "kill or be killed." "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?" (Luke 9:25) The same goes for our country.
The light of the world?
Jesus Christ silently accepted his suffering and death for the Kingdom of God, even though or precisely because he was innocent. "For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?" (Luke 23:31), he said forebodingly as he hung from the cross. As President and Commander in Chief, Bush baits his public into imagining themselves in a Manichean struggle between good and evil, God versus Satan, US versus al Qaeda. The task at hand is to discern how Bush has lead in qualitative terms. How has he faced the nation's and the world's problems and opportunities? The line of reasoning shouldn't be so simple: "they" want to kill us; how well have the President's men killed "them"? A healthy, balanced exploration should concern the whole range of motives and purposes of the President's administration, along with all the global goings-on. However, a vigorous moral debate is not or has not been on President's mind. To pleas made by nearly all Christian leaders against the invasion of Iraq (including the Pope, most Catholic and Orthodox Bishops, chief U.S. theologians, and the leadership of the president's own Protestant denomination), Bush responded, "No." Indeed, he accepted the suffering and deaths of innocents for Pax Americana.
One seeking moral clarity and resolve could take the Judeo-Christian justification for war seriously like William Bennett does in his book Why We Fight, but he of course seems to take gambling as seriously as Bush, albeit with different stakes. No, we don't need a book to tell us that most Americans, even in their daily life, rely on just a war doctrine. Our savvy leaders, Bush & CO., recognize our addiction to the just cause of World War II, and they milk it for all its worth. They shamelessly precipitated the Iraq invasion by framing it as a "mushroom cloud" just war dilemma: we have a moral burden between choosing this action over a greater inevitable (though imagined) evil. Now we fear (or know) that this preemptive war was motivated by the neocons' publicly stated Project for the New American Century. Without putting forth an alternative vision for national security, I can fairly state that just war theory is off the table when its replaced with justified imperialism -- by the policy makers themselves. Not to mention the absence of a ticking bomb. I suspect that Bush genuinely believes in what he is doing, believes he is right and moral. But it isn't about judging Bush's personal salvation, it's about discerning palpable spiritual truth regarding our nation's actions.
What's sad is not that Bush is not called on his nominal Christian standards and values, which are more in line with his voting base than with his personal Lord and savior. (Most Christians, me included, are morally mediocre and self-satisfied, even if we try to take the high road.) No, what's sad is actually what is hideous: this President regularly and repeatedly - speaking in religious platitudes, abstract ideals, and moral absolutes - galvanized support for his policies by equating national interest with justice (i.e. God's will). (I'd guess it's a good thing Bush talks to his heavenly Father, except, as Maureen Dowd of the NY Times pointed out, this Father can't answer back. Maybe that's why Christ came?)
Jesus and Empire? Jesus Christ, at least according to the Gospels, cares more about voluntary suffering for the poor and hungry. He even goes so far as to encourage such rash self-denying behavior in his deluded followers: "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me." (Mark 10:27) Jesus wants a bunch of humble maybe even joyful paupers?
Surprisingly, a greater part of the world is still unenlightened, particularly the Middle East, as they believe cowboy Bush and his posse are a threat to world peace (and Jesus by implication?). Stealing riffs from Nietzsche, however unintentional and ironic, Bush rhetorically manipulates the masses by his committed play on the slave morality of America. No stepping out of line, no doubts, no questioning. The present war on terror is a return to the moral paradigm of the Cold War, with Regan as saint equal-to-the-apostles for his nuclear arsenal, deficit, and thus victory over the commie atheists. You're either for us or against us, terrorist or patriot. Christ may have overcome the world by self-giving love as opposed to violence (except maybe his fiery tongue). Nonetheless, President Bush calmly and rationally feels he believes -- in forcing people to be free -- in violence overcoming violence -- in achieving moral and material ends through the deaths of soldiers, civilians, and innocent children. A man of unyielding principles. This isn't a critique on Bush's policies to be followed up with happy alternatives. This is a flaming question mark on Bush as the head of America. Let's call things by their true name: President George W. Bush is not a Christian leader, he is an antichrist.
Vladimir Soloviev, a 19th Century Russian theologian, wrote:
In the name of his moral grandeur a human being may desire domination over the world in order to bring it to perfection; but the world is full of evil and does not willingly submit to moral excellence. Thus it seems necessary to force the world into submission, to apply one's divine power in the form of violence to bring the world to submission. But this use of violence, i.e. of evil in the service of good ends, would be an admission that the good in itself does not have power, that evil is stronger - and this is tantamount to worshipping the evil principle which holds sway in the world: "and [Satan] showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, 'All these I will give to you, if you will fall down and worship me'"(Mt. 4. 4:8-9). (Quoted in Paul Valliere, Modern Russian Theology, p. 162.)
The comparison between Jesus and Bush is not simply about impugning one man, but lampooning the whole country. Is Bush's lust for power so far from the collective heart of the United States? Does US policy, past and present, support the sentiment that America is a 'shining city on a hill'? And if so, what kind of light is it? We could poll the world.
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