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Monday, February 20, 2012

American Jesus, Law Jesus

Happy Presidents’ Day.

My nine-year-old daughter left me rather stunned a few weeks ago when she asked me where in the United States Jesus had been born.

Though I would describe myself as a fairly religious person with strong Christian values tempered by some secular humanism, I have not, for some years now, attended religious services regularly for a number of reasons. When I was nine years old I was extremely devout and attended religious instruction several times weekly with our local priest. By the time my older children came along I was not much attached to organized religion but I did provide them with some formal religious training. My daughter, in contrast to my own upbringing and even that of my older children, has received much less formal religious training. I bought a children's bible and read to her periodically when she was very young, and we have, as always, tried to model our faith by the way we live. Given the lack of explicit religious instruction I suppose my daughter’s question was not terribly surprising. I could, I suppose, have answered her gingerly and gently when she asked about Jesus being born in the U.S.  I am not, alas, a very gentle mom when it comes to knowledge gaps.  I said instead: "Do you seriously think that Jesus was born in the United States? How could you have gotten such an idea? I know that we don't go to church much but popular culture alone should have taught you the answer to that! Don't you listen to the lyrics to all those Christmas songs?" (It occurred to me only later that songs such as "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" may clarify little about Jesus' origins when there are places such as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania....)

Unfazed by my response and the incredulous laughter that accompanied it my daughter replied: "Well, you know, Jesus just seems like a New World figure to me. I assumed that he was born in the United States or at least somewhere in the Americas."  In response I downloaded a bible to my daughter’s Kindle and told her that I would read it with her. She decided that she needed “an overview and summary” before reading a real bible so she went off and spent the afternoon reading her children's bible from cover to cover. That’s my girl.

My daughter’s comment reminded me of the time when one of my sons used to volunteer in a Sunday school class for young children.  One child thought that my son was associated with Martin Luther King and sometimes called him that.  We were somewhat annoyed, assuming that it was because my son was one of the few black people with whom the child interacted and because MLK was the only black figure consistently presented to children in school. But it occurred to me that my son was kind and caring, smart, knew something about religion and happened to be black. If this evoked MLK for the child, well, I suppose it wasn’t such a bad thing. There is a long and rich cross-cultural history of taking ownership of deities (on a funny, sort of related note, here is a link to a blog featuring a set of old jokes about the racial and ethnic origins of Jesus) and geniuses, and often conflating the two categories. United Statesians (notice the non-use of Americans here; we are not alone in the Americas) are no exception.  There is a spectrum that runs from Jesus to George Washington to Martin Luther King that permeates our religious and secular culture. It is in some respects premised on United Statesian (aka American) exceptionalism and the notion that we are, if not deities and geniuses ourselves, the principal originators of deities and geniuses.

The more thought I gave to it, the more my daughter’s belief that Jesus was born in the United States made sense to me. There is definitely something to it. Our culture does seem to teach that we are the “city on a hill” and that those values such as innovation, inclusiveness, liberty, substantive as well as procedural fairness, redemption, egalitarianism and forgiveness were all made in America. This sounds not only like “American Jesus” but also like “law Jesus,” (is that what they meant in Galatians 6:2?) or better still, given the reform nature of Jesus’ teachings, like Restatement Jesus or Model Penal Code Jesus. Why indeed wouldn't Jesus have originated in the Americas?