Jesus Wasn’t Always Nice

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Jesus wasn’t always nice.

I had to remember that in responding to some letters I received from readers who were disappointed by my recent article, My Interview with President Obama. Some folks didn’t like the rhetorical device I employed, namely the fictional interview I composed. Others felt that I was too hard on the President when I criticized him for using tax dollars to fund abortion overseas. They said that I was not being charitable as Jesus would have been.

For example, one letter writer complained that I presented the President as a clown. “I resent the insult to our President,” she said. One of my fans from Ohio wrote, “Wow! The venom really drips on this [column] . . . Easy to blast away from the comfort and security of your cemetery hermitage . . . What did you expect to accomplish?” And a third instructed me that “the Bible teaches us to love and pray for our enemies and to turn the other cheek and not attack them . . . Charity is patient and kind. It is not arrogant or rude.”

First I should note that I am seldom offended by people criticizing the things I’ve written. Inspiring healthy dialogue in the Church is one of the goals of my columns. I hope, though, that critics can always distinguish between my personal opinions and the essential teachings of the Church which, as Catholics they are obliged to accept.

I do find it intriguing, though, that the critics of the Obama column were more offended by my writing than the fact that the President is using their tax dollars to destroy unborn children. (And now to engage in the destruction of human embryos in stem cell research.) But it still seems to me that if the President’s anti-life actions don’t stir up moral outrage in you, nothing will; if they don’t offend your conscience, you need a conscience transplant, my friend.

The other premise of my critics seems to be that because we are Christians we should never be angry or challenge others. We should always be charitable, tolerant, kind and nice, they suggest. After all, isn’t that what Jesus would do?

Well, in fact, no. The Gospels are very clear that in confronting moral evil Jesus wasn’t at all nice or kind. We usually think of Jesus as a prophet of peace, and indeed He was. But His preaching also created bitter controversy and division. “I have come to set the earth on fire . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Lk 12: 49, 51)

Think of Jesus cleansing the Temple, an incident recorded in all four Gospels. Jesus entered the Temple angrily, confronted the merchants and money-changers, made a whip out of cords, drove them away and upset their tables and booths. Doesn’t sound too charitable to me!

Jesus railed against the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum for their lack of faith, and predicted a terrible judgment day for those towns. “You will go down the netherworld,” He warned. (Mt 11: 23) Doesn’t sound too charitable to me!

And of course there’s Jesus’ withering condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees. He repeatedly called them hypocrites. He described them as “blind guides . . . whitewashed tombs . . . serpents . . . brood of vipers . . . and murderers.” (Cf. Mt, Chapter 23) Doesn’t sound too charitable to me!

There are other examples, but you get the point. In confronting moral evil, Jesus wasn’t nice, kind, gentle and sweet. He lived in a rough and tumble world and He took His message to the streets. He was a fearless prophet who spoke the truth sometimes with harsh and angry language. Jesus’ condemnations infuriated public officials and religious leaders, so much so that they were determined to kill Him. And indeed they did.

In using condemnatory language was Jesus being “uncharitable?” Of course not. It was precisely because He loved people, because He was concerned for their salvation, that He spoke the truth, that He condemned their immoral, sinful behavior.

And that should be the mission of the Church today. Sometimes as Catholics we’re hesitant to challenge the immoral behavior of others, including public officials, because we don’t want to appear judgmental or uncharitable. Our society urges us to be “tolerant” of other people and their behavior, even if it’s objectively wrong. But it’s precisely because we love others that we should never tolerate immoral behavior. As Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver has written so well, “Tolerance is not an end in itself, and tolerating or excusing grave evil in a society is itself a grave evil . . . And it is not a Christian virtue.” (Render Unto Caesar, p. 145-146)

If the language in my article about President Obama’s funding of abortions seemed harsh and offensive, so be it. It has nothing to do with my personal attitude about the man. Admittedly I’m not a fan, but as I’ve written before, I pray for him and his fine family and I wish him well. As a religious leader, though, charged with carrying on the prophetic mission of Christ, I have the right, and in fact the duty, to challenge his immoral actions. I do so because Christian charity requires me to do so, because I love my country and I believe in the sanctity of human life. As St. Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.” (I Cor 9:16)