Jesus is having a very good year.
Everyone is talking about him.
Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" has been on the bestseller list for months. "Killing Jesus" by Bill O'Reilly (no known relation, other than in an Adam-and-Eve sense) is expected to hit No. 1 on that list this week . And Pope Francis' deeds are making people think of the prophet -- not just his words. The iconic image of him kneeling at the feet of inmates at a juvenile detention center in Brazil -- a Holy Thursday ritual for him -- is a powerful reminder to Catholics and others about the core Christian principles of humility and generosity.
Jesus is being heavily politicized this year, too. "Zealot," which I am laboring through, argues that Jesus was a political revolutionary -- an agitator trying to expel the Romans from Jerusalem -- and that his apostles and others whitewashed his true guerilla nature in the decades after the ascension -- the last of which Aslan, a Shia Muslim-turned-evangelical Christian-turned Shia Muslim, works hard to cast doubt upon.
O'Reilly was Twitter attacked last week by University of Notre Dame professor Candida Moss, who said his book missed an elemental point -- that Jesus was a socialist.
A "revolutionary socialist," no doubt would chime in Aslan (no relation to C.S. Lewis' Aslan, the feline Jesus figure in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.")
Politicizing Jesus is unavoidable, I suppose. It's potent political fodder, especially during hard times. I've often thought that a fundamental political error of the Bolsheviks was their decision to wrap themselves in atheism and attack the popular Russian Orthodox church, rather than to subvert and propagandize its teachings to make ideological converts. They might have done better in the long run by pushing the narrative professor Moss is advancing: that politics and state largesse are a logical and necessary extension of Christian teachings. If they had, who knows? They may have hung on through the 1990s.
I had a hard time reconciling Christianity and politics as a kid. Our bookshelves at home were lined with books written by my father's grandfather, Maurice Francis Egan, a leading Catholic layman of his day. Their titles included "Everybody's Saint Francis" and "The Knights of Columbus in Peace and War." Both my grandmothers were daily communicants at mass. My parents, aunts and uncles are/were devout Catholics -- and conservative Republicans. That made no sense to my adolescent mind. If we're supposed to be generous -- and my family members are; I have a sister who asks to be patted down at airports to make Middle Eastern travelers feel better. Really -- why wouldn't we support government programs that redistribute wealth?
That presupposes that government is inherently a force for good rather than a force for centralizing power in the hands of a few who ostensibly know better than the rest of us, a supposition I rejected as I grew older. Not all government is bad. I understand that; it's essential toward maintaining a civil society. But it has a mad tendency to grow and suck the life and industry out of its citizenry, depriving that industry's yield from going to those less fortunate in the form of wages and private charity. History has shown where "progressive" government can lead.
Islam teaches that government and religion are inextricably bound. But Judaism and Christianity don't. They religiously (sorry) adhere to the principle that government and religion are distinct and separate. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's," Jesus famously says.
I take that to be dismissive, at best, of government. Sure, pay it its due, but the real generosity of spirit and material is my responsibility -- our responsibility, as individuals.
That's my humble take anyway.
Those "What would Jesus do?" bumper stickers are borderline obnoxious. But it sure is a good question. As long as we're arguing over it, we're probably focusing on the right things.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.