What has happened to America’s Jesus?


By Rob Borsellino Mon Feb 13, 7:12 AM ET

I remember when Jesus Christ was about religion.

That goes back to when he was caring and compassionate all the time, not just during the political campaign season.

He used to bring people together and give them hope. He wouldn’t have his people get in your face and tell you to fight gay rights or you’ll burn in hell. That’s not what he was about. That’s not the Jesus who made folks such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson rich and famous. He was a different guy from the 21st-century American Jesus Christ.

When I recently visited Sicily, Italy, the old Jesus was all over the place. His statue was on the counter at the restaurant and the coffee house. His image was on the wall at the clothing store and in the hotel lobby. And there was a huge painting of him on the side of an apartment building.

Sometimes he was with his mom and dad, and sometimes he was sitting with his pals – the apostles. Mostly he was hanging from the cross. Whatever he was up to, it was all about religion.

It was interesting because I didn’t go to Sicily looking for a religious experience. I went looking for what’s left of my family. My grandfather and his brother came to the United States in 1904 and left behind their parents and two sisters. The sisters had kids, grandkids, great grandkids.

I never met any of those people, and I knew nothing about Sicily except the obvious – pizza and the Mafia. My wife thought it was time to connect. She made some calls and let the family know we were coming.

We landed in Palermo, got our bags and were met by my cousin Peppino Rizzuti, who was holding a handwritten sign with my name on it.

He was there with three other cousins. They hooked us up with more family and spent the next seven days driving us all over the island and stuffing us with mozzarella, prosciutto, olives and about 50 kinds of pasta.

My cousin Maria made the sign of the cross before she ate. My cousin Antonio’s car had a figurine of a saint on the dashboard. My cousin Gian Marco had a beautiful cross hanging from his neck.

But nobody was going on about God, Jesus and religion. It didn’t come up. I saw all that and was reminded that you can be a decent person – a good son, husband and father – and still oppose the war in Iraq. You can be a caring, thoughtful member of your community and still question whether Justice Samuel Alito should have been confirmed. Jesus won’t get mad at you.

Several times during the week, I thought about telling my family what’s happened to Jesus in the United States – how he’s been kidnapped by politicians and preachers who decide what he does and doesn’t think. They speak for him, and it doesn’t always make sense.

They say Jesus is “pro life,” but he doesn’t seem to have a problem with the death penalty. And he thinks stem cell research – something that would save lives – is no different from murdering babies. They say he’s the embodiment of kindness, love, decency and compassion. But he hates gays, lesbians and Muslims. And he’s not too crazy about Buddhists, Hindus and the rest. Jews? He can put up with them if he has to.

The Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka claims to speak for Jesus and goes around the country talking about how “AIDS cures fags.” Pat Robertson says it would be a good idea if the United States killed the president of Venezuela. It would be a lot cheaper than starting another war.

All week I went over that stuff in my head and decided not to mention any of it to the family.

It would make America look ridiculous.

Rob Borsellino is a columnist for The Des Moines Register and author of
So I’m Talkin’ To This Guy …

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