Where would Jesus go in this country?
Would he go to the megachurches or to the televangelist sanctuaries? Would he go to the Catholic cathedrals, or to the Mormon temples, or to the Southern Baptist congregations? Only, I think, to cleanse any wickedness that has taken root there. Only, I think, to cast out the fundraisers and decry the modern Pharisees. And if he did go, and if he did preach, I think he would quickly outstay his welcome, for he would preach a message of charity that is often mouthed but not always followed in such places. He’d lead the pro-life marches down to the prison where they’re hanging a man, or down to the military base where they’re planning a war; he’d bring the wine to gay weddings and pass out condoms at Pride; he’d work the fields with the migrants and never cross a picket line. He’d love the wrong people (again) and he’d quote the wrong scripture (again!), and before too terribly long, a lot of Christian churches would probably throw him out.
He’d be more at home, I think, in small, impoverished churches—churches that have to share rooms or meet upstairs, churches who, like their members, are striving to just get by. He’d be more at home in the Catholic parishes that put off paying for the roof because they’re paying for the school, or the churches that sell off their back parking lots to build low-income housing, or the small gatherings that happen in the prisons and hospitals. He’d pick up his hammer again to build the homeless shelter, and make sure the food bank could feed a few thousand; he’d sit in on the twelve-step meetings and spend hours in the cancer wards.
But where would he go?
He’d set foot in DC, but not to see the politicians—most of ’em are probably already beyond help, although there’s always hope for last-minute atonement followed by resignations. He’d go to wander in the projects, of course, to heal the sick of their addictions and feed those who have nothing. He’d go because nobody else is helping, just a few blocks from the Capitol’s dome, and because somebody must.
He’d go to the reservations and do much the same thing, with a few words about a country that lets such places exist; he’d walk through Appalachia and preach his sermons from its mounts, assuming he could find any the mining companies have left.
All these are possibilities, but here’s a certainty. Let’s face it, folks—if he were here today, Jesus would go to Vegas.
Oh, he wouldn’t be there to gamble. If he ever set foot in the Bellagio or Caesar’s Palace, he’d be backstage with the wait staff, the showgirls, and the off-duty dealers. He’d come by after hours. You’d find him consoling janitors, hookers, and people who put it all on the line and came up empty. He’d definitely chat with drug addicts and drug dealers. And late at night he’d be out on the street.
But here’s this: he wouldn’t preach to any not willing to hear. Remember that he only preached to crowds that begged him for his words, and they had to beg hard. Remember that time after time, he tried to hush up his healing and would barely admit he was anything special. He shared his wisdom only with those who followed him, and never made belief in him a requirement for his miracles, though the ones who came to him already believed. The one time a crowd turned hostile to his words, he didn’t do much and quietly left town. He was better known, in life, for his silence than for his speeches; in some cases his followers must have felt that getting him to talk was like pulling teeth. As messiahs go, he was remarkably reticent. This, of course, is all in stark contrast with the more aggressive evangelists of this day and age, who act more like telemarketers and advertisers than disciples of Christ. And although Jesus could sometimes rage, he rarely judged. Those folks most receptive to him had already judged themselves, and knew that they were wanting. Where Jesus was different was that he loved them just the same.
So here’s our Lord and Savior in Las Vegas, back behind the false-front glamour of the strip, preaching to those willing to hear him, the wait staff and janitors and prostitutes and junkies. He’s healing the sick—curing herpes and heroin addiction, work-related illnesses and AIDS. He’s telling his listeners what they already knew (that they’ve made some mistakes) and what they didn’t believe at all (that God still loves them). He tells them that they can accomplish much. They can be healed. They can rise above this life, get off the streets, live their life right. He tells them to ignore the culture that says they’re no good, tells them to ignore the scams, tells them to ignore the self-righteous and sanctimonious churches that come down to “help” with more condescension than compassion, tells them to ignore anyone eager to turn them into a tic mark in the conversion books, just another lost soul “brought back.” Here’s Christ in Vegas asking the prostitutes if they want to stop and asking the junkies if they want to get clean; here’s Christ healing those who wish to be healed, not the ones who have earned healing. Here’s Christ among the fallen and forgotten, waiting for the day when the pastors and cardinals and all the rest send the modern Judas after him, waiting for the day when our new high priests lynch him outside town, waiting for the day when millions of Christians howl for his head because he dared to tell them that they’ve been getting it wrong, Christ in Vegas waiting for the day when everything falls apart, and he has to wait for another two thousand years before his own followers let him come back.
You got it, Paul. I have had similar thoughts… and have a persistent image in my head, now a bit outdated since it came from the 60s: It is the parking lot of a low rent Las Vegas motel, no vacancy sign up (holiday weekend, and in my vision it’s a Holiday Inn), and there in the furthest, out of sight corner of the parking lot is an old panel truck with a young, ragged couple welcoming a child into the world who was just delivered on the mattress in the back of the van.