Identity – Jesus, Branding and Politics

by Glen

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It’s Easter Week and for some it will only mean a few days off work or school.  For people of the Christian faith it will carry the deeper meanings of mortality and new life.  I’d like to pursue something unusual and trust the some don’t view it as irreverent.  Since we are considering thoughts on identity, I’d like to ponder how politics framed Jesus Christ’s final week but how it couldn’t ensnare or own who he truly was.  There are lessons in this for everyone considering a political life.

When he rode into Jerusalem on that particular Palm Sunday, Jesus was entering a charged political atmosphere.  There was no way he could avoid it.  Jewish sects were vying for prominence, the general population was chafing at Rome’s occupation and wanted deliverance, and even Christ’s disciples were in competition to sit closest to him when he became king.

The problem was that this solitary figure hadn’t come for any of these reasons.  When he entered the bustling city that day he was already somewhat a known entity and had been vying for something of a public profile, but he was in the process of serving the needs of people and attempting to get the political realm to reform itself for such individuals.  Just how unsuccessful he was became apparent only a few days later.

He was being branded.  Everybody was putting some kind of expectation on him, none of which was his purpose for entering the public arena.  Religious leaders at first tried to recruit him until they saw his faith was more universal than their sectarian ways.  The politicians tried to surf on his initial popularity until they came to terms with the uncomfortable reality that he couldn’t be bought.  But his greatest disappointment came from the multitude of expectations the public placed upon him.  They wanted food, water, acceptance, health, a sense of belonging, a fast track to God, revolution, even anarchy.  He told them that he was there to remind them of the need to take care of each other, to be honest and transparent in their dealings, to care for the families, to honour God, and to care for the marginalized.

In the end, none of these groups were interested because he hadn’t come to do their bidding.  He had bigger principles in mind and ideas about building a different kind of community where people were equal and leaders were responsible to serve their constituents.  Instead they wanted a Messiah – to bring a landslide victory, to overthrow the governing power, to give people what they wanted.  It is one of history’s tragic dramas.

But this is what politics can seek to do to any of us – take a real person like you, a personality, a community member, and turn you into a channel for someone else’s ambitions.  And the more you stay responsible to the lights in your own mind, the more you experience people slowly shunning you because that’s not what they wanted you for.  The more fanatic people become the more they actually seek to dispose of you, even through unethical methods.  Others just slowly move away, looking for someone to take on their agenda.

Easter week, and Jesus’s own arrival on a donkey at its beginning, nevertheless teach us two valuable lessons about politics and ambition.  It is important to recognize that there are people in our communities who don’t, or won’t, sell out.  They view leadership as service, not power.  In fact power to them is only as valuable as its effectiveness in helping the common person.  They live out Abraham Lincoln’s adage that, “nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test his character, give him power.”  The secret is to find such people and urge them to run on our behalf.  Politics is only as good as leaders learn the service principle.

The second important lesson is that people across the board want change and a sense of being understood.  It was these individuals that Jesus had come to be with, and it is the average citizen today that deserves a similar yearning from his or her leaders.  But there is a caveat: just as we desire our politicians to refine their conduct to reflect their broader community and not their own party’s interest, so must we – citizens –prove willing to meld our own interests into those of the broader community.  Should we refuse, it doesn’t matter who our leaders are – the failure will be in us.

To this day people still do this with Jesus.  There are those who won’t read blogs like this because their own view of religion blinds them to the broader values.  The same thing happened to leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.  It wasn’t just people who killed them; it was politics and the desire of people and groups to shape leaders into their own image.

These three religious leaders moved into the public domain and reminded anyone who would listen that serving people was far more important than leading them.  Jesus never chose a chariot or a steed, but a lowly donkey to make his entrance, and to make a point.  In the main, political leaders still don’t get it and many citizens don’t either.  It’s why humility, sacrifice and service are still important reasons for all of us to respect Easter as much as we enjoy the message of peace and goodwill at Christmas.