“We oughta be ashamed,
We oughta be ashamed,
We use and abuse
such a wonderful name.”
– Johnny Cash and Elvis Costello duet
April 25, 2019 – Joe Biden’s entry into the 2020 presidential sweepstakes today is no surprise. Many Americans yearning for a more traditional political landscape may welcome his hat in the ring.
The former vice president is by far the most experienced candidate for the presidency and from that some may deduce that he is also the best qualified. He sat in tight proximity to the oval office for eight years and was an active partner to Barack Obama when important domestic and foreign policy decisions were made.
Some will say his main impediment is his age, 76, but that doesn’t bother me. Joe is only four years older than me and he, Donald Trump, and I were all in elementary school at the same time. Within this unlikely trio, I don’t doubt Joe is the most physically and mentally healthy.
Some will say he has been too much of a hands-on politician, occasionally making women feel uncomfortable with his hugs and shoulder massages. In that case, voters will have to decide for themselves whether his touches are benign or malign, but he is not the only politician who slaps backs, squeezes arms, or massages shoulders. Who can forget Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stunned surprise when President George W. Bush snuck up behind her and squeezed her shoulders?
If Biden does have a problem with style and longevity, it may be due to the fact that his public record extends all the way back to 1970 the he was elected to the New Castle, Del., County Council. There are a lot of opportunities in 49 years for misjudgments and gaffes to stain one’s otherwise stellar performance.
For many, Biden’s greatest public error was his performance as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 when he and other senators peppered Anita Hill with harsh and occasionally humiliating questions. Hill had credibly accused nominee Clarence Thomas of sexist and inappropriate behavior. Biden said last month he regretted his performance 9n 1991, but he has not personally apologized to Hill.
Biden is also known for his spoken gaffes, though when he misspeaks it is rarely because he wants to hide the truth. He inadvertently announced his support for marriage equality weeks before the Obama Administration had decided its policy on LGBTQ rights.
The gaffe I remember most vividly, because I was still on the staff of the National Council of Churches at the time, appeared in a 2009 interview in the Wall Street Journal.
Joe said: “I can see Putin sitting in Moscow saying, ‘Jesus Christ, Iran gets the nuclear weapon, who goes first? Moscow, not Washington.’”
Many will see nothing wrong with that statement, but it shook many church persons to the core. Here was the vice president of the United States using the Lord’s name in vain.
The statement attracted much more attention in 2009 than would a similar utterance by Donald Trump today.
In many churches and church agencies, people were saying, “Say it ain’t so, Joe. A nice Catholic boy like you, using and abusing such a wonderful name?
I’d like to say I was shocked by Biden’s use of Jesus Christ, but that would be a slight exaggeration. Most of us hear the name used every day, often devoid of its intended theological significance. For many, the name has lost its power.
Even so, Mark Tapscott, the editorial page editor of the Washington Examiner was sorely offended by the then Vice President’s use of the JC word and asked, “How many more stupid comments does it take before his handlers in the White House realize it’s time for this dunce to retire?”
Of course Biden is no dunce, but I was puzzled why he let his guard down during a press interview. Didn’t he remember his constituency was now larger than Wilmington and there might be folks out there who would be deeply pained by the casual way he used the wonderful name?
For many, this kind of rhetorical carelessness leaves scars that last for decades. In 1974, American Baptists organized a theological communications center in Green Lake, Wis., and invited media luminaries like Dick Gregory and Norman Cousins, who came, and ABC science reporter Jules Bergman, who didn’t.
In lieu of Jules, the agency sent Ashley Montagu, the British anthropologist and humanist known for his appearances on Johnny Carson and who had changed his name from – and I’m sure that wouldn’t have bothered Baptists in the slightest had we known – Israel Ehrenberg. Montague and his saintly wife Marjorie spent a week at Green Lake, Marjorie memorable for her sweetness and Ashley for his Bermuda shorts, black knee socks and surly disposition.
Ashley was, as I recall, a brilliant presenter, but for decades I would run into conferees who were still angry about only one of his sentences: “I am a Unitarian,” he told us, “and the only time you hear Jesus Christ mentioned in my church is when the janitor falls downstairs.”
So let’s not forget that a faux pas like Biden’s will hurt and dismay a lot of folks. Ashley’s reference may have been insensitive, but I think he understood Who he was talking about when he said “Jesus Christ.”
I suspect it might have been different with Joe. If you grow up in certain parts of the United States – including blue collar Wilmington and Philadelphia – you quickly learn there’s more than one Jesus. Joe probably moves back and forth between them, deferring with due respect to the Savior and relating more casually to the others. There is, of course, the second Person of the Trinity Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the World, the figure Baptists know as a “personal Savior” and Catholics like Joe encounter in prayer, hymns and the awesome power of the Eucharist. Believe me when I say (and listen up Mark Tapscott of the Washington Examiner), Joe Biden is not dunce enough to speak that name with disrespect.
Without delving too analytically into Joe’s political record, it’s obvious it reflects a good Christian upbringing and an understanding that Jesus Christ loves and accepts everyone, notwithstanding a bias for the poor, and calls on us to treat one another like good neighbors. I am sure Joe would never take the name of that Jesus in vain.
But there are Jesus figures that Joe also knows, and they have little to do with the One who was in the Beginning with the Word.
First of all, of course, there is the Jesus of the epithet whose name often springs to tongue but who is not regarded by those who use it as the Second Person of the Trinity. It is a name used for emphasis, as in, “Putin is sitting in Moscow saying, ‘Jesus Christ,’” or for emotional release when you need a quicker way of saying, “Please, dear, stop spilling your molten coffee into my lap.”
Then there is the unJesus whose name is removed in vain from Christmas and Easter so it doesn’t get in the way of holiday marketing, or the nonJesus whose name is used by televangelists Pat Robertson to justify “taking out” foreign leaders, or the fauxJesus quoted in Vice President Mike Pence’s condemnation of LGBTQ humans. And let’s not forget Action Jesus, Bobblehead Jesus, and I don’t care if it rains or freezes Jesus.
When my wife Martha was in seminary in the early 80s, she and her suite mate would exchange stories of their educational experiences, including student pastorates and clinical pastoral education. The suite mate’s CPE assignment was a psych ward where she encountered the full range of mental illnesses: addiction, depression, agoraphobia, obsessive compulsive disorder and the classic delusions of schizophrenia. Citing patients of special interest, she reported, “I have three Jesi.” No doubt each of them preferred to be called Jesus Christ, and that’s just one reason the name has lost its power.
But names are merely words and words only have the power we assign to them. I don’t think Joe Biden’s use of the words Jesus Christ implies in any way a disrespect – or a lack of awe – for the Second Person of the Trinity. He may think twice about using them in a press interview again – but that would be a political judgment, not a matter of faith.
In the context of faith, the power of the Trinity will never diminish. The power of words, on the other hand, is subject to individual understanding, and context.
In my own context, when I was growing up I never heard Jesus’ name spoken disrespectfully. My mother’s angriest condemnation was, “Piffle,” which was embarrassing enough. But the anglicized name of the Lord was always used with respect, and I still wince when I hear it used as an epithet.
But I’ve got to wonder: does – He – wince when he hears it?
In fact, Jesus never heard it uttered during his time on earth.
The name he answered to was Yeshua Bar Joseph.