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If Jesus Lived
in America Today
by Virgilio Elizondo

If Christ walked among us today, his basic message would be the same as in his own day. But the words and images he used, the challenges he raised would be different.

Jesus' basic command is more urgent than ever: "Love one another as I have loved you." Because the word "love" means everything and nothing to us today, I would like to explore more thoroughly what it means to live and love as Jesus would in the modern world. In this article, I would like to do a little imaginative reflection on how Jesus of Nazareth would respond to our world if he were born again into American society at the beginning of the third millennium.

Sharing the Good News

From the very beginning of his public mission, Jesus proclaimed the Good News that the Reign of God has arrived. Jesus came to reveal the God of life and the kingdom of the God of love. The process of sharing this Good News in a very personal way is called evangelization. The call to evangelize is key to understanding who Jesus was, what he did, what he promised and who we are called to be as Christians. This evangelization, Pope John Paul II has noted, must be new in its methods, new in its ardor and new in its expression. But more than anything else, he said, "Everyone should keep in mind that the vital core of the new evangelization must be a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the person of Jesus Christ" (Evangelii Nuntiandi #22). In speaking directly to those of us who live in America, the Holy Father went on to say: "A fresh encounter will make all the members of the Church in America aware that they are called to continue the redeemer's mission in their lands." The Holy Father's message challenges us to ask ourselves: How can we make Christ personally present today in such a way that people will truly have a transforming encounter with him?

Jesus' universal call

In keeping with his message of universal welcome, especially his concern for the poor, the ignored, the excluded, Jesus would reach out today to those whose lives are most threatened, including the homeless and the immigrant poor. He would challenge rigid conceptions of national boundaries that often exclude people and condemn them to geographical spaces of misery. One of the urgent messages of Jesus today would be, "Do not be afraid to welcome the destitute, the weak and the unwanted of the earth into your midst, for in welcoming them you welcome me."

Jesus would also remind us that forgiveness was and is the heart of the Good News. The central message of Jesus was forgiveness. This message is as relevant today—maybe more so—than it was at the time of Jesus. Perhaps the most radical expression of love is forgiveness, and often the ones we need to forgive the most are the ones we love the most. Jesus knew that human beings would make mistakes and hurt one another. But he was also very aware that vengeance is not a cure for injury.

Without forgiveness, injury breeds injury and escalates the cycle of violence. In the process, violence destroys both the one injured and the one who injures. If the experience of evil reduces one to the spirit of getting even, of demanding payment, of exacting superficial notions of "justice," we only sanction a culture of violence. The violence will never bring peace, tranquillity or freedom. As Christians we base our lives not merely on abstract notions of justice and forgiveness, but on the concrete life of Jesus who forgave his enemies even from the cross.

The inability to forgive is at the root of much violence in our country. So many of us do not want forgiveness; we want vengeance and call it justice. For many people in our society, forgiveness is seen as weakness rather than as divine strength. The myth of "redemptive violence"—whereby it takes brutal power, killings, bombs and massive explosions to overcome evil—is constantly proclaimed and promoted in the popular culture and even in a legal system that sees the death penalty as a solution. This is definitely not the redemptive way of Jesus! Jesus forgave his apostles for abandoning him in his hour of greatest need, not because they had good reasons but because his love was greater than the offense. This is the love we are called to live today.

Jesus today would applaud the advances of Western civilization in promoting the rights and respect of every individual. Yet he would challenge us to be equally concerned for the common good of the community: for public parks, libraries, public transportation, health care, education and the general welfare of everyone. He would challenge us to be attentive to the needs of those who are weak and defenseless, such as the unborn, the handicapped, the elderly, children.

Common call to conversion

If Jesus walked the streets of our society in the way he walked those of Jerusalem, he would call us all to conversion, a conversion that would help us realize who we truly are and help us find the life we truly seek. Though the form of conversion would be different for each person, it would involve turning from the false gods of our society and turning to the true God of life.

The words of Jesus to the rich young man who was seeking eternal life are more relevant today than ever before. Jesus would remind us that our real worth lies in who we are, not in what we have. He would point out that we must use money without being totally used by money. "Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (Luke 18:22).

Special calls

To those of us enslaved by unbridled material greed, he would caution: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures only in stocks, bonds, trusts and bank accounts but in the riches of heaven, the riches of the common good and service of your neighbor." Jesus would challenge the idolatries of money and success and call us to conversion through a deeper commitment to human dignity and the value of each person.

Again the words of Jesus remain forceful: "What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?" (Luke 9:25). It is scandalous for some of us to amass immense amounts of money and material goods while millions of people around the world cannot afford even the most basic necessities that we in the United States take for granted—like running water, electricity and the most fundamental medical care.

To university students who are searching for their place in the world and for a way to live meaningful lives, Jesus would say, "Come to me." He would invite them to let themselves be touched by the poor through social service projects, summer internships, multi-year commitments to teach in inner cities and similar programs of service. To the searchers of the Me generation, X generation, Web generation, he would say, "Follow me." He would challenge them to see deeper ways of connecting than through the electronic medium, and he would remind them that more information does not necessarily bring wisdom or happiness. He would help them explore the meaning of their own vocations by calling them—like his first disciples—to reflect on the words, "What are you looking for?" (John 1:38).

To migrant workers and those burdened by difficult jobs, he would say, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavily burdened. Let me walk with you in your struggles for better working conditions and just salaries." He would offer rest and the promise of liberation to those burdened physically and those weighed down by a sense of failure as part of a society that measures human worth by wealth and power.

To undocumented immigrants he would proclaim the Good News that there are no national boundaries in the Kingdom of God. No human law can abrogate the natural right of the poor and starving to migrate in their quest for life.

To arch-conservatives in churches and religions, and all who are more concerned with certainty than the more demanding works of faith, justice and mercy, Jesus would say, "Be compassionate as my Father is compassionate." To arch-liberals he would say, "Don't give up your values, but loosen up. The fullness of the Kingdom is yet to come." To all he would say, "Take yourselves a bit less seriously and enjoy a good laugh, for ultimately God alone is in charge." He would invite all of us to reflect on our lives and ask where they are heading.

Jesus would overturn the money tables in our minds and hearts, the mind-set that values profit over people, possessions over compassion and greed over human dignity. Jesus would challenge those of us who are rich to use our wealth to better the conditions of life, to create opportunities of humanizing work, to develop better communitarian facilities like free parks for all to enjoy. He would point out that wealth is a gift with a tremendous responsibility.

To parents Jesus would acknowledge the pressures of the modern world. Yet, as he said to Martha, he would say again: Only one thing is necessary. He would highlight that deeper relationships with God and others are what we most seek and most need but seldom develop. He might note that the average parent spends only seven minutes per week, one-on-one, with his or her child, and only 32 minutes, one-on-one, with his or her spouse. In the face of these statistics Jesus might also ask about how much time is spent watching television. However, he would be compassionate with those of us who have experienced failure in our relationships, especially those who are burdened by divorce.

New life to come

To those of us who blame ourselves excessively for our own failures, Jesus would promise new life and help us realize the potential for new relationships with God and others in the future. To the materialistic he would ask, "What are you living for?" and, more importantly, "What would you die for?" He would illumine the broken cisterns of material possession, and he would call people not to seek less but to seek more. Through his words, deeds and actions, Jesus would continue to renew the world by renewing people's hearts and minds and calling people to the enduring values in life that lead to the joy of the kingdom of heaven.

As St. John says at the end of his Gospel, there are so many things Jesus said and did that there would not be enough books to contain them all. As I finish this brief article, I think of so many wonderful things and exciting challenges that Jesus would offer us. I can only sum them up in the words of Jesus himself: "I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another" (John 13:34).*

Father Virgilio Elizondo, a priest of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, is founder of the Mexican American Cultural Center. A well-known speaker and writer, he is one of the authors of A Retreat With Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego (St. Anthony Messenger Press).



Father Theodore Hesburgh 

"I should warn you now that I may need to cut this interview a bit short. I'm scheduled to celebrate Mass in 45 minutes."

The priesthood has long been at the center of Theodore Hesburgh's life—57 of his 83 years, to be exact. Whether serving as president of the University of Notre Dame (1952-1987), participating in the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (1957-72) or accepting the Congressional Gold Medal (July 2000), Father Hesburgh is first and foremost a priest.

He has been on close terms with presidents beginning with Eisenhower. He has met countless world leaders on his trips around the globe. But the day of his ordination—June 24, 1943—will always be "the happiest day" in the life of Theodore M. Hesburgh, who continues to thrive on the Notre Dame campus where he resides and holds the title of president emeritus.

But public service comes a close second to Father Hesburgh, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. He has been honored on many occasions for his commitment and service to such diverse causes as Catholic higher education, human rights, civil rights, Third World development, the plight of refugees, nuclear disarmament. His leadership and vision on the Notre Dame campus and beyond serve as a challenge to all Catholics to bring their faith and values into the marketplace.

"There is no peace without justice," Father Hesburgh told Millennium Monthly in a recent telephone interview. "This is the work of Jesus," he said, recalling the words with which Jesus greeted his own disciples following his Resurrection: "Peace be with you."

Peace and justice are what Father Hesburgh has been about for decades and, he believes, the work to which all believers of Jesus are called. He is thrilled when he sees others, notably Notre Dame students, going in new directions with their volunteering and doing "every good thing you can think of with their energy and imagination." He is even more elated to see them leave college "bitten by the bug," determined to bring their competence, compassion and commitment to a world that so badly needs them.

In the meantime, the man who has known presidents and potentates begins and ends his day with a simple and familiar prayer: Come, Holy Spirit. Father Theodore Hesburgh prays for the light to see what he should be doing and for the grace to do it.*

— by Judy Ball



Symbol of Life

Rome's Colosseum, where Christians were thrown to the lions and gladiators fought to the death, has become a Jubilee Year symbol for opponents of capital punishment. Throughout the year 2000, the amphitheater that dates from 80 A.D. is illuminated for 48 hours each time a death sentence is suspended or commuted or the death penalty is abolished anywhere in the world.

Bishops around the world have used the Jubilee Year to focus on the need for alternatives to the death penalty in a society already mired in violence. In a recent article written for the Knights of Columbus magazine, Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, called on the K. of C. for help in ending executions in the U.S. He wrote: "The consistent thread throughout the Gospels is that of love, not hate; justice, not vengeance. Jesus Christ, our Savior, himself the victim of the death penalty, did not condemn his executioners but forgave them."

Pope John Paul II has commended the Colosseum project. The Holy Year is the time, he said, to "promote more mature forms of respect for life and the dignity of every person."



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