Back when I was young and cocky and in college I used to like to be seen reading the current issue of Mother Jones. Back then you were quickly assigned a label: either “liberal,” or “conservative.” This was true at OVU, and at Cincinnati Christian Seminary - although the labels meant different things at each school. I was (and am) an unapologetic Biblicist, so the liberals labelled me a conservative. I held (and hold) some opinions that are definitely not conservative, and so the conservatives labelled me a liberal. I tried to find ways to let everyone know I didn’t belong to either camp, and so, like any good American, I decided to accessorize. Since it began publication in 1976, Mother Jones has been synonymous with leftist journalism. It was the perfect accessory to shock and confuse. If I wanted to be seen reading a magazine that irritated everyone and shattered molds I had few choices. The UTNE Reader was too obscure. The Village Voice was too “village.” Mother Jones was just right. I agreed with little I read in Mother Jones, although the writing was good – agreement wasn’t the point. The magazine was an identifying accessory, like a ball cap with a logo on it.
The “Mother Jones,” for whom the magazine is named, is Mary Harris Jones, an Irish-American socialist and labor organizer. The coal miners of southern West Virginia started calling her “Mother” Jones as she worked among them before the First World War. Having lost her family to a flu epidemic, and all her possessions in the Great Chicago Fire, she dedicated her life to helping men earn a living wage. She was, and is an icon for radical social consciousness. The problem with her as a symbol of radical social and cultural equality is that she doesn’t fit this category at all. Mary Harris Jones opposed women’s suffrage. She was fighting for men to earn a living wage. She believed the place of a woman was in the home, raising children. This is definitely not the position of the periodical that bears her name.
The name “Mother Jones” then, is an accessory – an accoutrement, a decoration intended to enhance an image. We do that in our culture. We take people, places, events, items and brand them. We pour into them our own meanings. They become the symbols we create, representing meanings we choose with little connection to their true identity. An election season provides daily opportunities to see this phenomenon. Hilary, Bernie, Trump, and Cruz are vessels that contain anger, aspiration, hate, hope, fear, and frustration.
The greatest object of our extravagant disregard for truth is Jesus. He is whomever we decide He will be. In His name great lies are told, great license enjoyed, great violence performed, great hatred vented. Thus it has been at least since the Romans started executing heretics shortly after the Council of Nicea. Few of us can claim, despite our best efforts, that we have never used Jesus as an accessory.
We have no right to define Him. We believe Him, or reject Him, but He defines Himself. In doing so, He defines us. William Willimon, in his book, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, tells of a young man who came to him after a panel discussion at Duke University on homosexuality (a label Willimon rejects) and declared that he was a baptized Christian, and no one had the right to define him – he defined himself. Willimon pointed out that if the first half of his statement was true, the second half could not possibly be. In being baptized we yield to God the right to tell us who we are. As God says in Isaiah 43.1 “I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are Mine.”
God has gone to great lengths to make Himself known. He became flesh and dwelt among us. We have been given four gospels to make us intimate with Jesus. Everything else in the Bible either looks forward to Him, or explains Him. Our task (our blessing!) is to know Him as He is, and follow wherever He leads. This is all. Anything else is an idolatry of self