Last month marked the start of Lent, a period of preparation in the Christian religion leading up to Easter, commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That made me wonder: What would Jesus see if he looked around today?
Few people have understood, as intuitively as Jesus did, that the way we look at people is intimately entwined with how we treat them. At the core of his ministry was a call to look at the world — and especially its most disadvantaged — with new eyes.
Think about charity, for example. The same gift to the same person can be an act of humble service by one person and a hollow gesture by another. One need only recall footage of Donald Trump lobbing tubes of paper towels to a crowd in San Juan, Puerto Rico — decimated just weeks earlier by Hurricane Maria — to know the difference.
When we ask how Jesus would see such a scene, the answer should be painfully clear. Hear his unflinching words to the moral authorities of his day as he accused them of false charity:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides!” (Matthew 23:23—24.)
One might decry the former president’s publicity stunt — or that of any other politician — as merely bad optics. But Jesus’ point is far more searching and important. In his eyes, even good optics are bad when that’s all they are.
Jesus denounces hypocrisy viscerally, and visually, precisely because he values seeing. He knows what sight can accomplish when deployed correctly. It would be easy to mischaracterize Jesus’ thoughts on vision as simple denunciations of sensory experience. In fact, Jesus stridently insists on the value of seeing so long as optics and ethics remain married to one another.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly emphasizes the spiritual value of making good actions visible when it’s for the right reasons. He tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14—16).
At its heart, Jesus’ insistence on acts of visible goodness is downright simple, almost childish. When my wife, an Episcopal priest, used to lead children’s worship in the DMV area, she would gather kids around in a circle before the end of a service. They joined hands and sang a familiar song inspired by Jesus’s words in Matthew: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
From time to time, I joined my wife and sat in the back with our toddler. As a practicing Jew, this unbridled expression of Christian optimism made me a bit uneasy. It wasn’t so hard for me to imagine “this little light” shining a bit too brilliantly, even blindingly, in the eyes of others, however well-intentioned. After all, what might seem warm and encompassing to the one doing the shining can just as easily be a floodlight to someone of another faith or culture.
When we spoke about it later — my clapping may have looked a little recalcitrant — my wife reminded me about the history of the song. While it might seem self-congratulatory, a hymn to privilege in certain settings, during the civil rights era it was a refrain of resistance. In numerous variations, often calling out specific injustices or forms of resistance, the song was popularized by the Freedom Singers, raising support for freedom rides and sit-ins.
Fast forward to 2017, when white supremacists assembled in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the deadly “Unite the Right” event. As a diverse group of counterprotesters gathered peacefully on the streets, neo-Nazis in masks and helmets shouted at them, “Jews will not replace us!” In response, Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou and other faith leaders and activists broke into a rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.”
“It shook the Nazis,” recalled Sekou. “They didn’t know what to do with all that joy. We weren’t going to let the darkness have the last word.”
Watching videos of the episode still makes my skin tingle. This simple melody at once unmasked the cowardice of the neo-Nazis and visibly uplifted the counterprotesters. Here was the kind of light Jesus was talking about, the kind I wanted my son to bask in. Prismatic, inclusive, but dazzlingly clear in the face of evil.
Aaron Rosen (email@example.com) is director of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He is the author of many books, including “Art and Religion in the 21st Century” and “What Would Jesus See?,” from which this essay is adapted (Broadleaf Books, June 2023).