Dear Pope Francis —
If Jesus had a legal team — and, he probably wouldn’t, given his “turn the other cheek” philosophy, but let’s just assume he did — I think they would be hurriedly drafting cease-and-desist orders against many, many folks for infringing on his trademark. That law office would be churning out paperwork 24/7.
Individuals, companies and organizations trademark names and logos to ensure they are not used by others in a way that would cause either a negative impression or confusion in the marketplace. Using a protected name or logo in a way that dilutes the real owner’s brand is called trademark infringement. In other words, I can’t put computers together with spare parts lying around my house, slap a sticker of an apple with a bite out of it on them, and sell them as Macs. For one, they’re unlikely to work like a Mac. For another, they’re not a true representation of the company’s product.
There is a lot of brand dilution going on out there when it comes to Jesus. Many people claim to be acting in his name, but they likely aren’t his licensed representatives. Or, they haven’t looked at the terms of their licensing contract in a long, long while. If they did, they would find themselves in serious breach of Jesus’ trademark rights.
A few top contenders:
1) The Arizona and Kansas state legislatures. Both of these legislative bodies have recently either contemplated or passed laws that would legalize discrimination against LGBT individuals. (The Catholic Church in Kansas supported that state’s law.) The laws stipulate that businesses have a right, on religious (i.e. Christian) grounds, to refuse service to individuals if doing so would compromise the business owner’s values. This is being done, so lawmakers say, in the spirit of religious freedom. I’m not sure what Bible these folks are reading, but Jesus served everyone during his life. He didn’t care who they were, he treated them all equally and with dignity. Encouraging discrimination in Jesus’ name is definitely trademark infringement.
2) Archbishop Myers of New Jersey. I have nothing against providing a comfortable retirement for clergy. Many of them spend their entire lives in service to the Catholic community. However, comfortable should not mean extravagant, especially when so many of our seniors live in poverty. Jesus’ original followers essentially traveled with a pair of sandals and the clothes on their backs. I’m not sure any of them had a mansion with two pools waiting for them when they retired from spreading the Gospel. I don’t think they would have secluded themselves away from the community they’d served, either. This is certainly a breach of Jesus’ trademark license that anyone who purports to serve him should be following.
3) “Christian” politicians who cut aid to the poor. Many of the politicians decrying aid to the poor as a drain on the economy and government self-identify as Christian. I don’t think I need to add anything else to this. It speaks for itself.
4) Clergy who deny sacraments to people they don’t approve of. Whether it’s politicians who have Pro-Choice voting records, or LGBT individuals denied communion or last rites, sacraments should not be used as weapons. You, Pope Francis, have even spoken out against this practice. Jesus ministered to everyone and welcomed everyone into his embrace. That compassionate welcoming was the first sacrament. Why are we not following this example?
I realize that calling out these examples might be just as judgmental and wrong as those who paint others as bad Christians or bad Catholics. That’s fair. However, I think there is a real danger in this Jesus brand dilution. Jesus said “By their fruits you will recognize them.” I don’t think these folks are bad people. I just think they have a misguided view of what Jesus stood for. That might be fine if their views did not affect others, but they do. And, their actions reflect back on all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus. This is why I find such examples so distressing. I encounter many people who discount — even despise — Christians because these are the examples they see. These “fruits” stand in for all of us, and that’s what upsets me.
This is one of the reasons I’m so grateful for you, Pope Francis. Your focus on the poor as well as compassion puts you in much closer alignment, in my view, with Jesus than many, many of your predecessors.
I think it’s time for all of us to have a closer look at Jesus’ trademark — and make sure we’re not infringing.
(By the way, I wrote a poem about this.)