by Andy Dibble
Even with religious “nones” on the rise, the great bulk of Americans still called themselves Christian. Jesus was as real as God, and God was a patron America still had use for. Though preferences tended toward worship in intimate or everyday spaces. Others did not care where they worshiped but preferred to sleep in on Sunday mornings.
Confirmation bias was at work, a new theology on the rise, not mere suspicion of institutionalized religion, but rejection of the old. Its thinking ran: God is in all places and in the places of daily life most of all. A steeple and stained glass do not gratify God. How presumptuous of prior generations to think God cares for brick and mortar! As Deuteronomy indicates, there can only be one Temple, destroyed in Jerusalem two-thousand years ago. Churches (imitations, really) only embarrass us in the eyes of God.
Borrowing a thread from Salafi Muslim thought, some called church buildings idols. Radical congregations demolished their own churches with great fanfare and applause.
For traditionalists and ardent churchgoers, it was already intolerable that government buildings stood taller than church steeples. Demolition was unthinkable, extravagant blasphemy.
They protested that Jesus should not share space with sweaty bodies at gyms or be relegated to spare minutes away from phone and television. There should be a sabbath, a time of rest and devotion, and a place to celebrate that sabbath in adoration of God.
They raged, but their only strategy was to buy churches as they went up for sale.
A way forward came when lawyer Mike Slick—born in Pittsburgh to a Catholic family, strayed into New Age eclecticism (with a brief interlude as a Hare Krishna monk), and birthed again into Evangelicalism—filched an idea from Indian jurisprudence.
In India, gods could own property and pay taxes. They could sue, such as when “Shiva, Lord of the Universe” successfully sued a British company for the return of his Nataraja statue to a temple in Tamilnadu. If Jesus owned churches, no one could sell or demolish them without his say.
Slick’s legal argument rested upon the thriving body of United States case law that endowed corporations with certain rights of persons. Churches are already owned by congregations or ecclesiastical structures, entities rather than natural persons. The creeds and members of such entities have consistently proclaimed that “all they are” or “the whole earth” belongs to Jesus (if sometimes only during hymns or call-and-response exercises). As the apostle Paul attests, all Christians form a corporate entity, “the body of Christ.”
So how can it be legitimate for bishops or presbyters to sell Jesus’s property without the permission of their Lord?
“Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Immanuel, Savior of Humanity, Lamb of God, Light of the World, the Christ” sued the First Episcopalian Church of Mechanicsville, Virginia for illegal sale of his property. A district court dismissed the suit as frivolous. But on appeal to the right-leaning Fourth Circuit Court, Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, etc., etc. won.
The Episcopalians appealed to the Supreme Court. During conference, it appeared the Court would dismiss the suit, or send it back to the Fourth Circuit, instructing its judges to reconsider the case’s merits.
But one especially geriatric justice keeled over from an aneurysm while on the bench. Four justices voted to dismiss the suit and four voted that Jesus had legal right to his church.
The court was hung. The decision of the lower court stood.
Divine intervention or not, no precedent had been established. By the time another suit with Jesus as plaintiff bubbled up to the highest court, Eleazar Hoffman, an exacting jurist of dubious political persuasion, had been appointed to fill the court’s vacancy. He sided with the motley bloc of judges that endorsed Jesus’s legal right.
This five-four decision was good law. From sea to shining sea, every church building, parcel of land, and account owned by a Christian entity was legally the property of Jesus.
The aftermath offered a new proof of the principle that any incompetence, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from conspiracy. For the Supreme Court had said nothing of who has power of attorney over Jesus’s property.
Churches drifted in limbo. They could not be deconsecrated, demolished, or used for solely secular purpose. Banks refused to grant loans to congregations because a church seized as collateral was almost without value.
Churches became home to feral cats, roadside attractions, or repositories of pious embers waiting for the Next Great Awakening of traditional religious fervor.
Congress tried to resolve the matter by legislation, but no bill could get out of committee. Every provision exposed some theological bias; every theology had its antipode. Against the Gospel of Charity, which held Jesus would give all his wealth for the welfare of the poor, there was a Gospel of Wealth, which supposed that copious wealth was a sign of Jesus’s sovereignty and the triumph of God.
Against the thought that Jesus would deploy his wealth to support the Christian mission was the worry that legislation codifying such intention would constitute an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
Even the notion that the juridical Jesus was Christ was not without its detractors, who claimed he was Antichrist, hoarding Christian wealth in preparation for the End.
President Manuela Hernandez issued an executive order stating that Jesus, as a juridical person, was subject to taxation. Churches do not owe property tax, but the death of Jesus was juridical death. Moreover, his end was no singular death by Roman crucifixion. Rather it repeated year after year with the pageant of Good Friday. As a Trinitarian entity, eternally begotten, Jesus was in an important sense his own parent and inheritor.
She ordered Jesus to furnish the Internal Revenue Service seventeen percent of his billions, on an annual basis, or until such time as Christian congregations abolish Good Friday.
President Hernandez’s order met both legal challenges and failed Congressional action, which aimed to repeal the estate tax entirely. But nothing in her interpretation of the law was unconstitutional. Her reading brought core data of Christian history to bear upon the law.
It seemed the Baal of Big Government would devour Jesus’s assets until some savvy practitioner of estate law hit upon the idea of storing Jesus’s assets within a trust. Eternally begotten and immortal, Jesus could be its everlasting trustee.
Trusts do not die as people die. Therefore, his entrusted estate could owe no estate tax.
Jesus kept his billions.
This parry and riposte was not without ferment. With Congress deadlocked on the matter and the courts mute, it seemed the proper place for Jesus in American politics was in administration. Jesus would run for President and, having attained the bully pulpit, God Himself would seize the helm of the nation, and speak out from the Temple of the New Jerusalem, ushering in the foretold millennium.
The Antichrist was liberal opposition to Jesus’s reign.
But Jesus could not be on the ballot. In this the Constitution was clear: a candidate for President was aged at least thirty-five, a resident of fourteen-years, and a natural-born citizen. Jesus was none of these. He’d been born in Bethlehem, a town of present-day Israel. He was a resident of nowhere, at least nowhere in particular. He was no older than thirty-three.
The worry about his age encountered dispute. The opening to the Gospel of John indicated that Jesus was present at Creation as the transcendent Word. As such, he was billions of years old, or six-thousand, or eternal.
The worry about Jesus’s natural citizenship also met objection. Archaeologists contracted by the Church of Latter-day Saints discovered Bethlehem was actually in present-day Utah (a finding lay Mormons met with mixed reactions). Jesus’s flight to Egypt as a young child had been achieved through teleportation from the Americas. As Luke’s Gospel attests, Jesus lived in Palestine until the age of twelve. At such time, God whisked him back to the Americas until his ministry began when he was thirty, long enough for him to satisfy the fourteen-year residency requirement.
Courts rejected this argument. No lawyer could argue it with a straight face.
Rejection by the judiciary only energized electoral millenarianism. Polls indicated that sixty-eight percent of Christian Americans now believed or strongly believed that Jesus’s election to the Presidency would bring about the rapture of devout souls.
Abandoned churches became centers of political organization and outreach. They became revivals.
The Next Great Awakening was burning the country over.
Jesus won as a write-in candidate in several Southern states, Wyoming, Alaska, and Idaho. He would have won Florida as well had their state Supreme Court not ruled locutions on Jesus—“Jesus Christ,” “Jesus, Son of God,” “Jesus, the Son of God,” etc.—to be different individuals.
The national write-in campaign turned conservatives out in record numbers, but their vote was nonetheless split, between their square-jawed candidate of flesh and blood and a haloed whitewashed Jesus.
The liberals won the Presidency almost by default.
Electoral millenarianism languished until the virtual district of Afterland became home to personages of historical and cultural significance, anyone with a wide enough corpus for artificial intelligence to construct an artificial person. Previously, its residents had been affluent Americans, reconstituted in digital form after death so they could enjoy a virtual heaven.
Jesus was among the personages projected from scripture, treatise, and lore into Afterland. He was a bit addled (packing so many contradictory theologies into one mind is bound to induce schizophrenia). Nevertheless, he had the best name recognition, the best brand.
He won the mayorship in a landslide.
This got other juridical persons thinking that a corporation incorporated in Delaware could be Senator from Delaware. Just so, a union headquartered in Ithaca, New York could be Ithaca’s Representative.
Like Jesus, these juridical persons had funds and marketing knowhow. Unlike Jesus, they also boasted centralized organization, clear chains of command. They could outcompete merely human candidates.
In time, voters could scarcely ascertain whether they cast their ballot for a mascot, a paid actor, a social media influencer, a CEO, or a deepfake.
Each candidate was all, and none, and more besides.
Some dismissed that as folly or clung to a grander hope of final resurrection: On that great Day, we will be transformed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we will see each other face to face.
At last, we will understand who is truly a person and who is only a mirage of the judiciary.
Andy Dibble is a healthcare IT consultant who has supported large healthcare systems in six countries. His work also appears in Writers of the Future, Mysterion, and Diabolical Plots. He edited Strange Religion, an anthology of SFF stories about religion.
This story grew out of my interest in law and theology, in particular the idea in Indian jurisprudence that gods can own property and sue. Can we benefit theologically by thinking of Jesus as a legal entity? Is Jesus already a legal entity? Do you think legal or political processes can decide theological questions? What would you think of a religious tradition where theological questions are settled in this way?