The term “born again” used been often during this presidential campaign season.  The term has been tossed about by the media to describe a particular demographic, usually socially conservative evangelical Christians.  Many of the candidates, while trying to garner support from a conservative Christian group, identified themselves as “born again,” using the term with the kind of pride usually reserved for patriotism.

“Born again” has become something of a generic term, as if everyone knows what it means.  But what might it really mean?  Is it really so generic and simple?

Jesus used the phrase “You must be born again” on only one occasion with one person in a private setting.  Nicodemus, a high-ranking Jewish leader, came to Jesus under the cover of night.  He was desperate for help.  “What can I do that I haven’t already done to find the kingdom of God.  I have followed all the Jewish laws, I have everything I ever wanted, I have a life that most people envy, yet something is lacking.  How might I fill this emptiness?”

Jesus’ response was very direct.  “You must be born again.”  Huh?  Nick was risking his reputation to approach this untrained teacher with some serious questions.  And what did he get?  An absurd statement describing a physical impossibility.

What could Jesus possibly have meant by this?  Just as important, what might it mean today other than a generic “socially conservative evangelical Christian”?  I’m no Biblical scholar, but I suspect that if Jesus uses a term only once, in a very specific situation, there is nothing generic or simple about it.

Thomas Merton, an American monk, pointed out that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success (however we define success), only to find when we get to the top that our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.  I believe the statement “You must be born again” was Jesus’ way of addressing the wrong wall Nicodemus had his ladder leaning against.

If you asked Nicodemus what was the most important thing in his life, he would likely have said, “My birth.”  He was most proud to have been born into the family of Abraham and in the particular tribe that allowed him his place of prestige in the religious hierarchy and the community.  Nicodemus was who he was personally and professionally by virtue of his birth and ancestry.

By telling Nicodemus he must be born again, I think Jesus way saying, “If you want what you say you want, you must take your most cherished attachment, your birth and your heritage, and lay it aside.  You must surrender all the outer power and perks that you have by virtue of your birth in order to experience a new kind of life.”

Being born again was simply the metaphor Jesus used to address Nicodemus in particular.  Jesus used a variety of metaphors and examples in other encounters.  For example, with the “rich young ruler” Jesus told him to give away his wealth.  This was not a statement about wealth but rather about the way this person had elevated wealth in his life.  If we look deeply into the context of the moment, Jesus always seemed to focus directly to one’s ultimate allegiance, and to how easy it is to idolize those things when we confuse the means and the ends.

Being “born again” has nothing to do with religious affiliation.  It has nothing to do with alignment with any particular social issue or with being conservative or liberal. “Born again” cannot possibly be a generic phrase the candidates, media, or churches can toss about casually.  It does not describe a demographic, nor is it a label a person would espouse with pride.

Being born again has something to do with allowing our allegiances and passions to become expressions of who we are for the benefit of others.  If the term is used at all, it would be with the deepest humility.