Your Own Personal (American) Jesus

 

I began this post in July of 2018. I thought I’d posted it, but apparently not. As I reflect on these words today, I see they remain relevant and convicting. This is written from my perspective as a Lutheran pastor in the ELCA, meaning that I spend time discussing what it means to follow Jesus.

TL;DR

Christianity is not a morality cult, but a faith that builds relationship through following Jesus. While the trend of ideas contrary to the Gospel is growing, and increasingly concerning, it’s by no means unique to the United States or even the conservative movement.


“Trump Christianity and the Abandonment of Jesus” by Disciples of Christ pastor Craig Watts begins,

I know that the name “Jesus” is often heard in many of the churches whose members overwhelmingly support President Trump. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that the Jesus of the Gospels is largely absent. The Jesus that taught, healed, confronted the authorities, and was killed as religious and political leaders worked together to put an end to him, that Jesus seems to be missing. In his place is an Americanized Jesus of a certain sort.

It continues to make the claim that “only an Americanized Jesus can…”, and then gives a laundry list of items that only this Americanized Jesus can do, chiefly to lead Christians to:

  1. endorse Trump’s
    • “flamboyant, materialistic indulgence”
    • “sexual libertinism”
    • “crude verbal abuse of all manner of people”
  2. More fully embrace the (false) prosperity gospel, the belief that material wealth and earthly success are infallible signs of God’s blessings and approval;
  3. And a catch-all category that I’ll just call “all manner of evil”, which includes:
    • hyper-nationalism;
    • social, political, and economic isolationism;
    • inhumane immigration practices;
    • and so on.

I agree that these are stances and beliefs clearly opposed by the Gospel and are prevalent in the American Church, whether or not they’re associated with Trump. My disagreement with Pastor Watts is with his assertion that this way of sinning is somehow a new and uniquely American misrepresentation of God, Jesus, and Scripture.

When it comes to Sin, while we Americans might put our own spin on it, our Sin is not very original.

One of the most poignant parts of this article for me is the retelling of Stephanie McCrummen’s Washington Post article “Judgement Days”, describing her visit to a Southern Baptist congregation in Alabama where congregants interpret Biblical mandates like “Love your neighbor” to mean “love your American neighbor”; and “welcome the stranger” to mean “legal immigrant stranger”.

Let’s not feign shock at this. We’ve all heard scripture misused and mischaracterized in this way before. Even more, the humanity of these attitudes is positively ancient.

You can’t even get to the fifth chapter of Genesis before we have the first murder, Cain slaying Abel. God asked Cain, “where is your brother?”. Cain replied, “I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?”. The brazen contempt on Cain’s part is stunning, but we see in it the kernel of the attitude of these churchgoers’ statement, “love your American neighbor”.

Frankly, you don’t even have to get that far to learn how we are to treat those who are refugees in need of asylum. By their own choices, Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil and God drives them out of the Garden.

Remember, this was a punishment for which there were consequences; even so, God provided clothing for them to wear, a means by which they could continue their lives, and a place for them to dwell when they could no longer return to their home.

When Cain was punished for murdering Abel, he was banished and given a mark for protection so no one else might kill him.

Even in punishment, God provided for God’s people.

But even if these seem like a stretch to you, it remains inarguable that the narrative witness of Scripture has a bias for the refugee, the widow and orphan, for the outsider with whom God declares a kinship. This is so strong a theme in the Bible that the First Commandment is set in the context of God’s rescue of the Jewish people from slavery, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5:6).

What God commands transcends human and religious law.

I know that sounds weird, but this truth is central to the narrative of Christianity, which is at its roots a tradition that rose out of the insistence of Jesus that law was created for human beings; human beings were not created for the law. The very reason Jesus issued the Two Commandments, to love God and love our neighbor, is to subvert the religious traditions that upheld the idea that there was some subclass of people who weren’t included in God’s promise.

The Kingdom of Heaven is the tide coming in and going out: whatever you build to stop it will eventually wash away, unable to overcome its relentless persistence.

Moving Beyond Morality Cults

I said above that the temptation of transforming Christianity into a morality cult isn’t simply an American problem. I add that this isn’t only a conservative problem. This much is true: when you push far enough out to either edge, you encounter the same fanatical obsession with works righteousness. I guess a dumpster fire by any name still smells putrid.

For both conservative and liberal fanatics, the problem is nonconformity to their accepted moral and behavioral orthodoxy.

In the middle ground of faith, there is an orthodoxy that makes space for just about everyone, even though individuals leaning left or right might raise an eyebrow. There are moments when the Church excommunicates people disruptive to the community — but even this is done in and as a community, after considerable effort to draw that one back into the fold. Every healthy relationship has boundaries, and it’s true that at some point there has to be an agreement about what it means to be who we are. Orthodoxy isn’t designed to identify outsiders, but to help us recognize what behaviors allow us to dwell inside without drawing too much blood.

To be Christian means we believe certain things are central to our faith. Chief among these are the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed. The creeds recognize that God is Trinity, three distinct Persons who make up the single identity of God. We confess that the death and resurrection of Jesus is central to our understanding of how we relate to God and participate in relationship to God. We believe in the bodily resurrection and that there will be a judgement of the living and the dead over which Jesus presides. Each of these tenets have been the subject of much disagreement and some enthusiastic face punches by St. Nicholas.

That’s right kids, Santa punches heretics.

Though other traditions’ sacramental formulation differ, in the Lutheran tradition Baptism and Communion are the other two central tenets that are essential to our faith, about which there is also much disagreement. This notable trend toward disagreement is part of the grand tradition of the Church. Even so, we obey Jesus’ command to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; holding in common the belief that this is the way people are brought into God’s family, the Church. We disagree about when, how, and what it means, but we share belief in its centrality. We all also believe that Communion means something special. What “special” means varies widely.

Notice that these are broad theological precepts, talking about what we believe and how we live in community. These are the broadest boundaries of what it means to be Christian. They address our faith and identity. We identify ourselves as children of God, living this new life in baptism given by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and celebrate the presence of the Holy Spirit who compels the Church to gather in the name of Jesus for praise and worship and to share in the Lord’s Supper.

Because of all this, we therefore do the works of grace and mercy that God commands us to do. This “because / therefore” understanding of the Gospel allows us to operate in a way that can welcome a broad swath of people and understand that we are part of a great cloud of witnesses.

What both the conservative and liberal fanatic runs into is that they tend to be overly concerned with and committed to discovering and announcing who’s in and out and what quality of Christian people are according to how people live into the values they espouse. I think both of them miss the mark in that fanatical expression because Jesus loved and spent time with both the “good” people and the “bad” people, and the only people Jesus really condemned were those who failed to love the people around them, especially if they were part of the religious establishment.

This is crucial.

Jesus spent time with Pharisees.

Jesus spent time with tax collectors.

Jesus defended an adulterer.

Jesus defended the sanctity of the temple.

Jesus associated with prostitutes.

Jesus associated with priests.

The notable exception to Jesus’ associations is people who attempted to wield religious authority and law as a means of oppression and control to subvert the reign of God and garner authority for themselves. Those were the people who were the subjects of “woe unto you” sayings of Jesus. Don’t mistake this for saying that there is not a moral absolute or authority. What it means is that the moral absolutes and authority are firmly rooted as a result of our identity.

In the Gospel of Mark, after John speaks and Jesus is baptized and tempted in the wilderness, Mark 1 continues in this way: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’”.

Jesus declares first that the time is fulfilled, meaning that the long wait for Messiah is done, and that the kingdom of God has come near.

In the midst of our Sin and sinful desires. While God’s people were still living in a nation captured by the Roman Empire. During a time when the very same human proclivity towards every evil was just as present as it is today. “Even when we were God’s enemies, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:10). 

Americans may have embraced this sinful habit enthusiastically, but we haven’t done anything all that creative. Even our most American indulgences are nothing more than derivative examples of run of the mill human Sin, so rooted in our human brokenness that there’s no “side” that can ever own it.

That’s also good news. If no “side” can own it, then no side can claim as exclusive the means of salvation from it. We’re all in the same ocean, even if we can’t seem to suffer being in the same boat.

Whatever we do, if we want to follow Jesus then the Gospel imperative is clear: all we do must be done in love or it’s just so much noise to God’s ear.

 

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