Go to church but they tease us, with a picture of a blue-eyed Jesus! – Ice Cube
Well, sort of. I don’t take these lyrics from Ice Cube’s rant from his classical African-American community critique “Us” as an issue of merely color; but rather ideology.
I tried to make this point in the last church I belonged to. Our services were tailored in a fashion that allowed us to ask questions or make comments during the sermon. As you can imagine, that made for some memorable experiences, both for the good and not so good. At the time George W. Bush was campaigning for a second term in the White House. There was a heavy religious fervor regarding that election too. Both Catholic and Protestant organizations were galvanized similarly (if not more) than they were in 2000.
My comment during the service was that I found the election season offered at least two different Jesuses. Immediately when I said it there were cat calls from the other members. “Oh no, there is only ONE Jesus.” I think they thought I was being literal. And I found it hard to explain, as I was cut off continuously. My point was that while most Christian churches share the same basic bible for scripture references, Jesus’ points of emphasis and agenda seemed to go down racial, class, social and political divides.
I recall visiting a prominent church in South St. Louis when the subject of the election came up. The pastor of the church said, “I’m not going to tell you who to vote for. But I will say that I’m not voting for someone who is for killing babies.”
I thought to myself, “Wow, I can understand Jesus being bent about abortion, but he’s not bent about torture or bombings of civilian communities? What about all of the other injustices and crimes against humanity out there perpetrated by men for political or ideological reasons? Is that ultimately what this election is about?” I’ll get back to that.
Later I attended a different church for a men’s breakfast. As usual when the subject of men come up at such an event it’s natural for the meaning of manhood and how it’s manifested in society to be brought up. Some of the speakers made a point of making sure that homosexuality and manhood had nothing in common. In doing so words and phrases to describe gays or being gay were slung around. They consisted of standards such as ‘sweet’ ‘sissies’ and ‘punks’ to name a few. Then there was the usual reference to Adam and Steve.
While all of these black macho evangelical males “amen’d” and approved of this name calling, I raised my hand and asked a question:
“I hear all of this name and cat calling regarding the homosexual community. And while I respect the fact that your brand of faith entitles you the right to have your own opinion that homosexuality is a sin, do you honestly believe that Jesus would endorse the name calling that some of you are using such as ‘sissy,’ ‘punk’ or even ‘fags?’ “
At that point the pastor was silent. To speak boldly like this against the precepts of leadership in a powerful black church is not something grinned upon. But one of the elders jumped in quickly to the rescue. With anger he burst from his seat and started spouting off scriptures in Leviticus and how homosexuality was a sin and that God didn’t like it and neither should any Christian. He was practically foaming at the mouth from the front of the sanctuary as he looked towards my way in the back.
“I’m not discussing the validity or non validation of homosexuality as a sin. What I am asking… is that if there were homosexuals in this congregation, (and chances are there one or more among this group of men) if I were a homosexual who was struggling with my sexual identity vs. what I believe my faith allows, would your words as well as your spiritual disposition attract me to you as a source of help, or would I be repulsed, insulted or put off by your tone? Would Jesus address a person who happens to be a homosexual with the names you choose along with your mocking tone?”
DEAD SILENCE in the congregation. I think some thought a fight was about to ensue.
The elder grew more angry, then shouted something else before the pastor got up and addressed my question… sort of.
“I understand what you are saying brother. And perhaps you are right that we can do better with the name calling. But let me be clear, homosexuality is a sin. Now let’s move on.”
This, among other things at that time, drew me to the conclusion that as far as the evangelical community was concerned, all God/Jesus really cared about were what I called the ‘Big 3’ Abortion, Homosexuality, and Stem Cell Research- all of which He was against.
That’s right. Let it be known henceforth that these are the bullet points on Jesus’ hit list. But was it really?
The question of Jesus and the identification of his agenda have been going on thousands of years, right? In the scriptures he seemed to identify it himself:
13 Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Who do men say that the Son of man is?
14 And they said, Some say John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.
15 He saith unto them, But who say ye that I am?
16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
In my estimation, this question is still the most divisive among Christian believers. Who Jesus is- a direct result of what he endorses- stands for, evangelizes, and lives by. As Christians (followers or Disciples of Christ) by very definition that agenda should translate into their own. And this is where confusion and division has obviously settled in.
Let’s take it step by step. While these are not absolute, I think we can agree that these are generally the focus, missions, and nature of Jesus, depending on the demographics and world view of the worshipper.
During slavery a certain segment of the population believed that Jesus endorsed the enslavement of Africans which included selling, beating, raping and murdering people that Jesus/God created. During this same period the slaves (often taught Christianity either from Catholics in Africa or Protestant enslaver in America) believed that Jesus would deliver them from their oppression.
Similarly, during the Jim Crow and civil rights eras, The KKK (who defined themselves a Christian organization) believed as they do today that Jesus choose them to be superior, while other nationalities are inferior. Many churches, both black and white, believed that Jesus created, loves and values all men equally.
These days we face many of the same challenges. Some upwardly mobile church dogma believe that Jesus favors the wealthy while others believe Jesus is concerned for the poor.
Let me give you a biblical example and how it may play out today:
5When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?
6And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do.
7Philip answered him, Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little.
8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, saith unto him,
9There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?
10And Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand.
11And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would.
12When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.
13Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten.
14Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.
If something like this were to happen, one side of the Christian agenda would report it this way:
Boy donates food, Jesus takes the little and performs a miracle to serve thousands. The people rejoice.
Another Christian agenda would report it this way:
Unemployed multitude threaten to mug little righteous boy who has food. Jesus the self-appointed welfare socialist takes the food away from the one who had in order to spread the wealth. Claims of a miracle go unsubstantiated, but Newt Gingrich says that Jesus should face prosecution for robbery. Sara Palin said Jesus is an illegal alien- “just look at his name”- (Pronounced Hey-Seuss) and bad for American values. Finally, Rush Limbaugh called him “The Magic Hebrew.”
Ok (chuckle) I’m having a little fun with this. But you get my point. This conversation has political ramifications, but in this context it’s not political at all.
I have attended many of these churches during my lifetime so I speak with experience.
The evidence shows that our depiction of Jesus, given his world view, is something either given to us by others or something we decide upon ourselves- based on our own background- sociopolitical, socioeconomic and dogmatic vantage point. Christians decide which Jesus to follow based on what they are comfortable with. That’s right. Believe it or not, Christians have pretty much picked their own Jesus to worship and follow based on their own accepted set of criteria.
For those living in inner cities, their Jesus cares about the poor; thought not exclusively. For many living in upper class neighborhoods, Jesus wants you to have riches. Many ministers I know believe and teach directly that the level that God shows his favor and blessings upon you, and the very proof of your own level of faith is a direct result of the believer’s financial status.
Some Christians promote charity and believe that government should help with social causes. Other Christians are for cutting any and everything having to do with helping those less fortunate. It’s happening in this country in a big way right now. I’m not making a judgment one way or the other but more asking why is it that so-called liberal Christians believe one thing while conservative Christians believe something else entirely – while reading the same bible?
I’ve heard it said that it’s up to moderate Muslims to speak out against radical Muslims who are for violent and other unrighteous acts done in their name. While I agree with that I rarely see Christians doing the same.
When have you heard of moderate Christians speaking out against Pastor Steve Anderson and Rev. Wiley Drake for praying that President Obama dies? Have you ever been up late and night and seen those ministry programs where they offer to sell you God’s blessing for $500-$1000?
So why not just join a church that chooses a Jesus I am comfortable with?
On the one hand, that sounds kind of attractive, right? But on the other, I’m not so sure about that. My own personal evangelical bent lends me to believe that God, by virture of being the creator of the universe (which includes my very existence), has the authority to demand without question first and foremost that he be in charge. If that is the case I certainly don’t need to align myself with a church that simply makes me comfortable. Furthermore, I can’t fathom believing in a gospel that is not transferable to any and all communities in the world. I can’t believe a message in College Park, Georgia that could not be preached in the slums of Calcutta, India just because the economic opportunities are not the same.
The bottom line in my view is that Jesus (as we know him) has been bastardized and transformed into a political football, tossed to and fro by whoever wields his name. He’s been labeled like soup, and packaged for consumption like a Happy Meal or an Ipad too often for the purposes of manipulation, domination, or deceit. That’s not to say all churches, ministers, or parishioners, liberal or conservative, are all bad or good. But what is the difference in that or any other religious group that have segments that do good work? The point for me is that following God as I want to know him is so profoundly vital to my own spiritual growth and well-being, dogmatic preferences and spiritual limitations cancel my mere desire to belong in such a group.