Take Back Jesus

It’s heartening to read the letter that Tom printed below from Scott in Nashville. I’ve received plenty of letters and comments along these lines in response to the religious posts I’ve done in the past and it leads me to this question : Are you also saying those things to your fellow Christians or just smartass atheists like me1 who to like to take cheap shots at the religious wrong? I’m grateful that there are Christians who are willing to fight the stereotype that conservative fundamentalists represent all of Christianity, but correcting misconceptions is only one piece of the puzzle2. As Bruce Bawer explains in his excellent book “Stealing Jesus”3, Christians need to reclaim their religion from the radical right :

In recent years, [conservative] Christians have organized into a political movement so successful that when many Americans today hear the word Christianity, they think only of the [conservative] variety. The mainstream media, in covering the so-called culture wars, generally imply that there are only two sides to choose from : The God-of-wrath Christian Right and the godless secular Left. Many Americans scarcely realize that there is any third alternative.
. . .
[Conservative Christianity] has warped Christianity into something ugly and hateful that has little or nothing to do with love and everything to do with suspicion, superstition, and sadism. And, quite often, it denies the name of Christianity to followers of Jesus who reject its barbaric theology. In essence, then, it has stolen Jesus-yoked his name and his church to ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that would have appalled him.

And let’s face it, it’s not too hard to jump to the conclusion that Jesus would have been appalled by fundamentalists’ devotion to “God’s Official Party”. This excerpt for the book of Luke is a perfect example of what I’m talking about :

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good — except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'”

“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

I doubt there are many religious leaders who would advocate giving up everything you own and giving it to the poor, but even with a loose interpretation of this passage, it’s not to difficult to infer how Jesus would react to the men and women on both sides of the aisle who accumulate great wealth while people around the world are literally starving to death. Or leaders who are more concerned with giving tax breaks to the rich while children are dying of preventable diseases due to a lack of healthcare. Or a president who ignores the plight of millions of men and women who work multiple jobs to make a decent living because his highest priority is to destroy the safety net that keeps those same people from spending the last years of their lives as paupers.

I hope this doesn’t come off as preachy or patronizing when I say that it’s time for Christians to take back Jesus from the theological kidnappers of of the far-right. The conservative extremist brand of Christianity is an aberration that doesn’t represent the mainstream and makes a mockery of the teachings of Jesus, who warned :

“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'”

You can be proud of your religion without proselytizing. There’s nothing pushy about saying “I voted against Bush because I’m a Christian” or reminding people that Jesus had more to say about compassion for the poor than he did about abortion, homosexuality, or judicial activism. Considering how much our President is fond of telling the public how much he loves Jesus, it’s fair game to point out how skewed his priorities are when held up to the teachings in the gospels.

The perception that Christianity is an exclusively right-wing religion isn’t going to go away until the silent majority of Christians stand up and take their religion back. Yes, you should correct people on the far left who make the mistake of assuming everyone who reads the Bible is in league with Fred Phelps, but you should be equally vigilant in regards to the mainstream press. If an AP article uses the word “Christian” to describe Pat Robertson without qualifying it with an adjective like “evangelical”, write a letter to the editor. If CNN implies that someone is conservative because they’re religious, flood their switchboard with complaints. Most of all, don’t let anyone get away with implying that you’re betraying your own faith just because you disagree with the Republican party.

1 : I’m describing myself here, not accusing anyone of labeling me as such.

2 : But it’s an important piece. I often try to be sensitive to these sorts of things, which is why I make an effort to never use the word “Christianity” when referring to the extreme-right without qualifying it with terms like “conservative”, “fundamentalist”, or “lunatic”.

3 : You can read an excerpt of the book here.