This weekend I proverbially sat at the feet (actually the back row) of sage writer Robin Meyers, pastor of Mayflower United Church of Christ (not to be confused with the Church of Christ), professor of Philosophy, and author of several books, including Saving Jesus From the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus (2010), The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus (2012), and, most recently, Spiritual Defiance: Building a Beloved Community of Resistance (2015)—are you sensing a theme here?
On Friday night he opened with a question:
Is faith a propositional affair, or is it a way of being in and even resisting the ways of the world?
He then followed this provocative question with an equally, if not more, provocative statement (a paraphrase of what he said, recorded by me as fast as I could):
The Jesus Movement was founded as resistance to the status quo of domination and suppression. But now, the church has become a keeper and even defender of that status quo.
He went on to say that this Jesus Movement somehow became codified (my word, not his), and shifted from focusing on action and behavior (what he called “being”) to focusing almost entirely on “believing” as a substitute for faith. The movement became about believing certain propositions to be true and saying certain words in order to “belong” to the club.
In Paul’s early letters to the church, and in the first three gospels of Jesus written mid- and early second-half of the first century, Jesus is portrayed as a “doer” of God’s love and justice, challenging the status quo of Jewish faith at the time, which focused, ironically, on mostly believing in God. But the early part of the second century, we witness in John’s gospel that the “doing” and “being” collapsed into a much safer “believing” that the early Jesus challenged. How did this happen? (I acknowledge my general agreement with Robin in asking this question)
Walter Wink would, I imagine, share several points of connection with Robin’s perspective. So often in the church there is so much pressure to “play it safe.” As a pastor, for instance, I want to keep my job because I care about providing for my family, and I care about the church and do not want to hurt it either. But when it is estimated that 60,000 people die every day from hunger and hunger-related issues (totally resolvable issues if we, as the richest nation in the world, had the willingness to really do something about it), I struggle when I hear arguments about what color to paint this room or that. Now, I have to admit, creating a hospitable space for people to come into is also a strong value, so I’m torn. But I would think that real lives matter more than paint.
I’ve read a lot of books, articles, and blogposts that try to explain why the church is dying in the U.S. or why millennials are generally not coming to church. But I wonder if one of the main reasons for all this decline is that we, the Church, have simply lost our way. Now, lest you think I have gone the way of those who believe “losing our way” includes welcoming or affirming homosexuals or anyone else labeled bad by the so-called “evangelical conservative Christians” (read this article about the trends in this population), let me assure you: that is not what I mean.
What I mean by “losing our way” as the Church is in reference to what was once called “the Way” of Jesus. The Way of Jesus re-captured the spirit of loving God with one’s whole being (heart, mind, and body—how we live and behave in the world, the essence of our very character as human beings), and truly loving one’s neighbors as oneself (welcoming immigrants as one of our own, as is taught in dozens of places throughout our sacred texts as Christians; reaching out to, opening our hearts to, having compassion for, and actively engaging in true fellowship with those who the status quo of the world seeks to exclude and even suppress). The Way of Jesus means using my privilege as a white and male citizen of one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations the world has seen to actively advocate for and empower those being silenced and marginalized (refugees and undocumented immigrants feeling violence I can hardly comprehend; children whose schools are being gutted to help build more prisons; the poor who are being duped by fast talking and wealthy politicians who claim to be “on your side” against the evil government—the same government that is supposed to be for, of, and by the people, but which is manipulated so as to line the pockets of the top one-percenter slick talkers who are very vested in the status quo that keeps their pockets full and the poor poor, the uneducated uneducated, and the undocumented child undocumented).
Miroslav Volf has written a treatise on these aspects of the status quo and the church’s call to challenge it in Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996). But Walter Brueggemann’s book Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (2014) says it much more succinctly and poignantly in an almost “last lecture” style that let’s it all hang out. He scathingly calls the Church to task in the U.S. around the same issues as Robin Meyers, answering the question Robin opened with on Friday night: Is faith a propositional affair (say a certain thing, believe a certain thing, and you’re in the club!), or is it a way of “being in” and even resisting the ways of the world (feeding the poor, but also undermining the systems of government and society that perpetuate poverty; posting on Facebook quippy posts about welcoming the stranger, but then also actively engaging those who have the power to change our immigration policies to provide a viable path to come to this great country legally and in a timely manner; putting the rainbow flag out to profess our belief in inclusion, but also doing what it takes to be inclusive and loving all people, especially our perceived enemies—I’m pretty sure Jesus is recorded as having said something about this; etc., etc., etc.).
Robin Meyers suggests in his books that Christian faith is about more than just believing, even more than just behaving. Ultimately, it is about character. Jesus invites us to not just do what he did, but to actually internalize and embody the character of his life as well as his death (a frightening proposition in an age when we prefer to ignore the realities of death as much as possible.).
I realize now that I just don’t “believe in” Jesus any more, especially the sweet, innocent, lamb-holding Jesus depicted in those oh-so European paintings, complete with blue eyes and blond hair. I don’t believe in the Jesus I was taught in Sunday School as a child. My faith has led me past mere belief in some icon of Jesus, and pushed me further into the Way of Jesus. I don’t know entirely what this means yet, but it is both terribly frightening and at the same time entirely invigorating! May I be wise enough to keep paying attention, thoughtful enough to continue changing and transforming, and compassionate enough to love myself enough so that I can truly love my neighbor, embodying the love that is God.