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Getting Jesus Right:

It’s always pleasing when another writer confirms your own opinions about issues. To wit, the August edition of Harpers magazine contains an article by Bill McKibben, “The Christian Nation: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong,” that forcefully validates something I have long believed: namely, that Jesus preached a message that is lost on many Americans who call themselves Christians and lost on our government that is so hell-bent on posturing America as a Christian nation.

Bill McKibben is a well-known environmentalist, author of The End of Nature and Hope, but it turns out that he is also a life-long Christian himself who is distressed by actions taken in the name of Jesus, actions that are totally and unequivocally contradictory to what Jesus actually implored. But then McKibben points out that in a recent poll, 50% of Americans could not name even one of the four Gospels. Apparently, a lot of people act in the name of Jesus without knowing what he did preach. (In addition, 12 percent thought Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife!)

I have also been re-reading a superb account of the life of Jesus by Shusaku Endo, who sums up Jesus’ message exactly as McKibben does. Specifically, both say that Jesus’ radical revision of the vengeful God of the Old Testament is the loving God of the New Testament – a God who requires that we love our neighbors as ourselves and that we focus our service on the poor and the needy. This New Testament God is a God of peace, not the vindictive, war-endorsing God of many passages of the Old Testament. Consequently, unless one completely ignores the Gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, and the sum total of everything Jesus represented, it is hard to imagine Jesus counseling tax cuts for the rich or an attack on a nation not at war with you! Even the Old Testament God didn’t recommend preemptive wars; he recommended retalitary wars, punishment for those who have done evil to you. Jesus took this approach and turned it upside down:

“You have heard it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, do not resist an evildoer, but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

Nevertheless, if you are determined to act out of revenge, then for God’s sake (the Old Testament God’s sake) at least identify your enemies accurately and don’t attack the wrong people. We have now killed between 20,000 to 100,000 Iraqis – men, women and children who did not attack us. Is this Christian behavior?

But back to McKibben’s thesis: He argues that the radical, revolutionary message of Jesus – to love thy neighbor as thyself and to serve the poor – has been melted down and completely distorted into a “me-first” message of self-growth, self-responsibility, self-absorbing consumerism in which three quarters of Americans believe that the Bible actually states that “God helps those who help themselves.” It does not. Ben Franklin, that good old pragmatist, said it and it couldn’t be further from the mark that Jesus proclaimed. McKibben writes about the growth of “a kind of soft-focus, comfortable, suburban faith” in which people go to mega-churches and hear sermons about “How to discipline your children” or “How to invest your money.” Good topics to be sure, but hardly what Jesus taught or cared a whit about. Jesus was very clear in his teachings of what is essential – caring for your neighbor, especially the poor, the sick and the hungry.

So, here we are – a self-professed Christian nation that (1) wages preemptive wars, (2) leads the world in military spending, (3) leads the industrialized world in child poverty, (4) ranks last among rich nations in childhood nutrition, infant mortality and access to preschool, and (5) compiles an annual murder rate four to five times greater than all European nations combined.We do not take care of our own poor people; we are disinterested in the world’s poor people; we love our guns; we wage ideological, preemptive wars, and we do so invoking the name of Jesus. It is clearly time for some serious reassessing.

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