I finally finished reading Andrew Sullivan’s Holy Week essay on Christianity in Crisis. There’s a lot of think about in this article, so I have a list of what questions came to mind as a read this.
- We really can’t know Jesus without the church. Sullivan seems to think there is the pure Jesus out there that is not corrupted by politics. But as Joel Miller notes, Jesus never wrote anything, unlike say, Mohammed did. The whole life of Jesus has been mediated others. There can’t be a pure Jesus not diluted by the church because everything we know about Jesus is through other people, those who were close to him and those who learned about him decades after he walked the earth. Here’s what Miller writes:
It’s a trendy thing to say, but how do we know what Jesus asks of us? Unlike Muhammad or L. Ron Hubbard, Jesus didn’t scratch out a word of Scripture. We only know what Jesus said because his followers wrote things down. These followers and their community — that is to say, the church — then curated that message. That means we have to understand Jesus’ words in a matrix that includes the thoughts and writings of the early church: its bishops, priests, poets, monks, theologians, and artists. Divorcing Jesus from the church is conceptually impossible.
It is trendy to say we can get to Jesus without the messiness of the church, but you just can’t understand who Jesus is without the writings and traditions of the church. That leads me to the next point:
- The problem with church is that it’s filled with humans. I know Sullivan is upset at how his own Catholic Church failed to protect children from abusive priests. I get that. When people abuse their power or try to bar people from coming to God’s table, it reflects badly on the church. Sadly, the church is filled with people who did not stand for justice and righteousness, but either stood aside or actively participated in evil. The church is filled with weak willed, obstinate people. But for some odd reason, Jesus entrusted his mission to a group of people who more often that not did not understand Jesus and sometimes got it terribly wrong. The church is made up of fallible beings, and that’s kinda how Jesus intended it to be. I’m not saying we should take a pass on things that go wrong in church. What I am saying is that this thing called Christianity is made up of folks who sometimes fuck up. An institution made up of humans is going to make mistakes, BIG mistakes. But somehow, God still works through this fallible gathering and people are able to feed the poor, free the slaves and stand for righteousness.
- Jesus gets me. Now, I tend to agree more with Sullivan on stuff than disagree with him, but I find it odd that Jesus seems to agree with everything that he happens to like or dislike. I don’t know if we do this on purpose or not, but more often than note we tend to fashion a Jesus that is basically us, but way cooler. Maybe it’s just me, but the Jesus I read in Scripture was one that was hard to follow. He was always asking us to do stuff (like giving up everything we own, dissing our families) that we don’t always have the balls to do. Why do we make Jesus a cheerleader for our own politics? Why can’t we allow the Jesus we encounter to bother us and shake us up instead of domesticating him to our ideology?
- We can’t follow Jesus. Yes, Jesus does ask us to follow him. And I believe we have to. But we shouldn’t trick ourselves into thinking its easy or that we won’t be driven off the past by our own wants and passions. The reason we talk about the cross and the empty tomb this week is because we are reminded that we can’t follow Jesus on our own. We follow Jesus only through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Let’s look at Sullivan’s (or Thomas Jefferson’s) list that describes Jesus:
What were those doctrines? Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations. Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made. Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching. That’s why, in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands to the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them.
Hmmm…love your enemy? Yeah, that’s a piece of cake. Give up material wealth? Listen, I have issues giving up my iPad and I doubt Sullivan is going to go all Mother Teresa on us. Love God? Maybe. Give up power over others? Yeah, got that. Maybe I’m weak, but I think I could fail each and every item on this list. I can’t do it. Sullivan can’t do it. No one can. That’s why we need grace. This is not to say we shouldn’t try. But following Jesus is hard. It. Is. Not. Practical. (When the hell was loving our enemy ever practical?)
There’s a lot more I can talk about concerning this and maybe I will say more later. But that’s what’s on my mind re: Sullivan.