Thursday, January 2, 2014

Do You Love *My* Jesus? (Talking About Jesus, part 2)

When we talk about Jesus with people of other faiths we recognize that we are encountering a different culture and worldview; this can remind us to pay attention and to show courtesy.  It can be harder to talk, worship and work well with people who are worshipping and following Jesus in a way that is not ours.
I know, love and respect some people who see Jesus so differently that if it weren't for the shared name anyone might think they were describing separate people.  Some talk primarily about Jesus as a savior of souls, someone who came to die for us, reconcile us with God, and thereby enable us to live more faithfully now and to enter heaven when we die.  (Some--not all--of these downplay or spiritualize Jesus' role as a social and political revolutionary.) Others talk primarily about Jesus as a preacher and exemplar of a new social order, a nonviolent revolutionary, a defender of the poor and the marginalized. (Some--not all--of these downplay or allegorize Jesus' role as healer of the sick, walker on water, raiser of the dead.) 
I find something to agree with and to admire in what both groups say.  Sometimes when they get talking about each other I am discouraged.  I hear the line from the Jacob's Ladder spiritual echoing in the back of my mind: "Sinner, do you love my Jesus?" (emphasis mine) I find myself thinking in response, "Well, maybe not  your Jesus, exactly…"  I try to broaden my perspective by reading books written by authors on several sides, and I find more helpful truths and more frustrating arguments.  I get frustrated and confused. Then I remember that I don't need to define or defend Jesus.  I do need to heed, be healed by, follow, imitate and become one with Jesus. That process requires me to see Jesus in and stay in relationship with all my brothers and sisters, including the contentious Christian ones. 

  We all have our own narratives about Jesus. We mostly have our own, sometimes rather skewed, versions of the Jesus narratives of other people.  Sometimes we assume that we know what someone else's Jesus narrative and basis for living is based on a few phrases we've heard them use or a few positions we've heard them espouse.  We're often wrong.  
I hear talk about conservative Christians who care only about saving people's souls and have no concern for courtesy or for social justice.  I have friends who talk about accepting Jesus Christ as their personal saviors and who try to witness to other people and bring them into a saving personal relationshop with Jesus. They often also take responsibility for caring for neighbors in need and speak with courtesy and humility with those who disagree with them.  
I hear talk about liberal Christians who are so concerned with political correctness and inoffensiveness that they have no true convictions by which they're willoing to live, no moral backbone, no spiritual fire. I have friends who carefully use universalist lanaguage for Spirit and emphasize inclusivity and outreach to the marginalized.  They often also are deeply grounded in prayer and willing to work and suffer for their beliefs.  
I have friends who don't fit well on either side of the liberal/conservative divide--who are passionately antiwar and also passionately pro-life; who take a rigorous and literal view of Biblical commands for their own lives and also deeply respect the differently ordered lives of people following other religious traditions.  
Because of all this I try not to make assumptions about what other Christians know of Jesus; I try to listen carefully to what they actually say, to watch how they actually live, to work and pray with them and to ask them questions.
I have been helped and blessed by this contact with people whose Jesus stories are very different from mine.  Not so much by theoretical conversations as by the sharing of Jesus' working in each of our lives, our experiences of joy and clarity, our inward conviction of wrongdoing, our attempts to live in faithfulness, and the grace that sustains us when our attempts are inadequate.  Often I find that we are on a similar journey, though we describe it very differently.  Sometimes their different languiages and stories quicken my awareness of truths which I had come to take for granted.  Sometimes they open up possibilities I hadn't seen before. I am convinced that, just as God is greater than any of our names for God, Jesus is greater than any of our narratives about Jesus.  
But sometimes I hear people speaking or see people acting in Jesus' name and I think they are doing harm.  Then I am confronted with two temptations.  One is to avoid confrontation at all costs.  The other is to denounce Those Christians and make it clear that I am one of the better Christians.  Both can be deeply destructive. I am trying to find my way between them.
It's partly a question of focus, of motivation.  If I act to preserve my comfort, either by avoiding conflict or by dissasociating myself from behavior that troubles me, I may do harm outwardly and I certainly increase my own selfishness.  If I act to preserve my self-image or the image of my religion, either by making a show of unity or by making a show of purity unsullied by the behavior that troubles me, I may do harm outwardly and I certainly make myself more prone to hypocrisy.
Instead of doing those things I can act from the knowledge that I and the person whose words/actions seem hurtful and the people who might be hurt are all one in God.  From that understanding I can reach out to those who may have been hurt, can listen and offer what help or reparation is possible.  From there I can speak to the person whose behavior troubles me, if either their manner or our relationship make me believe that they might be able to hear a concern firmly and lovingly expressed.  To do this I need to be aware of, and may need to speak of, the times when I have been hurt and the times when I have been hurtful.
I'm clear about this.  I am not clear about when or how it's right to speak publicly about people whom I believe to have spoken or done wrong in Jesus' name.  I can see a case for doing that, for the sake either of the people who are hurt or of the people who are likely to judge all Jesus-followers by the hurtful actions of a few people. I also see that this can easily become self-righteous and can intensify the hurt or alienation which is probably already felt by the people whose behavior troubles me.
I don't know the right answer to this.  Perhaps in one way that's a good thing.  When I know I don't know the right answer I am driven back into prayer.  I ought to anide there anyway, as Jesus did, but too often I don't.
I would be glad to hear how any of you resolve these questions in your own lives.

Link to part 3


randyvo said...

Joanna; This speaks to me, particularly as I've finally begun my "visitation of many traditions" (visiting churches of various denominations), something I've thought about doing for some time, but have been hesitant for some reason. And I can only speculate as to why this is so. I don't think I'm a particularly nervous person - I've worked in inner city tenements, I've been to maximum security prisons, juvenile detention centers...I've met with congressmen in the U.S. Capitol, the very belly of the beast, for crying out loud! So why have I found it so hard to meet with other Christian traditions and viewpoints?

Some of it, perhaps, is because I am one of the "spiritual refugees", that was disillusioned and damaged by evangelical churches in my youth. But that just might be an excuse. Maybe it is because it can be hard to have our experience of Jesus - so precious and real to us - "challenged" as it were by the experiences of others which seems so different and even contradictory to ours. And this may be the problem. Even those of us who cringe at the "my personal Jesus" language still cling to something like a 'my personal Jesus' image. And it can be hard to accept - which may mean it is important for us to do! This, anyway, may be what I think I may be discerning from this experience.

Peace and Hope.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Randy, my belated thanks for a very thought-provoking reflection. Perhaps because I didn't grow up Evangelical I don't cringe at the 'my personal Jesus' language. Idid find it foreign or odd at first, but when I asked my mother, who grew up conservative Baptist, she said it meant something not too different from what many early Quakers emphasized about immediate relationship with the indwelling Christ... I too easily move from that very valid experience to an attachment to a Jesus who fits my opinions and preferences, and a kind of defensiveness around other people's views of Jesus.

I would be very interested in seeing more about your visitation of other traditions if you're ever up for writing more.