Reading N. T. Wright’s Jesus and The Victory of God has sparked some reflection on how my religion has changed during the past decade. It’s a fundamental shift in what I believe and what I do – a change in how I find meaning and value in life. Oddly, it tracks a shift in our scholarly understanding of Jesus that I was not aware of at the time.
I came back to Christianity about 1980 from several years of pretty serious Buddhism. I still value my Buddhist experience and could not have found my way back to Christianity except by that path. But for reasons that will become clear, I now find the historical focus, the narrative structure, and the hope for change in this world offered by Christianity is more helpful -- at least in our cultural context. I am quite content to let Buddhist be Buddhists. I just hope Christians will be Christians. It has taken me a lot of years, step by step, to actually engage the distinctly Christian hope in this world and for this world – in fact, I’m pretty sure I am not there yet. It’s a process.
In the 1980’s and 90’s, the in vogue view of Jesus was “wisdom teacher.” Most of what Jesus taught was about “the Kingdom of God.” But what does that mean? It definitely isn’t where we go when we die. The Jesus Seminar folks and others who gave us Jesus the Wisdom Teacher interpreted the Kingdom as a spiritual state already available to anyone who got their mind right. That’s what I believed and that’s what I taught. The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed did not have any implications for the existing power structures of the world, like the Roman Empire, the Temple theocracy, local authorities like Herod, etc. The crucifixion of Jesus either did not happen at all or it was a big mistake. Jesus was a wise teacher like Lao Tzu. He was no threat to either Pilate or Herod. If they killed him, it was because they didn’t understand that he was harmless.
My religion in the 80s and 90s was about getting my mind right and helping others to get their minds right too. What about crime, economic injustice, poverty, disease, etc.? I thought Christians should do kind acts here and there as evidence of our right-mindedness. But for the most part, I saw secular society as hopelessly corrupt and believed the Church should stand apart from it. I wanted to prophesy against society from a removed position of purity. I talked about living by the Church Calendar instead of the Hallmark Calendar. My religion in those days was “spiritual but not political.” Wright’s word is “escapist.” I had washed my hands of humanity.
9/11 was the turning point. The religion I had on September 10 was not up to what happened on September 11. That day brought home to me that religion can be a horribly destructive force in this dusty flesh and blood world where we live. We can go to work one morning and be killed by someone’s religion. Or religion can do good in this world. It can feed the hungry, teach the illiterate, heal the sick, even liberate the captive. The meaning and value of our lives turns on which kind of religion we practice – but only if we actually practice it with our feet on the ground here, now -- in this time and this place.
It wasn’t just watching the Twin Towers fall. A lot of things went into my conversion process – a sabbatical semester at Harvard Divinity regrooving my theology, hitting the age for a “generativity crisis,” reengaging racial reconciliation work in Georgia, and the ONE Campaign for the Millennium Development Goals. I changed what I did before I changed what I thought. Praxis first. Theory later. I know that sounds like some other philosophies, but it’s also Anglican.
So now I am learning that Jesus was not a “Wisdom Teacher” in the mode of Lao Tzu et al. – not that it’s bad to be a Wisdom Teacher – that just isn’t who Jesus was. Jesus was doing two things: (1) he was offering hope that
God will intervene in the socio-economic-political world we live in and turn the apple cart upside down – like in the Magnificat. (2) He was already bringing that new reality into being. He was already turning the apple cart upside down with his teaching, his way of life, and his healing miracles. When God happens in the world it looks like Jesus.
Getting our minds right is part of joining the Kingdom movement. It takes prayer, meditation, and study. Without spiritual practice, our service to others isn’t grounded in God but in our own egos, so it goes awry. But the Kingdom Movement is also practice. It takes rolling up our sleeves and engaging in Kingdom work in our time and in our place. We don’t build the Kingdom with our own hands. We can’t fulfill it in its wholeness, but we can live the Kingdom in a world dominated by the ungodly forces Paul called “the powers and the principalities of this present age.” We can get on the right side and widen the fissures so grace can break in. We can enact the Kingdom in the midst of a world that has gone so dreadfully wrong.
I knew as I watched the Twin Towers fall that my religion would have to grow or die. It grew. I wrote God Of Our Silent Tears (my book on how God responds to evil and suffering), worked with racial issues in Georgia, raised money for the ONE Campaign, and now am working to organize communities in Nevada to restore the quality of our common life.
So here’s what I am wondering: N T Wright portrays a Jesus who is making a real difference now; that difference is more important than it looks because it also opens the door to a whole new reality dawning in God’s time. Reading Wright makes me ask whether this change in my religion is just a personal thing, just the natural adjustment of religion to another stage of life – or is the Church waking up to an earthier pragmatic faith that can change the world?
I don’t know the answer to that. I have a hope but it is not “sure and certain.” I am not hoping for a nice political correctness that calls itself religion. I am hoping for a spiritual movement that has boots on the ground, a movement to challenge the status quo from a strong theological stance of faith, a conviction that we are following God’s call, making straight the way for the Savior. Are we ready to do that? Are we ready to lay aside our nets – even if those nets look like the pastoral maintenance religion that has defined the Church for centuries – in order to follow Jesus and change the world into the Kingdom?