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Jesus Defanged: An Angry Musing about the Church
In a world of such gross injustice the church still talks about Jesus in ways that are safe and easy but also boring The words of Jesus actually challenge us, seriously!
By Greg Cusack
Editor's Note: I believe the views expressed in the article below are very widely shared by anyone who has actually taken the time to seriously read the gospels about Jesus and compared that with how the church talks about Jesus today. The church can become so enculturated within a culture that it cannot provide any transcendence of the culture. It becomes a means of promoting a culture rather than of criticizing the culture. It aligns itself with the powerful of a culture in order to preserve itself whereas Jesus stands among the powerless. So read this article and think about what the church could look like if it actually followed Jesus.
We live at a time of considerable injustice, grave economic and social inequities, and overflowing with violence of all kinds, including the linguistic grenades we continue to lob back and forth. And yet, where is the witness of those who supposedly follow Jesus? Most people seem to live lives of quiet decency, yet individual or collective acts protesting or pushing back against the ruling, moneyed elite are just about non-existent. Why?
This is a nation in which most people proclaim that they “believe” in some kind of divinity – usually called “God” – and over half of the people proclaim that Jesus is their lord and savior. But how can one proclaim belief in Jesus without adhering to his teachings?
I believe part of the answer can be attributed to how the Church (broadly speaking, including all so-called “Christian” denominations) has made Jesus both safe and, even worse, boring. How could this person who so challenged and irritated both religious and political authorities in his own time have become so innocuous in our own day? How could his pointed questioning of the ways that those in power treated the poor and outcast have become only lessons on private morality, especially of sexual behavior?
I write this as one who used to be fairly dogmatic, who once adhered to the importance of the differences between Christians and “non-believers,” or even between Catholic Christians and those who had “strayed from the right path.” I understand what it is like to live within a rigid thought-system, and I remember how this both gave me comfort and fueled a rather obnoxious sense of self-righteousness. I used to be a rather good judge of others, while also likely to more willingly excuse my own behavior.
The Church, in my opinion, has spent many centuries exalting itself, of looking into the mirror and pronouncing what was seen as good and even beautiful, of wielding the club of assumed authority while losing the genuine authority which comes from within. The Church has fallen in love with its own teachings, regarding them as of the greatest importance, while failing to see the great similarities between itself and the Sadducees and Pharisees of Jesus’ time. The Church has emphasized dogma and its pronouncements about Jesus over and above the words of Jesus. And the Church has fallen prey to preaching personal salvation in the next life – whatever exactly that is supposed to mean – from the collective transformation of those who follow Jesus’ Way in the world of the here and now. How comforting to believe that all we need is a “check-list” of personal behaviors by which we can definitely know if we are “in” or “out,” “good” or “flawed.” What claptrap!
Perhaps people have “fallen away” from the Church precisely because there is nothing there for them any more, that they recognize the vacuum within the Church’s spirit, because the Spirit has little to do with what is being proclaimed, taught, or practiced.
We have made our ecclesiastical gatherings places of safety and comfort; the major guidepost for priests and ministers of all kinds appears to be “DO NOT DISTURB.” Yes, Pope Francis has made a good start, but then there is one hell of a long way to go, a great mountain to climb out of the pit into which we have fallen. Maybe, when priests and bishops don simple brown robes and sandals, forgoing titles, robes, jewelry, and luxury, and when they then mingle among the people in their workplaces, pubs, and places of entertainment, and maybe when they begin to hurl the same kind of challenges to today’s people as Jesus did to his own, then…just maybe…people might find something meaningful in the Church again.
When from the pulpit people are challenged today to look at the ways in which their lives right now support the structures of injustice – by, for example, working for, or supporting, arms manufacturers, gun shops, corporations that pollute our world while exploiting their employees – then, maybe, some things might begin to change. The air might again become charged with electricity.
Unless we hear the same challenges as Jesus put to those who thought that the way things operated in his day were “just fine,” that it was only right that some people be “on top” while others – clearly less important and sinful besides – were excluded, then how can we expect anything to change? How can people come to meaningful self-awareness? How will they be forced to decide today whether or not to follow Jesus, or to turn away because what is asked of them is too hard? And what favors do we who say we follow Jesus do them by keeping them comfortable?
And maybe when those who are in positions of presumed authority and leadership in the Church begin to directly challenge the complacency of CEOs and politicians by saying, “You have no right to earn hundreds of times the average wage of your employees,” or “You must not cut food, health, or other safety net provisions for the poor and unemployed, or “You must change the national budget from an obsession with the rich and the military,” then, maybe, we would see some in the pews deciding to do something, or not, but – if not – then they could no longer sit there complacently, patting themselves on the back for being good little Christians. Yes, congregations would likely get smaller, but those that remained might move beyond their pabulum of comfort food to feasting on the actual words of Jesus. Something to think about, anyway.....
Greg Cusack is a Catholic layperson who served many years in the state legislature and government in Iowa. He now lives with his wife in Portland, Oregon.
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