Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary.
It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.
In my teen years there was a popular Christian song, “Jesus is the Answer / For the world today.” But, in my thirties Jesus became a Question for me. As a Pentecostal preacher’s kid, I was confronted with a dilemma, either embrace the old time religion with gusto or backslide into sinful living and rebellion. I came up with a third option, I combined these two directions and used my religion as a rebellion.
This religious rebellion manifested quite early. I remember when I was caught by my father having drawn a very crude childish picture of a sex act when I was about 8 years old. My father took that moment to tell me in no uncertain terms that if I ever impregnated a woman before I married her, that God would kill me!
The sin was, of course, obviously the drawing, but the rebellion was the powerful reaction I had to my father threatening me with God’s wrath.
I could never say this out loud in my father’s presence, but at that moment, I shouted in my mind, “that is a lie, Jesus would never hurt me! Jesus loves me.” From such a very small act of thinking for myself was my rebellion hatched.
As an adult, I rebelled further by moving from Texas where my parents lived over a thousand miles to Evanston IL to live with a Christian Commune. My father was worried I had joined a cult, but rather I had begun my journey to real freedom from his toxic hellfire religion. In that communal experience for 9 years I began to unravel my trauma and theology and Jesus was with me every step of the way, until after years of hanging on, I had a final religious experience with Jesus. I heard his inward voice that I had been following for decades tell me that I was done being a Christian. I was already a universalist by this point, but I moved beyond even that “radical” heresy to now doubt everything in orthodox faith from the bodily resurrection to the existence of God.
I found my way to a Quaker meeting and spent over a decade exploring my new worldview in the warm and powerful silence of Quaker worship. I began a new chapter and never thought I would ever again identify as a Christian.
But somewhere along the way, I began to realize that I was still being called to ministry. I joined a nearby UU church (which was also United Church of Christ) and began to try and figure out how I was going to do this ministry thing which had begun to grip my every waking moment.
Jesus, who had let me go so many years earlier, decided it was time to pay me a visit again. As I worked on my calling to ministry by blogging and podcasting about religion and politics, I realized that I was still following Jesus. This was quite a shock. A pivotal moment of this rapprochement came while writing a personal essay for a nonfiction writing class and titling it, “Jesus Made Me a Communist: Not a Christian.”
Now, what does this have to do with Unitarian Universalists more generally? Is this just a strange quirk of my life path? If we think about it more carefully, we observe that once upon a time, both Unitarians and Universalists were in fact, Christians, and today a significant though small number still are. It wasn’t until the late 1800s and early 20th century that humanism and non-Christian religions began to be a major influence upon our traditions. In a sense, we were freed from Jesus to explore brave new frontiers and we should continue that work with intense conviction.
However, there is some unfinished business that some UUs are especially suited for, and in fact, non-UUs are very important allies in this project, that of expanding upon the work of a transformation of Christian culture in our society that has been going on for a long time. According to a poll conducted in 2016, 83% of US citizens identify as Christian. In the November presidential election, 58% of US protestant and 52% of catholic voters cast their vote for Donald Trump. My own mother, a committed Pentecostal to this day, was one of them. I pointedly asked her before the election, please tell me where in Donald Trump do you see anything resembling the love of Jesus? She scoffed and didn’t answer me directly.
Changing the regressive social culture of the US includes to my mind a vigorous engagement with the Christian majority and I find that I am called to this work, even as I am pursuing ordination in the UU association. I have not yet returned to calling myself a Christian, as I have not returned to the theology of most Christians. However, my experience of being a Bible believer and passionately committed to social transformation proves that these two things can coexist. And, we can call others to this different path of faith.
Jesus does not have to remain captive to the sort of toxic religion that dominated my childhood and that has for a long time held history and society back from embracing a positive social vision. There are many Christians who are transforming the culture of Christianity from a regressive and fear-based theology of God’s wrath into a more revolutionary vision of universal love and freedom.
I feel called – and I know that some other UUs feel called – to reclaim Jesus as a fellow prophet! This Jesus is not the scary apocalyptic judge, the bloody atoning sacrifice, but the thoroughly Jewish prophet who embraces the whole world with a message of radical transformative love and even a bit of righteous anger!
I summarize the teachings of this Jewish Jesus in a personal paraphrase based on the gospel of Luke chapter 6:20-25:
You people who are poor will be fulfilled,
For the Divine Revolution (Kingdom of God) belongs to you.
21 You people who are now hungry are fulfilled,
For you will eat abundantly.
You people who are now crying are fulfilled,
For you will laugh with joy.
22 “People will hate you, shut you out, insult you, and say you are evil because you follow the Son of Man. But when they do, you will be blessed. 23 Be full of joy at that time, because you will one day receive a complete fulfillment of your needs. Their ancestors of those who hate did the same things to the prophets.
24 “But how terrible it will be for you who are rich,
because you have had your easy life.
25 How terrible it will be for you who are full now,
because you will be hungry.
How terrible it will be for you who are laughing now,
because you will be sad and cry.
This passage encapsulates the teachings of Jesus that are especially resonant with the 6th Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association: “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”
I also like to summarize Jesus’s teachings as a calling to live out radically 5 kinds of Love:
Love for the Source of the Cosmos (including the earth itself)
Love for the neighbor
Love for yourself
Love for the poor and oppressed
Love for your enemies.
I can emphatically affirm that this calling is not for everyone. If this idea kind of repulses you, you are in good company. As Jewish UU minister Dr. Leonore Teifer puts it bluntly, “The bottom line is that I cannot and will not separate the message or the person of Jesus from the history of oppressive acts undertaken in the name of Christianity.” I would never dream of asking anyone who has been harmed by Christianity to engage with those who harmed them.
I personally feel especially called to be in covenant with the victims of toxic religion, especially former Christians. Nothing in my calling to reclaim Jesus should be taken as excusing any evils committed in the name of Jesus. As a survivor of a toxic religious childhood, I do not expect anyone else to go where I feel compelled to go.
That said, here I stand. I can do no other.
I do believe in a revolutionary transformation of the world into a new era of peace, justice, and love. A good part of that belief comes from Jesus (with a little help from Karl Marx). I can’t help but believe that the billions of Christians on earth can play a constructive role in that transformation. Of course, so can atheists, Muslims, Pagans, and everyone.
As Jesus once said, He who is not against us, is with us.