By Bill Mefford
I remember as a youth pastor, just out of college, planning for a Bible study for my youth group. I decided to do a word search in the Bible for how many times "personal Savior" was mentioned. I had heard the term used so many times in my evangelical upbringing that I assumed if was part of the biblical story, or at least in the many letters Paul had written to young churches. Of course, much to my surprise, it was never uttered in Scripture; not once.
I remember thinking at that moment, I wonder what else I have been taught that is supposed to be centered in Scripture and is not in actuality. This did not mean we are not supposed to personally relate to God, but as I read Scripture more closely and without my evangelical cultural blinders, I saw relationship with God is far more corporate in nature than individualistic.
Thus began a long and sometimes pain-staking search to discern how much of my image and understanding of Jesus was more centered in my culture rather than in an exegetical interpretation of Scripture. It has been this search - that continues today - that has brought me to the discovery that North American evangelicalism is not really a biblically-centered or even Christian movement, given its current obsession with political power. Instead, it is much more a cultural and political movement.
Since that time, I have increasingly noticed that often times, for evangelicals at least, adding "personal" to Jesus as Savior helped furthers detachment from missional engagement or any kind of political or social responsibility. Even this morning as I write this I heard a story on NPR where church leaders in the community of the Santa Fe High School that had witnessed the gun shooting of ten people, were recorded telling their deeply hurt community that they do not need more laws passed; they just need to preach the gospel more - that more people just need to make Jesus their personal Savior.
I am all for more people experiencing the transformative love of Jesus, but why in hell would you use your powerful position as a religious leader in this grieving community to dissuade sensible legislation from being passed and saving more lives (which in turn might give people more time to come to know the transformative love of Jesus)? This is evangelical theology causing harm.
As an evangelical many years ago, I came to see how preaching cultural adages is not the same as sharing (and especially living out) biblical truth.
I wanted to go beyond what I was being spoon-fed (sometimes forcefully) by my evangelical leaders. I wanted to taste the real thing: the biblical Jesus.
So, you would think, given my past distaste with how the evangelical movement co-opted Jesus for their own political, social, and cultural ends (and for the distinct economic advantage of corporate America), that I would be in favor of something that was recently begun by the evangelical group, Sojourners called Reclaiming Jesus.
I am not.
In fact, I am deeply troubled by it. I understand some of the motivation as it has become increasingly unpalatable to watch the religious right and their idolatrous obsession with donald trump. The religious right's refusal to stand up to the outright racism, misogyny, Islamaphobia, xenophobia, homophobia, and complete incompetence of trump will forever mark them as forfeiting any shred of ethical and moral leadership they ever had. They will, indeed, be judged.
But even with all of that, why do we need to reclaim Jesus? What does that even mean? The biblical Jesus does not need reclaiming; his disciples attempted to do just that in Mark 9 when they saw someone casting out demons, but who wasn't "with them." Jesus refuted their concerns because Jesus just wasn't into religious cleansing. Jesus did not feel like he had to guard his "brand."
But yet, throughout history - from the early Jewish Christians who wanted to ensure that their Jewishness was maintained, to the Emperor Constantine who "Christianized" the Roman Empire (while also Romanizing Christianity), to the battles between Eastern and Western Christianity, to the battles between Luther and the Catholic Church, to the battles between all of the Protestant offshoots, to even more recently, the takeover of the United Methodist Church by fundamentalist leaders in order to sexually purify the church - there has always been those who want to cleanse the church from others who, in their eyes, have drifted away from the biblical Jesus.
No, I do not want to "reclaim" Jesus. I want Jesus to reclaim me; to reclaim his church.
Further, I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge who is calling us to do this "reclaiming": a group called Sojourners.
Sojourners is concerned that the religious right is too much in the pocket of donald trump (they are right). But this is the same group that was, frankly, too much in the pocket of President Obama. While the pockets of trump are considerably more soiled than those of President Obama, being in the pocket of anyone occupying power makes our Christian witness more aligned to being palace prophets than truly biblically prophetic. Let me give an example.
In mid-2014, President Obama could see that his meek efforts to pass any kind of workable immigration reform were foundering. So, he decided to issue what was called DAPA, or the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents. This followed up on the successful issuance of DACA, or Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals, which was made available to students brought into the United States when they were children, or who are often called DREAMers. DAPA, like DACA, granted deferred action status (meaning they could not be deported) to immigrant parents of DACA recipients who have lived in good standing in the United States since 2010.
President Obama was all set to put this into motion in June of 2014 when he said he could no longer wait (seriously, he really said that). But wait he did - until after the mid-terms in an effort to help floundering Democrats (all of whom abysmally failed in their election bids). And to help grant him cover from an outraged immigrant community he sought press releases applauding his decision to wait until after the mid-terms from faith and civil rights groups. Only a very few organizations would stoop so low as to grant political cover rather than advocate for the welfare of immigrant families and yes, you guessed it, Sojourners was one of them.
Immigrants, meet bus.
So, pardon me if I think this effort to "reclaim Jesus" is just a rebranding of the pot calling the kettle evangelical, but I am not interested.
Yes, progressives need to organize, but organizing ourselves does not mean we counter the right's co-option of Jesus with our own co-option.
Here's a novel idea to stop the deleterious impact of the religious right (which is real and must be countered): let's follow the biblical Jesus in incarnating ourselves among those who are oppressed and crushed by a powerful collusion between political and religious powers, and let's work for justice out of those local contexts.
Reclaiming Jesus? No thanks. I am having a hard enough time just trying to live like him. I just hope he reclaims his church because both sides are losing sight of him.