Last night as one local county official walked into the courthouse for their monthly meeting, they asked me, “Do you know Jesus?” I responded. “Yes.” He asked, “Personally?” Then turned around and walked into the building, with an armed escort by his side.
Now, admittedly, I was standing next to him speaking very loudly and calling on him to do better. He and his crew have been obstructing the distribution of funds from the Cares act, and are currently also obstructing the distribution of rent assistance funds, all while giving the county attorney and the county judge over $30,000 in raises.
So I imagine he was feeling… something. But these were the responses he selected to speak back to my protest.
Let’s set aside for a moment how inappropriate it is for him to even ask the question. I mean, he was there as an elected official, not a religious authority. Establishment clause much?
But I figure I might as well attempt to also answer (and analyze) his question, in a good faith attempt to rationally explain myself vis-a-vis his religious profiling.
So let’s start with this. What if the protestor wasn’t me, but a Muslim? Or a Jew? Or an atheist? Or a Buddhist? We have all of those and more in Arkansas. So what does Jesus have to do with our interaction?
I mean, Muslims love Jesus, a lot of atheists respect him, as do Buddhists. And Jesus was a Jew.
But what is really at work in his question? I think the answer is simple: a breath-taking, stupendously closed-minded sense of superiority.
Jim Wilson believes he knows Jesus personally. So he believes he is saved. And those who don’t know Jesus personally in the way Jim Wilson knows Jesus personally are not saved.
He might have pity on such people. He might seek to convert them. He believes they lack something.
What is completely lacking in our interaction, and in his understanding of Jesus, is something wonderfully simple and crucial to human life and discoverable all over the New Testament: mutuality.
A mutual sense of shared humanity as it reflects on Jesus would start from a very different position than, “Do you know Jesus personally?”
It would ask, rather, “Who is Jesus for us together?”
Okay, let’s dig a little deeper, and dive into a bit of theology.
First, let’s ask, “Assuming that we have two Christians speaking to one another, two men who disagree on policy and politics, what can we learn in Scripture about the role of Jesus in our individual lives and how it impacts our relationship and our commitments?”
On this point, I think Scripture is rather clear. The idea of a “personal” Jesus is pretty foreign to the Bible, and would have been foreign to Jesus himself. This isn’t to say Jesus wasn’t personally available to his disciples and those he encountered. It’s just that faith in Jesus, the faith of Jesus, was far larger, far more substantial and transformative than a simple individualistic sense of having “accepted” Jesus.
I mean, sure, you can accept Jesus. You can have a numinous sense of Jesus and his personal relationship with you. That’s totally fine, if you’re into that kind of thing.
I just happen to think Jesus is present as so much more. Jesus is present as healer of all, engaged in creation as the one through whom all things were spoken into being, on the way to establish the kin-dom of God, place-sharing in this world with us against the principalities and powers, and lived an exemplary life that can teach us some things about how we ought to live.
I mean, it’s pretty funny, actually, to be asked by a guy wearing a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, guarded by an armed sheriff’s deputy, about Jesus, because Jesus himself would not dress that way, never relied on the police and was actually persecuted and arrested by them, never held public office, had much to say critical of those in authority, and more.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that an elected justice of the peace is more like Pilate than one of the disciples, certainly more in the position of a tax collector (literally) than the poor ones for whom Jesus came and lived in solidarity.
Not to say Jesus didn’t love tax collectors. He did. But the ones who loved him back took all they’d collected in taxes and distributed it beyond even what they had taken. They certainly didn’t sit on it like a dragon hoard, like our current JPs.
This particular JP, Jim Wilson, seems to be even more confused than the average Christian politician, probably because he is so deeply embedded in the cabal of his own political party. I think he can’t see outside of it, and probably thinks Jesus is a Republican.
Okay, last point on the personal Jesus front. I imagine those reading this, many of you have been asked whether you know Jesus personally. Perhaps you had to accept Jesus personally at some point in your life, and are still living from some of the manipulative trauma of that kind of discourse and demand.
I have something simple to tell you, but incredibly important: there are millions of ways to relate to Jesus. Just as there are millions of ways to relate to others. Just as there are millions of ways to relate to other historical figures, and to God.
Emily Dickinson was one of my favorite famous resisters of forced conversion. The pressures all around her to accept Jesus as her personal savior were immense. But she wrote to her friend Abiah Root, “I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die.” So she never did the faux religious conversion in worship thing. What she did do was write a corpus of poetry more theologically rich than almost any other poetry in early America.
And here’s the thing. How did it ever happen that Christians adopted the notion that you have to give up this world in order to live for Christ?
I mean, I understand as most Christians do our resistance to some kinds of this-worldliness. Even non-Christians agree there are many things in this world to fight against.
But Christianity is a this-worldly religion. Jesus did come “in the flesh,” after all. And the kingdom is coming here, not being established elsewhere. The city of God in Revelation isn’t up in the sky. It descends here. It comes to us.
So this demand to accept Jesus as your personal savior, to know Jesus personally, in the presumption you can have Jesus all to yourself and detached from your neighbor and their need, is a bizarre gnostic flight away from the world into hyper-individualism. Once Jesus is made personal and individual, he can be twisted into almost anything at all, even twisted into justification for misogyny, racism, power politics, and casual tyranny and theocracy, as we see out of our local Republican JPs.
But Jesus is simply much more than that. He’s a historical legend. He’s in a book. You can imagine him. You can doubt him. You can understand him as partially a literary creation, partially a historical figure, an enigma, the Son of God, the cosmic Christ, a personal savior, or you can ignore him altogether and choose to pay attention to other interesting figures that guide your life and inspire your heart more than him.
He can take it. So can you. And when that JP asks me next time whether I know Jesus personally, I know precisely how I’ll answer.
It won’t be Yes.
It won’t be No.
It will be, “JJJJJJJEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSUUUUUUUUSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!” Or a whisper. Or a big sloppy kiss on the forehead if I wasn’t afraid that would be construed as assault. But I mean that’s how Dostoevsky handles it in The Brother’s Karamazov, right?