#BecauseJesus July 23, 2014

While flipping through radio stations, I came upon a show where the morning hosts asked people to call in and ‘tell me something good.’ I thought, hey, people sharing good news. I like good news. So I stopped to listen and heard some nice stories about recovered health and restored relationships. The beauty of the day or a joy of a fresh start. Then a guy called in and said this:

“Yeah, with all this stuff going on in the Middle East…I just think about how Jesus says in the Bible that when there is war and suffering in the world, we shouldn’t be troubled. So I’m just grateful that we don’t have to worry about any of that, because we have Jesus!” To a resounding chorus of “Amen, brother,” and “I love that!”

And that quick flipping of dials is the sound of me realizing that this is a Christian radio station. And that right there is also why I don’t often listen to Christian radio.

Because only Christians can be so glibly cheerful about global conflict. Only Christians can throw the idea of Jesus between themselves and the suffering, as though it were a bullet proof vest manufactured for their own personal use.

Are there coordinating accessories to go with that? Lord, have mercy…

Christian radio is not exactly the problem. But it is certainly a symptom—an audible, clanging cymbal of a symptom—of an insular, co-dependent and utterly selfish Christian culture that has grown legs in the Western world. Those powerful limbs continue to run us into the depths of ignorance and entitlement, bearing us so far from the heart of the gospel that we wouldn’t recognize Jesus if we met him in the street.

I mean… that we don’t recognize Jesus when we meet him on the street. Or see him on the news, seeking refuge within our borders. Or applying for food stamps. Or having his house bombed by militants.

How did this happen? How did the Christian faith—once a radical, world transforming movement—become an invitation to hide behind the barricade of ill-quoted scripture, and answer every instance of human suffering with a smile and a “because, Jesus!”

I’m not sure how or when. But I do know that it explains a lot.

-It explains how American Christians can get all torn up about the wrapper their cheeseburgers comes in, while half the world—and even some of their own neighbors—go without food.

-It explains how people of faith can ignore the humanitarian and environmental impact of a business specializing in cheap, plastic, made-in-China junk; and support that business as they strike moral poses about women’s sexuality and reproductive health.

-It explains how some of those same people can preach all day long about the sanctity of life and the blessed holy purpose of every child conceived—and then turn those children away from our borders, once they’ve committed the crime of being born.

-It explains why lots of people who believe in God no longer want to call themselves Christians. Can we blame them?

Of course, not every Christian embodies this twisted dualism. But tangled up in each of these contradictions, we glimpse the dark soul of a nation in love with its own comfort, and often indifferent to the suffering of others. And while the Christian tradition may not have conceived this rhetoric of chilled apathy, it has certainly aided in its birth and consequent upbringing.

The danger of having comfort and security—or at least, the illusion of security—is the impulse to think that we have these things because we are somehow good or worthy. And then, the even greater liability is the short leap from ‘I’m good,’ to “God blesses me because I’m good.” And from there? It’s a pretty short hike to “Jesus died for ME, SO THAT I won’t have to worry about those other people.”

It isn’t just bad theology. It’s a dangerous world view in which a comfortable life amounts to a sign of God’s blessing… and a life of sorrow and suffering must be a sign of God’s displeasure. That’s how Jesus gets grotesquely transformed from savior, prophet, and friend of the poor; to personal fortress of the middle class.

Here’s the good news… It isn’t going to SOUND like good news, if you’re that guy who called in on the radio this morning, but I promise, it is. The good news is this: Jesus is not your bullet-proof vest. He’s not your safety net or your retaining wall. He’s neither your retirement plan, nor your marriage counselor. He’s not your state representative (#thanksbetogod) and listen… he never once said that human suffering ‘over there’ in that other place was none of your concern. He may have said ‘don’t worry about tomorrow…’ but that’s another thing. I’m pretty sure he was talking about the retirement plan.

The other good news is that a lot of faithful people know the difference in good news for ME, and good news for the whole world. Many who seek to follow Jesus recognize that, in him, they are connected to all people, everywhere. Many modern day disciples know that their comfortable lifestyle leads them into temptation far more often than it leads them to virtue. And they know that, as powerful, hopeful, and world-changing as the gospel is, it does not allow us to respond to a hurting world with upbeat sound bites. “Because, Jesus!” is not gospel. In fact, it’s not even a complete sentence. #englishmajor

Tell you something good? I’ll tell you something good. Faith does. Faith moves. Faith turns over tables in the temple. And faith speaks in complete sentences. Faith says “I care, because I see Jesus in you.” “I serve, because Jesus taught me to.” “I mourn with those who mourn, because that’s what Jesus did.” “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, because I fear no evil. And I fear no evil, because Jesus said ‘don’t be afraid’ way more times than he said to turn your back on your neighbor.”

Jesus says don’t be afraid of that dark valley. He never said not to go there.

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  • Word.

  • Mike M

    This would have been a lot better if it hadn’t been interrupted by Ms. Wathen’s own self-righteous, intellectually crippled analysis of the world. Faith acts. And Faith thinks. Faith struggles to get it right. Faith, Ms. Wathen, DOESN’T put words into the mouth of its opponents to demonize them. It doesn’t seek self-satisfaction in embracing immature understandings of how the world works. It cares about its actual impact more than its feeling of moral superiority. It cares about finding real solutions when there are real problems rather than finding one liners about the evils of Chinese people clawing their way out of poverty.

    At least the callers to the Christian radio station aren’t using the harm that they inflict on others as their bullet proof vests.

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      I agree with you about faith finding actual solutions, Mike. A blog is a discussion starter–it’s meant to get people thinking, talking, and questioning some of our cultural assumptions. A little bit of satire helps that along sometimes, and isn’t intended to solve or fix anything. Real change comes through relationship and community– my hope is that the conversation started here carries over into ‘real-world’ scenarios where people are working for together for good.

  • Erik Merksamer

    Thanks for this post. I love it, and it gives me hope outside of Christendom.

  • Doclo

    The is a terrific post. Thank you. Like Erik, I get a lot of hope from this.

  • Eioljg

    Well put.

  • Rebecca

    Kudos to you for speaking the truth! (I was vigorously nodding) I once had a family member tell me that my life (divorce, financial ruin, lots of emotional struggle during that point) was a mess because “I was not doing God’s will”, and her life was good because “she was faithful”. Poor thing. She entirely missed the point.
    Suffering is not an indicator of disfavor with God. Suffering is often a part of the human condition. And insulating ourselves from other’s suffering DOES NOT guarantee that it won’t happen to us. It just alienates others from us. There is no love in this. What happened to “…and the greatest of these is love” ?

  • Marty Miller

    Amen Sister

  • Gary Roth

    The difference between what Luther called a “theology of the cross” and a “theology of glory.” We always like a theology of glory, because it makes us feel good, assures us that we are on the winning side, that God is in our corner, and God is blessing all that we do. That includes forgiveness and heaven at the end. The theology of the cross is the compassion of Jesus, the willingness to die to self, the willingness to sacrifice self for the good of others, the willingness to walk in another’s shoes. Paul said that the chief evidence of the resurrection was not the reanimated Jesus, but the tearing down of boundaries between us, the making of former enemies into one body – the body of Christ.

  • Absolutely nailed it! I believe Marcus Borg calls this “beliefism Christianity.” All you need to do is say “Jesus is my personal lord and savior”, say the sinners prayer, and you’re good. All you need to do now, is ensure that you’re belligerent and guilting others to say the same words you do.

    This is opposed to the discipleship way of Jesus which you expertly describe in your post. To see Jesus in the poor, outcast, and stranger. To do what Luke 4:18 talks about, which I read as Jesus’ mission statement. We’re not called just to believe in Jesus, we’re called to imitate him and do what he did.

    Faith doesn’t just mean belief, it means “believe it enough to risk acting on it.”

  • Jennifer

    Fantastic! Thanks so much