My friend Samira once told me, “Eva, it’s just the Jesus thing!” It was as though she had just made a significant discovery. “You and I – Christians and Muslims – we are the same in almost every way. We have so much in common! But Jesus…” she seemed both so happy and so sad in that moment. “Jesus. He is where we see things differently.”
When I think about that conversation I feel similarly to Samira on that day. Happy and sad. Delighted and disappointed. Relieved and terrified. Because I think Samira was more right than she even imagined in that moment.
Jesus. It’s just Jesus.
But just Jesus is sometimes pretty hard to find. In many places he’s become so inextricably linked to our politics and nationalism, our enculturation and consumerism that we don’t even realize what we are praising allegiance to is hardly Jesus at all.
Where I live there are fat vines that grow up out of the ground and form web-link shells around big trees. They take the shape of the trunk and slither all the way up to the branches, eventually choking the tree and killing it. In some places you can see huge trees that look dense and lush. But when you get closer you can see that what was once inside is long dead and left is just a massive strangled stump.
Sometimes I think we are worshipping something that looks enormous and vibrant, but really it is just the empty temple that Jesus grieved over because it was abandoned and desolate (Mathew 23:38). What we name as God actually left long ago, and all we are doing is revering the things that killed it.
I find it pretty interesting that Islam is so feared and hated in the United States today, especially among Christians, when we have such a staggering amount in common. And I’m not referring to just our shared prophets and patriarchs, our worship of the Almighty God, our dedication to prayer and holy living, which in and of themselves are such fertile ground for community.
Rather it’s our struggles that are so remarkably similar. Because both of us have been thoroughly hijacked by war-mongers and power-brokers who use us as tools for their own purposes in the world.
For instance, Christianity knows from experience that holy wars don’t work. We’ve tried it a few times (and not just in the 10th century, by the way). Sending young men into busy markets wearing explosive vests is really no worse than systematically gunning them down in their neighborhoods wearing their hoodies. You would think evangelical Americans of all people would have some empathy with those who really like being the moral majority, who want their rules to dictate the terms of the government, who tend to love their guns more than their neighbors or cherry pick their religious literature to the benefit of their own language and culture.
We claw at the grit in each other’s eyes from our moral high ground, blind to the fact that we are bleeding to death from the planks gouging out of our faces.We know God is not really an American any more than he is a Somalian. We feel pretty confident we know where Jesus ends and our politics and national identities begin. But do we…really?
Here’s a question for you: Would you rather be a red-blooded American citizen who is a lukewarm cultural Christian, or a citizen of a so-called shithole country who is a passionate follower of Jesus Christ?
If you have to think about your answer, your lines are blurry.
This hit home a couple of days ago when Dallas based pastor Robert Jeffress responded to the controversy surrounding President Trump’s perspectives on other countries in the world saying, “I support his views 100 percent, even though as a pastor I can’t use that language.”
A prominent Christian leader took the statements at face value and affirmed everything in them except their use of a four letter word.
There is a temptation to think, even if just subconsciously, that politically, theologically, socially we kinda have it figured out. Sure, we have our problems, but in comparison to the rest of the world, we are right. Or at least righter. But in the scope of human history, evangelical America as a socio-political phenomenon is a mere blip on the radar, falling in place in line before and behind thousands of other seasons in times and places, some a little better, some a little worse, all equally drenched in sin and humanity and myopic perspectives.
Maybe that idea is scary to you. Maybe, like it does to me, it comes as such a relief. It is so freeing to be reminded that my country and my culture and my place in time does not define me. It can give good gifts. It can give deep wounds. But it cannot save me. Because it is not Jesus.
Your Religion, My Religion
One of my mentors is a man named Dan McVey. Dan has a lot of credentials and a lot of experience but one of the things I appreciate most about him is his wry wisdom wrapped in earthy humor all of which is saturated in Jesus.
Once a few years ago our families were sharing dinner and I sought his advice about sharing my faith with a close Muslim friend. I had been hesitant to come on too strong in my relationship with her, but also feeling a little guilty for not being more forward in matters of faith. What do I do? What do I say? Is there something I should invite her to, or give to her, or read with her?
I will never forget Dan’s answer. He laughed and waved his hand over the bowl of stew and rice we were all eating. “Her religion, your religion, neither one of them is any good.” I think I probably blinked a few times in silence. “But Jesus.” He pointed a spoon at me with sincere eyes, “Jesus. He is the only thing worth calling people to. He is what we share.”
Your religion, my religion. Your country, my country. Your rules, my rules. None of it is any good. Jesus came to save Christians every bit as much as much as he came to save Muslims. He calls us out of our churches just as insistently as he calls us out of our mosques. If what you have to share with your neighbors (whoever and wherever they may be) is wrapped up in the strangling vines of nationalism, politics, culture and dogma, keep it. The world has enough of that already.
But Jesus….in his simplicity and infinite complexity, he is the only thing worth sharing.
And the only thing worth holding on to.