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My heart is heavy this week as I listen to some of the other Christian voices here in Appalachia. I wonder sometimes if we are reading the same Jesus story, and I know that we are, at minimum, interpreting the story differently.
I read the Jesus story as a story of Jesus being a conduit of hope for the disenfranchised and oppressed in the gospels. This Jesus’ teachings and actions threatened the privileged and therefore had to be stopped. The Jesus story doesn’t center on a cross. It focuses on the life that overcame a cross; life-giving that reversed and ultimately triumphed over the crushing death-dealing in the story.
The resurrection event in the Jesus story is the Divine response to Jesus’ unjust crucifixion on a Roman cross and a system of injustice that culminated in such acts against those deemed social or political threats. The resurrection event speaks of a Jesus in solidarity with oppressed people rather than with the oppression and oppressors who benefit from oppressing.
As western Christianity’s social location changed over the centuries, many of these themes in the Jesus story became ignored or reinterpreted. Under the Roman emperor, the same empire that had crucified Jesus also changed the church’s social focus and understanding of the “gospel.” The stories about Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) have political implications and those implications became problematic as Christianity transitioned from a community of the oppressed, as James Cone used to say, to a community of oppressors. Seemingly overnight, the Jesus of the gospels became the Jesus of the oppressors. This devolution of the Jesus of the story justifies why many today are repulsed or revolted when anything Christian is brought up or the name Jesus is evoked. But in the story, it was the elite and privileged who felt this disgust and loathing. Today, it’s those on the margins of society, those who have also been hurt by Christianity or disenfranchised and harmed by Christians. The Hebrew narrative of a God who stands in solidarity with those who suffer at the hands of others was so strong in the Jesus stories and has been subverted.
Today, many of my non-religious friends who oppose Christianity are rooted in a deep concern about matters of justice. Their intense dislike of all things Christian simply expresses a much deeper internal revolt against injustice and the religion of those who perpetuate it. I acknowledge this. I also recognize that the European-American Jesus who stands with the superpowers of this planet does not exist in the biblical stories or in life. The Jesus we find in the Jesus of the stories was radically inclusive, seeking to mitigate the harm being perpetuated toward the vulnerable and excluded in his society. He stood in solidarity with those on the bottom of our systems of oppression, flipping tables, and challenging systemic and economic injustice with those for whom injustice meant an early death.
This leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the “Christian” god of the conquering West is not the God we find in the Jesus story. We’ll consider why this matters, next.