"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"Occupying the Gospel" (Sunday, February 19, 2012)

            Of course, one of the big news stories of this past fall was the “Occupy” movement that spread from city to city, around the world really, starting around the middle of September. Primarily directed against economic and social inequality, the movement began with a protest in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, and soon spread to protests in 82 different countries worldwide, including hundreds of communities across the United States. By the end of the year, estimates were that there were more than 2800 “Occupy” communities worldwide.

            It was (and still is, really, because it is still certainly going on in many places), was a widespread movement, certainly, and difficult to summarize in just a few words. Its list of demands varied from city to city, as did the particular makeup of its cohorts. But the Occupy Movement seemed to focus on the question of growing economic disparity in modern society, and the sense that (no, the fact that) more and more wealth was being concentrated in the hands of an economic and social elite (the so-called “1 percent”), to the detriment of the vast majority of society (hence the slogan, “We are the 99%.)

            But whatever we think of the politics of the Occupy Movement (and I am sure that most of you can guess what I think of its politics: Along with Cornel West, I am hopeful that it does, indeed, represent the birth of a great “political awakening” in American history; I am hopeful,. If not convinced), I think that its modus and methods—its overriding ethos and spirit—can help us as we consider other deeper issues, as well. It provides us with a framework for viewing different aspects of our lives, not just politics or economics. It is useful, I think, to ponder what it means, truly to “occupy” something—to take it over; to seize control of it; to reclaim something that has been taken; to liberate once confined, or restricted, places or concepts for the common good. For in so doing, we liberate ourselves to new possibilities and new growth. We become occupied then, with a wondrous new vision that changes everything, and restores our hope for these lives we lead.

            For those of us who care about matters of faith in this world of ours, and who care about the abiding truth of the Christian message in particular, the time has certainly come to “Occupy the Gospel”: to reclaim the abiding message of the life and teachings of Jesus; to liberate the Gospel message from the heavy hand of narrow-mindedness and the marginalization of sentimentality; to throw off the bonds of misogyny and homophobia which have too often in the past corrupted the liberating message of Christianity, and changed it into a tool of continued oppression.

            God help any religious prophets for the actions taken in their names by the generations that followed them. How badly used an abused that name can be. That’s true of Moses; it’s true of Mohamed; and it’s certainly true of Jesus.

            “Jesus saves” we’re told, by bumper stickers, and billboards, and t-shirts and refrigerator magnets and coffee mugs and what have you. And I don’t question the workings of God’s grace, through Jesus Christ, in the hearts and souls of individual believers throughout the centuries. The power of Jesus—his example, his teachings, his grace—has saved countless souls and has transformed untold lives. I don’t question that for a minute.

            But all too often, the cross of Jesus has been turned on its side, and has become a sword of conquest. All too often, the Bible has been used as a cudgel to force free spirits into obedience, or as a battering ram to force the institutions of the Church into places where they have no business.

            “They will know we are Christian by our love,” the old Gospel hymn proclaims. If only it were only true! The jury is still out on the efficacy of the Christian church in this world of ours, and of its influence, for good or ill, down through the past two thousand years. “The evils of the church that now is are manifest,” Emerson said in his Divinity School Address in 1838. Were he alive today, he would have no reason to tone down his comments.

            As the Secretary General of the Anglican Council in Great Britain said a few years ago: “In certain parts of the world, the word ‘Christian’ has become an embarrassment because it has been aligned with movements which are contrary to the loving Christ that is at the heart of the [gospel] message. I hold my head in shame to hear the name of Jesus being affiliated with political movements that isolate, inhibit, and breed hate and discontent among human beings.”

            Let’s be honest: When someone goes out of his or her way, as people will,  to introduce himself or herself to you as a “Christian” at a social or civic event, don’t you start looking for a bush to hide behind? Aren’t the words that start popping into your head most likely to be things like “judgmental”, “narrow-minded”, “holier-than-thou”, or “intolerant”?

            I don’t say this as someone who is out to bash either Christianity or Christians. I say this as someone who loves the Christian tradition, who has a deep affinity for its culture and symbols and ritual and history. Nothing warms my heart more than entering a church, and the older and more traditional that church is, the better. I call myself a Christian, and I feel drawn more and more to the Christian tradition, the older I get.


“Jesus loves you—as long as you’re not a liberal.” “Or  a Democrat.” “Or believe women should have an untrammeled right to control their own bodies”. “Or believe that people of the same gender have the right to marry.” “Jesus loves you—as long as you have all the ‘correct’ answers on this fifty-question survey of your political and social attitudes.”

Christian fundamentalism is not Christianity.

Narrow-mindedness which preaches that women should be subservient; that gays and lesbians are perverts; that those who deviate from certain narrow social norms (as defined by them) are bound for the fires of hell—this is not Christianity, any more than the economics of Wall Street is social justice and those who greedily hoard the world’s wealth for themselves are “job creators”.

And just as we need to Occupy the citadels of economic injustice and eventually liberate them, so too, the mantel of “Christian” has to be wrenched from the hands of these self-serving, self-righteous hypocrites.

But why should it even matter? Why bother occupying the Gospel, trying to reclaim it? Why should we even care if Jesus has been kidnapped by the Religious Right? Why, in this post-modern, post-Christian world, should the gospel of Jesus even matter to us anymore?

Because, very simply, to those of us who consider ourselves Christian-- or even who consider ourselves, somehow, in some way, to be descendants of the Jewish-Christian heritage-- or even for those of us who think of ourselves as religious-- or even “spiritual” beings, who refuse to surrender the whole of reality over to a monolithic secularism— even for all of us who believe that there is a spiritual side to this existence of ours—Jesus is important to us. He is our religious brother, as much as he is the Christian Coalition’s and the Religious Right’s.

“What matters [about Jesus],” David McFarland writes, “are the deep truths put into the telling of his life.” It is Jesus who teaches us how to stand up to authority, how to speak truth to those in power, how to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. “It is the Jesus who stood up to authority,” McFarland continues, “who challenged the status quo, who wouldn’t let anyone claim spiritual authority or material superiority or political superiority”.  

It is Jesus who reminds us that, when all is done and said, that we all stand as equals as neighbors, as brothers and sisters to one another, as sons and daughters of one Abba—Father-- “Our Father, which art in Heaven.”

The heart of the Gospel isn’t about who to vote for, or who to sleep with, or who to marry. The heart of the gospel consists of four things, four precious gifts which the Christian faith offers.

First is the coming of the Kingdom of God—the coming of an entirely new way of being with one another, that will transform all relationships, transcend all barriers that divide people from one another, and turn the old hierarchies and pecking orders on their heads.

Second is our need to love one another. Just as divine love and divine mercy beat at the heart of creation, Jesus taught, so we respond to God’s love by loving one another as ourselves. That is how we grow into the very image and likeness of the God who created us.

The third lesson Jesus taught was our need to hold concern for the poor and the downtrodden at the center of our hearts. Te Gospel could not be clearer about this: “As you have done to these, the least of my brethren, you have done unto me.” Jesus never mentions homosexuality in the Gospels. He mentions caring for the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, dozens of times. It boggles my mind how people can call themselves Christians, and yet turn their backs on the poor.

And the fourth call of Christianity is the call to do justice: to seek to act with fairness and righteousness and in all aspects of our lives, in every one of our relationships. 

This is the heart of the gospel: caring, compassion, justice, and love. Those are the building stones from which the kingdom of our hearts can be built. Those are the sacred spaces we must occupy if the Christian faith is to be redeemed.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, religion editor for the Huffington Post, puts it this way:

“The Gospel isn’t something that you ‘get right’ and  then get on with becoming godly. The gospel is an entire story of God’s ruling love over creation and his activity to restore it to his original intent. The gospel is a story that is meant to be occupied. Lived in. Soaked in… The gospel is meant to be occupied. You have to… let the truth of it sink down into the core of your being. Then it will change the aim of your heart. Then it will change the way you think. Then it will change the way you act.”

The example of Jesus is still “precious to the world,” Theodore Parker once said, because Jesus “dared to live fully and love deeply.”

Perhaps this is what “occupying the gospel” ultimately mans: daring to live fully and to love deeply.

If we do that, and dare to occupy the gospel—or, more importantly, if we let this good news occupy us—let it fill our hearts and souls, and illumine our minds, and energize our bodies-- then that spirit that was in Jesus can transform us, and transform our lives, as well, and remake the face of this world, at last, in an image of compassion and justice.

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