When someone tells me they “believe” in Jesus these days, the question that pops into my mind is, “Which one?” Is it the Jesus who is the universal Savior of the world or an exclusive, personal savior concerned with our personal sins and problems? Is your Jesus for all people or just for you and some people?
Religious scholars have long debated whether we could really know the historical Jesus. They have also debated a variety of pictures the New Testament paints of Jesus. There seems to be a diversity of Jesus’s out there. Yet, the Church institutional would like us to believe that there is one unified Jesus to be found only in their magisterial or traditional systematic teachings (e.g., the Nicene Creed). This institutional version of Jesus seems to be a Jesus who is exclusive for Christians only, inordinately focused on personal piety, and more interested in life after death than what is happening in the here and now.
Recently, I was talking with an atheist in the company of a nominal Catholic. After hearing how I presented Jesus to the atheist, the nominal Catholic remarked to one of my chaplain colleagues the next day, “I don’t think Reverend Paul believes in Jesus!” The following week the nominal Catholic and I had an opportunity to discuss his perception of my beliefs and I assured him that I did believe in Jesus—now, more than ever. But I did say that the Jesus I believed in and followed was probably not the same Jesus he believed in—that my Jesus was the savior of all people, not just my savior.
Over thirty-five years ago, James Fowler wrote a ground-breaking book called Stages of Faith Development, which somewhat mirrored the ideas of Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. In his book, Fowler noted that most Western adult Christians were comfortable in what he called the third stage of faith development which he labeled “Synthetic/Conventional Faith.” At this stage, Christians stop growing spirituality and are pretty much committed to what would be the party-line theology of the institutional church. They simply believe intellectually in the Jesus who is their personal savior who will grant them life after death in some celestial heaven. They may or may not be part of a community of faith, but beyond that, Jesus is not seen as for all people: for the Muslim, for the LGBTQ+ person, for the undocumented immigrant, for the oppressed person of color, or for anyone that might upset or interrupt one’s personal religious life or their individualized “American pursuit of happiness.”
So, if your Jesus is not “good news of great joy for all the people,” that is, especially, all marginalized people, then we don’t believe in the same Jesus. If your Jesus is only a personal savior, then what you believe in is a religion, an intellectual belief system, a dogma—not the Jesus of the Bible or history. Once Jesus is dogmatized he stops being Jesus, he becomes an object, an idol and a weapon to be used against those who do not “believe.” Dogmatic Jesus is the human construct of institutional Christianity. And that dogma leads to domination and exclusiveness.
The Jesus I believe in was born “made poor” in the Middle East, raised under the oppression of an evil Empire. He grew up to become both a priest and a prophet, a healer of souls and a righter of wrongs—a fierce revolutionary, a person of peace and a warrior for righteousness. The Jesus I believe in knew it was not enough to simply minister to the needs of a few poor and oppressed people, so he died a sacrificial death for the whole world. This Jesus calls on Christians everywhere to struggle against the systems that create poverty and oppression (capitalism, racism, militarism, etc.)—to love the whole world and give up our lives for the poor and oppressed just like Jesus (1 John 3:16). Jesus calls us to be both healers and revolutionaries, priests and prophets, peacemakers and warriors of justice.
If the Jesus you celebrate this Christmas is simply a personal savior (a never-ending baby in a manger) and not the incarnate, revolutionary savior of all people, then yes, I don’t believe in your “Jesus” and neither should you.
© Paul Dordal, 2017