Let me say at the outset that it is not my intention to dive into the particulars of our current social upheaval related to police brutality and our nation’s history of racism (they sure as shit deserve serious attention, critical and hopefully civil discourse, as well as any necessary reform). While I personally understand the current level of urgency surrounding the call for social justice and reform, my critique is focused on the use of Christian theology and gospel discourse in the social media message posted below. I intend on examining those statements which involve Jesus, his gospel, and his alleged concern for certain people groups. I also, intend on challenging the proposition that effectively equates “Christ-likeness” with “saying (this)” and “participating in (that).”
I would like to acknowledge my friend, Gretchen who provided this extremely relevant and invaluable foil for thinking about and discussing the nature of gospel discourse. This brief post above attempts to make a statement about Christian gospel and orthodoxy by abstracting certain principles from the ministry of Jesus Christ and then enlisting those principles in the service of a social, ethical, and political crisis. I appreciate what the post is attempting to do, and I like a good deal of it, but it nonetheless, in my view, falls short of presenting a faithful and ultimately helpful gospel discursive.
We have been talking for the last several weeks now about interpretive methods or ‘hermeneutics.’ My friend who shared this post with me also provided a brief summary of her own method for interpreting gospel in light of the issues of racial inequity. She writes, “This is the first post that I had seen that used Jesus’ model in a way that felt true to the gospel’s portrayals and Jesus’ challenge to 1st-century society.” There are two key phrases from my friend’s comment that highlights her hermeneutic. The first phrase is “Jesus’ model” and the second phrase is “Jesus’ challenge to 1st-century society.”
I will now attempt to demonstrate why this particular method, “What would Jesus do?” (“WWJD?”) while extremely popular, is nonetheless, a critically flawed program. For starters, the “What would Jesus Do?” ethic is a classic case of how we tend to project our contemporary issues, thought forms, and dilemmas onto the text of scripture, and onto the Person and ministry of Jesus Christ. This “WWJD?” hermeneutic is an attempt to conflate ethical dilemmas and political paradigms with a Christian gospel discourse. Unfortunately, this interpretive method ends up functioning, not as a biblical hermeneutic, as much as an exhortation based on a critique of society (both ancient 1st century Palestine and 21st century United States).
So, we begin with, “God so loved the world . . .” but when this universal and eternal love of God came to earth it was manifested in a particular form, a local, temporal, observable and wholly personal human being, Jesus of Nazareth. And when this particular man went about his day, we saw him seeking out and making time for particular persons; and as my friend has noted, especially the disenfranchised. No problem with any of that. In fact, the only problem I have with this presentation is that it does not go far enough in locating the particular objects of God’s love. The post states that “Jesus does not say all lives matter”, but then proceeds to locate the objects of Christ’s love in yet another, albeit smaller, set of aggregates.
God’s love, however, is not an abstraction, and the objects of God’s love do not exist as mere members of an aggregate or demographic group. What we discover in the gospels is that the objects of God’s love exist as particular people. These people are more than simply “human beings” or “Jews” or “women.” The people who encounter Jesus are unique individuals with amazing stories. This emphasis on the personal and particular represents a crux distinction between our modern political programs and the logic and grammar that we find in the Gospels.
The modern “WWJD?” program is a one-part gospel narrative, one-part liberal democracy, and one-part multi-culturalism, enlisted to help solve ethical dilemmas related to political, social, or economic justice. This Facebook post with its ethical dilemma is squarely located in our 21st-century liberal democracy paradigm. Therefore, not surprisingly, it is characterized by the political struggle for justice or “rights” – rights granted and protected by the state, which are increasingly being advocated and arbitrated in the court of public opinion (i.e., social media). So, while there is nothing wrong with this discourse per se (though one could argue as to its relative effectiveness), it is important to note that it is a certain kind of discourse, a political and ideological discourse.
In the United States, we are increasingly being called upon to publicly affirm our support for “the public good”, however, and by whomever, that is defined. And our current media-driven, political discourse is shamelessly committed to emphasizing the struggle between the various competing demographics or groups: ethnic groups, socio-economic groups, gender and “sexual orientation” groups, etc. But, the logic and grammar of gospel discourse did not originate within our 21st-century political ethos. The gospel originated in another “world” and, therefore, comes with its own native language and values – values that may or may not affirm or cohere with our modern ones.
So, when we look at Christ’s ministry, his teaching, and practice, we find something rather surprising. Christ repeatedly places a priority on the individual over the group. Consider the following homily. “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Lk. 15:3-7).
Notice, that when Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leaves the 99 sheep in search of the 1 lost sheep, he does not leave one “flock” to go in search of some other “flock.” Jesus leaves the whole flock of sheep to go in search of one individual lost sheep! This commitment to the individual is exactly what we find in the gospel account of Christ’s life and ministry. Jesus goes after unique individual people: Matthew, Zacchaeus, the Woman at the well, etc. Some are tax collectors, and some are Centurian soldiers, but rather than proclaiming, “tax collectors lives matter”, Jesus says to a particular person, “Hey you, up in the tree. I see you, Buddy! Come on down and let’s have lunch at your house.”
The gospel of the kingdom, which consists of God’s justice and mercy, is manifested in the ‘personal dimensions’ of life: personal encounter, recognition, affirmation, and discovery. In short, God’s love is manifest in a personal embrace and in an abiding relationship, “My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me.” So, while it is not precise enough to refer to ‘humanity’ when addressing the need for democratic or civil rights; likewise, when it comes to identifying the objects of God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ, it is not precise enough to reference group membership: Jew/Gentile, male/female, religious/non-religious, etc.
The one “sheep” that God loves and pursues is neither a statistic nor a representative of an aggregate group. For, when Jesus leaves the 99 to go in search of the 1, he is not pursuing a nameless, faceless member of a particular group. The message from the Good Shepherd is not, “God cares for the 1%.” Unfortunately, we either do not have the interest or the imagination to leave Jesus’ radical method well enough alone. When we look at Matthew, we say “tax collector”, but when Jesus sees the tax collector, he sees Matthew.
In today’s world, due to the recurring principle of injustice, we are presently having to say, “Black Lives Matter”, as opposed to “all lives matter.” For, while “all lives” should matter, the sad fact is that in certain contexts, some lives “matter” less than others. Jesus, however, does not favor individuals or groups. So, while we may choose to remain skeptical of those who simply parrot, “all lives matter”, it does not follow that we should project this same cynicism onto Jesus Christ. In other words, why do we seem to think that we can recruit Jesus away from his own specific gospel agenda to serve as the poster boy for our current cause? The problem with the “WWJD?” ethic is that we are convinced that we already know the answer to the question of what Jesus “would do”, so Christ is basically obligated by our presumption.
This modern instinct and habit of conflating people with ‘people groups’ (the language and logic of both empire and marketplace) only underscore the fact that we have not gone far enough in our understanding of Jesus’ audacious love and commitment to particular persons. God may love the world, but that love is personal, and that love manifests inter-personally. The love of God is not located in an abstract idea, principle, or policy. The objects of God’s love are those whom God seeks and with whom he establishes a face to face, person to person, life on life encounter. In Jesus’ ministry, we don’t see either “the world” or “society” seeking an encountering the savior. But what we do find are particular men, and particular women from all different walks of life, coming face to face with love himself.
In the gospel accounts, we encounter various people, extremely interesting and unique individuals who are drawn to Jesus at certain points in time and at various locations. In the vast majority of these accounts, each person is having to push through formidable obstacles: physical, mental, spiritual, and sociological in order to realize their encounter with this person, Jesus Christ (Zacchaeus, Syrophoenician woman, the paralyzed boy, to name a few). So, when we convert these particular people and their unique stories into members of an aggregate group, or a profile of a certain demographic, applying the language and the logic of politics and marketplace (i.e., expediency, special interests, and market niches).
Why do we insist on uprooting Christ’s method from its native soil of the ‘personal and particular’? We apparently cannot seem to resist the temptation to co-opt the gospel to help us solve our own ethical dilemmas and to inform our private concern for political ideology. It is one thing to reject the universal affirmation of “all lives matter”, which speaks to the current political ethos. But for the sake of the gospel, let’s celebrate the scandal of God’s amazing love, the love, and attention that he lavishes not on “humanity”, but on you and me. But thankfully, the language and logic that is indigenous to the gospels is a person-centered paradigm. For, Jesus does not engage mere aggregate representatives, but particular and unique persons.
Now, some may call this particular paradigm that I have been critiquing, with its emphasis on groups and demographics, “cultural theology.” Well, that happens to be a school with which I have some history, having studied in a school of “cultural theology” for a number of years. But, at some point during my tour in a school of cultural theology, I asked our neighborhood cultural theologian a rather point-blank question, “Hey what is this “gospel” that Jesus is always referring to?” to which he replied, “Come on, who can really say what that is?” Well, that was the day I began my journey of un-boarding that particular theological train and that day has led up to this moment.
At the inception of my graduate seminary training over a decade ago, I was determined to locate the contents of this discourse that Jesus calls “the gospel.” For I realized that if we failed to identify the unique contents of the gospel and its unique relationship to the person, Jesus Christ, then we would inevitably end up using scripture and the gospel as a theological pantry of static concepts and principles that we simply raid for the purposes of importing “Christian ideas” into other discourses and agendas.
If the gospel is not understood as having its own tradition, and its own unique logic and grammar, then the gospel will not speak to us on its own terms. When the gospel is stripped of its apostolic tradition, with its Christocentric gospel of personal encounter and embrace, it has become a dead corpse, a mere organ donor used to support the life of our favorite discourse or ideology. Let’s be fair to the gospel discourse and to its authors. Let’s provide the gospel the respect it is due as a unique, historical, living, and active discourse. And let’s be sure to ask the necessary questions.
What is the stated purpose and ‘end in mind’ of these gospels (see John and Acts)? What are the presuppositions or the “grand givens” of our favorite cultural and political ideologies? Is there one universal hermeneutic that we can use to interpret everything? What is the methodology for establishing ethical norms and laws?
Another fallacy with this “pantry” and “dead corpse” approach to Christ, gospel, and scripture, is the misguided view that there is essentially two-way traffic running seamlessly between gospel (i.e., “the gospel”, “gospel of God”, “gospel of the kingdom”) and our 21st-century discourses pertaining to “truth, justice, and the American way!” Towards recovering and preserving a gospel discourse, I would like to recommend a certain heuristic. We need to employ the oft-neglected art of CBD, or what Dr. Pinkham calls, ‘clarifying by distinction.’ Clarifying by distinction is absolutely critical to study, discourse, and faith, for in this way we begin to understand the way various forms of discourse work (gospel, law, political manifesto, creed, propositions, dogma, etc.). When we clarify by distinction we discover the logic and the grammar which is wholly unique to the discourse found in the message of Jesus Christ.
The gospel message can be summed up in the famous verse from John’s gospel, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” And when we look into the face of “begotten Son” we are looking at the invisible God in human flesh. Furthermore, when we look at this “begotten Son, we begin to understand that love is neither an abstract principle nor a mere trait of God’s nature. When we look at Jesus Christ, we are looking at love himself, “For in him all the fullness of deity lives in bodily form.
This God who comes “in the likeness of sinful flesh” has committed the sin of particularity. For, we prefer our god to be otherworldly, “above and beyond.” When the love of God becomes flesh he becomes mundane – he perspires. God’s love is personal and not abstract, and in the same way, the objects of his love are not members of an aggregate set such as “humanity” or “sick people”, or “Jews.” The only aggregate group that the scripture seems to identify in this regard is what C.S. Lewis refers to as, “the sons of Adam, and the daughters of Eve.” Again, the problem I have with the Facebook post is that it doesn’t go far enough in locating the objects of God’s love outside of an aggregate, outside of “humanity” and outside of this group or that.
In order to locate the objects of God’s love, we must first stop cannibalizing the gospel for our own ethical dilemmas and ideological programs, regardless of how passionate we may feel. The next step to locating the objects of God’s love is to recover a ‘theology of person.’ A theology of person begins with God’s love made incarnate and manifested in the person of Jesus Christ. But we must go all the way down, past mere abstractions such as, “love, truth and justice”, past the aggregate groupings of, Jew, Gentile, male and female . . . until we arrive at the ‘personal encounter.’ “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev.3:20).
Lastly, Jesus warned against a false privilege associated with the “rich”, as well as the spiritually self-assured. Zacchaeus was wealthy, but he was secretly “poor in spirit”, and his encounter with Christ was nothing short of conversion. The apostle Paul was accomplished in his religious tradition, but he came to the point where he “consider(ed) everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.” In other words, God does not favor certain people or groups as we do, but he is uniquely available and predisposed to those who seek and desire him from a point of need. For, as C.S. Lewis notes, “The cost of Jesus Christ is wanting him.”
My goal here has been to point out the folly of attempting to make the discourse of Christian gospel do the bidding of our modern agendas (ethical, political, philosophical, economic, etc). Such an approach wrongly assumes that gospel discourse follows the same rules and answers the same questions contained and expressed in our 21st-century political projects and ethical programs. Again, to simply conflate gospel and kerygma with law, ethics or ideology is neither faithful nor helpful. Let’s not do this anymore. Again, I am in no way suggesting that ethical arguments or political movements are unnecessary or wrong. What I am saying is that they must not be used as a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy, if for no other reason than the gospel, including charity, is never compulsory.