Radical Jesus

Sixth century icon, Christ Pantocrator, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai.

It is the Christmas season and, in case we forgot in the midst of the shopping frenzy, the holiday is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Whether or not you’re a Christian, you may appreciate the teachings and humanism attributed to Christ.

In today’s Utne (a progressive publication), David Schimke explores the notion that Jesus was a radical–and exhorts his liberal brethren to start saying so–in “Heaven Can’t Wait.

Schimke, a believer in Jesus Christ, divides American Christians into two broad groups:

In the main (and here I confess to a gross generalization), Americans who consider themselves Christian tend to think about the New Testament’s central character in one of two distinct ways. For many, what matters most is that Jesus was a divine spirit who died for their sins. To accept him as your savior is to be saved, and the pursuit of that salvation is paramount. For a smaller percentage of believers, Jesus is a peasant revolutionary who lived by example and died for it. To model your behavior after his is to bring earth closer to heaven. 

Schimke’s article makes a  case for progressive Christians to articulate and stand by their “brand” of the religion–in order to advance a different kind of Christianity, but also to create a context for conversation with conservative Christians. His idea is that the common ground, beyond a basic belief in Jesus, is an unwavering commitment to an ethical and moral belief system.
By way of example, he cites his experience on a conservative Christian radio talk show, where he was invited to answer questions after his presumably critical article about a megachurch had been published:

“Are you a Christian?” (the host) asked. 

“Yes,” I answered. 

Before he could recover, I went on to explain that while I appreciated his preoccupation with salvation, my main concern was good works. That the Jesus I met in the Bible would be more concerned about curing AIDs than outlawing homosexual marriage, more troubled by world hunger and violence than an erosion of “family values.” 

His tenor changed, the studio phone line lit up, and we actually had a conversation. Instead of being on the show for 15 minutes, I stayed on for an hour. In the end, we agreed to disagree. He listened to what I had to say, though. So did his audience. 

If progressives want to reclaim the moral high ground, it will require a series of similar risks, rhetorical and substantive.

What immediately came to my mind was a recent song from Shemekia Copeland’s “33 1/3″ album, “Somebody Else’s Jesus.” I tried to find a YouTube version, but it’s just not there yet. The premise of the song is much the same as Schimke’s, juxtaposing the humanist (radical?) side of Christ’s teachings with the more common conservative church world of American Christianity. Again, here’s the link to Schimke’s full article:

I am not a Christian, but I am very interested in how readers–particularly those of you who identify as (any kind of) Christian–respond to this bifurcated portrait. Does it ring true? Where do you place yourself? Have at it.

3 Comments on “Radical Jesus”

  1. Mervel says:

    Hi Ellen,

    I am a believer and do believe in the traditional tenants of the Faith, that Christ is God in human flesh that He died for all of us and for our redemption rose from the dead (really rose not just figuratively) and lives today both in Heaven and inside believers through the third person of the Trinity the Holy Spirit.

    But after saying that; there are implications to following Christ that would compel all believers to be radical, to reject the world to follow the teachings of Christ when it comes to the poor, the vulnerable and the suffering. Christians must always reject violence, must be known for having peace both within ourselves and to foster this among others. I don’t think we have done very much with that so to the degree that this person calls believers to fully embrace Christ I think it is a very good thing.

    I would say both visions of Christ are true, I don’t believe you can or should separate them, this is probably where I would disagree with some of his thinking.

  2. Ellen Rocco says:

    Thanks, Mervel. Wonderful.

  3. Lucy Martin says:

    Jackson Browne took on these ideas in his Christmas tune: “Rebel Jesus”

    Evocative, challenging lyrics.

    Thanks for the essay, Ellen. It’s good to give this some thought, this time of year

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