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Live For Those Things Worth Dying For

Let’s be clear, Jesus didn’t die to save humankind from their sins. That’s a great cover story and it’s been really effective. No, he died trying to save Judaism from its corrupt leadership. The Jewish authorities had sold out to Rome for wealth and power. Practicing their religion was a front, a charade, an illusion to cover how intimately they were embroiled with the Roman powers. Jesus wanted to free the people from the hypocrites and white-washed tombs (to use scriptural words) who had hijacked their religion for political ends. He was fighting the powerful, influential Jewish nationalists; those who had put Rome before their religion and pretended they didn’t. He was standing up against the wealthy powerful Jewish hierarchy (or at least many of them) who cared little for compassion, the poor, or those in need. They hid behind the letter of the law, using it to wield power, instead of wielding the justice, grace and mercy of the Unconditional One.

There are many teachings and sayings that we attribute to Jesus, but in actuality, they were Jewish teachings that Jesus learned growing up. Many of them come from the Book of Leviticus:

  • Love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. Do not be corrupt in administering justice.
  • Don’t strip your fields clean but leave something for the poor.
  • Welcome the foreigner.
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (From Tobit 4:15, but truly much more ancient dating back 3,000 years before Jesus to the Hindu Vedic scriptures.)

Jesus wasn’t making up anything new, he was reemphasizing their own teachings. Jesus was perhaps not-so-subtly implicating them by throwing their Hebrew scriptures in their faces. This threatened the Jewish leaders who had manipulated the system for their own benefit.

Jesus preached loving your neighbor… which included those you didn’t necessarily like or agree with. He taught folks that whatever they did to the least in society they did to him. All were equal. He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and modeled non-violence and talking through conflicts instead of allowing disagreements to escalate to violence. He preached that the “truth will make you free.” In the face of all the lies of the high priest and his cronies, the unjust system of oppression, and the manipulation of people and taxes, the truth of God’s unconditional love for everyone, if heard and accepted, would set everyone free to live and be and love and thrive.

Jesus lived and died for this message, this movement.

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday, celebrated 50 days after Easter when we typically hear the story of how the holy spirit, within a fierce wind, blew into the room the disciples gathered in, lit flames atop each of their heads and enabled them to speak so that people from all over the area heard them in their own languages. Something in that spiritual experience blew the fear right out of the disciples and lit a metaphorical fire under them that led them out into the world to continue preaching and teaching the lessons of Jesus. Suddenly they were willing to really follow Jesus – in word and deed.

Acts 5 tells us that Peter and the others were now fearless in their preaching. Even after they were arrested, thrown in jail and were certainly in danger of losing their lives, they bravely replied to the powers-that-be, “Better for us to obey God than people!” After being flogged and released and ordered not to speak out anymore, they promptly did just that. They were fully living for something worth dying for.

What Jesus was valiantly fighting against has reared its ugly head again, this time as white Christian nationalism. Let me be clear, this is not a political conversation, though part of the goal of white Christian nationalists is to take control of the country… this is a matter of faith. Christianity is being hijacked, distorted, and manipulated into something that looks nothing like what Jesus preached.

As Christians we should be incensed, though it is more likely that we find ourselves ashamed to be considered Christians. Most of the time I don’t want to admit I’m a Christian pastor anymore. Or if I do, then I qualify it, “I’m a progressive Christian.” Because being a Christian today is almost unpalatable. White Christian nationalists have become so vocal that it has corrupted the very image of Christianity into a racist, misogynistic, exclusive club of whites who want to control religion, control history, control rights, control freedom, control books and more.

In his book, The False White Gospel, Jim Wallis writes,

Now more than ever it is time to seek the truth, and understand what’s happening in America today… Today’s racism is the resurgence of the old ideology combined with the return of an old heresy. That is the false gospel of white Christian nationalism. Its very name spells its heresy – “white” instead of the diverse human calling the message of the gospel makes; “Christian” but implying domination instead of service; and “nationalism,” which is contrary to Jesus’ Great Commission, where he tells his followers to go into all the world and make disciples in every nation.

White Christian nationalism doesn’t cross lines, it creates them. It seeks to divide us, leading this country down a path that starts with fear, that turns to hate, and ultimately leads to violence. White Christian nationalism defied what Jesus says about loving our neighbor, and even our enemies.

White Christian nationalism is not new, it has erupted over and over again throughout history, even recent history. Let’s go back to the beginning of America. Wallis writes, “In their treatment of both Native Americans and Africans, white Christian theology deliberately distorted God’s word and will to authorize power of the white European founders of America.” This was driven, of course, by the enormous profits made in the slave trade. White Christian nationalism surged again after the Civil War when federal troops finally left the south, and during the Civil Rights Movement.  Wallis adds, “Plus it has also been more prominent during eras when war, heightened immigration, or economic instability threaten the status quo.” Given that we have all three of those going on right now, we have the “perfect storm” conditions for this current upsurgence.

It's as if Jesus has been bound and gagged and thrown in the trunk of someone’s car. No one wants to hear what he really had to say. Toward the middle to end of last year, multiple news sources were reporting how, as the nationalist agenda has infiltrated many churches, more and more pastors are hearing that the teachings of Jesus are weak. People don’t want to hear the true message of the gospel, any more than the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time wanted to hear it.

Wallis tells the story of sitting with a group of pastors the morning after he spoke at Chandler School of Theology at Emory University. His talk addressed the rise of white Christian nationalism and the false white gospel. The Black pastors expressed their fears about the rise of white Christian nationalism in churches in their cities and states. White pastors shared their stories of being shut down by their congregants or senior pastors when they dared to speak honestly and openly about race. One said his senior pastor told him that they have to respect the demographic of the top givers. Another talked about a “consumer” approach to church and giving people what they want to hear. Truth, risk and cost were all issues on the table.

Wallis said to them that perhaps this was a “Bonhoeffer moment.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young pastor who led a movement in opposition to the rise of Nazism in Germany during the 1930s. These were a small minority of churches who refused to do as most churches in Germany did at the time, give in and pledge their loyalty to Hitler.

Of course, Bonhoeffer and those who followed his lead didn’t succeed in stopping Hitler, and many were executed (Bonhoeffer merely days before the Allies arrived). Yet they lived for something worth dying for. They lived as the post-Pentecost disciples lived, as true followers of Jesus, committed to truth-telling about racial justice and reconciliation.

The example of Bonhoeffer later inspired the churches in South Africa to stand against apartheid at a time when even Ronald Reagan’s chief presidential chaplain, Jerry Falwell, Sr., called South African archbishop Desmond Tutu a “fraud.” Yet, as we all know, Tutu was a genuine, courageous, faithful pastor, preacher and advocate for equality. He was a man who lived for that which he was willing to die for.

In 1985, Tutu was presiding over a service at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. It was originally supposed to be a rally, but the government canceled it, so a service of worship was convened instead. Just as Bishop Tutu was about to preach, South African Security Police burst into the church and proceeded to line the walls on either side of the sanctuary, glaring at the Bishop. These huge, white South African police officers seemed to be silently saying, Go ahead, make our day, preach something prophetic and we’ll put you back in jail again.

As Wallis tells the story, “Tutu stopped speaking and bowed his head, seeming to pray. After what seemed like a long time, he looked up and flashed his eyes at the greatly feared Security Police and said, ‘You are indeed powerful, very powerful.’ He eyed up both sides and proclaimed, ‘But you are not gods, and I serve a God who cannot be mocked!’ Then after smiling for a moment, he began to jump up an down like a good Black Baptist preacher, announcing with great boldness, ‘So, since you have already lost, I invite you today to come, and join the winning side!’”

The police didn’t know what to do. Then all at once, young people in the cathedral began to jump to their feet and chant in joyful and happy voices, in a dance called the toyi-toyi – lifting their legs high in a prancing movement often used during protests in South Africa. They danced right out the front door to embrace the hundreds of police standing outside.”

Where is the Christian resistance now? We’re beyond maybe if we ignore them, they’ll just go away.

I hear more and more influential Christians  - progressive, mainline, and even evangelical – speaking out against white Christian nationalists. We need to join the ranks.

I’m not one to easily relinquish my life. If I’d been born at the time they threw Christians to the lions, I probably would’ve chickened out and denounced my faith. But there comes a time when we need to draw a line in the sand and say no more! A time when we put on our red shoes and take a risk. A time when we choose not to be complicit with our silence or denial or hiding, because what is happening now will affect our children and our children’s children long after we’re gone.

It is time to renew our faith in the message that drew all of us to Jesus in the first place, the message that we belonged, no matter who we were. The message that God loves all people, no matter color, race, creed, ability, sexual orientation, gender… no matter what.

We will not give in to the false prophets or the false gospel. We will not give in to fear, but in faith and active hope continue to seek the transformation of our lives and community.

Love & Light!