The uses that Jesus is put to

By David Grima | Nov 19, 2020

One can quickly tire of talking about elections, but I cannot avoid mentioning there were many “Jesus 2020” signs placed alongside political signs leading up to the recent voting.

What impact does this sort of thing have on people’s voting, and is it the right kind?

I have long believed most people already know who they are voting for in any given presidential election — quite possibly I am wrong — but I do wonder how much impact the various campaigns and advertisements actually have on the outcome.

I guess I don’t have enough imagination to believe there are any significant number of undecided voters to be found anywhere, especially on big issues; and have usually assumed a controversial or difficult election, such as the recent one is really only affected by an increase, or decrease, in people’s interest in taking part.

Appeals to people to “vote Jesus” in any election seem, to be honest, to be a call to something within people to persuade them to vote. This may be so. What is absolutely indisputable is my growing disgust with the wider uses Jesus is put to.

In America today, the code words used to describe Christians who take a particular political position on various national issues are “white Evangelicals.” This code might be passing as acceptable to most in the media who have to find a way of attaching a label to be quickly used in a brief news report, but it’s not really acceptable in the long term.

As with so many labels, or attempts at cramming complex ideas into a stock phrase, it is hardly satisfactory at all.

In my domestic cardboard box at the top of the concrete towers at the foot of Mechanic Street, where I am forced to live, I have a stack of New Yorker magazines going back into the last century, which collect much dust, but do have some function as insulation against the many blasts of winter.

Each evening for many months, I have been rifling through them to see if there is anything good I might have left unread, before consigning them to the recycling hopper at the city dump. I am glad I have been doing this, as there were some interesting pieces worth digesting, although scattered like diamonds buried in sawdust, surrounded by lots of other articles that do not resonate with me. As they say.

Among the New Yorkers I have found a few interlopers, including a 50th anniversary copy of Christianity Today, an unashamedly evangelical magazine founded in 1956 by the evangelist Billy Graham.

Unless my memory is deteriorating badly (and as I have reached the age where my dear grandpa died, it might well be in a less than pristine condition) but I think this edition contains an article about people who say they are Christians, but among whom the evangelical writer could discern almost nothing that actually matches any serious Christian belief or practice.

They adopted Christian-like words and phrases, as well as many attitudes and opinions popularly described in our media as belonging to those famous “white Evangelicals,” but they could barely describe anything authentic about the Christian faith even if their lives depended on it. I began wondering about such people.

Given that the basic teachings of Christianity are relatively easy to describe, if not so easy to stick to, I began to wonder if one of the biggest problems within the Christian community is the utter lack of serious thought about our founding ideas or any pursuit of the meaning of the faith.

Furthermore, I have begun to wonder if, into this spiritual void, too many preachers have been pouring an alternative kind of sauce.

I think a similar kind of thought has been dawning upon many other brothers and sisters in the wide Christian world, too. Was it not Billy Graham’s own granddaughter who recently spoke out so clearly against ascribing any Christian nature to our president?

Essentially, she said what the Christianity Today writer said: She was unable to discern anything actually resembling Christianity in the whole thing.

In a galaxy long ago and far away, I was born into a small Christian sect known as the Plymouth Brethren, made slightly famous or perhaps notorious by characters like the radio broadcaster Garrison Keillor. But there was a powerful theological belief in that sect that nobody is born into the church until they personally decide this is what they intend, to commit themselves to a life.

Although I remain permanently grateful to the men and women of this church, including the faithful and long-suffering adults in my family, for the many things they did to nurture the spiritual life in we youngsters, there came a time in my life when I had to confront some things quite seriously.

First, I basically pressed the pause button on my religious life, not abandoning it but unwilling to take it any further in the direction where it was pointed.

When I came back to the church, it was as an Episcopalian, right here in Maine.

Around this same time, I made a rather serious decision. If I was indeed going to restore my relationship to the figure and the teachings of the faith, then I had to do some serious work to investigate and explore the entire idea. The whole kit and caboodle, as we say.

It is in my nature to read. (See bit about those dusty magazines, above.) So I began to read widely, deeply and thoroughly, refusing all the while to be afraid of anything I might come across, but also insisting on a certain set of operating principles. More than anything, I searched for perspectives beyond the one I was not quite, but more or less, born into.

It seemed at first to be a Great Intellectual Expedition, ideally suited for a half-way literate college graduate who was trained as a newspaperman to think cautiously and critically.

I mentioned operating principles, a moment ago. One of those is a conviction I held onto since I was in my late teens, following a street-corner discussion in South Wales with a Moonie. (Remember them?)

It’s pretty basic: If any of this stuff is meaningful, or is to allow its ideas to constructively impact the world, then it must be graspable by what some people dismiss as the least among all God’s children on earth. Or else it’s worthless to humankind.

Within this framework, as I wandered through the woods and forests of trees that were cut to make all the paper in all the books I was studying, I caught sight of something that gripped my attention in the way Jesus is said to have gripped the attention (so much more than the mere attention) of that handful of fellow humans about whom we can read, who seem to have known him.

He seemed to have spent his adult life working two fronts. On one hand, he is described as arguing when he had to against religious professionals who sought to impose a ferocious theology on the poor, in the hopes that improving their spiritual condition by means of over 600 separate points of moral law, somehow God would free their small country from the Roman occupation.

It was an idea of its time and history. Don’t get hung up on it; rather be on your guard against its equally dubious equivalents today.

One the other hand, he spent as much time as he seemed to be able to, living with and speaking with those poor, those ordinary, and urging them to understand what it was they really needed to do.

The difference between these two audiences still speaks loudly today. Or it would if it were not for the deafening voices of the modern version of his old adversaries.

Because between the Jerry Falwells and the Joel Osteens of this world, to name a pair of too-easy targets, there has grown up a fraudulent religion that is focused on this material world and what it can offer.

To be more frank, they live in a material world of their own loud voices, while milking as much money as possible from their flocks so they can live lives of personal luxury, or in the case of the Falwells of this world, lives spent cozying up to the “powers and principalities” of the age.

To make a very bad religious joke, although anyone with even the dimmest grasp of Easter might get it, I think Jesus would roll over in his grave at the very thought of what has been done.

If that was offensive, I apologize, although I do think we overlook some good jokes — humorous ironies, at least — in the Good Book.

Nevertheless, for all my reading and learning, none of which I reject, it all comes down to a few basic ideas, the sort of things even the least of us (such as myself) can understand.

Quoting the prophets, but in a way quite easily understood, he taught all that is required of us is to love justice (not our private and self-centered ideas of justice at all, but the very best kind), treat others with as much kindness as we can muster (yes, that’s quite hard, but we must strive after it unceasingly), and to walk humbly before our God.

Humbly? Oh, not that, surely? But, yes indeed. In fact, it’s vital to the whole enterprise. For without it we make ourselves into gods, and what a mess that leads us to.

Above all, to trust this is all worthwhile, even worth giving up our bodies for. I never said it was going to be simple, did I? Just that it is relatively simple to see.

As the late professor of worldwide religion Huston Smith summarized it, “We are in good hands, and in gratitude for that the least we can do is bear one another’s burdens.” And so fulfill the law of God.

I have met many men and women across my span of decades who, without mouthing pieties, or even seeming to have a place for the organized notion of God in their lives, show all these things.

I have met many others who, dressed in the emperor’s clothes of moral righteousness and exuding piety from every pore, profess faith with their mouths while giving the lie to it all in their lives.

Jesus is not for taming. Jesus is not for invoking in order to camouflage hypocrisy. I deeply suspect there is a real price to be paid for those who do that, unless they can come to grips with their mistakes in time, but it’s not mine to judge or, in the end, to condemn.

So, let’s get a grip on the derelict assumptions and beliefs ascribed to us by a secular world, and yes, by the poor media too. Let’s be more concerned with how we treat the poor, the helpless, the ordinary, the honest seeker of something actually worth having, and stop thinking about our social standing, our reputations, our selves.

We could start by bearing one another’s burdens, even though that idea has always terrified those who feel they have so much to lose by doing so — apparently including their souls. Sometimes it genuinely terrifies me. It ain’t the whole story, but I think it would be a mighty fine start.

Don’t you think?

David Grima is a former editor with Courier Publications. He can be reached at davidgrima@ymail.com.

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Comments (6)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Nov 23, 2020 04:32

Hope that folks will find the Mid-coast Maine Thanksgiving service encouraging.  Thankful for Peter Jenks bringing us together in the best way possible in 2020.  A midcoast Maine Thanksgiving Video Service for November 2020 - YouTube



Posted by: George Terrien | Nov 20, 2020 14:55

Truly a fine column, Mr. Grima, well conceived and executed, highly relevant to all of us, clear, direct, and penetrating, emphasizing judgment over indictment.  Without belittling the humor I much appreciate in your writing, I encourage you to continue to present your views in similar manner.  Thank you.

G



Posted by: Francis Mazzeo, Jr. | Nov 20, 2020 09:18

Very well worded David.  Many years ago my Aunt Ged was visiting with her children from Chicago. She was struggling dressing her four children for church. Losing patience she cussed. My grandmother, Aunt Ged's mother, said that was no way for anyone going to church to talk. Aunt Ged replied " why did you think I am going". We teach what we need to learn.



Posted by: Rod Coleman | Nov 20, 2020 07:49

Thank you, Mr Grima, and Happy Thanksgiving!



Posted by: Merton Sawyer | Nov 19, 2020 22:06

"He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with they God?" - Micah 6:8

Thank you David. That is a very good reminder to all of us. I appreciate the reference to this scripture very much. Please have a wonderful Thanksgiving.



Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Nov 19, 2020 14:51

AWESOME Thanksliving message!! Christianity may be ripe for a new reformation. Let's hope so. ;)



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