By Andy Lang
Growing up in a progressive congregation, I was taught an image of Jesus that many of my friends have found to be unfamiliar. I was taught that Jesus was politically, economically, and socially radical. He was a powerful activist, flipping tables of the oppressors in a countercultural action against the powers-that-be. I was given an image of Jesus as a rabble-rouser, a prophet who called out those in the wrong and stood on the side of the poor.
I was taught that the power of Jesus and his ministry had far less to do with who he was as a manifestation of God and far more to do with what he did to rebuke the existing power systems.
And this upbringing worked really well for me, for a time.
I grew up politically aware, with a bias toward those at the margins of our society. I had a strong moral compass and I knew what was right and what was wrong. I sought to fight oppressors where I could and I worked to support those marginalized by systems of violence and trauma. When I was able, I entered the political fray by marching with various social movements, doorknocking for my preferred candidate, and generally flexing the power of my citizenship in an American democracy.
In other words, this kind of Christian upbringing didn’t form me in any truly countercultural way. While I still believe in the work I was doing, I recognize now that I was fully in the fog of a culture dedicated to otherizing, angry politics, and wielding a win-or-die mentality. When I left the church of my youth for college, I wasn’t a Christian who could love all of Creation (or myself for that matter); I was an atheist radical who loved a few and knew exactly who else to hate.
A Jesus too small
I was in a small group recently where we shared about the various identities of Jesus we grew up with: savior Jesus, baby Jesus, boyfriend Jesus, radical Jesus, lover Jesus, sacrificial Jesus, resurrected Jesus. As we rolled through them and people shared some of their experiences (“I’ve never heard of boyfriend Jesus!”), I found myself sifting through my childhood and my own experience with the Socialist Jesus I had been raised with and the impact it had on me. And before long, I found myself analyzing that image out loud:
“The problem with being raised with Socialist Jesus is that he taught me what to stand up for and what to stand against, but he was still small. Jesus was still small. My spirituality was still small. That image of Jesus didn’t teach me how to love myself even when I did something I knew wasn’t good. It didn’t teach me how to love both the Republican and the Democrat (or the Socialist) in the room. It was too small to even hold people’s differences together without dehumanizing the person on the other side. And in that way, it didn’t teach me to do anything that secular culture wouldn’t have taught me.”
A spirituality too small for the complexities of life.
When we finished up after the small group, I got in my car and drove home through the dark outlines of trees, Trader Joes’, and the flickering lights of the local nightlife. I couldn’t help but think back to the church I grew up in, filled almost exclusively with liberals, progressives, and socialists.
These amazing people had held me and cared for me and raised me in a brilliant and beautiful way. They helped me develop a strong sense of morality and a sense of my purpose in the world; in their presence, I had taken on the identity of “radical” with conviction and a joyful exuberance.
But as I drove and reflected, I recognized more fully than before how the spirituality I developed in that space, filled with the powerful language of activism, was based entirely on defining who was in and who was out. It was a spirituality of otherizing, of naming not just what was right and wrong in the world, but who was right and wrong. And a spirituality built on otherizing is not a mature spirituality.
What would it mean to live into a mature spirituality that has the capacity to hold opposites together?
This is a question I feel reverberating deeply within my body right now as I process the state of our Nation as well as the state of our Church. In the midst of all that is causing and exposing fragmentation in our communities, it feels vital that we as a people of faith honestly commit ourselves to honoring the inherent dignity found within each person, especially those we disagree with, no matter how difficult that may be.
I pray that I can learn to embody such a spirituality and that we, together, can take up this work, expanding our personal and communal capacities for Love, valuing accountability over retribution, and trusting that God is flowing freely even through our imperfections.
Andy Lang grew up in The United Methodist Church and is currently a high school teacher in Tacoma, Washington. He is a student in Richard Rohr’s Living School for Action and Contemplation.
Andy, you bring up an interesting point. Currently in Atlanta we are spending a fair amount of time with an African American UMC. We hold Joint Bible Study’s, had a conference last year on hard topics, have weekly topic calls and help each other out at events.
Now all of this is good – for down here real good. There is just one thing. While I feed the homeless, rebuild homes on UMC Disaster Relief Teams, lead Men’s Prayer Groups – all good things again, not one Liberal in the bunch. No discussions on tough topics, just a lot of animosity on both sides.
You’ve got me thinking.
Dear Andy, Thank you for sharing your insights into your perceptions of the way we view our Lord. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful conversation starter for other small groups to delve into and perhaps grow our understanding of the vastness of Jesus’ being. As a follower of Richard Rohr and his ideas expressed in “The Universal Christ,” Jesus is far more than we can ask or image. If we could come together with those who see things differently than we do then we could broaden our horizons.
Peace and grapes,
Hi Andy. While I appreciate your thoughts on growing up in a progressive faith community, I don’t think it represents ALL progressive faith communities. I fear that people may read this article and think that all progressives have a simplified socialist view of Jesus. That is just not true. Many progressives have been born of the Spirit, just as many conservatives have, and seek to follow Christ. He told us how to live: love God with our whole being and love others as he has loved us (that is, sacrificially). If the church you grew up in was “a culture dedicated to otherizing, angry politics, and wielding a win-or-die mentality”, then it is understandable that you did not come to now God’s all-encompassing, unconditional, love and Jesus’ call for all of us to have that same kind of love for others. I have experienced that same angry attitude from conservative Christians. I have, however, been blessed by my loving brothers and sisters in Christ who are both progressives and conservatives! I too pray that we will be able to set aside differences and love each other, even when we disagree.
Hey Tricia! Thanks for your response! You are SO right – there is a vast diversity of theology and spirituality held within progressive faith communities. And even in my own church growing up, not everyone held to this “socialist Jesus” belief – that said, it was certainly an image that served as connective tissue for the ministries of the church and was therefore within the energy with which we did our work. Another example of complexity!
It feels to me the image of Jesus we prioritize comes to shape both the ministries we have as well as the discipleship we engage in, so it’s really important we know what we’re all about! I think an interesting community practice would be to investigate what image of Jesus serves as connective tissue for someone’s particular church. And how that image might foster ministries and language used that serve the local context (church community, neighborhood, city) in positive ways, in ineffective ways, or even in harmful ways. That would lead to some powerful church-community conversations.