My neighbour was out working on his bright orange 1960s gas-guzzling pickup the other day (he’s a vintage car fanatic). He’s also a Christian, and goes to what I like to call the local ‘temple of preaching’ - an evangelical Anglican church that never tires of getting bigger, or of planting new congregations in its own image, which manage to take over other local, struggling churches (that’s not a criticism, clearly it is doing something that works, even if it doesn’t work for me).
Any road, as they say where I come from (the West Midlands of the UK), we chatted a little and suddenly for some reason I remembered a conversation we’d had some years ago at a local musical event. I was describing the Mennonite church I was then part of, and confessed that though I totally loved it, we weren’t very good at evangelism. ‘But isn’t that the whole point?’ he asked, without any apparent sense of irony. ‘Is it?’, I thought but didn’t say. Surely if the whole point of being a Christian is to recruit others to your faith, it’s no more than a rather successful (but waning) pyramid selling scheme?
I could immediately think of several other candidates for ‘the whole point’. Some would say the whole point is to believe the right things that will save you from hell and get you to heaven after you die. If that’s the case, it certainly lends an urgency to evangelism, and perhaps that’s why this simple message works for so many. The late great writer and speaker Mike Yaconelli used to say ‘What you win them with, is what you win them to’; and obviously if escape from eternal torment is where your faith begins, it may become (thought not always remain) the heart of your faith.
Trouble is, it doesn’t seem to me to fit in very well with what Jesus did and said. Like the church’s historic creeds, with their ‘Jesus-shaped hole’ in the middle, it goes straight from Jesus’ birth to his death, with nothing in between: no teaching, no healing, no disciples, no new Kingdom community. No Sermon on the Mount, no parables, no radical new way of gathering outcasts into the centre, no challenge to the powers that be, no revolutionary attitude to women and those with disabilities. In fact, apart from perhaps giving up some bad habits, no real impact on the world we live in. What does this version of faith have to say about Brexit, or Trump, or Venezuela, or inequality? Precious little, it seems. We wouldn’t want to get political...
I think it was Desmond Tutu who remarked that when people said you shouldn’t mix politics with the Bible, he wondered what Bible they were reading. I’ve written responses to the Bible for over thirty years, and in it I see the story of a small, beleaguered nation strategically set in the middle of a fertile crescent and between rising and falling superpowers, who somehow held on to their God and their way of life through changing alliances, invasion, deportation, attempted genocide, natural disaster. If that’s not political, what is? Or is it just because I’m Jewish by birth, the child of Holocaust refugees, that I see it that way?
I will never forget looking at that classic 1960s Reader’s Digest atlas that everyone had in my childhood, and studying a map of world religions. Right across the globe there were huge swathes of different styles of cross for Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, plus other swathes of crescents for Islam and various symbols for Hinduism and a few other faiths. Then right in the middle, there was just space for one single Star of David. How, if it was not God’s action, did that tiny handful of tribes survive?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no supporter of Israel’s current government or the gross injustices it perpetrates. I sponsored a young Palestinian Christian girl for 13 years (she looked remarkably like one of my Jewish ‘honorary cousins’!), so even though I have the right to live in Israel, they probably wouldn’t let me in. Nevertheless, if you look at world history and the disproportionate role Jewish people have played in science, culture and politics, the phrase ‘chosen people’ does start to have an authentic ring about it… And it was from that people that the man approximately one-third of the world’s population claim to follow, had his origin – and it was in that context that he preached and taught a different lifestyle, one that re-shaped their tradition so that it embraced the whole world and not just a particular ethnic group.
Shouldn’t we then be listening a bit harder to the kind of life he called people to, rather than just signing up to a theory about his death that didn’t even originate till a thousand years after his life?
So no, dear neighbour, I don’t think convincing others of a particular set of beliefs about Jesus is ‘the whole point’. I rather suspect ‘the whole point’ is more like living in this existing, physical world in a way that changes its oppressive power relations, that heals the sick and strengthens the weary and challenges the powerful and disarms the violent and, in the biblical phrase, ‘turns the world upside down’? It’s a tough call, and we can’t do it individually or even in community without calling on a power that is greater than ourselves. And often it will seem impossible, and there will be huge setbacks, and people will get themselves killed or at least imprisoned – just as they did in the first few centuries before the church got into bed with the state and lost its prophetic edge. But if it’s not worth trying, then I can’t see much point at all in claiming to be a follower of Jesus, whose subversive life and words got him executed as a political agitator. The good news is, not even that could shut him up. I hope fervently there are enough of us who can still hear him.