Tuesday, November 26, 2013

5 Reasons Christianity Isn't About Religion

Perhaps I should have titled this post "5 Reasons Christianity Shouldn't Be About Religion" - because there's a common misconception that Christianity is a religion.  Not only that it's a religion, but that it's supposed to be a religion.  This misconception is shared by insiders and outsiders alike, it seems.  And it's completely wrong!

Now, I should pause here and define what it is that I mean when I say "religion" - I'm talking about religion in the sense of being an identifier, or a way of distinguishing one person or another.  What I'm talking about could also be described as "tribalism".  It's the insiders and outsiders paradigm.  The view that there are some who are favored by God, and some who are not, and that there are easily distinguishable traits which can tell you which group a person is in.

And this is a completely warped idea, if you truly understand Christianity - because Christianity is supposed to be about following Jesus, and there are so many ways that Jesus contradicted this view.  Here are just a few of those ways:

1. John's Baptism
Baptism seems to be one of those Christian ideas for which the historical context has been almost completely lost to the general populous, and as a result some very superstitious ideas about it have risen up.  Denominations battle over the method and timing of baptism: is a sprinkling ok, or should you be immersed?  Can babies be baptized?  Many seem to even connect salvation itself with baptism - I remember hearing one leader assure someone who was worried about salvation that "if you're dipped, you're in!"

But when you get a picture of the historical context that "John the Baptist" was set in, you might get a different picture of what this was all about.  In the Jewish culture of Jesus' day, there was a practice known as "mikveh" - a ritual immersion bath.  

Mikveh at Jerusalem temple
The mikveh was a purity ritual, and would be performed after various "unclean" events occurred to a person, before entering the temple, a priest would practice mikveh before conducting various ceremonies, and scribes would even practice it before writing the name of God!  What mikveh communicated was that a person had been dirtied by the outside world, and must clean him or herself before entering into communion with God.  The practice of immersing before entering the temple did much to communicate the "insider/outsider paradigm" or the "us vs. them paradigm" that the Jews in Jesus' day lived within.  It said "those who are not part of our religion are unclean, and we must wash their filth off before entering into communion with God."

But John the Baptist did something new - he started immersing people in the Jordan river, right out there in nature!  This was a bit of religious theater, if you will, and to the people of the time, the message was clear: "the real filth that must be washed off is not out there - it's the temple religion!  Their self-righteous arrogance and apathy towards the people trapped within unjust systems that create poverty is the real dirtiness that must be washed off!"  John's baptism was a symbol of washing off the attitude that there are insiders and outsiders - of putting aside the attitude that you're somehow special and others are not.  In Luke's gospel, the story of John's practice of baptism is accompanied by his instruction to share your possessions with the poor (Luke 3:11), indicating that this is part of a larger mission to break down the barriers between classes of people.  

When Jesus meets up with John, does he rebuke him for this rejection of the religious practice of mikveh?  Does he say "John, you know that mikveh should be practiced in the temple, so people can prepare to worship God properly!"  No!  Jesus affirms John's practice in Matthew 3:13-15, and says "it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness."

2. The Parable of the Good Samaritan
In Luke 10:25-37, there is a story that begins with an "expert in the law" testing Jesus by asking him what must be done to "inherit eternal life".  What follows has been covered in different ways in other gospels, but in this version of the story, Jesus throws the question back at the "expert" and says "what's in the law, and how do you read it?"  The expert responds by summarizing the entire law with two commands: love God, and love your neighbor "as yourself".  The version of this story in Matthew has Jesus saying:

Matthew 22:40
All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
One thing I find interesting is that the apostle Paul skips over the "love God" part and says that the entire law is fulfilled in the commandment to love your neighbor!  (Gal. 5:14)  This might sound curious, but it is a logical inference based upon the fact that Jesus implies that the way to show love to God is to show love to others in such teachings as the "parable of the sheep and the goats" (which can be found in Matthew 25:31-46).

But to return to the story in Luke 10:25-37, in verse 29, it says:
But he [the "expert"] wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
So Jesus tells a story which we commonly refer to as "The Good Samaritan".  I think that the cultural impact of this story is largely lost on us today, because we don't understand the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans.  

To really understand the story, I think we need to retell it in today's terminology.  I think the modern equivalent of the story would involve an Evangelical minister being beaten up and robbed on the side of the road, and as he lies there, another Evangelical pastor passes right by, and then a Southern Baptist deacon as well.  And then, as he is beginning to despair, a Muslim Imam walks by.  When this Imam sees him there, he comes to his aid, taking him to the nearest hospital.  At the hospital, they find out that the minister has no insurance, and this Muslim says "I will pay his bills - just make sure he is taken care of."  After the hospital has patched up the minister, the Imam takes him back to his house to stay with him until he is back on his feet again.

You see, Samaritans were not seen by Jews as being other Jews - they were seen as another religion altogether.  Not only as another religion, but they were detested as enemies.  The comparison between how Jews saw Samaritans and how Christians see Muslims today is an apt one, in my opinion.  Just as there were similar religious beliefs between Jews and Samaritans, there are similarities between Christianity and Muslims.  But the differences are considered irreconcilable, and so the "other" is considered a dangerous foe.

But when Jesus is asked "who is my neighbor?", he deliberately chose an icon that would be seen as dangerous and religiously "other" by his audience.  He did this to challenge his audience's priorities.  He did this in order to raise the question: what's more important - your customs, or how you treat other people?

3. The Woman at the Well
In John 4:1-42, there is a scene where Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman at a well.  There is so much that could be said about this scene - things like how Jesus challenged the cultural views of his day about women and how evangelism ought to work - but I want to focus on one interesting piece of the conversation between Jesus and this woman.  

But first, we need a little background.  In the first book of Kings in the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is split due to irreconcilable differences after King Solomon's death.  The two nations were then called Israel and Judah.  Judah contained the city of Jerusalem, where the temple was built.  The Samaritans were part of the area that had been known as Israel - the area that did not contain Jerusalem and the temple.  So, the Samaritans had taken up the custom of worshiping at Mount Gerizim instead of in Jerusalem.  This had caused a bit of animosity between them and what was now the Jews in Jesus' time.  The Jews considered the Samaritans' worship to be illegitimate because of their refusal to come to the temple.  

With this background in mind, we find that Jesus makes a curious statement during his conversation with the Samaritan woman - in verse 21, he says:
...a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
And then, a little further along in verse 23, he expounds on this idea:
But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.
Jesus is indicating that a time is coming when the place of worship will not matter - it is the attitude of the heart that indicates true worship.  

Earlier in this gospel, in John 2:19 Jesus had already alluded to the concept that a body can be a temple when he had said: "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."  This was a foreshadowing of Jesus' own death and resurrection, as the reader finds at the end of the book.  The apostle Paul picks up on this concept of the temple when he says in I Cor. 3:16:
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?
The idea Jesus presents is that a place is not holy because of its location - any location can be holy: it is the people in the location that make this place holy!  And it is the attitude of their hearts that make these people holy!  So a person who worships the Father "in spirit and truth" can be in the presence of God anywhere and everywhere they go!

4. The Last Supper
The "Last Supper" gave birth to one of the great Christian sacraments - the Eucharist.  The scene of this last supper is set in a celebration of the Passover.  The history of the Passover is set in the Exodus story of Israel - the story goes that even after 9 plagues, the Pharaoh of Egypt still would not release the Israelites from slavery.  So Moses had instructed the Israelites to smear lamb's blood on their doorposts, and an angel of death would "pass over" them as it went around the land of Egypt killing first born sons.  

Jesus takes this symbol and re-frames it in the scene of the Last Supper.  He breaks a loaf of bread and says "this is my body which is given for you."  And then he passes around a cup of wine and says that it is "the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." (Lk. 22:20)  What he is essentially saying is that the days of scapegoating and killing other life in order to save yourself are over - God Himself has willingly given His life and blood to end this cycle, establishing a new covenant.  Jesus tells us to do this in remembrance of him - and all around the world Christians eat bread and drink wine (or grape juice) in order to remember that night.  But what if there was supposed to be more?  What if, along with accepting the free gift of the nourishment that God gives through bread and wine (which come from His good creation), we are supposed to go out into the world and give ourselves sacrificially to others just as Jesus did?  What if we are supposed to look for the cycles of violence and the victims of those cycles, and stand in the gap in order to break those cycles?  What if this is the deeper meaning behind "do this in remembrance of me?"

In Brian McLaren's book "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World", he writes of a "table of reconciliation and fellowship" understanding of the Eucharist, rather than an alter based understanding where God demands blood before his anger can be satiated:
[I]n a table-centered eucharistic understanding, atoning or appeasing sacrifices are simply unnecessary.  Nothing need be done to appease a hostile God, because through Christ, God has self-revealed as inherently gracious and kind , seeking reconciliation; not hostile and vengeful, needing appeasement. If we need to speak of sacrifice at all, we speak of it in its root meaning: sacred gift. So as we gather around the eucharistic table, we bond to a meaning very different from that of the conventional eucharistic altar; we bond to the sacred self-giving of a gracious God.  As we remember Jesus, from incarnation to crucifixion (and beyond), we see God’s self-giving to the whole world in Christ. Christ himself is God’s sacred love-gift to the world.  At the communion table, then, we manifest God’s self-giving in Christ.
This understanding frames the Christian mission to be one of friendship to the world, where we invite others to dine with us and to talk out our problems - where we sacrificially give of ourselves in order to solve the problems of the world.  This dramatically alters the sacrifice demanding God so many have to the God of Isaiah 1:18, who says "Come now, let us reason together."  At the table of reconciliation and fellowship, God is not demanding payment - he is inviting us to talk through our issues over supper with a glass of wine.

5. The Cross
I ache when I think of what so much "Christian" theology has done to the beautiful act of the cross.  Theology all too often warps this into something God wanted - as if God had kept a 10,000 year grudge from the first sin, and couldn't let go of His anger without some serious blood.  But God never demanded blood, and He never demanded that Jesus die the most gruesome and painful death we could imagine - that was us.  God doesn't demand payment for sin: we do.  So, in Jesus, God said: "you want payment?  Take me."

Jesus' whole life and ministry was about standing up for those who were marginalized by society - the rejects, the outcasts, the sick, the deformed, the poor, those of the unfavored gender, the religiously "other".  He spent his whole life sticking up for those who couldn't stick up for themselves.  And the response was that the authority structure scapegoated him - that was us, not God.  So what do we do?  We turn around and try to pin that on God, repeating the scapegoating cycle.  We can't stand to face the fact that God isn't anything like us, and that He is remarkably tolerant, and had no part in this.  So we make up some story about how God had to have some blood before He'd be satisfied that our sins had been "paid for", as if it were some sort of capitalistic transaction.  

But there are some questions this idea raises, if that is the actual scenario that occurred.  If this is what happened, then what if Jesus had actually been responded to with acceptance?  What if, instead of being rejected by the Jews in power, they had said "well, you're obviously a really cool guy - why don't you take over around here for a while?"  Would Jesus have said "wait, wait, wait...see, there's this plan - you have to reject me.  See, uh...the big guy upstairs?  He's not going to be happy unless you reject me and kill me in a really gruesome death!  So uh, let's try this again."

And if this was really how it went down, then how is it that the author of 1st John can declare that God is love? (I John 4:8, 16)  How can a being who personifies love be a worse father than most earthly fathers?  I mean, if you heard a story about a Dad who had one son that did something that made him angry, and so he turned around and killed the other so he wouldn't be angry any more, would you say "wow, what a loving father!", or "that guy is abusive and needs anger management classes"?

And if God really wanted sins to be "paid for", why did Jesus quote Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 9:13 when he said: "But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’"?  And why would the author of Hebrews say (in 10:8): "Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them"?

And the question I had always asked myself before I came to the conclusions I now have about the cross is: what was it about Jesus that made people reject him?  If he was so "meek and mild", why didn't they love him?  Why did they see him as a threat?  

We'll come back to that later.

But if we re-frame the cross in its historical background, we may find a different meaning behind it.  In "The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction", Peter Rollins writes:
For Roman citizens crucifixion was the most potent sign of someone being rejected by the cultural, political, and religious systems of the day, all of which were seen as divinely established. Those who were crucified were treated as complete outsiders. They were to die naked, alone, and in agony. But the execution meant more than torture and death; it was a sign that the one being killed stood outside of the divinely given order.

In contrast the Crucifixion of Christ today is seen as a key justification of a cultural, political, and religious matrix, a matrix that Kierkegaard called “Christendom.” It is difficult for us today to understand the extent to which this mode of execution signaled the exclusion of the victim from all systems of meaning, because it is so much a part of one for us. The Cross is so integrated into our religious, political, and cultural imagination that its reality as a mode of execution that placed the victim outside of these realms is utterly eclipsed. Instead of being a symbol of standing outside all systems of meaning, the Cross is now integrated into a system of meaning.
The cross was where Jesus became the outsider and lost all meaning.  And when he was near the point of death, he cried "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt. 27:46, Mk. 15:34).  Some may try to turn this into some sort of theater - like Jesus was just quoting a Psalm (Ps. 22:1) in order to fulfill a prophecy, but he didn't really think God had forsaken him (as if it were said with a wink at the camera).  But the problem with this interpretation is that Jesus spoke this in Aramaic, which was his native tongue, while the verse was written in Hebrew.  Yes, I'm sure that the author of the gospel narrative meant to give a nod to the Psalm, but he deliberately did it in the wrong language, indicating that Jesus actually felt this way!  

Jesus' whole message up to this point had been that God doesn't reject anyone - and here he is doubting that in the moment of his torment.  And at the point of Jesus' complete loss, something remarkable happened - in Matthew 27:51 (paralleled in Mk. 15:38), it says that the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.

To understand the significance of this, we need to understand what this curtain was - it was a thick, heavy curtain that separated the "Holy of Holies" - the area of the temple that the Jews believed God physically resided in - from the rest of the temple.  This area was so revered, that only the High Priest was allowed to enter, and only at certain times of the year.  And this curtain was torn.

Many theologians have tried to turn this into a symbol that God was saying "now everyone can have access to me - now that I've gotten my blood that I wanted."  But what if it were indicating something else?  What if the Jewish audience would have realized that this indicated that God was not there.  There was no man behind the curtain - just an empty space.  Where was God?  Out there on that hill, dying from the wounds that the Priestly class had demanded be inflicted on Him, doubting Himself and His own faith. 

And instead of accepting how this challenges the paradigm of insiders and outsiders, we turn it into a new system of elites and rejects.  We turn it into a new religion, and we invent this silly thing called the "sinner's prayer" that's some kind of magical incantation that gets you in (see Chess Move #7 in my series, Checkmate For Hell).

But everything Jesus had done up to this point demonstrated the truth that the apostle Paul speaks of when he says that "God does not show favoritism." (Rom. 2:11)  Jesus' whole life demonstrates the truth of the author of James' claim that:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
(James 1:27)
And what is "the world" that this author speaks of?  It is the authority structures that create systems of insiders and outsiders!  This is what Jesus stood against throughout his whole ministry!  And what do we do?  We turn Jesus into another system of insiders and outsiders!

I asked, earlier, why someone who was "meek and mild" would be rejected and killed so violently.  I asked what could have enraged people so much that they would do this.  If you've been reading my post and it made you upset, I think you have your answer.  We like our systems of insiders and outsiders - we like to think of ourselves as being favored/elite/inside/special while others are rejected/despised/outside/cursed.  And when someone threatens those systems, it upsets us - we don't want to give up our privilege in order to reach out to our scapegoats.  We don't want to face up to the fact that we have hurt others unjustly.  We want to be thought of as righteous and holy while those we have cast out are evil and dirty.  We don't want to give up our reasons for making other people outcasts - we want those reasons vindicated.  And when someone calls on us to reconsider these paradigms, it makes us uncomfortable.  We don't want to think of ourselves as intolerant, so we crucify the prophetic voices calling us to extend God's radically tolerant love to the outcasts.

So we bicker over doctrine and ritual.  But the mark of one who follows Jesus is not that they believe the right doctrine or observe the right rituals - it's that they love (see John 13:35).  I John 4:7-8 says:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

The religion of Christ calls us to cast off all our privilege and status - to reject categories and religions that separate one human from another - and to simply love our fellow man. The religion of Christ calls us to see Him in others who love - even if they don't call themselves Christians.

Next: Finding the Balance Between Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy


  1. wow! Great post! It's so refreshing to read a post that is truth filled. I am bookmarking your blog and will be coming back regularly. :)

    1. Thank you so much! It's always nice to get feedback like this!