07 July 2006

What good is Jesus?

Subtitle: What Would Jesus do?

Okay, here's my VERY IMPORTANT disclamer. If you didn't read my previous post, STOP. Read it first. No joke. These posts are so inter-connected that I actually wrote them on the same day, but don't like to post multiple blogs because it doesn't look pretty. So go read it.


Okay. Carry on. Disclaimer #2 follows.

(It is my experience that when talking about religion, people get upset. I fully expect that to be the case here. I do apologize in advance if I upset anyone with the below commentary. Sometimes I'm serious; sometimes I'm flippant. I'm not trying to pick on Christians because they're an easy target, I'm picking on Christians because it's what I know, what I grew up with. I welcome comments, but if you're going to criticize what I have to say, please be respectful and back up your opinions with examples. I'm interested in different perspectives on my thoughts, but if you can't follow the rules to the right, I'm not going to entertain flame wars.)

In light of yesterday's blog, I had a thought. While I know that there are lots of staunch human rights defenders who subscribe to one religious doctrine or another, my experience to date is that they fall in the "other" category.

It got me thinking rhetorically: wouldn't our efforts be better spent making sure that people aren't jailed for wanting the right to vote than convincing people that Jesus is The Way?

Hear me out. The current POTUS, George W. Bush, is a self-professed Christian. When he turned away from alcohol, he turned to Jesus, his personal Lord and Saviour. This is a man who's political policies are unabashedly rife with his belief that God is on his side. And he's also the same man who has been allowing the ongoing detainment of Arabs in Guantanamo Bay for the past 4+ years. This is a man who wants to defend his country's "right" to use torture on other human beings. Who cuts taxes for the wealthy (seriously, watch the video -- it's hilarious), while urging against raising the federal minimum wage (currently $5.15 US). Because rich people need to buy a boat more than poor people need to buy groceries. Ahem. Sorry. Bitter.

I realize that all denominations of Christianity focus on different parts of Jesus' message. Frankly, I don't strongly remember what message my particular parish advocated, but I think it was something about being an example for people to follow so they too could enjoy what Jesus teaches. Or something.

But if following Jesus leads us to spend more time trying to convince other people to follow Jesus, and less time helping people (which are the stories I remember from the Bible), then how is a belief in Jesus helping make the world a better place? If I'm a "heathen" living in a developing country that's crippled by foreignly-held debt, suffering a drought because of CO2 emmisions caused by smoke stacks in an industrialized nation, and cowering in fear lest my neighbour rat me out to the local dictator that I criticized my inability to vote, then believing in Jesus isn't going to solve all my problems. Sure, I might be able to focus on what's promised me in heaven, but I might also be contemplating how I can get there faster, since life can't get any worse. Until my husband is up and "disappeared" (a human rights term for people who are taken covertly and held without official charges or any communication with loved ones) because he had the audacity to ask for seconds at the food ration station.

Seriously, I know that there are lots of Christians who do wonderful things in the world, and help many people regardless of race, religion or creed. I know of many soup kitchens run by local parishes; my mother's church volunteers for a school breakfast program, and the shelter I wrote about in the previous blog is run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. But overall, what good is Jesus if so many people who believe in him can't stop complaining about the price of gas long enough to really look at what they can do to help? Heresy, I know.

As for my subtitle, the Jesus I learned about in church healed lepers and blind people, he raised Lazarus from the dead, he turned water into wine so the party could keep going. He talked about compassion, turning the other cheek (as opposed to an eye for an eye), getting the whores and money changers out of the temple (oh, wait -- not my point), and tolerance. He was non-violent (let's call him a forerunner of Gandhi). In fact, he really just wanted the freedom of his people (who were the Jews, by the way, not Christians) from the oppression of the Romans. He taught people about God's extreme makeover; no more pestilence, plague and wandering the desert -- His love is for everyone!

So, what do I think Jesus would do if he were walking down the street in an industrialized nation (I think that's unlikely -- he didn't show up in Rome, he showed up in Bethlehem, a Roman-occupied territory; it's more likely he'd show up in Iraq or Tibet these days)? I think he'd remind people that the price of gas isn't worth a hill of beans, unless those beans are being sent to people in Africa to help them grow bean crops (give a man a fish vs. teach a man to fish). I think he'd say, "Okay forget all that earlier stuff aboutnot spilling the seed and help prevent the spread of this disease." And if you need some further convincing, let's say his reason is, "God sent this as a test of human tolerance and a lesson for the wealthy to reach out to the disadvantaged and save the world." (Note: I DO NOT believe that HIV/AIDS is a disease sent by God to punish anyone. I think it's something that popped up when people were eating an endangered species. Please don't quote me out of context.) I don't think Jesus would think it's a good idea to bomb civilians (even if those civilians are in a wealthy country), nor do I think he would advocate retaliation (he might not say, "Offer up the subway line, too," but I doubt he'd think that destroying infrastructure in struggling nations is a good idea either).

Emily Starr talked about "Father's God" vs. "Aunt Elizabeth's God." I actually quite liked this idea when I first read it. I think you should have to read the book if you want to know what I mean, but let me summarize: "Father's God" was good and kind and compassionate; "Aunt Elizabeth's God" was tyrannical and fierce and rigid. Maybe L. M. Montgomery was a bit of a prophet when she characterized these two very different beliefs in what God wants and how he operates.

I just don't think there's anything in the Bible about letting people suffer to the extent that they do while worrying about whether a billion dollars should be spent on air transports for the military or on subsidies for wheat farmers.*

*I love farmers because I get to eat, I'm not a fan of subsidies that make it harder for those in the 3rd world to make a living.


deadwriter said...

From an evangelical standpoint, it is better for people to have a relationship with Jersus and have a whole bunch of external problems, like the ones you listed, than have those problems solved and not have a relationship with Jesus. The theory goes that a relationship with Jesus makes problems easier to handle, but doesn’t take them away completely. It's not just about the promise of heaven, it's about what happens on earth too. While the terms might not be so black and white in other denominations (in terms of what constitutes a relationship with Jesus and what doesn't, and what "spiritual" means) many others agree that the spiritual side is often more important that the tangible.

That being said, Jesus did preach about giving to the poor and helping those in need. And many many many Christians are hypocrites and ignore this part, or only pay it lip service. Many many many Christians also only pay lip service to the spiritual principles priests and pastors constantly emphasize. So, to a certain degree, I feel like you are judging an entire religion by the majority of its followers that are lackadaisical in both temporal and spiritual matters.

Now there are some feverent believers that focus only on trying to get people saved. Normally, these people live in North America and focus on saving North Americans. Now, as a former evangelical, I find these people annoying and misguided. Even when I was an evangelical I found these people annoying and misguided. But I have as much faith in the saving power of giving your heart to Jesus as I do political activism. It seems to me that there are as many political activists who go around screaming at the general public to change their ways and fight injustice as there are people who scream at people to repent of their sins. Neither one seems very connected to the people they are trying to help, and both are equally annoying to me.

In my most feverent of Pentecostal days, I felt the best kind of Christian is one that tried to minister to both the body and the soul/spirit. Every missionary I have heard about or from stresses how the message they bring to people must be accompanied by something tangible. They help build schools, teach important life skills, bring medical attention and food, etc. Real practical things. They also preach that Jesus is the Way

Closer to home, people form a church I used to attend started a soup kitchen. They provide food to people who need it, and they provide some religious music in the background. Not as preachy as the missionaries, but it's still in there.

Most importantly, for me at least, they get to know the people they are helping. In the soup kitchen, the first thing you do when you start to help out isn’t cutting up veggies or scooping out soup. It's sitting down beside the people who come into the shelter and eat with them. These people are lonely. More than food, they need friendship, someone who cares for them. Likewise, in third world countries, missionaries befriend people, they live with them, they struggle against the same elements as the people they are trying to save. They share in their grief and their joy. And I feel like this is far more important than lobbying against military spending or farmer subsidies.

You seem to have this idea that if Christianity would drop the directive of convincing people to give their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ than all that energy would go into REALLY making people's lives better. But I think that a) the people who are really serious about their Christianity try to do both practical and spiritual things for people, and one activity does not hamper the other b) the people who don't take their Christianity as seriously wouldn't be motivated to do more practical things for people if the directive was removed and c) some of the things you mention in your blog as important things that Jesus would do are almost as valuable as getting people saved (since religion does actually help some people).

Finally, I think you are too hard on people who complain about gas. I know, that is just an example, but really, even the most politically active, giving, sacrificing person has to relate to their friends. I'm not the best small talker ever, but people talk about the weather, about sports, and about how things cost too much. It's not that this is such a big concern to everyone. It's just something for people to say cause they have no idea what else to say.

haitch pee said...

Okay, dipping my toe into waters in which I have never taken any lessons so please don't laugh as I flap my arms about (read: my religious practice growing up was limited to reading the story of Jesus's birth on Christmas eve. Before turning to "The Night Before Christmas", of course).

I agree with some of what you say, Minako, and also some of Deadwriter's points. Which is to say that it infuriates me when religion is used as a reason for policies that I don't believe in - for example, making it difficult for groups working to prevent the spread of/treat HIV/AIDS to work with sex workers. But I also hate being preached to by radical activists, who I think can be far less helpful than the more religiously-skewed ones. (this is not to suggest that you're in favor of tossing bricks at embassies, btw)
On the other hand, i would rather see aid work done in a completely secular way. On the third hand, I think that this is unrealistic. I agree with Deadwriter's suggestion that aspects of religion for the faithful seem to have a great deal to do with 'this world', whether it's making it more understandable, providing ideas about how to live, or what have you. Not to mention the fact that the Catholic Church, at least, has a vast network and huge amounts of resources. So much the better if some of this gets channeled into some form of humanitarian aid.

Deadwriter's story about the soup kitchen also made me wonder if the religious part of such missions isn't more for the people conducting them. Which doesn't dismiss it's importance or potential to get in the *way* of what those of us less faithful heathens might consider more important goals. But while some who get food from such a place might then develop an interest in the Church or find/strenghten their faith, it's just as possible that some simply don't. I mean, if many different people around the world have long adapted local versions of the Christianity hoisted upon them, surely they are also capable of reacting in their own ways, according to their own needs, to religion that accompanies current missions.

Because caveats are the way of the evening, and seem necessary in such conversations, let be me very explicit that I'm not apologizing for colonialism or any of its neo- varieties here. I'm perhaps imagining the more benign scenarios of religion being infused into aid like those that Deadwriter outlined. And I'm simply trotting out the old adage that there will also be resistence. Even if it doesn't have a structural effect, I find it important to bear in mind.

Perhaps that's me being idealistic/naive in the face of the structural inequalities that riddle the world, but I still think that it's important to bear in mind.

Me said...

Deadwriter: Who's this Jersus guy anyway?


I'm sorry...I had to point that out :)

Me said...

Okay, here's my serious response to your post:

I agree with many of the things you are saying. I am not, and have never been a relgious person and I have never felt the need to believe in Jesus or follow the way of Jesus in order to have a full and complete life. I also believe that I am still a very good person with excellent morals despite not having religion and/or Jesus in my life.

I agree with much of the point your blog makes, however, I would have to say that many people simply find comfort in believing in and (maybe in a figurative sense) following what Jesus says to do in life. Sure, people say, "I am doing what Jesus Would do" but then they'll do something that is completely the opposite later. People are not perfect and make poor decisions, and sometimes they might even believe that because they are doing something good on one hand, that this bad thing on the other will be "cancelled out" somehow. Perhaps that's what Bush is thinking. I am not in the minds of these individuals, I am merely speculating. I do know that many people simply find comfort in believing. And that can't be so bad.

Me said...

PS - I know I only touched on a part of what you are saying, but it's early and I will respond to the rest of your blog a little later in the morning.

Tricky said...

Mmmk. First of all, it's almost idiotic to ask what would Jesus do, because first of all, he did it, and secondly, no one can do what Jesus did; that is, if you ascribe to Jesus' divinity, which most WWJDers believe.

I agree with Deadwriter, it sort of feels like you're lumping all Christians together in a homogenous mass. Like, if you were explaining Ireland in terms of the IRA.

Christianity is not about morality. A lot of people miss that. But ultimately, you can be a fantastic moral person, but it doesn't mean anything to God. I dunno, the verse goes something like 'man's righteousness is like dirty rags in comparison'. Look at it like this – Heaven is a big white house. Like, white shag carpets, white upholstery, white curtains, etc. And everyone, and I mean everyone is covered with mud. Doesn’t have anything do with how nice you are, how great your day went, standing in that front porch, you’re covered with mud. Luckily, Jesus is there with the hose. So, if you ask him, he’ll hose you off, and you can go relax in the Big White Den.

The reasons why Christians are supposed to do nice things like taking care of our brothers in sisters is simple: God told us to do that with the whole ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ thing. We’re supposed to look out for each other, because Christians love God, and like good kids, we want our Daddy to be proud of us. Daddy likes us to be moral, and so there we are.

Husband did missionary work. He built folk houses, and after a day of travel and labour, there was a sermon. The people did not have to go, the houses would be built anyways, but they did go to the sermons, and he does not ever feel that his time abroad was wasted by preaching in the evenings. There is, in short, no reason not to do both. The impression that you’re giving by your essay is that a lot more would get done if people would just let the Jesus thing go, but you know, when working at the soup kitchen, no one was handing out jack chick tracts or even ostensibly mentioning God. There was a prayer right before the people ate, and that’s it.

You’re right. Belief in Jesus, or any other religious figure is not going to make rape go away, or disease, or famine. Belief in Jesus is love, and love is a choice. Choose to love God, hopefully you’ll want to do something to make him proud of you. But people are people, and as a species, we’re sort of lazy.

Life is not a test of faith, although life frequently tests faith. Life is life, and again, I can’t help but feel that you are aiming your vitriol somewhat unfairly. After all, Dubya’s own church isn’t proud of their son.


eric said...

i understand your frustration.

however, a lot of the problems are nuanced, as i see it. it's all about the application.

no doubt many of the worst atrocities known to humankind were done in the name of god.

but that's religion, not christianity. you might be more jaded about religion (which is our convention, not god's).

before i go on, i want to address an assertion ... "In fact, he really just wanted the freedom of his people (who were the Jews, by the way, not Christians)."

jesus really wasn't concerned about freedom for jews in particular. they were actually kind of disappointed in his incarnation. they thought the messiah was supposed to be a muhammed-like conqueror.

part of that disappointment was in jesus speaking to EVERYONE. he was about saving everyone, to the point of encouraging us to look beyond the rituals of judaism (re: religion vs. faith).

peter and paul had heated debates over circumcision for this reason.

to the point ... i think the problems with the efforts to "save" is one of delivery.

my particular belief in terms of "ministering" is to live my life as best i can under the basic tenets of my faith. do well by others, live through life's challenges and offer guidance to any who might be interested in my ideas.

to me, profession isn't asking people "are you saved?" it's more integral and subtle.

for instance, i sometimes counsel friends and even loose acquaintances (only if sought out) about the intracacies of bipolar disease (which i suffer from).

i explain the medical aspects, assure that it's ok ... and then explain that, for me, personally, and just me, that my belief in jesus is the only way i could reach a point where any treatment would work.

that is miracle, and not in the sense that so many people question why miracles don't happen if god exists.

sometimes i think people are trying to "save" people because they themselves are wracked with fear. it's not our job to judge what someone needs. only to offer example and comfort and to not be afraid to express our beliefs.

so ... that's what i think.