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The Rev. Madison Shockley is a minister of the United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif. and a regular commentator on religion, race, politics and popular culture....
The Truth About Jesus
So Who Is Jesus Today?
Liberation theology is a branch of Christian theology that understands God to be primarily at work in the world for the liberation of the oppressed. It draws from the foundational story of the Israelite Exodus (Exodus 3:16), the Israelite prophetic tradition and the teachings and preaching of Jesus. Liberation theologians see a clear and consistent “preferential option for the poor.” So whether they are peasants in Latin America, or black people in the United States or women or gay and lesbian people, liberation theology identifies Jesus with the interpretation of the marginalized in each of these theologies.
For black liberation theology, Jesus is poor and black. James Cone’s famous declaration in 1968, “Jesus is black,” caused no little controversy in religious circles. The claim by black theology that “Jesus is black” (note the present tense) had a converse claim with both theological and ethnic implications: “Jesus was not white” (note the past tense). Its claim was that the Eurocentric world produced by an imperialistic Christianity was as much a distortion of the Jesus movement as the popular artists’ renderings of a white-skinned, blond-haired and blue-eyed Jesus were to a Palestinian peasant who lived at the nexus of the African and Asian continents. The assertion that Jesus was not white sent a shudder through mainstream Christianity. Suddenly, Christianity was forced to confront its own racism and examine its traditional religion that had baptized Western culture and condemned developing nations to poverty and colonial subservience.
The claim that Jesus is black, or gay, or a woman or a peasant is not an assertion about Jesus’ identity. It is more about what each of these theologies understands as the central focus of Jesus’ ministry today. A popular phrasing of this approach simply asks, “What would Jesus do?” It’s less about Jesus’ identity and more about with whom Jesus would identify. Seekers usually find that identification outside the four walls of the church.
Conversely, traditional mainline churches continue to hold themselves out as the embodiment of the continuing presence of Jesus—whether the Roman pontiff as the vicar of Christ, or the Anglican, Lutheran and Methodist claims of apostolic succession for their bishops or the Protestant focus on the local gathering of Christians in the church (derived from the Greek ekklesia) as the “body of Christ.”
So, is there a meaningful way to speak of Jesus Christ? There probably is not. To speak of Jesus is to continue the “quest,” to continue to draw out implications for who this man was. To speak of (the) Christ is to assert a faith that can be defined, in historical fashion, according to the needs of one’s own constituency. Traditional Christians will continue to live quietly in their personalized religion with their forgiving Christ who absolves them of sin, promises them heaven when they die and motivates them to pious behavior until that day. Liberal Christians will continue to ignore the more miraculous elements of the Bible and of Jesus’ story but maintain their embrace of the Israelite prophetic tradition and the social justice implications of Jesus’ teaching and preaching. The real battle will be between the fundamentalist Christians on the right and the progressive Christians on the left.
Fundamentalism has a voracious evangelical appetite. It is not enough that its adherents be convinced that they are correct. They must convince the world to believe the same as they do. Not only must they convince the world, they must transform the world, and those who oppose their transformation are no less than evil incarnate, because they are opposing the true will of God as it has been revealed to them. Traditional, liberal and even progressive Christianities don’t even have an oar in the water when it comes to resisting the overwhelming current that is fundamentalism. This is true in Islam as well as in Christianity.
Progressive Christianity is beginning to fight back. The Westar Institute (sponsors of the Jesus Seminar), The Center for Progressive Christianity and dozens of regional “progressive” Christian movements are starting to speak loudly (using the media) and forcefully against what they see are the dangerous distortions of the meaning and message of Jesus by fundamentalists. Progressive Christianity, grounded in an intellectually rigorous study of the historical Jesus, committed to a vision of social, economic and political democracy, radically open to all varieties of religious expression (more than one path up the mountain to God) and understanding the need to build strong communities of faith is beginning to make its mark in many parts of the United States, Canada, the U.K. and Australia in particular.
The truth about Jesus will continue to be the fulcrum that each side seeks to leverage against the other. This investigation, known as a “dig” in Truthdig parlance, will continue to monitor and map that struggle as this new dispensation of the “religion wars” comes into full view.
Suggested Reading List
“The New Oxford Annotated Bible With Apocrypha” (New Revised Standard Version), edited by Bruce Metzger and Roland Murphy
“Once and Future Faith,” Karen Armstrong (Editor), Don Cupitt, Arthur J. Dewey, Robert W. Funk, Lloyd Geering, Roy W. Hoover, Robert J. Miller, Stephen J. Patterson, Bernard Brandon Scott, John Shelby Spong
“The Historical Jesus Goes to Church,” Roy Hoover, et al.
“Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith,” Marcus Borg
“Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally,” Marcus Borg
“Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile” John Shelby Spong
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