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Thinking Out Loud

You Don't Have to be Mean or Stupid to Follow Jesus

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 23, 2015

You Don't Have to be Mean or Stupid to Fololow JesusRecently the Reverend Charlene Han Powell, associate pastor for education and engagement at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, introduced me to an adult Christian education class that I was teaching at FAPC by repeating something I have said on several occasions: "You don't have to be mean or stupid to follow Jesus." Hearing someone repeat your words back to you is a lot like looking in a mirror. And I am grateful to Charlene for making me reflect anew on what really has become a personal conviction.

These days, religious fervor seems to drive our country, and maybe our whole world, toward divisions fueled by anger, fear, ignorance and hatred. Not too long ago, while channel surfing, I was struck by the sheer volume of human noise - the rancor, incivility, abuse and vitriolic fury (real and pretended!) spouting from people who were sometimes literally shouting past one another. Packaged as "commentary," what was on display was a kind of vile consumer product, the appetite for which is ginned-up by distrust and fear of others. (Just to be clear about this: The programs I saw represented both "liberal" and "conservative" political ideologies and paid pundits for both major parties.)

Sadly, faith does not seem to serve as much of an antidote to this sort of product. If anything, faith just becomes part of the mix.

One religious leader implies that you can't be a "real Christian" unless you agree with him and his ilk. While another speaks contemptuously of those who are not "faithful" enough to join her group and share her views. Some decry the violence, hatred and radical exclusivism of another faith while (unconsciously?) fanning just such exclusivist flames among those who share their kind of Christianity. I recall a wonderful sermon I heard Fred Craddock preach years ago in which he claimed that the "dirtiest word" in the English language is "exclusive." Well, it is certainly one of the dirtiest.

It all brings to mind that shortest verse in the Bible which we all learned as children, "Jesus wept." Although Jesus is seen in this passage (John 11:35) weeping with the sisters of Lazarus after his friend died (and before he raises Lazarus from the grave), I have often wondered what else Jesus might have wept over.

There's a great line in an old Woody Alan movie, Hannah and Her Sisters. The character, a curmudgeonly artist, is commenting on watching some religious program on television. He speculates that if Jesus came back to Earth now and saw this kind of thing, he couldn't stop "throwing up." Maybe he's right, but I suspect that Jesus might just weep. Lamentations are in order.

There are those who choose to define their faith according to whom they hate and whom they fear. I cannot bring myself to believe that this is the way of Jesus Christ, although it does seem to have been the way of some of the people who bitterly opposed Jesus for the most righteous of reasons.

The generosity of spirit, the moral courage and devotion to mercy that characterize Jesus' great Sermon on the Mount (which I believe is the essential text for understanding the way of Jesus) embraces a spirit as expansive as the whole universe. Jesus refuses to define the neighborhood of God according to tribal, cultural or racial distinctions, or self-interest, enlightened or otherwise. We've all seen the bumper sticker, "Hatred is Not a Family Value." Neither is hatred a Christian one, not if Jesus is our guide.

We simply must find ways to disarm those who hate without resorting to hatred and violence ourselves. We must also find ways to dismantle the hatred that hides deep in our own hearts.

I believe that love, not merely as an affection but as a positive power for the sake of grace, is the key. Love, as exemplified by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi before him.* Such love rakes the hatred from our own hearts. As I said in a recent blog post, such love is a refiner's fire purging the hateful dross from us.

Following Jesus just doesn't sit well with meanness and smallness of spirit. Neither does it require us to crouch in fear, afraid of thinking, suspicious of knowledge, resistant to new ideas and the best research in every field - scientific, historical, cultural and religious.

Yet there are those who "brand" their Christianity by saying faith and knowledge can't go together. There are even religious folks - and quite a few irreligious ones as well - who staunchly maintain that Christians must be suspicious of education and that Christians cannot pursue the humanities and the sciences. All the while John Calvin reminds us that all true wisdom and knowledge comes from God. And Calvin, whom some of the most rigidly anti-scientific religious folk claim as their patron saint, was both a Christian and a Humanist. (His first book, we should remember, was on the pagan Stoic philosopher, Seneca.)

We don't have to be anxious that the larger our understanding grows, the smaller God will become. God is not a delicate fabric we must keep out of the hot water of human inquiry. God is strong enough and durable enough never to be threatened by the increase of our knowledge and the expansiveness of our curiosity. God is big enough to encourage us to know as much as we possibly can. The expansion of human wisdom leads to deeper awe of God not to lessened faith.

No, we do not have to be mean or stupid, cruel or ignorant to follow Jesus of Nazareth. I still stand by these words. If we want to show a family resemblance to our creator and heavenly parent, Jesus shows us a more excellent way.

After all, when Jesus sent his twelve disciples out (Matthew 10:16), as he said, "like sheep among wolves," he encouraged them to be "as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves," not to be bird-brained snakes in the grass!


*See Dr. King's interview with Kenneth B. Clark, for example, in which he says, "I think of love as something strong and that organizes itself into powerful direct action." James M. Washington, editor, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper, 1986) 335.

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