The reported spike in anti-Islamic attacks in the United States, including the burning of a mosque in my home state of Tennessee, leads me to believe that the Evangelical Christian machinery wrapped around Jesus today views him in a way that makes other religions a threat. That threat was tragically realized in Oslo last week leaving 76 people dead from a religious division couched in the name of Christianity, not in the name Christ…or Jesus of Nazareth if you asked me.
But why should you listen to me?
I’m just some guy who’s now an outsider to organized religion. It’s true that I have a Masters of Divinity degree, was trained for ministry at the largest Christian church in North America, and was a successful Senior Pastor of my own church for many years. But that was all before I walked away from corporate Christianity and took my place among all the nobodies of the world, no longer one of the religious somebodies running a church.
Why should you listen to me? I’m just a former pastor-turned-author who receives disapproving emails from Christians after discovering my latest blog post about my friendships with people of different religions or those with no religion at all. Even in a society that supposedly promotes free speech, my voice is shut out of certain Christian circles under the accusation of my being a “universalist,” which is a dirty word to those Christians who draw a religious line in the sand and insist you are either for Jesus or against him, which makes accepting people of different faiths fraternizing with “the enemy.”
This was the same mentality motivating Anders Behring Breivik in the Oslo massacre, who was found to have ties with a U.S. religions group Knights Templar. The Knights Templar trace their origin back to the 11th century Crusades, which were Christian sanctioned military campaigns to rid the Holy Land of Muslims. A 1,500-page manifesto believed to be authored by Breivik speaks of carrying out brutal attacks to stop “the ongoing Islamic Colonization of Europe.”
But again, why should you listen to me? I’m just a guy with a conviction, a conviction that Jesus stands with all humankind and equally affirms the divine worth of every human being, whatever their religion. My most recent book is about Jesus as a unifier. After submitting this manuscript to a major orthodox Christian publisher with whom I was signed to write 2 books, my contract was canceled because the book’s message did not “lie within the bounds of biblical, orthodox Christianity.” This in spite of being signed with this publisher because they had expressed a desire to reach a non-traditional Christian readership, which I had succeeded in doing with my first two critically acclaimed books.
The hallmark of Christianity seems to have become who is excluded, which can include anything from a theological litmus test to what you wear to church on Sunday mornings. Since leaving institutional church and writing about my journey of shedding religion to find God, I have received hundreds of emails from other nobodies who feel judged and marginalized by Christianity, including Wanda the Waffle House waitress who’s only crime is having tattoos and wearing her Waffle House uniform to church, where people stare at her like she’s a whore and avoid talking to her after the service.
I wish I could tell Wanda and every person that they are born into this world as complete and whole human beings with equal worth to God as Jesus of Nazareth. In the eyes of the religious establishment we might be nobodies but we are divine nobodies, as much a child of God as that nobody Nazarene carpenter. This is the message I would like to get through to fellow survivors of childhood abuse. It’s the message I would have wanted to express to the 10-year-old girl sex slaves I encountered in brothels in Southeast Asia in my work as a human rights activist. As an ordained minister, it’s the message I wanted to deliver to a Christian friend who said, “I am a piece of shit to God, which is why I need Jesus.” It is very difficult to convince people that they are good and beautiful human beings when religion has sufficiently convinced them that they are “sinners” and despicable to God. It’s also difficult to deliver this message when institutional Christianity has convinced us that acknowledging the divine in every human is a betrayal of God.
But once again, why should you listen to me? The last few years off the grid and under the radar of institutional Christendom, I have been unpacking Jesus’ divine nobody message in my own life. I began thinking of myself as Jim of Nashville, and set out to “be Jesus” for the world where I live. Time and time again I saw how the greatest need among people was to simply know of their inherent goodness and worth as human beings and feel the stamp of God’s approval.
So, I became the stamper! Whether it was my next-door neighbor, my car mechanic, Facebook friends, or the homeless in Nashville, I began relating to everyone as if they were Jesus just like me, complete and whole in God’s eyes just as they are and who can be instruments of love and peace in the world. It became common for me to encourage people to see that their own names could be written into Christianity’s most popular Bible verse, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave… Jim of Nashville… Dara or Oakland… Byron of Brooklyn… Abdul of Abilene… Mei-Ling of Shanghai… and Fabian of Oslo.
Now an outsider turned divine nobody, I’ve discovered a message that could change the kind of religious objectification that precipitates a tragedy like Oslo as easily as the disenfranchisement of a waitress at the Waffle House. But who am I?
Oslo is the latest call to start listening for a message that is bigger than one self, bigger than one tribe, bigger than one nation, and bigger than one religion. That’s the difference between propping up some abstraction called “Christ” versus learning to be Jesus in your own community, in your own nation and in the world. What would the world you live in look like if you were being Jesus in your neck of the woods?
Some say that I am preaching that Jesus came to “end” religion. But, Jesus was not trying to end religion; he was out to eliminate what doesn’t work about religion for all humankind, not just Christians…or Jews, since he was one. Jesus was both divine and human. That translates into the oneness of humanity not division, power for some, and hatred.
Whatever the fulfillment of religion, it is no more than what Jesus demonstrated during his lifetime. As my friend Steve McSwain recently argued, when Jesus said “I am the way and the truth” he did not mean Christianity is the only way. When Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth, there was no Christian church and Jesus wasn’t a Christian. Jesus had followers of his message not some propped-up, holier-than-thou, figure head divining hatred towards others.
The inflated sense of personalized religious power being expressed not only by extremists but also, subtly and insidiously, by everyday Christians here and abroad only serves to make others the enemy. The real enemy is within; the journey is inward. When will we attack that feeling that we are not whole, complete and perfect just the way we are?
How many more Oslos will there have to be before we finally get, “when you push the demonization of populations, you often end up with violence,” as Heidi Beirich, the research director of the Southern Poverty Law Center said of the tragedy. And what happens when the pusher is Christianity…in the name of some abstract idea of Christ? Oslo gives us a vivid example.
At least, it was inspiring to read a quote passed around Twitter from Fabian Stang, the Mayor of Oslo. It said, “We shall punish the terrorist, and this will be his punishment: more democracy, more tolerance, more generosity.” In that statement Fabian of Oslo was being Jesus.
Sometimes we have to disentangle God from religion, yes even disentangle Christ from Christianity, to find a way and a truth that allows us to fully experience and express with others the divine worth in each and every one. In John 17, Jesus himself said we share the “same glory” given him by God and that this is the basis for all humanity to be “one” with God. I was told in my religious training that it was sacrilege to view myself on equal footing with Jesus. But even Jesus said in John 14:12, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”
Here’s a thought: What if we could all be Jesus for one another in Oslo and in Tennessee? Jesus was special, but not because he was more divine then the rest of us, but because he was courageously more human than most.