I’m thinking most of my readers have probably heard about this by now, but in case not, read this. It’s about an Iranian-American pastor who is a convert from Islam, who is imprisoned in Tehran for spreading the gospel, as it supposedly is a threat to national security.
In the past two years or so, since the Occupy Wall Street became well-known, it has become very common to Occupy _____, that is, to call attention to the inadequacies of an entity, and to try to correct it. One such movement has been a group that calls themselves We Occupy Jesus. I was asked the other day by a friend what I thought about them, so I thought I’d write something about it. Below is how the group summarily describes itself:
“A movement for all individuals, regardless of their own personal beliefs or disbeliefs in any god, who identify with the positive message of the Jesus narrative, who can unite under common principles and practical goals to make the world a better place through tolerance, activism, non-violence, and love for all humanity. This organization serves as a meeting place between those from both sides of the God debate. ‘We Occupy Jesus’ is for anyone who is compelled by the life, message, metaphor, or model of Jesus.”
I’ll start by highlighting some things about their goals that I do genuinely sympathize with. Based on the above quote, this organization wants to use the life and teachings of Jesus as a basis for social justice (poverty alleviation, environmental stewardship, ending of slavery and trafficking, etc.) From the Beatitudes to the Rich Young Ruler, to the sheep and goats, to the Magnificat, to the parable of Lazarus, it is very clear one who follows Jesus must be deeply concerned for the most vulnerable in society. This group has rightly pointed to the glaring silence of much of the American evangelical church when it comes to helping the poor, and has instead often clung to right-winged rigidity, even when that rigidity seemed to be in defiance of what Christ taught.
The other quote of theirs I really liked:
“We fear that Capitalism is where the name of Jesus has gone to die. We are not speaking out against Capitalism per say (at least, not today) but what Capitalism does is take, package, market, and sell Jesus (and everything else). The close relationship of Capitalism to Politics only makes matters worse. If you hear the words “Jesus” or “evangelical” or “religion” or “family values” and think “Republican Party” then you know you’ve been conditioned by the American corporate machine. If you hear “Jesus” and immediately think of a political party, a scientific stance, or a particular style of music, you know what we are talking about. We are done letting this status quo continue.”
It’s really hard to argue against this. American evangelicalism (whom I presume this group is primarily reacting against) has in many ways created an apparatus in which things pertaining to Jesus are sold, the church is centered on being hip and relevant, voting Republican (a now thoroughly disliked group in America) and speaking against abortion and gay marriage while ignoring many other moral issues. WOJ has rightly noted the bankrupt nonsense that much of this really is. And I genuinely do hope that in my lifetime, a gospel-centered American church will emerge that cares deeply for the poor and vulnerable, and devotes significant resources to this.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of the movement’s tenets I simply cannot endorse. One example:
“Those of us who began this movement felt that the rift between theism and atheism was growing unnecessarily vast. This rift has also been perpetuated by ignorance, apathy, and special interests. There have been countless movements to reform the Church and organized religion in general, including the intellectual, theological, doctrinal, scholastic, ecclesial, and missional aspects. It is the opinion of “We Occupy Jesus” that such endeavors are noble and those who wish to fight for these goals should feel free to do so. However, the world cannot sit around and wait for such reforms to take place. To be frank, the Church is beyond “fixing” at this point, nor should anyone feel obligated to change the minds of all Christians who disagree with them. Those who identify with the teachings and/or example of Jesus should waste no more time debating metaphysics.”
It is very fashionable in this day and age to want to avoid religious conflict at all costs. Doctrine and theology (“dogma”) are viewed as creating unnecessary divisions in society, and that the only things that REALLY matter are helping poor people and such. I probably somewhat oversimplified right there, but I do believe that is the thrust of many people’s thought processes. I feel that they further miss some of the point here:
“Just as the Occupy Wall Street movement seeks to expose the greed and corruption of the financial institutions of the United States, while also serving as a new platform for creative solutions to change the status quo, “We Occupy Jesus” seeks to take back the narrative of Jesus which has been hijacked by special interests, political parties, religious extremism, and all forces of corruption, bigotry, and false piety. To occupy Jesus means to stand in the middle of the conversation and say you are done being demonized because of the bigotry of the past and the social apathy of the present. The message of Jesus is one of love, service, and self-sacrifice and now is the time to take it back from circles who would pervert that message. Our hope is that one day, the name of Jesus will only be synonymous with love.”
There’s no arguing with the contention that Jesus’ message has been hijacked by some very self-righteous, hypocritical people. However, for too many people, this has come to mean that it is unChristlike to tell anyone else that their views are wrong.
The entire point of Christ’s time on earth, in a nutshell, was to point to humanity’s utter inability to save itself from its sins, i.e. our sins are damning, and Christ’s sacrifice was/is required. And Jesus did not strive to “avoid conflict.” Countless times he called out the Pharisees’ humanistic works-centered salvation with a “woe to you” bit. Or, note another statement: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” He called himself God! Even in one instance that those of more liberal inklings love to cite, where he stopped the adulteress from being stoned, he still said to her, “Go and sin no more.” He did not forsake the notion of individual piety as some seem to think.
Overall, We Occupy Jesus appears to try to turn the “Jesus narrative” into a make-people-feel-good thing devoid of any sense of truth, or of humanity’s inadequacies. They speak often of being inspired by Jesus. However, the Bible, whether you believe it is God’s word or not, is the primary source on the life of Jesus that we have, and if you do not accept his claims of who he is, then his “overall message” should not inspire you. You should view him as either really looney, or a complete charlatan. The other option is that you don’t believe he actually said a lot of the things the gospels record him as saying. But in that case, it remains a daunting task to fish out a few things about the poor and create a coherent message.
While I don’t like everything about John MacArthur’s style, I think he is largely right about this: that movements like We Occupy Jesus, and the consumeristic evangelicalism that they dislike, are really two sides of the same coin. Consider this:
“So you have the postmodern and then you have the market-conscious church – the church that thinks the Gospel is a product; Jesus is a product we have to sell. And in order to sell him effectively we have to overcome consumer resistance and the way to overcome consumer resistance is to simply figure out a message that the consumer won’t resist. So you invent the Jesus that people will like and you invent the Gospel that people will like.
And then you have another component and that is an age in which tolerance seems to dominate, you know sort of the Rodney King theology “can’t we all just get along.” You have to be tolerant of this, tolerant of that. Intolerance is basically the only virtue left in much of our culture.
All of those things mingle together with one other very important thing. Confronting people like Jesus did, confronting people in false religion, confronting people in error, confronting people’s sins, warning them about hell, calling them to repentance, calling them to escape false religion is a very difficult thing to do. And there’s a natural tendency on the part of people to be reluctant to do that because it has negative consequences. If you feed the poor, nobody’s going to make you a martyr. If you proclaim the social gospel, you’ll be a hero on every front.
Preach the truth, call false religion a lie, tell sinners they need to repent of their sin and escape hell by putting their faith in Jesus Christ, there’s no other way, and you’re going to generate hostility. People get martyred all the time, even today in Afghanistan and Sudan and Iran and Iraq and a lot of other places for proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think it’s tough to do that. So I think all these things kind of blend together to sort of suck the life and boldness out of the church … we’re just content to be nice people; hey maybe God’s going to let them into heaven if they do the best they can; I guess you can call it legalism lite. It’s not the heavy legalism of Pharisaism but it’s legalism lite – if you’re a good person you’ll kind of make your way in.
It all comes back to the fact that we’re letting the culture determine the message for us. We’re letting expectation, fear of man rather than Scripture determine our message. And rather than following Jesus in the way he presented the message – on the one hand compassionate with those who are willing to repent, tender toward those in need; on the other hand very antagonistic, literally infuriating the purveyors of false religion until they killed him.”
Disagreeing about things does not automatically lead to violence. In fact, I believe that open debate leads to greater respect. In a rare occurrence, I agree with atheist comedian Penn Jillette about tolerance and religious debate. I think he is dead on in this video.
In conclusion, then, while I like some of the issues that WOJ calls attention to, I think they are miles off the mark about the message of Christ and what it means for us. I therefore cannot in good conscience endorse this movement.