Friday, August 3, 2007

Taking Back Jesus

I can always expect that yearly meeting will bring an intense experience of the Spirit, but can never predict what form that experience will take.

This week at Pacific Yearly Meeting, the significant event was an interest group on 'Taking Back Jesus.'

The group was initiated by John Pixley of Claremont Meeting, a man with a whole-body speech impediment; we often see him zipping about here in his motorized wheelchair--and in meeting, we occasionally strain along with him as he strains to articulate: those of us who've best learned to understand him calling out our guesses until we arrive at last at his message. Last year, his friend Charleen Krueger says she had to make about 10 guesses before she realized he was saying "Jesus." And so they agreed that something needed to be done, and that she should join him in it.

Here is his (typed) statement:

Taking Back Jesus:

Last Fall, a young man that I hired as an attendant would often show up to work wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt, on the front of which he had sewn a picture of a Hindu goddess. I was intrigued by this and told him I thought it was cool. He suggested that I have a picture of Jesus Christ sewn into the bib of my coveralls. "That'd be dope!" he enthused.

Jesus on my bibs! That would be cool, if not dope, I thought. Those who know me know that overalls are what I wear, that they are very much a part of my life. Jesus is also a big part of my life. Most likely because of my significant, in-your-face disability, I have long been attracted to his message of love for the different, the outsider, even the enemy. Why not have Jesus, whom I admire--indeed, love--and try to honor in how I live my life, close to me, on my bib, for all the world to see?

But then I got worried. If I went around sporting a picture of Jesus, people would get the wrong idea about me. Never mind that they would think I was out to convert, or "save" the world. People would think I am a right-wing, fundamentalist nut.

People would see me with my picture of Jesus and think I was saying that women shouldn't be able to get abortions, that gays and lesbians are bad, that it is not only acceptable but honorable to go to war and even start wars, that it is okay to torture people.

This is what many people think of when they think of Jesus--or at least of Christianity. The sad, shameful fact is that Jesus has been taken by conservative Christians, the Christian right, and used as their exclusive spokesman. This man who preached and demonstrated radical love and inclusiveness, who showed it to the world, has been hijacked and made to say that women and gays shouldn't have equal rights, that war is good, that torture is fine.

Jesus has been made to say and condone things that he never said or condoned. How else can President Bush, who is against same-sex marriage and a woman's right to have control over her own body and life, who sanctions war and torture (not to mention the death penalty) not only claim to be a Christian but also claim that Jesus is his most-admired philosopher?

This gives Jesus and Christianity a bad name. Earlier this year I saw 'Jesus Camp', a documentary about a summer camp for Christian fundamentalist kids, and I was struck by how the audience at the college screening was laughing. While much of what is said in the film is outrageous and funny, I came away concerned that Jesus has become a laughing-stock.

Jesus has been used in other hurtful ways. Since I was a young child, people have stopped me on the sidewalk to tell me that if I believe in Jesus, I will be healed. I have even been told that I will walk if I pray to Jesus! The message is less about Jesus and more of a judgement--that in being disabled and in a wheelchair, I am not a complete, whole person, but in need of healing and not worthy (in their eyes, if not Jesus') until I am healed.

I have no doubt that all of these people are sincere and well-intentioned, which makes what they do with Jesus quite disturbing. (Indeed, the director of 'Jesus Camp' said at the screening I attended that Christian fundamentalists have embraced the film.) Is it any wonder that, especially as a disabled--and now gay--man, I have become wary of Jesus or at least of any talk of him? I am sad to say that I am all but ashamed to say that I love Jesus. I notice, when I'm with my gay friends, that they get frightened and angry when I mention Jesus. This is a tragedy.

I wonder how many people who would otherwise consider themselves Christians have been scared off or driven away from Jesus by the way he has been appropriated and misrepresented. Could this be why some or many of us in Pacific Yearly Meeting feel more at home with our safe, warm, universalism than with the old-time, Christocentric Quakerism of George Fox?

It is time to take back Jesus. I want to embrace him as the man of peace and love that he truly was. Indeed, I want to wear him and show him off proudly on my gay, disabled body. I dare say that he, with his world-changing message of all-inclusive love, would like it.

Some thirty to forty of us, gathered in a conference room Wednesday night, resonated with this in our many ways. Our understandings ranged from that of one man who thought of Jesus as merely 'a teacher' to a woman who'd seen Jesus appear before her in a Buddhist meditation hall. (When she asked, what was he doing there, he'd said he needed her to be a Christian!)

One of us confessed a fear that he would have to resign his membership in the Society of Friends. "How can I be faithful to my Lord, if I can't freely say his name in a message?" (I wanted to offer the man all the reassurance I could, but at the end of the meeting he was already surrounded by people comforting and embracing him.)

We still have no answer to Pixley's question; I'm just immensely grateful to him for finally bringing it forward in our yearly meeting. We've needed to do this for a very long time, and now we know.

I myself have wondered for many years, what to make of Jesus. But I like what Charleen Krueger had to say. "I claim the pre-Christian Jesus, the person in whom those around him saw that of God. He met the divine by being fully human, by seeing beyond the boundaries of our fear, by opening his life to all that God means, by being open to life, open to love, open to the work of the Spirit. He calls us to translate his full humanity into a new and inclusive life for ourselves and everyone. I accept his call to share the life-giving power of radical love that knows no boundaries."


david said...

I think most of us with gifts differing have had some well meaning soul try to heal us and then blame OUR lack of faith for the non-miracle. The mainstream Christian equivalent is to theologize: I knew one fellow with MD who was told by a pastor his disability was helping pay for the sins of humanity.

As I was writing this my wife called me over to the television -- the women on a talk show called The View were playing with Jesus Action figures, and a Mary doll, with a pull string that recited the Magnificat.

We are called to test the spirits for not every spirit is of God. And recall that Jesus' work was not done until his body was broken.

Chris M. said...

Forrest: Thanks for your report. I posted John's piece to my blog tonight before reading yours -- sorry!

It was good to talk to you and Anne at Yearly Meeting.

-- Chris Mohr

Blue Gal said...

I'm a newly convinced Quaker (this year). Is there any interest or plans to take this to the internet? Have a "taking back Jesus" interest group or weekly chat room or some such? I'd be happy to help with that. bluegalsblog AT gmail DOT com

Bill Samuel said...

Well "Taking Back Jesus" can really mean trying to make Jesus over in our own ideological image. A careful reading of Jesus may blow that away.

Because Jesus doesn't really fit the right-wing stereotype doesn't mean he really fits a left-wing stereotype. At the time, people had trouble figuring Him out because he didn't fit the usual boxes. We still have that trouble today.

Didn't Jesus stand for the poor, the disadvantaged, those who couldn't speak for themselves readily in society? How could this not include the unborn?

It really seems strange to have a handicapped man arguing for a "right" to abortion. It's often used to kill any unborn child who doesn't meet our definition of "perfect" - they have some "defects" as Hitler would say. Do you really believe that Jesus would favor that? I can't see that.

In the off chance that someone might want to read more of my reflections, I offer this Spiritual Nurture Program (a program of the School of the Spirit, a Quaker Ministry of Prayer and Learning) paper on Reflections on Personal Discernment: The Abortion Issue.

forrest said...

Okay, now we've got our can of worms well-opened. Save the unborn chickens!

Sorry, I'll have mine over easy. Maybe not from one of those chicken Aushwitzes where they cut off beaks to keep critters from pecking each other raw in the crush--but it has to come down to how we treat fellow creatures while they're here.

An egg, a million sperm (flush!)--and if they meet, a zygote... but we're still talking potentials here. Where's the soul of it?--Who's in there? It's a sacred potential, sure enough, not to be casually thrown away, but a cluster of cells is not a human being. We can argue about when we should start calling it human, but the only absolute line is that attributed to GW: "The Right to Life begins at conception and ends at birth." And God has not yet revealed that to me!

If we're not trusting the woman who's going to be faced with the pain, risk, and responsibility for making this a person, we end up trusting the State to indirectly kill large numbers of women in the course of saving these zygotes which we would certainly neglect and brutalize if they ever did arrive in this world where, in current conditions, there is already insufficient food to nourish those already here. [It used to be a distribution problem; it's now one of farming technique and the politics of economic systems and land-use.]

Jesus didn't say a whole lot either about sex or about when the soul enters the body. So who's stretching his teaching, here?

cherice said...

I really appreciate this message, and am encouraged by it. It's unfortunate that Jesus' name and person has been so denigrated by those who claim him but don't live as he did, that those who try to live as he did are embarrassed to use his name! But I think it's important for those of us who are truly trying to live a Christ-like life to claim him in order to restore the true meaning to his name, so that those who hear his name and the name "Christian" in the future have a different and better view of what it means.

I especially appreciated the part about people saying that if Pixley really believed, he'd be healed so he would no longer be handicapped. I appreciate his way of explaining that this assumes he's not whole and the person God wants him to be right now, and explains the judgementalism that suggests that suggests he's not right with God but they are, since they're able-bodied.

Jesus loved those who were broken and not whole by the standards of the world, and called us to do the same. But generally we (myself included, unfortunately) just ignore them or try to "heal" them. Jesus truly saw them as humans, saw their needs, and addressed those needs. I'm sure he would love this "gay, disabled body" and would be proud to have his picture on the bib of his overalls.

Thanks for sharing this, Forrest!

cherice said...

About the abortion issue...that's a tough one. I agree with Bill Samuel that Jesus doesn't fit either the left- or right-wing agenda, and I agree with him that I don't think abortion is the best plan. After having a baby recently, having an ultrasound at 11 weeks and seeing my little boy waving his arms and legs around vigorously and seeing his brain, it's hard to imagine it being OK to just end that life for my own convenience. (And it's different from eating chicken eggs, because usually the eggs we eat are not fertilized. I'm a vegetarian but I don't have a problem with eating unfertilized eggs as long as the chickens who produced them were treated well.)

But I agree with Forrest that there's a lot more that goes into this issue--if we aren't prepared as a society to take care of the children who currently are being aborted, we have no business saying those babies should be born. If we aren't willing to provide birth control free or really cheap to those who can't afford it we can't blame them for having abortions. If we can't do anything about unequal balances of power between the sexes so that women are forced to have unprotected sex, we have no business telling women to give up the only "birth control" available to them. But when possible, I think abortion shouldn't be used as a cover-up for irresponsibility.

In the best of all worlds, abortions wouldn't be necessary...but as it is, what alternatives are there? We have an overpopulation problem as it is! Is it better to never live than to live and not experience love as a child?

So there's my 2 cents (or a little more...)

MartinK said...

My current life circumstances have taken me out of the Quaker intellectual ghetto and closer to what we might call "the real world." One thing I've noticed is that Jesus hang-ups aren't nearly as prevalent as they are within the walls of man Quaker meetinghouses. It's not uncommon that someone will ask if I'm a Christian, then say "good" when I say "yes."

The world's people have plenty of misconceptions about Jesus but His name and His message is not nearly so toxic as we think. If we simply live Christian lives and respond with a simple "yes" when asked our allegiance, many many folks will understand: no need for church history, denominational details and extended exegesis about "well, what do you mean by 'Christian'?"

I suspect the hard work is not taking Jesus back in the world but rather is taking Jesus back into our hearts and following Him where He takes us. I don't believe that this journey need take us out of our Quaker identity but it will challenge us as the deepest level. Once we've done that we can share the good news about the real Jesus and start educating those in the larger Christian fellowship who the tempter has led astray.

Martin@ Quaker Ranter

cherice said...

Amen, Martin!