By Derek Penwell
Yeah, but What about My Personal Relationship with Jesus?
Growing up, I believed that Jesus cared mostly about my heart. Of course, he cared about whether or not I was nice. But in the end, Jesus’ biggest concern centered on having a “relationship with me.”
I find something very reassuring about that. I like that Jesus, this cosmically significant being, cares about me, wants to spend time with me. After all, I’m just a pigeon-toed mouth-breather from the Midwest. What possible value could a “relationship” with me have?
It made me feel special.
But special’s a double-edged sword. This whole “personal relationship with Jesus” thing also fed my burgeoning adolescent self-absorption.
Jesus died just for me? Just so he could live in my heart?
I’ll bet Jesus likes the same kind of stuff I like. I mean, if he lives in my heart, my heart has to be a pretty hospitable place, right?
And though I possessed good enough manners never to say so, I got the impression that Jesus preferred my white middle-class life. Why wouldn’t he?
My life, while not courageously virtuous, remained at least politely virtuous.
I didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about others, about whether they had enough food, or could find jobs that paid them a living wage. I never lost a night’s sleep trying to figure out how to help realize a world in which people didn’t have to fear that they wouldn’t be welcome because of some characteristic attached to them in virtue of the vagaries of birth, or whether other people could track down the kind of care they needed to keep their children healthy and safe. It never occurred to me that other people were my responsibility.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t taught to love other people. I was. That was extremely important. But loving other people meant possessing a certain kind of attitude toward them. Loving other people meant being favorably disposed toward them … feeling love toward them.
My love of people certainly required that I not actively do harm to them, but it didn’t require that I rearrange my world to make certain that theirs was livable.
Jesus, the one who lived in my heart, was much more concerned about whether I cussed or fought with my brother, about whether I cheated on my math workbook or ate my sister’s candy without permission. I suspected he was grieved by the poverty and injustice I knew lurked in the world, but it never occurred to me that those realities placed any real move-the-existential-furniture-around kind of responsibility on me.
Now, I realize this is a bit odd, since my maternal grandparents gave up everything to move down to Mexico the year before I was born to establish a children’s home. I spent summers living in a children’s home in another country. But I believed that the children’s home was, in some simplistic sense, an evangelistic assembly-line.
That sounds much crasser than I mean for it to sound, since my grandparents were my heroes. However it happened, whether because I heard it explicitly or because I deduced it from comments made by my grandfather, I believed that my grandparents were motivated first by saving (in the grand Evangelical sense of the word) children’s hearts, prior to being motivated by saving (in the lowly Social Gospel sense of the word) children’s lives. That’s not to say, I should be quick to point out, that they weren’t concerned with the health and safety of the children they took to raise—they were. (They considered the children in their care, in many ways, to be their own.) It is to say, however, that health and safety were secondary concerns to salvation in some larger heavenly sense.
I believed the world existed primarily as a stopping off point, as a training ground for some better, more “real” celestial existence somewhere down the road. What you do in this life is only important inasmuch as it adds or subtracts from the ledger that will be read out in front of the whole world on judgment day. Other things, things like justice and peace and hospitality, were important in some vague way that wasn’t immediately apparent to me, except that I knew I needed to be on the right side of the issue from the standpoint of personal moral accountability.
“What does that mean?”
Let me see if I can clarify the difference in this way. As a child, growing up in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, I was taught that everybody is equal, regardless of race. A cultural shift was under way in the late 60s, early 70s (at least in the Midwest of my childhood), with respect to what it was now unacceptable to believe and say about other human beings. Where ten years before there might have been a certain disapprobation about the unseemliness of using racial epithets like the n-word, the post-Civil Rights world of my childhood in the nation’s suburban heartland began to see it as not only impolite but as fundamentally wrong.
On a more personal level, I knew there were certain words I was forbidden to utter—outright profanity, some marginal (and therefore questionable) slang, and racial name calling. I could get in just as much trouble in my house for using the n-word as I could for using the f-word.
Why is that? For one thing, both were just “ugly” words—words my grandfather would have called “vulgar”—words that only “common” people used. That is to say, both those words made you sound like you regularly mixed with wrong sort of people—something Christians were assiduously discouraged from doing.
The other reason I think we weren’t permitted to use “language”—as in, “What kind of language is that for a Christian to use?”—was because it was thought to stain something profoundly within us, something that threatened “our relationship with Christ.” We didn’t say that kind of thing because, of course, it wounded the people about whom we were speaking (which is against the cardinal rule that covers being unfailingly nice), but more importantly because it put our relationship with Christ at risk. And putting your relationship with Christ at risk had eternal implications.
But here’s the thing: Though I was discouraged from using racially offensive language on a personal level, I never made the connection with a larger system of racial injustice that produced people capable of speaking about other human beings in that way. I was never taught that just refraining from using the n-word was only the beginning of Christian responsibility to other people whom God created.
On balance, I grew up feeling justified when it came to the issue of racism. I never owned slaves. Nobody I knew ever owned slaves. It never occurred to me that to evaluate somebody for a job or a friendship or as a lover on the basis of race was ever acceptable. I didn’t use the n-word. What else could possibly be expected of me?
Activists weren’t my people. My people didn’t march; we didn’t agitate; we didn’t “sit in”; we didn’t advocate. Not that those things were necessarily wrong—or even that it would have been actively frowned upon. It’s just that I never made the connection between my responsibilities to the world I lived in and what I thought it meant to follow Jesus—apart from what it might mean for my personal salvation.
The Problem I Think Many Young People Have with the Church
The whole personal relationship thing kept me going through childhood and adolescence; it seems perfectly suited to adolescence, which occupies much of its waking time with questions about personal relationships. That is to say, I take it that the whole point of adolescence is to help us see how the rest of the world relates to us.
Growing up, on the other hand, dramatically shifts the focus to the ways we’re related to the rest of the world. I know that’s a fine distinction linguistically. In practice, though, it makes all the difference in the world.
In beginning to understand the worth of things, if the center of gravity is me—then everything has a relative value only in relationship to me. You become more or less important depending on what part you play in my personal psychodrama. This seems to me to describe my practical understanding of things when I was a teenager.
However, as I’ve grown up (or perhaps that’s what growing up really is), I’ve begun to see that people and things have a value independent of their relationship to me. You have your own projects and dreams that are just as important to you as mine are to me. You aren’t, in other words, a bit player (or worse) a handy prop in the “Theater of Derek.”
“Please get to the point.”
Ok. The kind of faith that shaped me as a young Evangelical tended toward abstraction.
“What? What does that even mean?”
How about this? It rarely occurred to me that my responsibility for the world and its inhabitants extended much beyond how my personal salvation might be affected.
“Wow! That seems pretty cold. I know plenty of Evangelicals who are warm, and who genuinely care about others and the world they inhabit. Don’t you think that’s kind of an unfair characterization?”
It is certainly broad, I’ll admit. I’m certainly not indicting all of Evangelicalism as self-absorbed soteriological narcissists, like I was; that would be unfair. What I am saying, however, is that that was my experience of it. And perhaps more importantly, because it’s an easy stereotype, it’s the view many young people have of Evangelicals.
Which stereotype would be one thing if so many people didn’t mistake Evangelicalism as a synonymous placeholder for Christianity.
In my work with Millennials and Gen-Xers, among those who’ve dropped out of church, I regularly run into the assumption that Christianity is primarily about saving your own spiritual bacon.
“Screw the planet! Screw everyone else! As long as I get my own heavenly bus pass stamped, I’ve done what Jesus asked me to do.”
Now, whether that’s a fair characterization is another argument. That it is common, however, means the church, if it is to have any hope of connecting with these young people, is going to have to address it. “It,” in this case, is what I call “The Jesus Gap.”
The Jesus Gap
“If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do.”
Reason, Faith, and Revolution
There’s a gap. I’m convinced of it. A gap—a Jesus gap.
There is a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional view of the church among Millennials and Gen-Xers. This dissatisfaction has any number of causes, which the disaffected would name as anti-institutionalism, hypocrisy, judgmentalism, etc. But there’s one area of vexation that always seems to come up: The Jesus Gap.
People, especially young people, are having trouble squaring the Jesus they read about in the Gospels with the infinitely malleable Jesus they see placed on offer by popular Christianity—Jesus as personal genie, Jesus as chief security guard at the courthouse of private morality, Jesus as a cheerleader for free-market capitalism, etc.
In my work with Millennials and Gen-Xers we often return to the same complaint: “The Jesus I read about in the Gospels doesn’t look like the Jesus I hear about in church.” Whether it’s Jesus as a clearinghouse for heavenly bus passes or Jesus as Affirmer-in-Chief whose primary function revolves around endorsing middle-class American values, emerging generations are having a difficult time making the connection between Jesus-as-he-appears-in-the-bible and Jesus-as-he’s-portrayed-by-his-most-vocal-supporters.
And that’s a horrible shame. Because Jesus, stripped of the layers of religious spackling used to domesticate him, is irremediably subversive.
Subversive. That appeals to me. Of course, I’d like to continue writing clinically, about the religious climate shift underway at the hands of restless “young people,” fed up with a tame Jesus. I’d like to make it sound as though I’m just a disinterested observer of religious trends. But the truth is that I too find myself growing dissatisfied with that image of Jesus.
After all these years of a Jesus who I thought would help make me _______ (holier? kinder? more spiritual? more self-actualized?), I’ve come to believe that Jesus has a more cosmic, more interesting agenda in mind than super-tuning my soul.
On my way to spiritual superstardom, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to squeeze past Jesus, who stands in the middle of the road pointing to the weak, the homeless, the sick, the widowed, the displaced and un-embraced.
Following Jesus. I think it boils down to that, really.
I’ve struggled for some time with the realization that when the church fails—as it often does—it fails most egregiously in giving people the resources necessary for the outrageously radical act of following Jesus. My reading of emerging generations has led me to conclude that there is increasing energy around the simple idea that followers of Jesus ought to embody the revolutionary spirit found in the Gospels.
I’ve tried. I’ve put forth a valiant effort. But I can no longer envision Jesus the way I once did. I can’t, for the life of me, picture Jesus saying, “Healthcare isn’t a right; it’s a privilege."
I can’t figure out a way to get Jesus to say, “Homosexuality is a capital crime; but fleecing the poor is a misdemeanor.”
I can’t get a line on a libertarian Jesus who seriously advocates ignoring the plight of those on the margins, those who are systematically ignored by structures designed to defer to the interests of those in power at the center.
I’m trying to track down, but as of yet have been unable to find, where Jesus says, “If you fear someone will strike you on one cheek, dial in a Predator drone.”
The church has too often been asked to give religious cover to moralities that were conceived absent the theological reflection provided by the church. I find that the gap between the revolutionary Jesus of first century Jerusalem and the domesticated Jesus of twenty-first century America grows more difficult for me to span all the time.
In the final analysis, the good news of the reign of God is not first that the well-taken care of will be even more well taken care of in the next life.
The good news of the reign of God is that God’s reign is present wherever the homeless are sheltered, wherever the hungry are fed, wherever the rich give away their money and power in defense of the poor, wherever the forgotten ones gather to be remembered and embraced, to be told that as long as we follow God, not one of God’s children will be left to die alone and unloved.
After all these years it occurs to me that Jesus does indeed love my heart. Only now I realize that my heart is connected to just about everything else.