Religion, Power, and the Radicalness of Jesus

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Art Display at Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts & Culture, Bethlehem 

One of the most painful learnings of my time in the Holy Land was recognizing the danger of religion getting wrapped up with power. One cannot hear the stories of the people of Israel and Palestine without glimpsing the dark side of religion, without witnessing the oppression, pain, and violence that emerges when one religious group fights to suppress the voices of another in order to secure their own place on top of the sociopolitical ladder. It is a vicious cycle; my own Christian heritage (particularly my German Lutheran heritage) cannot deny its own history of antisemitism and its devastating role in the Holocaust. Today, one cannot visit Jerusalem and the West Bank without coming face to face with the reality of religious and political groups vying for power and control in order to grasp their own freedom from powers of oppression that have been inflicted upon them. The weight of the horrors of what humanity can inflict upon each other in the face of fear is truly devastating. Mass annihilations of an entire people. Separation walls. Military check points. Denial of books and education. Suicide bombings. Occupation.

Despite my best attempts to avoid watching things that I know are undoubtedly going to make me angry, as I was flipping through the channels last night I got sucked into the tail end of the GOP Debate.  I was again struck with the entanglement of religion and power happening in my own country. Our own Christian history in the U.S. often looks a lot like this: We have faith in the Almighty to help us become a powerful nation, to grant us good fortune, and to side with us (and only us), to make us a superior people. In a season of campaigns, our conversations about religions are laced with war rhetoric. We are taught to fear the other: the immigrant, the refugee, our African American brothers and sisters, people whose gender identity or sexual orientation doesn’t fit into our neat definition of what love looks like. We are taught to fear those who threaten our [read: white, straight, upper-middle class, privileged] sense of identity by speaking their truth of oppression.

To hear another’s story, to see the humanity behind a label, to truly come alongside someone whose life experience differs from ours requires incredible vulnerability. It puts our own self-constructed identity at risk. (Allow me to indulge in my love of psychology for a second.) We like to think we’re good people; we construct narratives to understand who we are, and most of the time these narratives portray ourselves in a positive light. Having a healthy, positive identity is a good thing; blindly oppressing and inflicting violence upon fellow human beings for the sake of our own egos is not. Facing the reality of the oppressed and recognizing ourselves, our people, our histories among the oppressors puts us in a state of psychological disequilibrium. We are faced with cognitive dissonance: what we thought we knew about ourselves does not match up with the new information we are receiving about ourselves and our place in the world. It is an uncomfortable, painful place to be. Our natural instinct may be to resort to defensiveness, to restore our own sense of dignity. To justify our privileged place in this world, to excuse ourselves from the web of blame and guilt we are suddenly caught in, to insist that it is not our fault, that we really, truly are good people. We might do this by objectifying the very people we are oppressing, by writing their story off as insignificant, false, over-exaggerated. By assuming that “those people” are all the same: lazy, uneducated, violent, less sophisticated, two-dimensional. We certainly can’t be held accountable for their place in society.

Yet, I look at Jesus and nothing about this man, this God who takes on flesh and is born in a manger in a Middle Eastern town, who announces that he has come “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18) cooperates with our traditional ideas of power. Nothing about Jesus lets me off the hook when I am forced to confront my own level of privilege, when I am forced to face the ways in which my actions oppress others. Nothing about Jesus allows me to ignore the cycles of fear and oppression afflicting my own country: Police brutality. Mistreatment of immigrants. Turning away refugees in desperate need of asylum. Dehumanizing our Native American brothers and sisters. Patriarchy that still infuses nearly every aspect of our culture.

I’m not saying any of these issues has a simple fix. I am only saying that if my faith practices do not call me into a place of discomfort as I examine the systems that serve me but inflict immeasurable pain on my sisters and brothers here and around the world, we have a pretty serious problem. If our Christian faith serves only to boost our own egos, to only tell us the ways in which we are right and superior and entitled, I think we need to ask ourselves if we really know anything about this Jesus of whom we speak.

Thankfully, the same God who calls me into this place of discomfort also provides me with abundant, overflowing, unimaginable grace even as I recognize my own status as an oppressor. But I think we can hardly comprehend the beauty of this grace, love, and mercy from our throne of privilege and entitlement. It is only when we recognize our own profound need for forgiveness that we can even begin to celebrate the radicalness of the Gospel message for both the oppressor and oppressed. And it is when we taste the abundance of grace that we are moved into action and are invited into God’s reality breaking into the here and now.  But more on the grace stuff later. I tasted a lot of it in the Holy Land. 🙂

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