Quaker Theology #16  -- Fall-Winter 2009

If the Church Were Christian,
Jesus Would Be A Model For Living
Rather Than An Object of Worship

Copyright © by Philip Gulley. Reprinted by permission.

I was born into a mixed marriage. My father hailed from Baptists and my mother from Roman Catholics. My father was religiously indifferent and ceded the spiritual ground to my mother, who took me and my siblings to Mass each Sunday morning in the small town where we lived. The building was a modest one, intended as a temporary structure until the church had grown sufficiently to erect a more suitable building. Unfortunately, our priests were near retirement, depleted of physical and spiritual energy, and unable to expand the church’s population. For as long as I attended there, the building where we gathered to worship was small and plain, with one exception–behind the altar hung a magnificent figure of Jesus nailed to a cross.

The statue was so realistic as to be frightening. Nails protruded from Jesus’ wrists and ankles, blood mingled down in a grisly red, his body striped with angry lashes. The figure loomed above the priest, inescapable. It had to be gazed upon. Without my mother telling me so, I deduced this Jesus was to be revered. Had the statue been placed anywhere else, had it been avoidable, I do not think it would have captured my attention to the extent it did. But placed behind the altar, squarely in the center of the worshiper’s attentions, forced me to gaze upon it, brought it sharply to focus, and required a response. It was clear, from the priest’s words, from the hymns we sang and prayers we offered, that the hoped-for response was veneration. This Jesus was to be worshiped. Further, the quality and sincerity of my worship would determine my future, whether I would enjoy an eternal life of joy and bliss with Jesus, or an eternity of suffering and sorrow without him. . . .

. . . But the more I learned about the historical Jesus and the Jewish setting in which he lived, the more I wondered how he would have felt about his promotion to divine status and a subsequent object of worship. Would he have welcomed such veneration as his due? Or as a monotheistic Jew would he have interpreted such reverence as idolatrous? Of course, it is intellectually risky to read someone’s mind two thousand years after his or her death. But this has not kept us from claiming to know the mind of Jesus, even about matters with which he couldn’t have been familiar, such as evolution, abortion, the American political system, and other topics. So even as I imagine how Jesus might have felt about his promotion to divine status, I am well aware I might be mistaken. But I risk the discussion because I believe the church’s worship of Jesus is something he would not have favored. Further, this tendency has had profound consequences, not all of them beneficial.

One consequence has been our tendency to value right-thinking above right-acting. When I first indicated my interest in becoming a pastor, a church invited me to work with their youth. Why they entrusted their most vulnerable members to my inexperienced oversight was a mystery, but this happens often in churches, occasionally with good results. The church was located in a solidly middle class area, which hampered my efforts to introduce the children to human need and heighten their sense of social responsibility. So I arranged to transport the youth to the inner city of Indianapolis to help renovate a homeless shelter. My ministry was overseen by a board of elders, most of whom approved this undertaking, except for one man who sat with his arms folded, clearly unimpressed with my proposal. After the meeting, he took me aside and objected to the project.

"If those people would just work, they wouldn’t be in that place," he said. "We ought not coddle them. Why are you doing this?"

I pointed out that the residents of the shelter were victims of spousal and child abuse and had come there seeking safety. "These aren’t lazy people. They’ve had bad luck. We’re Christians, and I think we should help them."

"What’s being a Christian got to do with it?" he asked.

I chuckled, thinking he was joking, then realized he wasn’t, that in his mind being Christian had little to do with acts of compassion. During my time at that church, I got to know the man better and observed that while his enthusiasm for orthodoxy was great, he had little passion for ministry. He believed all the "right" things about Jesus, and could give his intellectual assent to the tenets of traditional Christianity. If tests had been given to measure one’s orthodoxy, he would have been a star student. But for some reason, this had never translated to a zeal for service. For him, being a Christian had everything to do with worshiping Jesus, and little to do with following his example.

I hasten to add that while I have met other people like him, I have known many others who take right belief and right action seriously, whose appreciation for orthodoxy is matched by their mercy and compassion. But it’s also clear that for some people in the church, belief is not only everything, it is the only thing. Indeed, I have noticed many Christians refer to themselves as "believers", as if Christianity is primarily about "believing.". . .

. . . Several years ago, I was interviewed by a man writing an article for a magazine. While the interviewer was not a theologian, he was curious about spiritual matters and asked what I thought about Jesus, specifically about his divinity. I expressed doubts about his divinity, at least in the way the church has typically defined it, and said, by way of explanation, "He (Jesus) was a monotheistic Jew who did not see himself as divine. He saw himself as a rabbi, probably a prophet." I chose my words carefully, knowing they would be quoted. Wanting to affirm my deep appreciation for the life and witness of Jesus, I added, "But I certainly understand the personality of God through the person of Jesus. That is, I believe God’s priorities were also Jesus’ priorities, and those priorities were to care for the poor and the marginalized."

Within a short time, calls demanding the rescinding of my recording (ordination) were circulating through our yearly meeting (an organization of local Quaker meetings).
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