I Don’t Own Jesus
If you ask the average 8-year old boy what they want to be when they grow up, most of them will say something like “I want to be a professional baseball player” or “I want to be the next President of the United States.” I guess you can say I wasn’t the average 8-year old. When I was 8-years old, I wanted to be one thing, and one thing only, a missionary. More specifically: a missionary to Arab Muslims. Like I said, I wasn’t a typical 8-year old. Call it crazy or call it divine, but somehow I knew at an early age that I was going to spend a good part of my adult life living in the Middle East and working in the Arab world.
The premonition turned out to be right. When I was 30, my wife and I sold all of our possessions and moved to Beirut, Lebanon with our two girls, ages 1 and 2. In our minds, God had sent us to Beirut to convert as many Muslims as we could to Christianity. And that’s what we were. Missionaries. Sent to convert the heathen. My entire life and identity was wrapped around being a missionary. Every day I was either passing out gospel tracts, conducting open-air meetings, talking to university students one-on-one, or doing some other type of outreach directed towards converting Muslims to Christianity. In the missionary world, there are two types of workers. The incognito ones and the zealous ones. I was the zealous one.
That was 20 years ago.
Today I can say that I have no desire to convert Muslims, or anyone for that matter, to Christianity. I’m not an evangelist and am no longer a missionary. I would even go so far as to say that I agree with Karl Marx when he says, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” If it sounds like I’m one of those New Atheist guys that sees religion as the toxic that poisons everything, that’s partially correct. I’m not an atheist by a long shot. But I do see religion as toxic, not because I don’t think that religion can sometimes do good (it can, in certain circumstances), but because I’ve discovered something (more specifically … someone) superior to the religion I spent my life trying to convert others to …
That someone is Jesus.
A funny thing happened when I started to read the four gospels. I mean really read them. I discovered that Jesus was constantly angering the religious leaders of his day by challenging them to recognize the grace of God in “the other.” Jesus’ friends were prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, demoniacs, and Samaritans — people who were outsiders and vile sinners. When a Jewish lawyer (a religious insider in Jesus’ day) asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus affirmed the two greatest commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind … And Love your neighbor as yourself.” When the lawyer challenged him by asking, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus told the story of the “Good Samaritan.”
I’m sure you’ve heard the story. A guy gets beat up, left for dead. A priest and a Levite look at him … and pass on by. A Samaritan picks him up, dresses his wounds, takes him to the hospital, and offers to foot the bill. The Jews thought of the Samaritans as the violent heretics of their day, much like some Christians think of Muslims today. To put it in today’s terms, it would be like Jesus saying to an evangelical Christian, “If you want to be right with God, act like that Muslim down the street that always seems to do the right thing when someone is in need.”
And then there’s the Apostle Paul …
A lot of my Muslim friends have a problem with Paul, but ironically, it was Paul that challenged me to think of Jesus beyond the narrow confines of the “Christian” box I had always placed him in. As the early church was getting started in the first century, most of the original followers of Jesus came from a Jewish background. The big issue of the day was what to do with all the gentiles that were coming in. Should they “convert to Judaism” by receiving circumcision … or does God accept them as they are? It was Paul who insisted that it’s faith in Jesus that really matters, not converting to a new religion or a new socio-religious identity. Paul challenged me to think of Jesus not as starting a new religion, but as the central figure of a movement that transcends religious distinctions and identities. Jesus the uniter of humanity; not Jesus the divider of humanity.
Where does that leave me today?
I no longer defend or promote Christianity. I love Jesus, but today Christianity means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some, Christianity means following the life and teachings of Jesus. But for others, it means the Inquisition, the Crusades, colonialism, imperialism, witch hunts, sex abuse scandals, an abusive parent … the faith of George W. Bush. I realize that I can’t defend (or promote) something that means so many different things to so many different people.
I still wrestle with the implications of what I see in the New Testament (namely that Jesus seems to be socially inclusive, yet theologically exclusive) … and what it means to help people follow him. But I’m confident that the same Jesus that made exclusive claims about himself is also the Jesus that liked to turn heretics into heroes. Jesus is enigmatic. I can love him, follow him, obey him, strive to be like him, share him with others the best that I know how. But at the end of the day, I don’t own him. Christians don’t own him. No religion or philosophy owns him. Jesus is bigger than any box a religion or philosophy tries to place him in.
And that’s okay with me.
Carl Medearis is the author of “Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism”