Goodbye, Styrofoam Jesus

By Troy Jackson 06-21-2010

Last Monday evening, a massive storm front hit southwestern Ohio. Although the damage was minimal, the storm turned tragic when a 62-foot tall Jesus statue was struck by lightning and quickly went up in flames.

The statue, affectionately known as "butter Jesus" or even "touchdown Jesus" (no offense, Notre Dame fans), had appeared to be secure and stable. I had always assumed the Jesus statue was some type of stone sculpture, which could withstand any pesky bolt of lightning. After all, the name of the church that built and housed the butter Jesus is called "Solid Rock," so one would assume. Come to find out, "butter Jesus" was constructed on a steel frame, filled internally with Styrofoam, and coated with fiberglass. Put simply, this Jesus was highly flammable and did not survive the storm.

While jokes abound after the fire, a question of relevance emerges: could my faith in Jesus survive a lightning strike?

For most of the past 20 years, I've been passionately pursuing social justice. Frankly, I'd become fed up and even nauseated by the "me-first," America-first Christianity that often defines white evangelicalism. For far too long, white evangelicals have been worshiping a self-centered Jesus with little regard for the plight of those suffering and struggling in the world, even though the Bible reveals and accents God's heart for the poor, the marginalized, and the immigrant. This myopic, Western, consumer-driven Jesus is no better than a Styrofoam Jesus.

But I must make a confession. Over the past year, I've been learning that my passion for justice can become hollow as well. It is very possible to become so focused on pursuing justice that you stop pursuing Jesus. Frankly, I'm learning that a Jesus made only out of justice is not much better than a Jesus made only out of Styrofoam.

I'm reminded of Jesus' words from Matthew 7: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell -- and great was its fall!"

While a faith in Jesus devoid of justice is like building one's house upon the sand, a passion for justice that does not take seriously all of Jesus, and is not built on a firm foundation, is little more than a Styrofoam Jesus.

A year ago, I made a simple commitment: I am going to pursue Jesus every day. My method was simple, trite, and even a bit silly, given that I tried to use my tech addictions to do a better job of pursuing Jesus. My mantra has been simple: Jesus -- Always Before Computer.

Every day, before I log on to check e-mail or to find out if the Cincinnati Reds won or what is going on in the world, I spend time with God. I read four scripture selections. I journal. I pray. I slow down and begin each day with Jesus -- Always Before Computer. And slowly, I am convinced that my Styrofoam faith is turning to stone, so I can work for justice and the Gospel of Jesus BECAUSE I am pursuing Jesus each and every day. My labors for social change and life change flow not primarily from a place of duty or guilt or even arrogance, but from what I see everyday is the heartbeat of God.

What about you? What is your faith made of? Sand and Styrofoam? Or solid rock? I pray, for your sake, for justice's sake, for God's sake, that your answer is solid rock.

Troy Jackson is senior pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and earned his PhD in United States history from the University of Kentucky. He is author of Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century) and a participant in Sojourners' Windchangers grassroots organizing project in Ohio.

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