Jesus' teaching about hell flipped popular imagery of the afterlife upside down—and offered a radical, transformative vision of God.
One of my favorite quotes of 2013 comes from Pope Francis. Asked what he would say about a member of the Catholic clergy who is gay, he responded with a question of his own.
“Who am I to judge?” Francis replied.
A good question for all of us, no?
Our world is inundated with judgment. Social media can be a swamp of it. Recently, a television celebrity was judgmental about those who are different from him and got in trouble for it. Many defended his judgmental attitude and words.
Which raises some important questions for all of us: Is it good to be judgmental? Isn’t life about making judgment calls and living by our values? Aren’t we all judgmental in some ways?
We all make judgments every day, decisions about what we think is best to do in the various circumstances of our lives. We might see someone in need and decide to help. We might recognize one of our shortcomings and decide we’ll change. We might run into an unforeseen challenge and try to figure out the best way to respond.
That’s all well and good.
Being judgmental is a very different thing.
Sentiments of frustration are growing among many followers of Jesus who admire Christ but despise certain things associated with him.
They look at the New Testament and are attracted to Jesus’s selfless acts of generosity, service, and love, but don’t see the same spirit in today’s “Christian” institutions, churches, communities, and faith leaders.
Modern faith is often a complex minefield of theologies, doctrines, practices, and expectations, where individuals carefully walk on eggshells to avoid a litany of “sins” and “heresies” that will inevitably attract the wrath from religious friends, strangers, and authorities.
April 15, 2013 — it wasn’t tax day that got my attention. It was during my lunch break, in the teacher’s lounge that I first heard of the explosions in Boston. My heart sank. I knew our son, who attends college in nearby Cambridge, was planning to visit the finish line with some of his friends to enjoy watching and cheering on the runners. One of his dreams, to run among them, postponed for a future year when more hours and more miles of practice were available. They had explored much of the course the day prior and especially wanted to see the élite runners cross the finish.
Amid the unfolding awfulness of that day I felt a tinge of guilt as we breathed a sigh of relief at news of his safety. Safe by two blocks and two hours owing mostly to large crowds that had kept him out of close proximity and a study ethic that sent all four of them back to class prior to the 2:49 p.m. calamity. Over the next couple days in my mind, I toggled between distraction and dread as I tried to go about the normality of life while asking God both “why?” and “why not?” questions.
Christmas is the one time each year when much of the world turns its gaze to Bethlehem, the West Bank town at the heart of the Gospel account of Jesus’ humble birth in a stable.
But Bethlehem may be in for a second round of global publicity in the span of a few months with the expected visit of Pope Francis in May.
In an interview earlier this month, Francis confirmed rumors that he planned to travel to the Holy Land — probably stopping at sites in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank in the Palestinian territories — and said preparations were underway.
Then last week the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, the top Catholic official in the region, revealed that the visit was set for May.
Given the political and religious combustibility that attends almost any event in the Holy Land, a papal trip was bound to be fraught and a debate over the visit quickly erupted as Israeli newspapers reported that the preliminary itinerary for Francis’ pilgrimage has him spending just one full day in Israel proper — probably arriving in Jordan on Saturday, May 24, traveling to Israel on Sunday morning, then celebrating Mass in Bethlehem on Monday before heading back to Rome.
A generation or two ago, when America’s Muslims were new immigrants who made up an even smaller minority of Americans than they do today, they viewed the lights, trees, carols, gifts, and festive spirit of Christmas as a threat to their children’s Islamic faith.
But these days, a growing number of Muslims celebrate Christmas, or at least partake in some ways, even if they don’t decorate their homes with trees and a light show. Indeed, many Muslim families have created their own Christmas traditions.
“I teach my three children, who attend public school and happen to be born into an interfaith Christian-Muslim family, that we absolutely do celebrate Christmas because we are Muslim,” Hannah Hawk of Houston wrote in an email. Rather than putting up a tree or lights, “we celebrate the reason for the season, Jesus, by studying all that is written about him in the Quran and by examining historical theories.”
Every year, a chorus of Christians join together to bemoan the “War on Christmas,” lambasting their enemies for taking Christ out of Christmas, and yearning for the days when everyone remembered the reason for the season.
But have we all forgotten? There has always been a war on Christmas. In fact, conflict lies at the very heart of Christmas. To those who say that Christmas is all about peace on earth, a quick look at the second chapter of Matthew and the largely overlooked story of King Herod reminds us that this peace comes at a price. For it is the kind of peace that can only come through conflict. Before caroling, there was weeping in Ramah.
It’s no surprise that most Christmas pageants leave out the Herod story. King Herod jealously guarded his power, killing anyone who got in his way. When he learns of Jesus’ birth, he declares the first war on Christmas. Herod doesn’t just want to kill Jesus. He wants to destroy him, taking Christ out of Christmas once and for all. When his efforts are thwarted, he resorts to genocide to ensure Jesus’ demise, murdering every male infant in Bethlehem. This, for Herod, is a bargain to rival any department store sale: The lives of Bethlehem’s youngest? A mere pittance for unrivaled power.
In other words, Herod gets it. Herod, more than anyone else in the story so far, sees this poor, refugee child for who he really is — a rival king.
Ah, Christmas! The most wonderful time of the year. A time to gather with family and friends, and, with a smile on our faces, pretend we aren’t quietly measuring who received the best present and which relative really, really needs to stop drinking. A time to hang tinsel and baubles from the tree, and a time to hang up our hopes of losing that last 10 pounds this year. Such a joyous season!
The real point here is that Christmas is what we make of it. For Christians, however, there are some very specific things you can’t do if you want to actually honor and follow the person we celebrate this season. So, I give you my “10 Things You Can’t Do AT CHRISTMAS While Following Jesus.” As with my other “10 Things” lists, this is not intended to be a complete list, but it is a pretty good start.
In a secularized society obsessed with consumerism, entertainment, and modernization, Christianity is often portrayed as being old-fashioned, irrelevant, and useless, but it still serves some very valuable and profound purposes. Here’s why Americans still need it:
In the wake of Megyn Kelly’s statement that “Jesus was a white man,” critics have quickly and unanimously responded that Jesus was not a white man. Here at Sojourners, Rev. Laura Barkley has debunked Kelly’s statements, noting that Jesus “was a Palestinian Jew in first-century Nazareth.”
In his article over at The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt argues that Jesus is not only not a white man, but that scripture is mostly quiet about Jesus’ racial makeup. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., who once said, “The color of Jesus’ skin is of little or no consequence,” Merritt agrees with historian Edward Blum, who draws from King’s statement that “Jesus transcends race.” Ultimately, Merritt points to the universality of Jesus, focusing on Christ’s availability to all, to individuals from “every tribe, nation, people and language.”
Yet in pointing to the universality of Jesus, it is easy to pass over his particularity to a certain time and place.
Last December, I decided to run after dark and entertain myself by running through neighborhoods, looking at lighted Christmas decorations as I passed by. It was a novel twist on my regular exercise, and I enjoyed gazing at the beautiful, the creative, and the tacky alike.
Then, I started noticing the insides of houses, too. The Christmas trees were lit and decorated; the insides of the houses seemed warm and inviting. Suddenly, instead of an independent adult on a crisp winter jog, I felt more like a homeless orphan from a George MacDonald Christmas story looking in at something I did not have and of which I could not be a part. Needless to say, the run lost its sense of adventure.
Recently, it has struck me how strange the situation was, both in what I saw Christmas to be and in my decision that I “didn’t have it.”
I was encouraged by the findings of U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon on Monday who granted an injunction to plaintiffs Larry Klayman and Charles Strange that will temporarily stop the National Security Agency from continuing their data-gathering program that mines information from our mobile phone calls.
The injunction was issued because the judge believes that Klayman and Strange likely will win their lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that the phone record collection practice is an unconstitutional violation of personal privacy.
The whole storyline is made that much more dramatic since the otherwise secret program was leaked to the public by former NSA contract Edward Snowden, who is now on the run, seeking asylum in exchange for shared intelligence. And while some perceive Snowden as a hero of individual liberty, others vilify him as an enemy of the United States, much like any other terrorist. Interestingly, people’s opinions about the NSA — and, frankly, the Obama administration and the government as a whole — diverge in similar ways.
There is certainly a warm, nostalgic feeling about the Christmas season. Social media fill up with pictures of Starbucks holiday cups and we get the play-by-play of Christmas trees being purchased and filled with homemade ornaments. Holiday parties become about as frequent as breathing and there is a general sense of camaraderie among people who wouldn’t otherwise interact.
As a local practitioner and neighbor, I’d even go as far as saying this season brings about the most opportunity for new relationships and shared life in the realities of everyday.
Last week I was talking to my 3-year-old daughter about Christmas. She knows we are going to see grandparents and cousins and even knows a thing or two about gifts being exchanged.
And then I asked her, "Whose birthday do we celebrate on Christmas?" With a big smile, she said, "Santa!"
Now, I get it. She’s 3 years old, it’s kinda cute and harmless and whatever.
But there is something to this.
Our family never talks about Santa Claus, but we regularly talk about Jesus and even go as far as trying to live like him as best we can. When we do talk about Christmas and presents, we try to talk about how we will be giving them away to friends, family, and people who need them.
But, despite our best efforts, Christmas is associated with Santa Claus. Now, if it were the historical “Santa Claus” who gave away his best to save the lives of some children, that’d be awesome. But, no, this is the Santa Claus of consumption who promotes values of selfish acquisition rather than sacrificial giving.
As we prepare for the coming of Christ, the third Sunday of advent is celebrated in joy. As followers of Christ, it is reasonable to be exuberant about the birth of our Savior. The amount of happiness that can seep from the soul in response to a virgin birth, a perfect baby boy, and an adorable scene of livestock and shepherds befriending God’s family is immeasurable. Christmas music, Christmas decorations, and yes, even Christmas presents add to the joy and never fail to put a smile on my face.
This past weekend, as I tried to reflect on what it means to be joyful in Christ, my heart was temporarily hardened as I attended a Reentry Arts & Information Fair for returning citizens. I helped host a table for Becoming Church and their Why We Can’t Wait initiative.
With just a few days to go before Christmas, many Americans will be rushing around completing their Christmas preparations: doing their last minute shopping, finalizing travel plans, figuring out how to deal with awkward family dynamics. In many cases, they will be faced with what is popularly known as #firstworldproblems — problems of inconvenience of a privileged and affluent people: delayed flights, out-of-stock gift items, spotty cell phone coverage.
At the same time, many people, hidden amidst the consumer celebration that Christmas has become, will be struggling just to find their next meal, shelter, community, and hope.
Striking census bureau statistics released earlier this year paint a picture of an expanding American underclass, with 15% of Americans living at or below the poverty-line, 23% of children (the highest percentage of poor by age) living in poverty, and the evaporation of the American middle class.
On the one hand, at this time of year, our society is more aware of the poor. Holiday food collections, toy and clothing drives abound, as does the ubiquitous ringing of Salvation Army bells. And yet, in many ways the plight of the poor is more hidden by the bright lights and rush of the season.
One of the downsides of a theological education (and/or an overactive theological imagination) is an inability to sing some favorite old hymns with naive gusto. During this Christmas season in particular, we simply know too much about the biblical story (and the reality of childbirth and babies in general) to fully believe all of the touching words in some of the most popular Christmas carols.
So as a public service, I have written historically accurate versions of three of the most beloved holiday hymns. Without personally endorsing any of the theology below, I also offer some alternatives to those who don't theologically jive with the current version of "Joy to the World."
This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to watch our children’s ministry present through play, song, and dance the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.
No matter how many times I have seen this story, it’s always amazing that this miracle that happened in a manger could have such a huge impact on the lives of so many. Jesus was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, his parents did not have the best reputation, and he definitely wasn’t birthed in a fancy hospital. Instead, he was born where animals were kept — not the best conditions environmentally at all! Further, Jesus Christ became an advocate for the poor, for those that do not always have a voice, and for those that were suffering from terrible mistreatment, disease, and sickness.
I truly believe that Jesus’s focus on the “least of these” is a model for advocacy, especially for the environmental justice movement.
Editor's Note: New Vision Renewable Energy connects Christians with opportunities to provide renewable solar lights to people in the developing world. Their Christmas Lights Advent Devotional features daily readings and questions from prominent Christian thinkers, including Sojourners president Jim Wallis. This Day 10 of Advent devotional from Jim Wallis is reprinted and adapted with permission of New Vision Renewable Energy. You can find the full Christmas Lights Advent Devotional guide and solar light kits here: http://nvre.org/devotional-order.html
Proclaiming Jesus as light of the world is an audacious statement. It directly challenges all those idols that persistently attempt to replace God as the center of our lives and our world. In our culture, a selfishness that denies any obligation to anyone or anything beyond our own self-interest may be the greatest idol of all. It denies that demanding more and more energy at great cost to our environment and the people who live close to the land has problematic consequences. We have lost sight of the common good and the consequences have been devastating.
In many places, hope has turned into despair. Darkness seems to be crowding out light. From where will our help come from?
I’d say the moment is ripe for “Christ in Christmas” — the real Christ, of course, who shunned the privileged and aligned himself with sinners and outcasts, whose heart went out to sufferers like the homeless of Rome whom a new pope risks serving.
I’d say the moment is ripe for new life being born in stables and forced to flee the powerful and greedy. We have seen Mammon’s insatiable maw, power’s absolute corruption of the human soul, and thugs murdering the many in order to protect the few — and we know our need of something better.
So, yes, it’s time for Christ in Christmas. Time for new life, time for hope, time for the faithful to say yes to God. Time for peace, not war. Time for repentance, not comfort at any cost. Time for justice and mercy and the even-handed goodness that God promised.
This, of course, isn’t what zealots mean when they vow to “defend” the faith from a culture’s “war on Christmas.” They want a free-fire zone where moralizers can denounce all but the like-minded, and churches with huge budgets can frighten or seduce worshippers into donor mode. They mean using Jesus’ name to impose the very cultural and political oppression that Jesus escaped once as a child but couldn’t escape as an adult.