14 February 2019

Is Jesus optional?

I give you a new commandment: love one another.
Maybe you saw this news story last week: Alabama's authorities saw fit to deny condemned Muslim convict Domineque Ray the presence of an imam in the execution chamber, and a narrow majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ignored the Constitution in denying Ray's appeal. (Links: al.com coverage; Religion News commentary, including crucial details of timing.)

Had Domineque Ray been a Christian, he could have had a Christian chaplain keeping company with him in the chamber in his last moments. (Ultimately, this man's absence was described as a concession on the authorities' part.)

Although the news site ai.com covered the Muslim volunteer chaplain's comments ("The [staff] chaplain is a fine man. I don’t have any animosity to him"), I looked in vain for comments from Alabama's Christian staff chaplains. I can't argue from silence, but in my fantasies, those Christian chaplains would have turned the place upside down to grant Ray his wish. Or gone on strike. Or resigned. Alternatively, why couldn't the administration hire a Muslim chaplain -- if only temporarily -- to meet "protocol" requirements? Wouldn't that have cost less than pursuing their determination to execute Ray on schedule all the way to the Supreme Court?

In sum, despite the clear language of the U.S. Constitution, treating Muslims equally in these maximally grave moments is apparently optional.

Imagine a situation where Muslims are granted the presence of a religious figure in the execution chamber but Christians are not. It's not actually hard to imagine; Christians are persecuted in many parts of the world. (Details at World Watch Monitor.) There are places where conversion from Islam to Christianity has been a capital crime. It's hard to imagine a Christian pastor present at those executions. All the more reason that in our country, with our First Amendment, such travesties in any direction should never happen. And Christians, the beneficiaries of generations of privileged status in this country, should be among the first and most persistent guardians of equality.

Tyrone King, convicted for the murder of my sister Ellen, was sentenced to prison and not to death. I don't know how King identified himself spiritually, or what spiritual resources were available to him in prison, but I know something about his family. In one of my last visits with my father before he died, he told me about what it was like to attend King's murder trial. My father described a poignant scene: King's mother walked over to my father and gave him some evangelistic brochures. My father did not report becoming a Christian as a result of that contact, but maybe it was part of the path that led to his conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy 25 years later.

It's not exactly a logical extension of my meditations on Domineque Ray's last moments and his all-too-disposable First Amendment rights, but I feel led to ask: Is Jesus optional, too?

To me, Jesus is not optional. I know that he'll not be far from me in my last moments of life, just as he was not far from me 45 years ago in the moment when I read the words, "Love your enemies" with new eyes, a moment that pushed me over the line into a lifelong commitment to him and gave me my global family.

The awkward truth: we live in a pluralistic and secular world which often treats Jesus -- and every other aspect of divinity -- as optional, even trivial, occasionally laughable. It doesn't help when Christians themselves marginalize Jesus to bless cruelty, greed, racism, nationalism, or domination. Instead of those anti-evangelistic messages, we could be fearlessly and lovingly eager to learn what others believe -- what occupies the same space in their lives as our non-optional Jesus occupies in ours. Ilya Grits reminds us,
And here we must not forget one of the most marvelous thoughts of the Church Fathers, a thought that Metropolitan Anthony Bloom so loved to quote in the very last years of his life: “Just think – what happiness it is to live among these people. It’s not important whether they believe in God or not.

“God believes in them!”
There are many questions about Jesus I can't answer, and which my own confidence in his reality in my life does not eliminate. It's important for me not to pretend that such questions don't exist -- to avoid them is to lose the ability to evangelize with integrity. Two examples:

First: When Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (from John 14:6, context), does this license us to threaten that every non-Christian faces eternal doom? Robert Barclay persuasively argues "no" ... so I choose to interpret this important biblical passage as a description of his power rather than as a threat. Jesus is God-with-us, not God's instrument of cruel selection; what Jesus offers to everyone made in God's image may be shaped by God's own judgment but will never be limited by our sour interpretations.

Does this make Jesus "optional"? No more than it makes God our Creator optional. As Alexander Men' says, every world religion expresses our laudable human desire to reach God, but Jesus expresses God's desire to be with us. Not exactly optional from a believer's point of view! However, it does mean that we cannot use Jesus as a flag flying over our religious camps, to be pulled up and down our flagpoles to suit our religious exhibitionism, to threaten the unconvinced, and to keep out undesirables.

Second example: In a class I took at Earlham School of Religion about 25 years ago, John Punshon challenged us with a question about the cosmic role of Jesus. If life exists on other planets in our universe, is Jesus their messiah as well? Are there parallel gospel narratives or does our planet have the universe's one and only Holy Land?

On the one hand, these questions certainly don't cause daily anxiety; they're just an extreme variation on all the dilemmas of pluralism. On the other hand, my curiosity is as high as my anxiety is low! A happy and humbling thought: God knows what God is doing, whether I understand it or not.

I still argue that those outside the church who are scandalized by perversions of Christianity should know enough to "meet Jesus halfway" and distinguish him from those perversions. It does happen!....

Brian Drayton on one cost of our Quaker theological diversity. (The comments are also highly recommended.)

Evangelical definitions through the ages, and their varying compatibility with Anabaptist faith. I'd love to see a thoughtful survey along these same lines from a Friends viewpoint.

America's sobering brush with naked fascism, 1939 version: A Night at the Garden. (Short film by Michael Curry.)

Marg Mowczko on wifely submission and holy kisses.

Russia's upcoming "sovereign Internet" test; a related interview with Tanya Lokot.

Anton Shekhovtsov on how Russia pretends to be a normal member of the international community.
Russia’s mimetic power is the ability to influence Western nations by creating the impression that Russia is a normal member of the international community and emulating what pro-Kremlin actors perceive as Western soft power techniques. By presenting Russia as a credible and responsible international partner, Moscow is trying to convince the West – especially following the Ukraine-related escalation of the conflict between the West and Russia – to lift the sanctions, go back to “business as usual”, and ultimately stop any attempts to democratise Russia

Jean-Rene Ella-Menye plays his beautiful tribute to his late friend Zula Summer. "You Left Me Blue."

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