A good many writers have considered the formula C.S. Lewis put forward: who was Jesus? Was he a liar who defrauded the public on purpose, a lunatic who believed he was God but wasn’t, or was actually he who he said he was – the son of God? That’s a paraphrase, obviously. But you get the gist. It’s a question many of us have asked ourselves. Once we’ve come to the answer on that, which inevitably tells us (in our heart of hearts if not in our rational minds) whether he is God or man, I believe there is another question we need to ask: have we reduced him from divine status to simply a mascot? Have we edited him and changed his appearance until he is acceptable to us, but merely a caricature of himself?
A little context for you: Some months back, I wrote a series on dominionism. (You can find that here and follow the links through to the end of the series if you so desire). Dominionism is the belief that there are seven mountains in society and God has destined Christians to dominate in all of them. The irony is that it is, according to my interpretation of the Bible, a pseudo-Christian heresy at best and completely unbiblical at worst. But how seductive it is: to leave behind the idea that God might have called us to minister to the poor, lift the broken, sit with the outcasts, give voice to the voiceless, and love those whom society has left behind, and trade this for a “predestined” position occupying the seats of power in society and letting other people do the nitty-gritty work of Christianity.
While dominionism has been around for quite some time, it was recently made chillingly and abundantly clear in the form of a Netflix documentary based on the investigative journalism of Jeff Sharlett. He infiltrated an American dominionist pseudo-church movement (my best explanation of the bizarre yet eerily familiar scenes laid out in that doco) and wrote two books about them, thus exposing an organisation that had made every effort to stay as secretive as possible.
I can’t tell you how many times words were uttered in that document that made my skin crawl – because I had heard them before. Almost exactly. But the thing that made my stomach drop was this ponderance: it was abundantly clear how “The Family” reduced Jesus to a mascot. They used His name to appear righteous but their one-eyed pursuit of power, and the methods they used to infiltrate high places and secure powerful allies, would have the real Jesus doing a heck of a lot more than throwing some tables around in the temple. But in truth, it isn’t just pseudo-Christian cult groups that use Jesus as a mascot and then just do their own thing. If we look at it, if we study Him then look hard at the world around us, we just might see it everywhere.
Jesus isn’t a mascot we can use to influence the mood of the crowd before we just go ahead and do whatever we want. Nor is He a “get out of jail free” card people can wave around to cover up wrongdoing committed in the name of the cross. We can’t just choose our own gospel and call it Christianity when true Christianity is followership of one who embodied truth, compassion, self-sacrifice and more, one who seemed to shun self-interest all His earthly life. I think Jesus would be angered by people using partial truths to advance a cause so far from His nature yet trotted out with His name emblazoned upon it. It made me mad. Then it made me think.
People of colour have long been joking about how there are different Jesus’s. There is white Jesus who appears on white Christian’s artwork (for those who like that sort of thing). When we pray, an image pops up in our heads of a white guy with sandy blonde hair, a beard, and flowing white robes. Go on. Admit it. It’s true. Then there is Black Jesus and Mexican Jesus, who appear a lot closer to those cultures. Rinse and repeat around the globe. But hey, reality check, the real Jesus was Jewish. He was Middle Eastern. We need not airbrush him to fit our cultural ideals and yet it seems we have. Already, by virtue of his appearance, He is a mascot of sorts.
We’ve made him a caricature of himself by changing how he looks, altering the Bible to suit our need for power or influence, and we seem to have painted over the parts of Jesus we don’t like: we choose the prosperity gospel, or the gospel of the tidy middle class instead of the kind of gospel that takes us to the poor. We choose the purity gospel instead of the gospel that was shared with the woman at the well, who had had seven husbands and was living with a man who she wasn’t married to. We choose the shallow gospel that doesn’t confront us even though the Jesus who walked the earth stopped people in their tracks and made them want to change. We choose a gospel of aggressive conservatism, even though Jesus may have indicated his progressivism when he stood on the mountaintop and uttered the words”But…a new law I give to you.”
Christianity over the years has taken many forms. So very many. From dry, unengaging, obligatory attendance to immersive worship experiences that could take any secular song and swap the words “Baby” for “Jesus” and emerge with something like devotion.
But is this a caricature of Jesus too.
For once, I’m not blogging with the answer in mind, or a tidy list of references, or a neat ending waiting at the end of this paragraph. I’m asking us to think: the Jesus who walked the earth was a revolutionary not because of violence or stoic observation of the good old days. He was a revolutionary because of love. He did not defend himself when accusations came against him. He did not seek power. He took time for the unclean, the unpopular, the at-risk and those the world had cast aside. He was not controlling. He spoke in parables and allowed the listener to find the interpretation within their own heart. He was humble, seeking out another revolutionary with a camel-skin robe and an unkempt beard to baptize him.
That was Jesus. Who is it that we have created? How have we changed him so that he is fit for us to worship? That’s mascot Jesus. That’s not the real Jesus. As the church across the globe grapples with how to hold on to millennials (who seem to be seeking truth, not entertainment), we need to ask ourselves if we are failing to keep the interest of the next generation because we have disengaged mascot Jesus from social justice, equality and inclusion, and made him a vanilla, middle-class white dude who doesn’t ruffle feathers.
Just a thought. (I finish a lot of blogs with that sign-off, don’t I? I’m not even sorry about that. I guess I’m sort of inviting you to think with me.)