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When Christians Lost Jesus

The latest work by veteran Christian activist Jim Wallis is meant to stir things up. Just as he did in the past, especially in his best-known work, the New York Times bestseller God’s Politics, once again Jim names the crucial problem of our times. And it is not simply our political crisis. In Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus, Jim argues that our nasty politics are a symptom of something even more troubling. We have become disconnected from Jesus.

The book certainly stirred me up. How do Christians get disconnected from Jesus? That made me recall how I first got connected. When I became a Christian, it was the discovery that Jesus was the face of goodness that overwhelmed and swayed me. From the longings stirred by life and by my favorite books and movies, I grasped that goodness, love, justice, and beauty were all absolutely real, that these were more solid than I was. Something in me resonated deeply to their call. They were not mere abstractions, I later realized. God was the anchor for these foundations and Jesus was the incarnation of this goodness; Jesus was real and wanted a relationship with me—all this led me to join the community who embodied and lived out this goodness—the Church.

Several decades later I find myself experiencing dissonance. Jim’s book makes me realize that I am not the only one. Recently I read Melinda Gate’s The Moment of Lift where she presents overwhelming evidence that the best intervention for making a culture thrive is giving women agency regarding reproduction, which means access to birth control, even abortion. Then it hit me: What is the biggest obstacle to living out this ideal? The Church.  When I read about the courageous efforts of Christians like Beth Moore and Rachael Denhollander in the “Me Too” and “Church Too” movements, I also read about how some church groups are proudly shunning them. And then there are the daily headlines and polling numbers saying who are the President’s strongest and most loyal supporters. It is difficult to reconcile these realities with the face of goodness.

I will not bore you with my laments. I have spent too much time going down that road. What is more important is realizing what has not changed: The siren call of goodness has not disappeared; God has not stopped being the pointer on our moral compass; and Jesus’s face has not become clouded over just because many of his followers are swayed by the rhetoric of hate, worry, and fear. Many Christians today continue courageously and steadfastly to embody Jesus’s goodness in our world. Still, we must face the problem: if the Church is the body of Christ on earth, then we had better start finding a better way of showing it.

The best way I know to combat the dissonance is publishing the right ambassadors who try to steer us toward a better alignment between our efforts and God’s heart. Some recent efforts:

  • In The Death of Politics, the veteran of three Republican administrations and New York Times op-ed contributor Peter Wehner shows how citizens of democracy need to restore politics as a noble calling and religion as a guiding light or be in danger of labeling our great American experiment a failure.
  • In Sacred Liberty, historian and journalist Steven Waldman reveals how past ugly episodes in our history have served to move us forward in more fully embodying the radical ideals of religious freedom our founders planted in the Bill of Rights—and why we need to cherish and protect these ideals today.
  • In A Politics of Love, teacher and activist Marianne Williamson—who took the extra step of becoming a candidate for President—reveals that America has always been at its best when it seeks to live up to our ideals, that the real political battle is not between conservative and liberal but over what motivates our actions—will it be love or fear?

And now comes Jim Wallis’s Christ in Crisis and his claim that we have become disconnected from Jesus.

That is a serious charge, but he marshals enough evidence to make it difficult to refute. Jim shows that beginning in the earliest chapters of the Book of Acts, Christians worked powerfully “in the name of Jesus” by being fully aligned with him. Jim provides eight questions or measures that reveal this alignment. These serve both to determine how far we have strayed as well as how we return. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Gospels will recognize these questions, which include: Are we good neighbors to the strangers among us? Do we see everybody equally as created in the image of God? Do we confuse what is Caesar’s and what belongs to God? Are we looking out for, protecting, and helping “the least of these?”

Christ in Crisis is not a warm and fuzzy book. It is hard, direct, challenging, convicting, and it is exactly what we need right now. Still, neither is it partisan. Jim is not making the case that all would be solved if conservatives just heeded liberals. The point is submitting to Jesus’s inspired questions whether we try to answer them in conservative or liberal ways. Getting past this crisis is not dependent on everyone agreeing about everything. We just need to agree on the questions and each of us, in our own ways, find ways that reflect the face of Jesus to the world. Or, as Jim writes, “Don’t go right, don’t go left; go deeper.”

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