Simply Jesus? In the last year or so I have read several books by Christians of traditions other than my own: Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber is a conversion story by an evangelical, and Love Wins, by Rob Bell is by a US evangelical preacher, albeit one whose ideas are causing rather a furore. God and Caesar by Shirley Williams, who shared my tradition, talks about the relationship of Christian faith to political action and Conor Cunningham, in “Darwin’s Pious Idea”, expounds on what is real. He teaches Philosophy and Theology.
Reza Aslan’s Zealot, is a book about Jesus by a Muslim.
A mini book was “First Light: Jesus and the Kingdom of God”, by John Dominic Crossan- one of my favourite writers on the New Testament, so that was a must-read. It covered themes that have become familiar from his other books-especially “God and Empire”, and “The First Paul”, which he co-wrote with Marcus Borg. Their key insights, which will stay with me for the rest of my life, are about the choice to be made between the way of Jesus and the way of empire.
Leaving Alexandria by (Bishop) Richard Holloway, is a memoir by one who lived inside a traditional Christian world- but questioned and found himself becoming more agnostic as he aged.
So now I turn to a Bishop who remains a traditional believer: Tom Wright, in Simply Jesus, gives a clear and reasoned picture of Jesus, drawing on all the canonical Gospels and Acts as well as the history of the time. He sets Jesus historically as a Jew in the Roman Empire, one of a line of leaders and messiah figures who opposed the oppressors. In distinguishing him from the Maccabees, and Simon Bar Kochba, among others, he is as clear as Borg and Crossan that the way of Jesus’ opposition to Empire was clearly different, non-violent, and absolutely focussed on the Kingdom of God. God is in charge, not Caesar. He talks of Jesus and his relationship with God whom he called Abba in ways that make it clear that the discussions about humanity, divinity and trinity are later discussions in the life of the church. But he accepts that Jesus was a healer, a miracle worker, and truly rose on Easter day, in terms Holloway, for example, would not accept any longer. I am fine with that. Bishop Wright has my permission to express a traditional faith!
The challenging part of the book for me is the last chapter. How do we see God in charge today, and in the time since Jesus’ life, death and resurrection? A rabbi friend of Bud’s rejects Jesus as Messiah because Messiah brings peace and there is no peace in our world, any more than Caesar’s long ago. Where do we see the Kingdom? Individually after death? After some not very biblical Armageddon and Rapture? In all the movements for good and in progress? In the church, in spite of the evil the church has had responsibility for in two millennia? His answer seems to me (I had to read the chapter twice) a blend of the two latter of his suggestions.
Just this week the UK Prime Minister made a speech claiming that this is a Christian country, which provoked much discussion. Like many Brits, the PM is a member of the Church of England, the established church here, though like many Brits, he rarely attends. His claim covers a history as a country whose citizens were mostly Christian for a millennium and a half: historically he has a point. Today though? He talks of morals and values- which is where many criticisms arise as many influential people remark, rightly, that the morals and values are common to many faiths and many who have no faith. A.C Grayling, in the Guardian, says: “I am sure that David Cameron’s remarks about our being a “Christian nation” were well-intentioned; he wished to draw upon those magnanimous and liberal characteristics once connoted by the term “Christian”, as when people talked of “the Christian thing to do” to mean being tolerant, forgiving, considerate and kind.” He distances himself, however, from the “dogmas and legends” of the religion, and disagrees with the Prime Minister. But Bishop Michael Nazir Ali, in a letter to “The Week” supports the Christian ties, claiming it makes a more tolerant country for those who are not Christian, and gives” a moral and spiritual framework for our national life.”
The former Archbishop of Canterbury says this is a post Christian nation.
This is not the Kingdom come on earth as in heaven. Where do I see that? In Bishop Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for example. Not in dickering over status but in facing the mess of the world and trying to see God’s healing possible. In Martin Luther King, Jr, when he was “speaking truth to power” as Quakers say – and they have a good record for following God and not the current empire. Or how about the Mennonites who refused to fight in WWI – and some of them were imprisoned and a few executed- and then by WWII had decided that they would be religious nonviolent resisters, forty percent of all those who did alternate service. Many worked in psychiatric hospitals and asylums and refused the dehumanizing they found there, making lasting changes. Christians are at their best when serving the marginalized and being the marginalized.
How will the Kingdom come? Is it the same as the modern idea (myth) of progress? Surely more. The question for me is not so much about claiming what is Christian country, but
“What does the Lord require of you but to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God”
“Speak truth to power.”
“Here I stand. I can no other.”