I like Jesus. Do I have to be Religious?

Are you tired of the hypocrisy and greed of prosperity gospel preachers? Fed up with politicians appealing to religious sentiments in order to win elections and start wars? Do you feel like there must be something bigger and more beautiful than the simplistic story you’ve heard in church? Jesus feels the same way.

Jesus didn’t come to set up a new religious system. As a matter of fact, many of Jesus’ contemporaries could have described him as profoundly anti-religious. His message ultimately relativizes all religious practices. Walking in the way of Jesus isn’t about performing the right ritual or following a set of rules. It’s about embodying peace, enacting justice, and loving others till it hurts.

To a Jewish liturgical system that required constant penance, ritual, and sacrifice, Jesus delivers a prophetic rebuke: Go learn what this means, I require mercy, not sacrifice. When the pious Evangelicals of his day – the Pharisees – come to him quoting the Bible chapter and verse, he calls them out for following the letter of the law but missing the Spirit altogether. Jesus challenges the civil religion of the ruling authorities, relativizing all human powers in light of the power of God.

Religion isn’t really good or bad; it just is. Wherever there is human society, there will be religious practice. Whether it’s standing up at a baseball game to sing The Star Spangled Banner, promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God, or standing in line to take the Eucharist from a priest, religion is about ordering our shared life together. It tells us who we are, where we belong, the story that we are all a part of.

This embodied story can be used for all sorts of purposes, both good and evil. The civil rights movement famously employed the power of religious symbolism to bring down Jim Crow. The Plowshares movement uses shocking, apocalyptic imagery to drive home the message that nuclear weapons are sheer insanity. Our shared reservoir of symbols, rituals, and stories have immense power to call us to change.

Most of the time, of course, these signs and symbols are used to preserve the status quo. It would be hard to win an election or launch a war without appealing to the secular gods of freedom, democracy, and prosperity. The most popular use for religion – both spiritual and secular – is to build walls, to define an in-group and out-group, to achieve and maintain power over others.

Jesus has no time for these kinds of religious games. He stands with the prophets, who denounce the religion of death, the false faith that covers up injustice and privileges the powerful. Jesus breaks through the safety glass of our hypocritical rules and regulations, pointing us back to the radical implications of our faith. If we want to remain locked in the squalor of our little ideological prisons, that’s our prerogative. But we’re free to go. Jesus swings the doors wide open.

Do you consider yourself religious? What do you think the relationship is between Jesus and all the rituals, rules, and institutions that have grown up around him in the last 2,000 years? What would our world look like if we actually lived as friends of Jesus, rather than using his memory to create self-justifying systems of certainty?

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