Tuesday, January 01, 2008

My Problem With Suburban White Jesus

Before I took my first ministry job Sami and I briefly attended a large, wealthy, "status" church in the suburbs of Louisville. We honestly loved it there. They had programs for just about every group imaginable, while avoiding the almost frighteningly impersonal size of a mega-church. With not-too-tightly polished rock and roll "contemporary" worship, a wide variety of small groups and other ministry opportunities, and an open and welcoming warmth, this church was the opposite of the small country church we had been married in. And, after the disappointing end to our time there, it seemed just about perfect for us.

We even started going through the process of transferring our membership there, meeting with the pastor and attending new member classes. Then I saw an ad in the paper. A local church - where a friend of mine served as pastor - was looking for a new youth minister. And I was looking for a new career. It was a perfect fit. So we left our suburban paradise, after worshipping there for only a couple of months.

I hadn't thought much about that church, or the distance between my understanding of a good and healthy church then and my understanding now, until the other day when I was flipping through the channels on my TV, lying on the couch, sick and bored. To my surprise and delight, one of the local access channels was showing their weekly worship service.

While much of the staff had changed over the last seven years, the service was just as I'd remembered it. Clean, neat, and polished. But not too polished. A technical masterpiece, but not so precise that it felt stale or stiff. The pastor was clearly well educated, as evidenced by the many subtle literary and theological references in his sermon. But he was also at least as charismatic, with a passionate yet eloquent delivery.

The message itself would have been at least mildly challenging to the congregation. A meditation on the incarnation, it focused on Jesus' standing on the margins of his society. In noting that Jesus was a poor Jewish peasant, probably not formally educated, neither politically, economically, nor religiously powerful. He used this to argue for God's concern for those on the margins. And I was totally with him.

But then I started paying attention to the specific phrases he was using. He alluded to ideas from liberation theologies, but his specific language was considerably less radical, less challenging. Then, as he was summing up, he said this, in the context of the incarnation as evidence of God's concern for all persons, especially those on the margins:

Jesus came for the rich, and for those who will never become rich.

Of course, this statement (assuming that one can say that Jesus "came," which rests on a particular understanding of Jesus and the incarnation) is true. It speaks both to God's concern for all persons without regard to their economic status, and to the fact that some (MOST) of us will never become rich. But said as it was to a wealthy suburban church, I had a real problem with it.

First, it didn't name the poor as poor. There were only two kinds of people: the rich, and everyone else. This, to me, defeated the intended focus of the message. While the pastor was imploring his congregation to be aware of a whole host of humanity that usually escapes their attention, he could not bring himself to use a designator for them. Of course, he could argue that he avoided dehumanizing the poor by labeling them purely by their economic status. He could even have said that by labeling them as poor he would be affixing to them a negative term. But in the context it reminded me too much of a story a friend of mine tells of preaching to a congregation about the needs of a particularly impoverished community, only to have members from that congregation say to him, "The people you're talking about don't really exist."

Beyond that concern, however, is a much deeper concern: In stressing Jesus' concern for the rich (presented here first) and "those who will never become rich," the pastor is attempting to speak to God's concern for those on the margins without ever addressing their material needs, the unjust economic system that has placed them on the margins, or the fact that many, many members of his congregation have benefited greatly from that unjust economic system.

Thus God's concern - and, in turn, the proper concern of the congregation - is spiritualized. God cares about those who will never become rich, so he sent them Jesus. The congregation should care about those who will never become rich, and thus they should share Jesus with them. But this neuters the Gospel, offering neither a challenge to the wealthy nor comfort to the impoverished. Everything remains as it has always been and shall always be. There are some who are rich, others who are not. God cares about them both, and wants them all to be saved and go to heaven.

But honestly, I'm afraid that the pastor went just as far as he could go in that congregation. To say more, to say what I would have wanted him to say, to offer a prophetic critique of economic injustice, to offer a no doubt highly political articulation of the Gospel, would have threatened his job. Possibly even his career. And that's my problem with the suburban white Jesus I grew up worshipping. Held captive to the upper-middle class American values of the dominant culture, he looks so little like the Jesus I read about in the Gospels.


PamBG said...

Thanks for a thoughtful post.

I'm sitting here wondering if I could have taken it to the Nth degree given the same congregation?

It's 'easy' for me in the sense that British Methodism is inherently more radical and my churches, whilst not poor, consist of people below the national average wage. They have sympathy for my 'God's preferential option for the poor.' There are other things, though, that I confess I dare not preach.

OneSmallStep said...

**Held captive to the upper-middle class American values of the dominant culture, he looks so little like the Jesus I read about in the Gospels.**

You know, the more I read and interact with people, the more I find this applicable. There are a lot of churches, and a lot of passionate Christians I speak with, who claim to work for God. And yet I contrast what they say to what I read in the Bible, and don't usually find a thread between the two.

Perhaps we all create God and Jesus in our image? Because it makes me wonder how "off" I am in how I describe the two to others.

Anonymous said...

My problem with the highlighted quote from the pastor's sermon is that it seems to put Jesus' imprimatur on the search for wealth. Talking about "those who will never become rich" and opposing them to "the rich" creates an opposition between those who have achieved something that we all (Jesus included) find valuable, and those who lamentably will not achieve this. Of course, the poor could well benefit from an improvement of their material circumstances, and the sermon appears to have been myopic about that. But is the solution really to send the message that "You'll never be as good as these rich folks over here BECAUSE you're not rich, but hey, Jesus loves you anyway"?