The Gospels show that nothing seemed to stir Jesus more than religious oppression, because where it was found, he began pushing back against it with a vengeance. And when he pushed, the religious professionals got angry. They condemned him for having dirty hands, for breaking the law, and for leading people astray. This did not stop Jesus. It invigorated him. He knew that religious pride – the smug sense of being right at the expense of others – is a terrifying cause of suffering in this world that is rarely matched by any other source of misery. Arrogance, driven by religion, is poisonous spirituality.
On September 13, 1987, two young men scavenged a partially demolished medical clinic in Goianaia, Brazil. The two men were unemployed and looking to salvage or steal something whereby they might make a few bucks. They found a bulky machine that they thought could be reduced to parts and sold. Inside the machine was a stainless steel cylinder, about the size of a gallon paint can. They sold the cylinder to a junk dealer for $25.
Inside the cylinder was a crumbly powder that was aglow a mysterious blue. The junk dealer took the magic material home and shared it with his friends and family. His six-year-old niece rubbed it all over her body like body paint. She sang and danced radiant with the blue dust. That blue dust was not magic. It was cesium-137, one of the most dangerous radioactive isotopes in the world. The stolen machine was once used to give cancer patients their radiation treatments. The little girl and several others died within hours. Hundreds more were sickened and contaminated.
Here was this beautiful, radiant dust, broken out of a machine intended to heal the body that had become an instrument of death. It is a powerful metaphor for what religion can be. Religion. Faithfulness. Commitment. Orthodoxy. Purity. Conviction. These all begin with material taken from a holy book, church doctrine, or some kernel of truth; from a well that is intended to bring spiritual healing and wholeness.
In the end, these can become a poison that rots the bones. Certainly, religions do not begin with the intention of poisoning their society. Likewise, we never intend to go down this path of arrogance and soul-damning pride. It is always a journey that begins with good intentions, but as the proverb tells us, we know where good intentions can lead.
God help us if we ever embrace Jesus as anything less than a revolutionary, as anything less than a walking, talking, breathing, resurrected powder keg. If we embrace him as less than this, then we are sliding down the slope into the religious graveyard. Jesus did not come to start a religion. He came to blow religion off the map. Jesus did not come to tinker with our ideas about God, he came to show us who God really is. Jesus did not come to build cathedrals or pulpits. He came to start a revolution.
Jesus came to initiate a way of life, a new way to live, that knocks the props out from beneath everything else we have ever known. This struggle, Jesus’ struggle, is not against flesh and blood. Our quarrel is not with an abusive pastor, an arrogant preacher or priest, a coercive church board, or an inflexible representative of the denomination. No, this struggle is rightly against principalities and powers, those systems and structures of control, liberty-killing oppression, coercion and manipulation that get in the way of living out a simple faith summarized in the Great Commandment to love God, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
This struggle, our struggle, is against any and all things – even our religious commitments and biblical interpretations – that prevent us from becoming like Christ; all things that prevent us from showing the mercy and grace of God to others.