Religiosity is declining. The percentage of people who call themselves Christians has dropped by 7.8 percent since 2007, and continues to rapidly fall. In our increasingly post-religious age, the non-religious still sometimes look to religious figureheads for wisdom—to figures such as Buddha and Muhammad. Their words and ideas are consumed apart from their religious trappings, and their wisdom is looked to for secular guidance. One figure, however, seems to be more surrounded by stigma than any other—Jesus Christ. As the face of largest religion in the world, Jesus takes on, in effect, the face of religion, itself, and in a culture in which the religious and the non-religious often feel at war with one another, that face can be a divisive one. But to cast aside the life of Christ is to cast aside some of the most profound teachings in history—teachings that we need now more than ever. The life of Christ holds some of the best examples of how to live and treat our fellow humans—examples that are incredibly valuable apart from religion and politics.
Tom Krattenmaker, secular-progressive and award-winning author of “Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower,” writes of two questions that he challenges himself with—“Am I able and willing to see the humanity in those not like me,” and “Am I getting to know people who look and think and believe and vote the ‘wrong’ way?” These questions are at the heart of nearly all humanist activism—we endeavor to get people to ask these questions of themselves, and to find it within their hearts to say yes, despite religion, despite political views, despite race or gender or sexual orientation.
Jesus teaches us to ask those questions of ourselves. Jesus spent time with His age’s “others”—the outcasts, those who were outside of societal norms, who were feared or hated or loathed. Krattenmaker writes that Jesus “touched the untouchable.” When Jesus engages with the leper in the Gospel of Matthew, He not only speaks with the afflicted man—something unheard of—but He also touches him. Taking the healing as a simple metaphor, Jesus extended kindness to the unloved, to what was considered the very worst, most untouchable part of society.
Fast forward to our contemporary world. Krattenmaker encourages us to think: who are our lepers now—are they Muslims? The LGBQ community? Evangelical Christians? Republicans? Do we reach out to heal their hurts? Do we seek to understand them? If we follow the example Jesus set, then we will. Jesus, Krattenmaker writes that Jesus, “incurred the wrath of the authorities in his own community by honoring the humanity of those he was supposed to dehumanize,” and then poses a question. “WWJH? Who would Jesus hate?” The answer is no one.
When it came to those untouchables, the lowly, and the ones without voices, Jesus was a champion of social justice. Women, in Jesus’ time, were severely limited by Jewish law and customs, as they were in many other customs of the time. They could not take up roles of authority, and were largely confined to the home of their husband or father. Jesus, though, set a different example. In a culture where such a thing would be unheard of, Jesus interacted with women, treating them as full members of society. This included those of ill-repute, and those who acted in ways contrary to those Jesus taught. Reading of His actions, one can imagine the way Christ might treat a contemporary member of the Muslim or LGBQ or any other maligned people group. With respect. With attention. Christ never screamed or insulted—His strongest admonition was to “go and sin no more”. We would do well to follow His example in how to treat the members of our opposition.
Krattenmaker writes of the value of achieving more than community, but of achieving communion—“the spirit of caring intimacy.” He goes on to write that “This was the kind of transgression for which Jesus is notorious—the kind our divided society could really use.” Statistics from the Pew Research Center show that more people than ever, on both sides of the political spectrum believe that their opposing political party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being”. And, as far as anecdotal evidence is concerned, it takes only seconds perusing the comments section of any news story to see the pure, tribal animosity people have for their “others”—those not in their school of thought. Jesus didn’t think this way. He served others rather engaging in “us vs. them” behavior.
Violence, both social and physical, stems from this behavior, marring our society. There is a constant give-and-take, a striking and retaliating that leaves everyone injured in some way. Jesus, Krattenmaker writes, teaches us to break that cycle, citing the example at the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus ordered His disciple to put away his sword after being confronted by His enemies. Christ advocates “turning the other cheek” when someone strikes you. This isn’t a call to humiliation and subordination, as many assume. Krattenmaker cites theologian Walter Wink, who writes “The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists.” Christ calls victims to stand up for themselves, but not to answer violence with violence, but rather to “frame” the violence—to show its brutality through your own peacefulness. Christ exemplified this framing through the story of His death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. Taken as fiction, the end of Jesus’ story is a timeless metaphor for the fact that ideas cannot be killed.
Krattenmaker writes that Jesus’s “wisdom and way are far too compelling to be separated from me by anyone’s boundary. This attitude is one that allows Krattenmaker to draw wisdom from multiple sources, not shunning any one simply because it is attached to a certain, opposing group. The story of Jesus, no matter what perspective you approach it from, teaches us not to make enemies of our fellow man, but to love, care for, and seek to understand them. That’s a lesson that we can all benefit from.