Remembering the Christianity of Jesus, not empire

If Jesus were here today he’d be wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt while he held a sign and marched at a protest.

A protester and a police officer shake hands in the middle of a standoff during a solidarity rally calling for justice over the death of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

(RNS) — It seems that in America these days, any resemblance American capitalist Christianity might have once shared with the actual message of Jesus has officially faded to nothing.

By way of review, Christianity, the general name for the religion that purports to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, is based on the stories of his life chronicled in the Bible, in the Gospel books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These authors recall that during his time on Earth, Jesus kept busy healing people who were sick, feeding people who were hungry, and insisting that injustice and oppression have no place in healthy human communities.

He talked a lot about giving away possessions instead of hoarding wealth, about loving your enemies and about practicing peace. He said things like “Turn the other cheek” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In other words, if Jesus were here today he’d be wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt while he held a sign and marched at a protest.

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There never was any gray area when it comes to claiming you follow Jesus, of course, but for the sake of politeness, or because we don’t have the courage to actually do what Jesus taught, many of us who call ourselves Christians have long  looked the other way while our faith was used to prop up power, enrich those who already have too much and strengthen systems riddled with injustice.

It was kind of like: “Well, that’s just crazy Aunt Karen. What are you going to do?” We didn’t like it, but sometimes you have to give a little to get a little, right?

Wrong. The last week has stripped bare the fact that the message and teachings of Jesus have been co-opted by empire: hijacked and skewed to perpetuate the very real injustices, pain and death that he spoke against. We’ve somehow come to accept these things as just another day in America and have become part of the problem. Under the leaders we elected, “Christianity” has become synonymous with toting guns and scolding protesters and waving Bibles around upside down as if we actually read them. 

Several thousand demonstrators gather in Oakland, California, on June 1, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

If Jesus were here in person, he would probably be saying what he said when he turned over the tables of cheating merchants in the temple: “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves.”

Instead of heeding Jesus’ insistence that we exist in an undeniable web of mutuality — an idea of community that says I can only thrive when you’re thriving too — we have wandered far off the path of “rugged individualism” to create a system of institutionalized, unchecked selfishness. We’ve totally lost our way and can’t see beyond our own self-interest.

Again, let’s review: We built the United States with the labor of enslaved people while we piously preached about bootstraps and “trying harder.” We built neighborhoods and schools and churches meant to keep some people in and others out. Every day in America we deny the humanity of black and brown bodies; we shrug when our neighbors live in poverty and despair; we stay in our carefully manicured suburbs away from the realities of injustice. 

And, we do not tell the truth about what we have done.

So it’s time to go beyond words to faithful action, as Jesus did. Speak up loudly and say that you will not accept the violence and white supremacy that infuses American life. Stand and protest and vote with your black and brown neighbors who have had the knee of our culture crushing them for too long.

RELATED: Click here for complete coverage of the George Floyd protests on RNS

Look unflinchingly at your own complicity, examining how your churches reflect racist ideology and practice informed by hundreds of years of white supremacy, holding clergy and other church leaders accountable if they sit idly by. Humbly and urgently repent for a willful refusal to live what you say you believe. Expecting white Christians to follow the heart of the gospel in this moment is not too much to ask. 

The Rev. Amy Butler. Courtesy photo

Reflecting on and examining the message Jesus preached will remind us what he knew: that no one can truly be free until we’re all free, and if one of us cannot breathe then all of us will surely die.

(The Rev. Amy Butler served as the seventh senior minister of the Riverside Church in New York City. Connect with her at The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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