Could we be at risk of Jesus-less-ness as the political culture turns up the heat on the church’s role in the public square?
What do I mean by Jesus-less-ness? Well, let me explain by using an example of a Christian community that had fallen into that exact problem. But first a couple of questions:
- What happens when your belief system starts to come under the scrutiny of the political authorities?
- What happens when the safe umbrella of recognition for your religious persuasions is removed, and you find yourself up against it culturally and politically?
Welcome to The Letter To The Hebrews, a fantastic example of the more things change the more they stay the same. And I’ve got to say, if you think it is difficult wending your way through the world of litigation, possible legal challenges to religious perspectives, and downright hostility from the surrounding culture, then Hebrews is a real page turner.
Here’s what happens: The first round of struggle is met with a recommitment and a refocus on the reality of Jesus and the hope found in him. That’s what it says in chapter 10:32-34. First round struggles often does that, don’t they? First round struggles heighten our sensitivities, make us hyper-vigilant, and ensure we push on as a team.
But what about over time? What about second, third, fourth, tenth, twentieth, round struggles? What about when the dust settles and the landscape is seen for what it is? A glowering indifference to Christians, and a general acceptance that things will not be going back to the way they were? It’s at that time the great risk presents itself: the risk of Jesus-less-ness.
For the uninitiated The Letter To The Hebrews is a series of sermonettes delivered by someone we don’t know to a group of Christians living in the Roman Empire, some time in the first century. Ethnically Jewish Christian communities were under increasing pressure because they were no longer being considered simply a sect of Judaism (a permitted religion to the dissent-averse Romans), and having been put out of the synagogue, these Jesus-followers were having to go it alone. Without the safety net of government approval they were finding themselves under the spotlight socially, religiously and politically, and it was becoming more than uncomfortable. They may not have been interested in the religious wars, but the religious wars were interested in them.
As we know from church history sporadic periods of persecution broke out in the Roman Empire against the early church. Hebrews mentions one instance specifically:
“Recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property…” (Hebrews 10:32-34a)
Now their situation had changed somewhat from then, the persecution had ended, primarily because the point had been made by the Romans, and these Jesus-followers had settled into a spiritual ennui, in which alignment with Jesus as the Messiah was becoming tiresome, tedious, indeed something to take for granted.
In fact many among the community were tempted to go back to the old ways of Judaism; it seemed simpler, (did pretty much the same thing anyway right?), and got you back into the social network that you had lost when you’d aligned yourself with Jesus. In other words they wanted a Jesus-less religion, because, whilst the religious bit was still acceptable, the Jesus bit was not.
Now I am not going to simply transpose the experience of the Christian communities in the Roman Empire, and the sufferings they experienced, with the present day turning against Christianity by the cultural and political framework in the modern West setting. And the reason I don’t want to do that – tempting though it is given the latest round of litigations, the scorn the gospel receives in the wider media, and the general tone of public debate around religious matters – is because of what the writer goes on to say. Notice what he writes:
“For you had compassion on those in prison and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property…since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Hebrews 10:34)
In other words, the way the Hebrew Christians responded to the cultural and political pressure they faced, was predicated on what they believed about why they were enduring it. Hence the writer can appeal to their eschatological hope back then as a foundation for his call to identify with Jesus now.
Two things worry me about the growing sense of indignation, the placarding and the shouts across Facebook land that many Christians are prone to getting involved in. Unlike the Hebrews – who we often tsk-tsk for their slow, slack drift away from Jesus -, the term “joy” or “joyfully” appears to be distinctly lacking in how Christians are responding today to the virtual plundering of the Christian ethical property in the public square. I am sure joy is there, but it does not seem to be our default!
As the protections come down one by one for the church today, in a political system just as sensitive to difference as the Romans were, and with an increasingly sharp eye on those drawing outside the lines, we would do well to remember that we have a better and abiding position, a position that should result in an initial response of joy.
And why is that important to have joy as a default? Because if we don’t, we run the risk of Jesus-less-ness. And unlike the Hebrews, all we may be able to recall in those long dreary days is the anger, frustration and strong sense of entitlement we experienced when things got tough for us.
If joy is not our first response, then there may be little chance that we will fare any better, and may indeed fare much worse than the Hebrews, when the dust settles, the decisions are made and we face the new reality that we are required to go with Jesus “outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.” (Heb 13:13). If we struggle to bear the reproach with joy now, don’t be surprised if we cave in faster than the Hebrews did then.
When the battle is hot it seems there are a lot of fighters around, lots of agitators for Christianity. But the Christian community may be at just the beginning of a long, drawn out process in which its influence in the wider culture dies the death of a thousand social, political and legal cuts.
So the danger is that when the dust does settle and we realise there are years, decades even, of social and political marginalisation to come, and no recourse to regain what we once had, we will be tempted to do what the Hebrews did at that point: drift into Jesus-less-ness, and find an easier life.
Many of the Hebrews stopped meeting together. Expect that to happen again. Many took their eyes off the eschatological city in which their hopes had once lain. Expect that to happen again. Many settled into a life and lifestyle that was more accommodating, less angular, and more in keeping with the new reality of a Jesus-less culture, and that is already happening again. And, sadly, just as many wanted to keep the religious part, but settled for the safe shadow of Judaism rather than the rough reproach of Jesus, so too, many in our time may tick a religious or spiritual box that has nothing to offer but the buzz of a best life now, rather than the joy of the age to come.
Here’s my concern. At least the writer to the Hebrews can point back to the joy they experienced when put under pressure, and say, “recall the former days”. If the agitation we witness today every time a law gets enacted, a worker gets sacked, or a TV show lampoons us, is any indication, what will the future look like?
When we face our own Jesus-less temptations; when we are tempted to settle down, get on with making a life here, focussing on a city made by hands, failing to struggle with sin, then it would be a shame if, rather than former glory days of joy in the midst of persecution to look back to as a spur to endurance, all we have is the sullen scowl of culture war losers who dislike others almost as much as we dislike ourselves.
That would, tragically, be an indication that our hopes were never eschatological in the first place. Not really anyway. We could say it, sing it, announce it from church, but we struggled to feel it deep in our bones, in the place that the world cannot touch.
I sure hope that is not the case, but if joy is not the response now in the Christian community, then perhaps we should not assume that we will fare any better than the Hebrew Christians who, when their new marginalised reality began to wear thin, settled down for the long haul into a quiet Jesus-less existence.
May it never be so for us.