Living Our Religion

I’ve been reading about the remarkable history of Islam in the book, Islam,by Karen Armstrong. It’s a terrific, concise narrative about the formation of a community based not on borders but beliefs. It is a story strikingly similar to that of early Judaism, with its revelation of divine law as a blueprint for the way we, made in God’s image, are to behave in this world.

Almost in passing, Armstrong remarks that while Christianity is based on dogmas, creeds, and things you must believe,both Judaism and Islam are ways of life.Judaism and Islam ask us to entirely submit ourselves—mind, body, and soul—to God. In so doing, we are naturally compelled to work for the good of the entire community.

On first reading, I agreed with Armstrong. Yes, Christianity does seem to be obsessed with Jesus as the repayment for the debt we could never repay. Yes, the majority of Christian denominations, both Catholic and Protestant, ask congregants to recite some sort of creed that testifies in some way to Jesus as “the triune God,” or some such verbiage. Yes,I thought, you’re correct, Karen ArmstrongWhat is the Christian way of life?

While I agree that much of what is presented as Christianity these days bears little resemblance to Jesus’ school of thought, I do take issue with the idea that Christianity is not a way of life in the way that Judaism and Islam are.

I think Jesus is very clear about wanting to turn the present world and its unjust systems on its ear. “The last shall be first,” he says, because he sees a world currently organized not around the Judaic principle of God’s communal, covenantal love, but instead on Rome’s model of individual greed and power at any cost.

Jesus definitely wants the ideas he’s teaching to be part of the culture—the revolutionary counterculture of his followers focused on creating the Kingdom of Heaven in this world, not the next.

I think the reason so many people see Christianity as dogmatic is that too many Christians have forgotten about the Old Testament, the First Testament, the Hebrew Bible which Jesus knew and loved. Because the First Testament isJesus’ blueprint for the Christian way of life. He preaches about his way all the time.

Jesus’ message—his way—has gotten lost in the mix, as Armstrong suggests, not because Christianity isn’t a way of life, but because Christians have forgotten it’s supposed to be a way of life. 

It helps to remember that the New Testament was written by Jews. The authors already understood what their way of life was because their people had been doing their best to live it for thousands of years. The Second Testament is an additional series of thoughts about Jesus’ reminder that Judaism isn’t merely about keeping the letter of the Law, but that the Law was supposed to help the Jewish people live a particular way of life.

The community and its obligations to God and each other has already been defined in the First Testament. Jesus is a Jewish reformer. There’s a lot of stuff not written in the Second Testament because its authors took for granted their Jewish audience would know it already.

So, Christianity isa way of life, it’s just got a lot of added dogmatic and creedal baggage attached, mostly because the Romans got ahold of it and made it their own, non-Jewish religion. Over time, Christians became so far removed from their Jewish heritage that many Christians stopped reading the First Testament altogether.

Consequently, instead of following Jesus and living his teachings, Christians started worshipping Jesus and condemning non-believers. I believe this is mostly the result of Roman philosophical influences. Perhaps Paul unwittingly aided Rome by spreading not Jesus’ instructions for how to live a life in unity with God, but rather, the Roman gospel about Jesus, the demigod. The Roman version of Jesus died to absolve humans from sin, and now demands we not follow him to the gates of Rome demanding justice, but instead, bow down and worship him, the new Emperor, not merely of Rome but of the entire Universe.

In contrast to the religion Rome exported around the world (which became so standard most Christians have forgotten there are other ways to follow Jesus), it was Judaism that informed everything Jesus did. And Judaism is in part about the community of God’s chosen people honoring their covenant—their contract with God to always love, cherish, and honor one another. In Judaism and Islam, the community thrives or perishes based on the faithfulness of the entire people.

And what does the covenant demand? Loving God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and loving your neighbor as yourself. Loving our neighbors as ourselves is foundational to Judaism, as well as to Jesus’ message (if not to contemporary Christianity), and to Islam. We are all one great community of God’s children. We owe it to God and each other to take care of everyone. No exceptions.

Acts 2.24-47 reveals just how important the idea of a covenantal, communal relationship was to Jesus’ first followers:

Acts 2:42-47 (NIV)
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Following their great Jewish tradition, the first Jewish “Christians” did exactly what Jesus asked: They created a counterculture. According to Wikipedia:

“A counterculture is a subculture whose values and norms of behavior differ substantially from those of mainstream society, often in opposition to mainstream cultural mores. A countercultural movement expresses the ethos and aspirations of a specific population during a well-defined era. When oppositional forces reach critical mass, countercultures can trigger dramatic cultural changes.”

Paul does seem to understand the power of a critical mass when he preaches. When he writes to the churches he started, he reminds them they are to be a voice for goodness, mercy, justice, and socioeconomic equality:

Romans 12.1-2 (CEB)
So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

When I stop thinking about Jesus in the dogmatic way of the Romanized Christian world, I remember what Jesus was actually preaching: The Kingdom of Heaven. A way of life. One in which we are dedicated entirely to the goodness of God’s all-inclusive love, and therefore driven to do whatever is required for the good of all of us. To this ancient Jewish idea, Jesus adds, even if we have to suffer ourselves.

The essential construct of both Islam and Judaism is the creation of a new community that perfectly follows “God’s will.” Islam means “to submit.” Mohammed envisioned not just individuals who lived a God-tuned life, but a community whose laws were also based on the idea that God loves all people equally; so, too then, should we.

May God make it so.

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