Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Communal Relationship with Jesus Christ

Eugene Peterson tells a wonderful story of growing up in Montana which I believe is worth retelling—particularly if you were one of those kids like me who refused to fight and usually wound up pummeled by the school bully. Peterson had a similar experience in the depression-era West, being accused by Garrison Johns, his local tyrant, of being a “Jesus-sissy.” Like most of us, he tried “finding alternate ways home by making detours through alleys, but he stalked me,” Peterson says, “and always found me out. I arrived home every afternoon, bruised and humiliated. My mother told me that this had always been the way of Christians in the world and that I had better get used to it,” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 135).

But, one day, something unexpected happened and little Eugene turned into a Christian soldier: “For just a moment the Bible verses disappeared from my consciousness and I grabbed Garrison. . . I wrestled him to the ground, sat on his chest and pinned his arms to the ground with my knees. . . At my mercy. It was too good to be true. I hit him in the face with my fists. It felt good and I hit him again—blood spurted from his nose, a lovely crimson on the snow. By this time all the other children were cheering, egging me on. ‘Black his eyes! Bust his teeth!’ A torrent of vengeful invective poured from them. . . I hit him again. More blood. More cheering. Now the audience was bringing the best out of me. And then my Christian training reasserted itself. I said, ‘Say, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”’ And he said it. Garrison Johns was my first Christian convert,” (Peterson, 136).

Now, although we might like to think otherwise from this narrative, many of us might even go so far as to defend Peterson’s pugilistic activity because, after all, in the end his actions produced the all-important salvific outcome in his victim. “Doubtless you have heard the saying,” South African theologian, Michael Battle, suggests, “that, in order to be a Christian, you must have a personal relationship with your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And surely you have heard it preached that, if you were the only one alive, God would still come and die for you. You have heard these things—but these ways of naming Christian life are individualistic and unintelligible to the way that Jesus taught his disciples to live,” (Placher, Essentials of Christian Theology, 281-282). That is, that which we have dared to label the sine qua none of evangelical Christianity is, at best, a mistranslation, and, at worst, a bastardization, of the faith delivered to the saints. The result, Battle claims, is what he calls “baseball spirituality,” a belief that “as long as you can verbalize the formula of Christian salvation, then all requirements of the Christian life are accomplished.”

The dangers of such reductionistic, privatistic thinking are all around us in Western culture and pervade the sub-culture of generic American evangelicalism. We have so distorted Christ’s call to death and discipleship, that “many people practice a form of spirituality in which there is no conceptual space to confess that there is someone who is and should be greater than one’s self,” (Battle, 290). “What we often call a personal relationship with God is shorthand for my own version of God,” and, “instead of seeing ourselves made in the image of God, we, like the great sociologist Emil Durkheim, see that God is made in our image,” (291). This “fulfillment of personal salvation” makes itself manifest in a variety of ways, from an overemphasis on the theory of Christ’s vicarious atonement to our conception of heaven as some kind of individual, existential bliss. What kind of theology is this that transposes the New Testament vision of the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom into some kind of idiosyncratic “get out of hell, get into heaven” ticket?

Perhaps, Battle maintains, we should begin by asking one another, “Do you have a communal relationship with Jesus Christ?” I would like to propose that what we need is nothing less than a radical reorientation in the way we think about God, so that we can begin to break out of our cultural conceptions of the person and work of Jesus which are so separated from any understanding of the importance of relationship. Because, in the Kingdom of God the great mystery which confronts us, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer maintains, is that we need others in order to know both God and ourselves. We discover God only in and through the community of faith and, in order to minister, we must be taught important lessons through that community.