Anyone who has known me for a while has probably heard me say some version of this sentiment:
“Anabaptists center their faith on Jesus and the Gospels and read the rest of the Bible through Jesus”
But this sentiment has some interesting implications. The biggest of which is; to say that Anabaptists focus on Jesus is to imply that other Christians don’t focus on Jesus. And that feels like a rediculous thing to say because wouldn’t all Christians say that they center their faith on Jesus? Isn’t that what it means to be a Christian after all? Am I really saying that other Christians don’t really have Jesus at the center of their faith?
Well…….actually……….yeah, I am.
Let me see if I can explain what I mean by this with a look at current events.
This last week Michelle Bachmann got herself a couple of headlines for making a joke about how God is trying to get the attention of Americans by sending an earthquake, hurricane to the east coast. While many people were up in arms about this being in rather poor taste (and generally not really being a joke), the thing that stuck out to me was the theology behind the joke.
While Bachmann might claim to have been joking, she’s still drawing on a particular theological understanding of how God works. Namely, the assumption is that God punishes and rewards behavior in this life in very real and concrete ways. The other side of this belief is that when good or bad things happen to people, either individuals or entire groups of people like whole country, that is taken to be evidence that they have done something deserving of either reward or punishment. In short, external events of either natural or cosmic origin are taken as punishment or reward by God.
In Bachmann’s case, this logic took the form of a “joke” implying that God was sending a message to the U.S. in the form of natural disasters. While Bachmann was joking, there have been many people who understand God in this way who are most certainly not joking. This understanding of divine punishment in reward could be seen right after the September 11 attacks when two leading Evangelical Christians (Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell) said that the ones who were really responsible were liberals/ gays/ abortionists/ the ACLU and the like because they made God mad and brought God’s punishment upon us.
Fallwell and Robertson are in good company along with Fred Phelps and the Westboro baptist church who are known for things like maintaining the website godhatesfags.com, maintaining a virtual memorial dedicated to the number of days Matthew Shepherd (a high school student beaten and killed for being gay) has been in hell, and (most visibly) keeping up a rather incredible schedule of picketing various public events especially the funerals of armed service members who have been killed in the line of duty. For Phelps, the logic is that God hates the U.S. and is punishing the U.S. by allowing our soldiers to die in war because of a whole slew of things that Phelps deems as sin.
And lest you think this theology only shows up in horrible post-tragedy statements and crazy picketers, this is the core theological principle behind most televangelists who preach the prosperity Gospel. In the last 10 years this was seen in the rise of the Prayer of Jabez book/ movement/ study/ merchandising line/ anything-else-you-could-sell. It also shows up in many wealthier churches because the logic is, “God rewards good Christians, therefore if I’m wealthy then I must be a good Christian”. My favorite was the luxury SUV with the bumper sticker that said “Thanks God!”
Now the problem here is that this understanding of God is very Biblical. It is most certainly in the scriptural texts. The Prayer of Jabez comes from I Chronicles. In Deuteronomy in the Ten Commandments God says that he will punish and reward to 3rd/4th and 1000th generations (respectively), not that God will punish and reward in an afterlife. In many places in the Bible, the reward and punishment for faithfulness and right behavior comes from God in this life in real and concrete ways.
The problem is that this is a particularly Old Testament way of understanding God. More specifically, it’s an early Old Testament way of understanding of God.
Granted, the book of Job does some damage to this theology. Job’s friends are the ones who firmly believed that the horrible things that were happening to Job were God’s punishment and that Job must have done something truly horrendous to deserve it. (They turn out to be wrong, by the way) However, in the Old Testament, Job is kind of on his own.
Jesus, on the other hand, is a whole other ball game.
When you look at Jesus, and how he understands how God works, the idea that good or bad things happening in this life are absolute proof of God’s reward or punishment just doesn’t hold water. This can really be seen in the story from John 9 about Jesus healing a man who was born blind. The story opens with the disciples asking Jesus the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”. To this Jesus responds, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” The core assumption that the disciples start with is that God rewards and punishes directly and thus either this man or his parents surely had sinned and that his blindness was evidence of this. Jesus soundly rejects this idea offering the possibility that he was born that way to show the glory of God. This is a fundamentally different way of understanding how God works than what we see in the Old Testament.
So, back to the politicians, TV preachers and Anabaptists.
My original claim was that Anabaptists center their faith on Jesus and that other Christians….well…..don’t. What I mean by this is that there are many Christians who fully claim Jesus as the Son of God and publicly profess a faith in Jesus, yet when it comes to things like which parts of the Bible are elevated, the understanding of the basic character of God, the center of ethics, the basis for justice, the understanding the importance of taking care of the most vulnerable in society, basically everything that actually affects how you follow God these Christians look to other places in the Bible long before the look to Jesus. In many cases, when Jesus conflicts with other parts of the Bible, certain Christians will go to rather extensive lengths to disprove either the validity or sincerity of Jesus and his teachings.
So, have a grand ol’ time claiming that God is punishing or rewarding people the next time a hurricane or earthquake hits, just make sure to leave Jesus out of it.