I’m currently reading the fascinating Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America by Jeff Chu, in which he crosses the U.S. interviewing Christians who fall all over the spectrum when it comes to their interpretation of the intersection of Christianity and same-sex attraction. His journey included a stop at the famous Westboro Baptist Church, which even many of the most conservative Christians frown upon. While there, Tim Phelps told him, “We’ve got to get off this notion that Christ was a kissy-poo preacher. He was a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher.”
I wonder–are we talking about the same Christ? It’s interesting that the Westboro Baptist Church can reference Christ as the basis for their faith, when the majority of their actions are centered around their “anti-homosexuality” protests, a subject on which Jesus was completely mum.
I certainly wouldn’t describe Jesus as a “kissy-poo” preacher. His teachings were both incisive and divisive, hard to swallow, hard to accept, and harder yet to live. He’s the one who told us that to sin in our thoughts was as damaging as to sin with our actions. He’s the one who told us it’s better to remove an eye or a hand if it causes us to sin than to enter hell with perfect vision or with limbs intact. He seemed to have little patience for hypocrites, which means that, at some point, he’s probably had little patience with each of us. If this is the only Jesus we see, I guess I can see how one might depict him as a “hellfire-and-brimstone preacher.”
And yet, what Westboro refers to as “kissy-poo” is what the rest of us might refer to as “meek,” or gentle. And this Jesus is undeniably present in the Gospels, too. This is the Jesus who told the children to come to him, who rebuked the apostles for trying to get them out of his way. This is the Jesus who told us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies; this is the Jesus who sent away the crowd intent on stoning an adultress, and then told her that he did not judge her. And this is the Jesus who asked forgiveness for his enemies as he suffered upon the Cross, upon which they had put him.
It can be hard to reconcile both these pictures of Jesus, and so it seems that Christians align themselves with one or the other. Westboro aligns itself with Jesus #1. I find myself drawn to Jesus #2, but I think when Jesus #1 speaks, we ought to sit up and pay attention. I think that where the danger comes is when we forget that Jesus told us not to judge; when a religious movement aligns itself so strongly with the “hellfire-and-brimstone” interpretation of Jesus, it can become a movement that makes a spirituality of hatred. This is what has gone so terribly wrong with Westboro, and why even other Christian denominations who find same-sex attraction inherently sinful distance themselves from Westboro’s preaching. In The Case for God and 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong aligns herself with theologians throughout history who have asserted that any interpretation of Scripture that is used to justify violence and hatred is wrong.
This has helped me make sense of the complexity of Scripture, too, to reconcile the even-confusing portrayals of Jesus, the one who I can always return to, the one against whom I measure convoluted and man-made dictates for “Christians.” How close are those ideas and those instructions to Jesus? But even Jesus, or perhaps especially Jesus, is not easy.
As a writer myself, I understand that only half of any creation comes from the creator; the rest, the meaning, comes from the receiver. This is why hundreds of denominations, all claiming the same Bible, can come up with such vastly different ways of living according by it. It seems not even the writers of the Gospels were immune to being able to create only “half” the story. When it falls to us to bring the other half of that creation to the world, we must do so without falling too deeply in love with the seemingly more “judgmental” side of Jesus. We must remember that it’s Jesus alone who has the right to pass this judgment, and that even he refrains from doing so. If the term “kissy-poo preacher” is used as a derogatory description of a preacher focused on love and compassion instead of hatred and judgment, I think we might be a little mixed up about which path is truly the harder one to follow. I make decisions out of a place of selfishness and judgment every day. I sometimes feel my heart clamp shut around my own selfish needs when I know the Christ-like thing is to open it up wide to both the strangers and the nearest-and-dearest that are hardest for me to love. Anyone who thinks this is a “kissy-poo,” weak, or easy way to live really ought to give it a try.