By Tommy Airey
Like every good Evangelical, my adolescent faith was about giving all glory to the Lord. I sang praise songs to a “high and lifted up” Jesus and always concluded my prayers “in Jesus’ name” (I signed off my emails “Fool For Christ,” but that’s a story for another time). I was taught to utilize “apologetics” to defend the faith and prove that Jesus was, in fact, Divine. I revered C.S. Lewis whose Mere Christianity made a water-tight case for my beliefs. Lewis left readers three choices for who Jesus really was: a lunatic, a liar or the Lord Himself:
Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.
Lewis claimed that, when it came to the people who actually met Jesus, they responded in three ways: hatred, terror or adoration. There was no middle ground.
Eventually, my mind and heart became unsettled by Lewis’ rigid rationality. It was truly an impressive day when I summoned the strength to disagree with C.S. Lewis! His three options, I am convinced, place an undue limitation on Jesus. And on us. We need not make Jesus divine in order to follow him. There is another way.
Friends and acquaintances called him “Master” and “Rabbi” and “Son of God,” but Jesus preferred “son of man” (eight-one times in the Gospels), an echo from Daniel’s vision of a future leader who would champion all those suffering the predatory throne of “a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong” (Daniel 7:7). “Son of man” in the original Hebrew was Kibor Enash, a “Vulnerable One” who would secure justice through the paradox of a woundable and defenseless life.
Jesus believed himself to be an everyday, ordinary, feet-firmly-planted-on-the-ground human being growing more and more into the way that God ordained him to live. He was being redeemed and becoming himself, scars and all. Every time he is called “son of God” in the Gospels (or letters of Paul), it is a subversive title that takes anti-imperial jabs at Caesar.
As “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), Jesus fulfilled the purpose of humanity highlighted on the first page of the bible (Genesis 1:26). Our vocation is to image what is divine. Jesus taught that God is reflected and refracted through people in ways that are vitally different than how professional religionists typically convey it. As it turns out, God isn’t found in the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Instead, it is the meek, the merciful, those who mourn, the poor, the persecuted and the pure in heart who are truly blessed (Mt. 5:1-11). Their vulnerability connects them deeply to the very meaning of Reality. These magnify the face of the divine for the rest of the world.
Jesus’ anointed status came with death threats. He downplayed it and re-defined it, making his life about a movement that organized a “heavenly reign” of people empowered to “to bind and release” (Mt. 18:18). They followed laws that liberated. Disobeyed those that didn’t. The last became first (Mt. 20:16). The humble were exalted (Mt. 23:12). Children, stripped of status in first-century Palestine, became the ultimate role models (Mt. 18:3).
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Unfortunately, over the last one-hundred generations, church leaders have given Jesus a messiah complex. This hasn’t led us to the promised land. Fortunately, recent scholarship from Dr. James Perkinson has confronted the idea of putting Jesus on a pedestal of perfection. J-Perk pushes back on institutional Christianity’s obsession with “Christology,” the long history of powerful male leaders publishing official creeds hyper-focused on the metaphysics of Jesus. This has largely functioned to disempower the masses. Christ is lifted up to be worshipped and invited into our hearts. Someday he will return in glory. In the meantime, oppression and injustice reign. All his followers can really do is pray and wait.
Perkinson proposes, instead, that Jesus’ mission was not to be a charismatic leader showering salvation from on high, but about being rooted in the organized struggle for a particular place. He defines this “messianism” as:
any initiative of courageous folk, who partially or fully step outside of an imperial domination system to begin recovery of a more just and sustainable way of dwelling in a local ecology or watershed.
In his Messianism Against Christology: Resistance Movements, Folk Art and Empire (2013), Perkinson pivots away from a person towards a Tradition. Jesus’ life and teaching was rooted in a long history of “messianism.” Starting about ten thousand years ago, it was a reaction and a resistance to the shift away from small, hunter-gather tribal societies that breathed far more sustainability, nurture and equality into villages of about 150 people.
Since then, the globe has cascaded into “civilization,” the birth of cities and nations, a whole way of life constructed upon The Colonial Script (an intersectional state-of-affairs that bell hooks calls imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy). Jesus chronicled a “messianism” that invoked ancestor Abel, disappeared by “murderous ones” specializing in the thievery of indigenous lands and the exploitation of immigrant hands (Mt. 23:29-35; Luke 11:45-52). To be messianic is to join a resurrection movement that gives voice to these voiceless. Abel is “still speaking” (Hebrews 11:4). Through us.
Shifting from “Christ” to “messiah” means taking Jesus off the pedestal and placing him on the streets. This is precisely where he was ministering in the original Gospel stories: confronting the unjust distribution of social, economic and political power; usurping the priest’s job by proclaiming forgiveness; breaking the Sabbath to heal; eating and drinking with the impure and the sell-outs; touching “the unclean” to heal them; dialoguing with women in public places; and turning over the tables of the bankers in the temple marketplace.
This re-orientation transforms our worship into work, a struggle of solidarity with those that civilization has historically oppressed and marginalized. For J-Perk, “salvation” is still vital, but in dire need of reframing. We need to be saved from The Colonial Script that endlessly teaches us “to conquer, control, and enslave an entire planet of resources and life forms.” Eternity starts now with a call to decolonize.
Much of Perkinson’s theology has been deeply shaped by Black women who lead up the organized struggle for housing, education, jobs and water affordability in Detroit. Messianic visionaries like Monica Lewis-Patrick, Cecily McClellan and Debra Taylor (right), co-founders of the grassroots We The People of Detroit, challenge low-income residents to “deputize” themselves and to stop waiting on the sidelines for the charismatic leader to save the world. As theologian Kelly Brown-Douglas writes, Black women, long overlooked and scapegoated in American society, are compelling icons of Christ, models that brilliantly capture the presence and meaning of Jesus in a “civilized” world tearing at the seems.
These dynamic and charismatic women have zero interest in their own legacies. Instead, they set themselves about the task of struggling for the wholeness of the entire community. They embody what Cornel West characterizes as “a joy in serving others that is qualitatively different than a pleasure in leading others.” They empower. Their recruiting mantra is “It’s not your fault, but it is your fight.” Victims of water shutoffs, home foreclosures and a multitude of austerity measures have been blamed and shamed for far too long.
Activism, according to these icons, is not a special call for a few radicals. “If you are not at the table,” they warn, “you’ll be on the menu.” They call in the creativity of artists, the influence of teachers, the time and wisdom of retirees, the nurture and training of parents, the spare time and wisdom of retirees, the energy and adventure of singles. They challenge professionals and scientists and those working in the corporate world to blow the whistle on their employers.
Giving glory to Jesus is intimately connected to obliterating oppression and violence. To be messianic is to be on mission. It is to join a movement that empowers the people to participate in the healing of the world. Its message beckons believers to reject passively waiting for the charismatic leader to come save the day with “hope” and “change.” If we don’t act now, we could be waiting forever.