Stealing Jesus

I had just conducted a wedding ceremony for a nice young couple (most young couples are nice at their weddings) and was wandering about the reception, greeting friends and congregation members, being introduced to families and out-of-towners, and wallowing in the glow of praise for a beautiful ceremony.

I said hello to a twenty-something couple standing off by themselves — and shamelessly paused to receive their praise and adulation. But, instead, without preliminaries, the young man said, “Are you a Christian?” I probably uttered something erudite like “huh?” because he asked again, “Are you a Christian?” I gave him my usual straight-from-the-shoulder answer to that question, “Well, that depends on what you mean by “Christian.” When I’m asked if I believe in God, I give my usual straight-from-the-shoulder answer to that question, “Well, that depends on what you mean by “God.”

That response to either question usually causes some consternation because people who ask questions like that are not prepared for anything other than a yes or no answer. Most people who ask questions like that cannot for a moment consider the possibility that being a Christian or believing in God could possibly be open to definition. For them, there is only one way to be Christian and there is only one way to understand God — and that’s their way.

The young man’s wife said, “You didn’t use the Bible. You never mentioned God. We don’t think Harry and Susan have had a Christian wedding. Is this a Christian Church?” I was about to say, “Well, that depends on…” but the young man cut in — they were on a roll: “Do you preach Christ and him crucified in this place?” “Well, you see, Unitarian Universalists…” “Do you preach God’s Word?” “Well, you see…” And then, it came, as I knew it would: “Are you saved?”

That’s a conversation-stopper in my book, so I just said, “I don’t have any answers to your questions that you would find acceptable and, furthermore, you are a guest in this house and you are being rude to your host, so I’m just going to wish you a nice day and move on.”

This young couple were Christians. But more than that, they were fundamentalist Christians.

One of the reasons reasonable, thoughtful, religious people of Christian heritage are so reluctant to admit to being “Christians” these days is that they know that, if they say they are Christians, most people will assume they are like that couple– intolerant, arrogant, judgmental, unable to see beyond the narrow confines of their own faith. The Christian fundamentalist couple and millions like them have stolen the term “Christian.” And they have stolen Jesus and imprisoned him in their tightly-shuttered house.

When I say that the fundamentalists have “stolen Jesus,” I mean that, these days, when most people hear the word “Christian,” they think of Pat Robertson, the Christian Coalition, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell and others. Probably most people in America today are not aware that there are, in fact, many ways to be Christian or that there are many ways to think about Jesus. The sad fact is that I’m often reluctant to let it be known “out in public” that I’m a minister because of the assumptions that would be made about me once I’m identified as a minister. It will be generally assumed that I am a Christian minister and it will be generally assumed that my view of the world has to do with being born again, being saved, going to heaven, and sending homosexuals and secular humanists to hell.

It was not ever thus.

There was a time when we were young — we liberal ministers, priests and rabbis — when we were proud to be identified as clergy because, in revolutionary times, we stood in the light of such giants as Harry Emerson Fosdick and in the company of such as William Sloane Coffin, the Berrigan brother priests, and Martin Luther King, Jr. As students, our spirits were set on fire by the lives of such Christians as the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis for his part in a plot against Hitler, Pastor Martin Niemoller, who refused to preach the sermons distributed by the Gestapo, and the Unitarian Czechoslovakian minister, Norbert Capek, imprisoned and executed by the Nazis for his resistance.

Today, I cannot think of a single liberal clergy person who has the national standing of any of those giants. When the fundamentalists were stealing Jesus, there was not a liberal voice loud enough to be heard.

What have the thieves gotten away with? What has been lost? What is lost is an understanding of the truly essential Christian message as having to do with the primacy of love, with reverence for reason and freedom of thought and with compassion, toleration and justice.

The Jesus associated with those principles, the Jesus of liberal Christianity, has been successfully supplanted in the minds of Americans with a religion of dogma, legalism, hatred, exclusivity, division, and intolerance. Those who have bumper stickers on their cars that say, “Jesus Loves You,” have an unstated proviso, “As long as you think like me.”

And how does the fundamentalist think? What does captured Christianity look like in fundamentalist garb?

Unlike the liberal religious message of love, toleration, justice and inclusivity as the supreme guide to human life and relationship, fundamentalist Christianity is essentially legalistic, bound to rules that must be obeyed, with a laundry-list of inviolate beliefs.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, the action of the Samaritan, in caring for the robbed man left for dead by the side of the road, is a lesson in the supreme law of unconditional love, transcending all other laws and legalisms, grounded in compassion for all humankind. The Levite and the priest who passed by on the other side of the road were abiding by the laws of their religion — which said that they could not touch the dead. The despised Samaritan, moved by a higher law, carried the man to care and safety.

Legalistic Christianity, then, has a lot of “thou shalt nots” to it, condemnations, threats, the laying down of the laws, moral judgments, passing by on the other side to avoid contamination. As the Unitarian religious educator, Sophia Fahs, put it, “Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved.” Legalistic or fundamentalist Christianity draws the lines: the saved over here, the damned over there — and, of course, the saved and the damned are divided according to their judgments.

Liberal Christianity makes no such judgments. The inclusive faith of Unitarian Universalism is grounded in the first of our seven principles, “We gather to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

The Universalist wing of Unitarian Universalism has stood for generations on the principle that every person is a beloved child of God. It used to be said that the Unitarians and the Universalists — who merged in 1965 — were a good match because the Universalists believed that God was too good to damn them and the Unitarians believed that they were too good to be damned. Fundamentalist Christians have an essentially different view of the world than people of liberal religion. Fundamentalist Christianity is essentially anti-intellectual. It teaches people not to trust their own reason, not to trust their own intuition, and to be suspicious of science and “secular knowledge.” In fundamentalist Christianity, “truth” is established by reference to the Bible, a collection of material which, despite its errors and contradictions, must be held to be literally true in every detail. Fundamentalist Christians believe scholarly interpretations of the many forms of biblical literature to be the work of Satan– and Satan is held to be–not a metaphor for evil– but a real being from whom true believers are protected but who blinds all others to the truth and leads them to the literal, eternal fires of hell.

Unitarian Universalists and people of liberal religion in general have always held that the quest for truth is primary, that what appears to be truth must be tested by reason and by every means available to us. Our nineteenth century Unitarian forebears separated themselves from the biblical literalists of their day by declaring that, when scripture and reason conflict, reason must be held more precious than mere belief.

Pat Robertson has complained that liberals “would turn the mind into a playground for ideas.” It’s a delightful image that he condemns — condemns in favor of what, one wonders? The mind as an empty vessel to be filled with pre-packaged beliefs? The mind as a tool to turn over and over the same old hackneyed dogmas? Contemporary Unitarian Universalists adopted as another of our guiding principles the affirmation, “We…affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The mind, indeed, as a playground for ideas.

In a nutshell, then, Fundamentalist Christianity is based on a literal interpretation of every detail of the Bible, on a distrust — even a disdain — of reason and intellect, a belief in a real devil, responsible for evil in the world, and a plethora of moral judgments which separate “true Christians” from heretics and sinners.

Fundamentalist Christianity also insists that the mission of Jesus was to atone, as God-become-man, for the sins of humankind by his death and that believers are saved from sin and eternal hellfire by accepting his perfect sacrifice. All of that — and nothing less than all of that — is what fundamentalist Christians mean by “Christian.”

And our culture has come to accept, for the most part, that that is indeed what “Christian” means. Even the media has fallen for the stolen definition. News stories often refer to “Christian influence on school boards,” “Christian media,” “Christian magazines,” “Christian music.” The “Christians” in the news stories are fundamentalist Christians but they are not identified as such primarily because those doing the reporting are not aware that there is any other kind. All Christians have come to be painted with the same broad brush.

One Episcopal minister speaks of cringing when, at a social event, he met someone who, meeting a minister, immediately identified himself as a Christian. The minister said that what immediately went through his mind when he heard the word “Christian” were several other words, such as mean-spirited, bigot, arrogant, mindless, intolerant, and rigid.

In a recent address, the Secretary General of the Anglican Council said,

“…in certain parts of the world, the word Christian has become an embarrassment because it has been aligned with movements which are contrary to the loving Christ that is at the heart of the [Christian] message. “I hold my head in shame,” he continued, “to hear Jesus? name being affiliated with political movements that isolate, inhibit, and breed hate and discontentment among human beings.”

We Unitarian Universalists take pride in our diversity and inclusiveness. We make room under our broad umbrella for a wide variety of perspectives and paths. We have Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists, theists, atheists, agnostics, pagans, wiccans, humanists: but do you know what group has the most difficulty gaining acceptance in our congregations?


It seems that some Unitarian Universalists are willing to have themselves associated with almost anything — except Christians and Christianity. To some extent, that anti-Christian stance comes out of unfortunate experiences that some Unitarian Universalists had with Christian churches. But I have to believe that it also has to do with the fact that fundamentalist Christianity has all but stolen Jesus, all but stolen what “Christian” means most essentially. Because of that theft of meaning, many Unitarian Universalists, like most Americans, associate “Christian” with the Christian right and cannot imagine a place for it in their company.

I can only remind us that the founders of our Unitarian and Universalist faith were committed Christians. However, they were Christians who were repelled by Puritan legalism and by Calvinist arrogance and exclusion. Our liberal Christian forebears emphasized the role of reason and personal intuition in religion. And they were as dedicated to the principle of freedom in religion as they were to the principle of political freedom.

We hear much from Pat Robertson, from the Christian coalition and others, about the critical need to return this nation to the pure Christian faith of its founders. Jefferson himself is held up as a “devout Christian.” The fact is that most of the founders of this nation were deists and their beliefs were far removed from the Christian-right catechism of our day. They did take religion seriously. They revered Jesus as an exemplar and, like Jefferson, held much — but by no means all — of the Bible to be wise and instructive.

But the founders of the nation — like the founders of our faith — were first of all committed to individual reason and conscience as superior in all matters to religious authority. Jefferson said he was not “…disposed to seek my religion outside of the dictates of my own reason and the feelings of my own heart.” Jefferson — who declared himself Unitarian before his death — denied the trinity, denied the divinity of Jesus and hated the clergy all his life. When he first ran for president, the clergy told their parishioners that a vote for Jefferson was a vote against Christianity. So much for returning the nation to the Christianity of the founders.

If indeed the fundamentalists have stolen Jesus — have stolen the term “Christian” and turned it to their own uses — what does it matter to us? I tell you it matters because we Unitarian Universalists alone are too small a movement, too distant and unfamiliar a voice, to counter alone the mean doctrines and divisive beliefs that fundamentalism would impose on our society as “the Christian truth.”

In past decades, Unitarian Universalists literally linked arms and stood together with other people of liberal religion against unjust wars, injustice and racism. When the media identified some of us as “Christian clergy,” we did not hold up our hands in alarm to protest that we were not Christians. What mattered was that we were people of faith. Nobody was asked if they were saved before they were allowed to march across the bridge to Selma. No young woman asked me if I was born again before allowing me to escort her for a safe abortion. No one asked if those houses of worship were “truly Christian,” which declared sanctuary for those whose conscience led them to resist the draft.

In a talk given by the Buddhist Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, he speculates about what Jesus and the Buddha might say to each other if they returned today. He decides that they would discuss how much harder their work has become and would say to each other: “Brother, how can I help you?”

My message today is that, if we allow Christian fundamentalism to steal Jesus — an incarnation of transcending love and justice — and if we allow fundamentalism to steal the word “Christian,” which has identified millions who have served sacrificially the homeless, the hungry and the despised, then we lose those good people of religion whose company we need to keep in the continuing struggle against all that divides humankind, diminishes us, and destroys body and spirit.

Whether you consider yourself Jewish, pagan, humanist, atheist or seeker without sign or label, I urge you not to allow the thieves to separate you from those honored allies, those forebears from whose house we ventured, those followers of one of many lightbearers in times of darkness, those good people called Christians.