The Cafeteria Prophet

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The pink heart stared at me across my greasy potatoes and hard scrambled eggs. I had just said the Lord’s Prayer, followed by a specific thanks hastily murmured for the food in front of me. After the “amen,” my eyes opened, looked for my fork, picked it up, and then drifted up to meet the bold pink heart glaring back at me.

This ferocious organ was clinging to the back of a sweater of a young woman seating facing away from me, engrossed in a novel at the table ahead of me. Her breakfast lay finished and pushed away. Across her hoodie, emblazoned in vibrant, billboard letters, read: JESUS IS MY SAVIOR, NOT MY RELIGION—the pink heart made up the “U” in “Jesus.”

I sat staring at this message, so boldly proclaimed and confident. It unsettled me, although it may have been mere intimidation in the presence of the confidence and assertion of the sweater—or it may have merely been the food I was eating. Either way, I pondered on the bold theology of this cafeteria prophet’s clothing, and was uncomfortable with the statement.

“Jesus is my savior, not my religion” is a fairly common, fairly abstract statement, offered mainly by young-ish Protestants in reaction to the ills perpetrated on the church and individuals by excessively strict religious institutions. The message itself manifests in other forms, such as “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion” and “I don’t like the word ‘Christian,’ I’m a follower of Christ.” It’s a decent message, keeping in line with an American distrust of authority and establishment, as well as a desire for individuality in the midst of imposed leadership and values.

Despite the validity of such a statement, it truly neglects a necessary aspect of the Christian faith—the very faith that Jesus Christ established—and turns it into a loosely defined relationship with a person that most Christians (or “followers of Christ”) don’t have a normal, face-to-face relationship with. Jesus is risen, but, he doesn’t personally interact with most of us—at least not in the way that we interact with our neighbors, roommates, pastors and priests. Yes, we are given Scripture and the Holy Spirit, but if there is anything that can be known about Scripture, it’s that people can interpret it differently; just ask a room full of Christians if they’re Calvinist or Arminiast—be sure to specify you want verses to back up their claim. As for the Holy Spirit, it is by definition the Person of the Trinity that “blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3:8)

There is a danger here in denouncing religion for the sake of Jesus; he never made this distinction, nor has Church history. Christ came as the fulfillment of thousands of years of tradition and religion; right before the Ascension, he affirmed Peter as the “rock on which I will build My Church.” Even Christ saw the need for a Church—and Church leadership—in order to shepherd his flock. Yes, we have a personal relationship with Christ our Savior, but that is facilitated, strengthened, and protected through the Christian faith—through healthy religion.

Jesus is my savior; Christianity is my religion. My relationship with Jesus is built on the faith of the Jews; my walk with him is aided by 2,000 years of Church tradition—2,000 years of religion. I was uncomfortable with the cafeteria prophet’s message, not because Jesus isn’t my Savior, but because he is also the cornerstone of my religion. The statement “Jesus is my Savior, not my religion” seems to neglect that for every individual for whom Jesus Christ is their Savior, he is also their pastor. This neglect is troubling in that it acknowledges Christ, the Head of the church, while marginalizing the Body—leaving one alone with a disembodied head.

Jesus is my friend, Jesus is my Savior; Jesus is also my high priest. You don’t need a high priest if you don’t have a religion—nor do you need church authority, theologians, Christian education, or most of Holy Scripture. The desire to emphasize the fact that Christians have a personal relationship with Christ is admirable; to do so at the expense of the Church is fatal.

Let Us Discuss

Hey folks,

Sorry it’s been so long since I put anything up; there are a number of articles in the hopper, I just need to clean them up. Most of my focused writing has been going towards The Evangelical Outpost, the publication I am currently writing for. I will have a couple things up in the next week–Scout’s Honor.

On a related note, I just found out that a good friend of mine is taking over the editor-in-chief position for Dartmouth’s ApologiaNot only is this significant because it’s Dartmouth, (one of those schools covered in ivy) but it’s also a great inter-denomination publication geared at promoting dialogue between the different sects of Christianity professing the name of Jesus Christ. It is a very intelligent, thoughtful magazine aimed at strengthening the Body of Christ through discourse, and everybody should go give it a glance. They also have a blog that’s much more consistent than mine.

All that said, I’ll be back posting soon. In the meantime, take a minute to pray for all those affected by the tragedies in Waco and Boston. God is so good, but our world can be so incredibly awful sometimes. And thank you to everyone who reads what I have to say–all 13 of you.

I love you guys.

In Christ,

Ron

The Giving of Alms

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I recently had a conversation over a cup of coffee with a friend of mine. The topic of giving alms to the homeless came up, and immediately progressed into a lively discussion about the ethics of such an act. He was firmly opposed to the giving of alms. Mind you, this was a young man who owned two cars and attended a private university in Southern California. There was no lack of resources, so I was puzzled at his adamant refusal of what I thought was forgone conclusion amongst the Christian community.

The fact is I would be hard pressed to try to convince a person that giving alms to beggars was the right thing to do, providing they held no religion or ethic which suggested otherwise. How could you have a conversation with someone who held no concrete ethical convictions? I had no such intention. However, the person in question was a self-professed Christian. This placed him under a stricter standard of ethics than your average run-of-the-mill citizen. The Christian standard is what I applied for the framework of our dialogue.

As for a foundation on which to make claims besides Scripture, the following are statistics, provided by the Los Angeles Almanac, to help to portray the situation of the homeless population in Los Angeles County. Both me and my friend reside in the area, so it is fitting to use it as a case study. The numbers are as follows:

– There are an estimated 254,000 people homeless at any given time in LA County

– 20-43% are in families

– 41% of adults were employed within the last year

– 16-20% are currently employed

– 25% are mentally ill

– 20% are physically disabled

– 48% graduated high school, 32% hold a bachelor’s degree or higher

– 33-66% of single individuals have substance abuse problems

Two of the dominant themes that my friend brought up were thus: those who are begging are being lazy and therefore should not be enabled, and/or they were addicted to certain substances and giving money only fueled that addiction. The statistics above were intentionally chosen with these assertions in mind.

One of the consistent witnesses my friend brought forward in defense of not giving alms to beggars was that the Bible clearly states that those who work shall not eat. I was familiar with that particular text, having heard it quoted from my mother numerous times in my youth. And while it is a valid argument, there are a much greater number of texts that speak of giving to the poor in the time of need. My mind immediately goes to the numerous verses that speak of giving alms as though you were lending to the Lord, and other passage along these lines. In a brief overview of both the Old and New Testament I found no less than 46 verses that directly mentioned giving to the “poor” or “needy.” There are surely more, as it was a perfunctory search.

In contrast I found only three verses that mentioned that those who don’t work shouldn’t eat. Two of these were Proverbs, specifically worded to individuals, and those individuals indulging in the vice of sloth. Only one was framed in such a way as to potentially target a frame of thinking for a member of the Christian community. While there are more passages that would deal with laziness, nowhere can I find that the supposed laziness of a stranger should concern the giving of alms by one who would subscribe to the tenants of the Bible. The message of those Scriptures referencing that distasteful sin of sloth is directed at the individuals engaged in it, not at those who would give.

Now continuing to the other argument that was made in the course of our discussion: “If I give beggars money, they’re just going to use it to buy alcohol or drugs.” It is a statement I often hear from very respectable people. This seems like a valid argument until you begin to examine the facts of the matter. The Bible is vague on this, leaving us without a reference per se. But there are other means of examining the dilemma. Making an estimate of the figures above, roughly 50% of those who are homeless and single have a substance abuse problem. Couple that with the figures from how many are in families and the number could be assumed to be slightly lower.

Mind you, this takes into account mild alcoholics as well as heroin users. There are those who suffer addiction stemming from mental deficiency, free will, or are constrained by genetic predisposition that they lack the strength or support to successfully combat. But while this is certainly a tragic figure–from a conservative estimate–it is not even a majority.

But this is beside the point. With the endless rationalization and relativism of the world, I am not suggesting one more theory along that style of reasoning. I am merely suggesting that one who is bound by the Christian ethic is bound to give alms to those in need. I am not calling into account the character of those who refrain from giving alms. However do not let ourselves remark that we do not give because the poor are lazy, or addicted, or degenerate. The fact is they are needy and if we have abundance–subscribing to a Christian ethic–we are to be their salve as best we can. And this could be a number of things: time, money, relationships, etc. Every person has a different ideal method for helping the needy, but I would agree with almost all of them to a certain level.

Christians should give. For anyone who believes that they are giving as unto the Lord, it is ironic to hear justification of why withholding alms is really helping a person. The God of the Christians does not ask for our advice on what to do with our tithes and offerings. He merely asks for them. This should not be interpreted as advocating the reckless distribution of money. All the same, I would be happy to see more folks reexamine their perspective on this particular Christian ethics.