What forgotten Jesus on the church wall really means
Updated: Jun 11
Jesus typically hangs on a wall at church while friends and families gather to share food, wine, and gifts during the holiday season that celebrates his birth.
It’s been that way for a long, long, long time. It’s a blast!
We are taking a break from the infuriating world that features a broadening battleground of finger-pointing related to abortion and other human rights, limited economic opportunity, suicide, homicide, climate change, and unaffordable housing and healthcare to name a few.
Those issues will remain after the holidays, so a little Jesus might help us handle them in a healthier, more productive way.
But the Jesus story is a little confusing right now.
One story goes that Jesus hung out with marginalized people and died so we may live. He was a healer who treasured children, fed people, embraced the priorities of women — including sex workers — and touched lepers
If he showed up today, he would be hanging out with immigrants and political prisoners, the homeless, people on Medicaid, and addicts to make them feel loved. Jesus would challenge the wealthy and powerful to be more kind, giving and just.
Jesus might struggle in The United States, which was founded on a strong sense of individualism, where giving comes second to achieving personal goals.
Many Americans see the hard-to-copy, self-sacrificing Jesus as a non-religious philosopher. Others believe he was the son of God.
Others go further and have faith in a brand of Christianity that portrays Jesus as a violent, judgmental general on a white horse. This Jesus seems intent on striking down most of us because we have sinned, especially women, the poor, non-whites, and anyone considered “different” in terms of their sexual orientation.
Our versions of Jesus make our natural tendency to separate ourselves into tribes of people with similar backgrounds, lifestyles, and skin colors more obvious. It is easier to clearly identify what separates our group from others than to look for similarities.
We want to define the tribe we are in, and who the bad guys are. Political, business, media — and often religious — leaders tell us that what our tribe says and does is right and what other tribes say and do is wrong.
But we need a lot more of “us” to get along in order to solve problems that nag us year-round.
That’s where the Jesus story can help. Your tribe is probably not Jesus’ tribe. His tribe wanted what your tribe might have: peace, family, friends, comfort.
At one point in most people’s lives, we don’t have at least one of those things. That’s when we ask for support. That’s when we are all in the same tribe.
That’s the point of the Jesus story.
Even if we disagree on major issues, we are in the same tribe because we want and need the same basic thing — love. Love is not just giving. It is knowing WHAT to give and HOW to give it. It is understanding and giving respect and dignity.
When we limit our experience to only people like us, we cannot possibly understand what they believe and why. We cannot know what they need in terms of support, friendship, comfort.
When we don’t understand something, we ask our friends and family — our tribe — to validate what we already know. We don’t ask whether we are wrong or missed something. Our tribe validates our differences, not our sameness.
We move apart.
Jesus on that church wall really represents our sameness and the idea that breaking down tribal walls can bring us closer to working together to solve the problems that harm all of us.
Yes, it takes more than empathy to solve the challenges we face. It takes effort and constant conscientiousness to engage in issues like public safety, climate change, economic justice, human rights, and healthcare access and affordability.
Many of us have family and friends and other more immediate needs.
That’s fair, but to act on the concept of Jesus, you only have two believe that we all share the same wants and needs for comfort, love, friendship, and family.
That makes it easier to grant people outside our tribes the dignity you would want and deserve by asking about, and listening to, what matters most to them. You will see that they are filled with love and want to find love and joy just like you.
Don’t be afraid to go a little deeper. When you are shopping our eating out, be grateful for other people’s stories. What is life like for the server at the restaurant or the attendant at the check-out counter at the store?
Where does your chocolate, clothes, and jewelry come from? What kinds of people made them? Do they face the same kinds of injustice, safety issues, and mental and physical health concerns we do?
As you think about these things, you may realize that they have the same hopes and dreams and wants and needs for family, friends, and comfort as you. No matter the country, skin color, job, or faith. They are the same as you.
And because they provide us with services and products that make it possible for us to celebrate with our family and friends, we are connected to them, and they are connected to us.
Do we all need to get to church to see Jesus’ reminder to treat those not in our tribe and who are not like us with respect, dignity and love?
Maybe we just need to slow down, judge less, give more, and reflect that the tribes we form divide us, make us unhappy and distrustful, and leave us with fleeting joy for a few weeks or days a year.
Diana Butler Bass, Grounded: Finding God in the World https://amzn.to/3uICqfQ
Shane Claiborne, Jesus for President https://amzn.to/3VQ7MNC
Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney: womanist (African American female) biblical interpretation
https://www.wilgafney.com/blog-page/ — Weekly comments on the texts from the Revised Common Lectionary, used in many churches to determine the scripture readings for the week.
J. R. Daniel Kirk, Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? https://amzn.to/3HvQp0h
Provides some broad categories and approaches for how Jesus might matter for everyday life (including how the apostle Paul makes sense of Jesus)
Rosemary Radford Ruether: feminist theology and ecofeminist theology
https://www.religion-online.org/author/rosemary-ruether/ — Articles on feminism, peace, and ecology
Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited
https://amzn.to/3v3r5aJ — An account of Jesus in the context of American racism–inspired Martin Luther King Jr
Spark.Church has a wealth of YouTube videos featuring conversations about climate, race, science, and broader questions about the place of Christianity in the issues that define contemporary culture.
Website/Magazine: Sojourners: a long tradition of social-justice oriented Christian thought and action