Many Americans, particularly people in their teens, twenties, and thirties, have a virulent negative reaction to Christianity as they understand it. It seems to them to be too narrowly focused on piety and individual salvation, too judgmental and homophobic, too directly identified with a particular far-right political agenda. And while I don't believe we should ever focus-group spirituality, I think we can acknowledge that these polls may actually be pin-pointing what is wrong with mainstream American Christianity. The qualities they identify describe the tradition in which I was raised -- and the tradition I fled.
My book, The Other Jesus, grows out of my upbringing in a conservative evangelical denomination, my decades in the wilderness seeking spiritual connection, and my rescue by a multi-cultural Episcopal congregation in Austin, Texas who introduced me to that possibility of faith as love and radical hospitality. It's my exploration of how following the Other Jesus has been life-giving for me and many other people who felt we could never identify ourselves as disciples of Christ. Instead of piety, salvation, and politicized morality, many of us -- the sort of folks that Diana Butler Bass calls "the other Christians" -- have embraced love and radical hospitality (the messages of the Hebrew and Christian testaments), and the two-fold commandment (love of God and love of neighbor) articulated by Jesus and spotlighted by Augustine.
St. James Episcopal Church was the African-American mission church in Austin, Texas, during those bad years of segregation when black Episcopalians were not permitted to worship in white churches. Later on, when white Christians and gay Christians began to arrive in their sanctuary, drawn by authentic worship and powerful music and the company of people who had known suffering and redemption, the powers that be had to decide if St. James could welcome those people who might change the nature of who they were as a community. Although they could not have known it, their decision blessed me and many others. The elders of St. James knew what it was to be rejected, and knowing what that felt like, they vowed that they would never turn away anyone seeking Christ.
When I arrived in 2001, that radical hospitality was manifested in their welcome, in their worship, and in their liturgy, where everyone was encouraged to take communion. I walked into St. James a broken man who thought his life expectancy was measured in months; I walked out loved, accepted, accompanied, and encouraged to rescue others. The people of St. James showed me a faith that was living and vibrant, that wasn't based on assent to a set of beliefs, but on a communal journey toward God, and that has made all the difference for me.
My life at St. James -- and my encounters with many other vital and hospitable faith communities since -- encouraged me to ask why that experience differed so markedly from that of my youth, or from that of so many American Christians today. How did the people of St. James look past differences in race, culture, and theology? How could the people of St. James commit themselves to care for others in and outside of their community? Why did the people of St. James exert themselves on behalf of the hungry, the poor, the marginalized?
The answer was that they were coming at faith in a different way from other Christians. I realized that although the people of St. James called themselves Christian, the Jesus they served was not the angry Jesus of my youth, nailed to a cross to atone for the sins of the world. He was not the Spiteful Jesus of Scott Cairns' poem, "quick to dish out just deserts." Their Jesus was the Other Jesus, the one who advocated compassion and sacrificial love, who called people to walk the Way, who fed, and healed, and reconciled, and so they modeled themselves on him and tried to do what he did.
The Other Jesus and the people doing his work in the world saved my life, and they can be a powerful corrective to the kind of faith and practice many people identify with such disdain today as Christianity. Like Desmond Tutu and the anti-apartheid movement, they can help us reorient Christian faith from pie in the sky to pie on the ground, food for the journey. Like Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, they can show us that care for and solidarity with the poor are among our highest callings. And like Lisa Sullivan, the community organizer whose story Jim Wallis continues to tell, they can remind us that "We are the people we have been waiting for," can call us to hope and faith and action that can transform the world.
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