So begins a prayer that could well be sung while touching the feet of the newest life-size public sculpture of Jesus: Jesus the Homeless. Sleeping on a bench with his nail-scarred feet protruding from the hem of his blanket lies Jesus, adorning the front of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in the upscale neighborhood of Davidson, North Carolina.
The statue has sparked both commendations and disapproval from Davidson residents, one of whom even called the police thinking the statue to be a live person.
Pointless spectacle or profound statement?
Recently a friend and I were talking about the church as compared with other religions. When most people in the United States think of Buddhism they don’t think of the intolerance expressed in the Buddhist expulsion of Hindus from Bhutan or the anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka. They think of meditation. When most people think of Hinduism they don’t think of the Hindu communal riots against the Muslims. They think of yoga. When most people think of Judaism there’s a tension between the powerful Jewish stand for justice through the centuries and the current bad behavior of Israel. “If only Christianity could get to the place where Judaism is!” We laughed.
Christianity is perceived as dull, dogmatic and dangerous…and there is certainly enough evidence to vouch for any of those perceptions. We are personified in
- The prudish, repressed, judgmental Church Lady
- The self-righteous, culture-destroying Crusader
- The anti-intellectual, bible-thumping Evangelist
What if Christians were known – really KNOWN – for one good thing? So that when most people thought of Christianity they couldn’t help but think of this one thing as central to who we are in the world. What if we saw one thing as essential to what it means to be Christian? What would that thing be?
How about this? What if we were known for…Love.
The most memorized scripture in the bible (John 3:16) states: “For God so LOVED the world…” that he sent you and me. If we are to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, do what Jesus did and even to do greater things, behind each of us is the same divine missional impetus as that that compelled God to send Jesus: Love.
Do you recall the rousing old hymn? “And they’ll know we are Christians by our Love!”
Our Love. What love? Not our eros…some of us may still be prudish. Not our philia…though we certainly hope to build friendships in our churches, conflicts may still abound. Not our storge…though it would be nice if we could live out – or at least live into – the tenet that “Love makes a family.”
Our agape…our unconditional, selfless and sacrificial love…a love that cannot stand by when others suffer, that seeks political policies – justice – and personal practices – compassion – that build a world that works for all.
Through the gospels, Jesus speaks:
“Love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)
“Love your enemies and…[love] those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)
“By this shall all know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35) By this shall you “show that you are the children of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:45)
By this: Love.
I go often to a charismatic, non-denominational church even though its tenets prohibit me from serving in ministry there. I go because I love the Spirit-filled, Spirit-led worship. The church is beautifully diverse in age, color and culture, but would not identify as progressive. Yet a few Sundays ago, the Pastor said, “I’m going to say something and I don’t mean this politically, so don’t take it that way. The church needs to be…not more liberal, but more loving. What if instead of coming into the public sphere with self-righteous judgmentalism, we entered it with love?” That’s what I’m talking about.
So I think that what Rev. David Buck and the saints at St. Alban’s did is worth doing.
Especially in North Carolina. Republicans who have the governor’s mansion and both houses of the legislature are “slashing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, providing vouchers to private schools, cutting unemployment benefits, refusing to expand Medicaid and rolling back electoral reforms, including voting rights” as well as working against women’s rights and the environment. (See Bill Moyers’ documentary State of Conflict: North Carolina.)
Against this onslaught of hateful policies, citizens in North Carolina are standing up. In 2013, over a 13-week series of protests called “Moral Mondays” more than 1,000 people were arrested in Raleigh. In January of this year one March turned out 100,000 people. And the catalyst for these Moral Monday protests? Someone compelled by the gospel of Jesus Christ to fight for Love in the public sphere: Rev. William Barber, a Disciples of Christ pastor who was elected head of the state’s NAACP.
“We have been called together to fight against a dangerous agenda of extremist laws by the ultra-conservative right wing that is choosing the low road, policies that are constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible and economically insane,” says Rev. Barber.
His focus is not the so-called evangelism that seeks to fit other people into a cookie-cutter version of ‘Christian.’ His focus is not “pelvic morality” (as Matthew Fox called what has become the signature of the religious right.) His focus is not a crusade against other religions.
His focus is to bring together everyone to stand up for Love. “We are black. We are white. We are Latino. We are Native American. We are Democrat. We are Republican. We are independent. We are people of faith. We are people not of faith, but who, though they are secular,…still believe in a moral universe….We are natives and immigrants. We are business leaders and workers and unemployed. We are doctors and the uninsured. We are gay. We are straight. We are students. We are parents. We are retirees. We are North Carolina. We are America.” (Rev. Barber, at the Moral March)
The song “Open the eyes of my heart” (by Michael W. Smith) follows that prayer with the words, “I want to see You…To see You high and lifted up, Shinin’ in the light of Your glory.” And though I am moved by the song, I’m with the Black Eyed Peas: “Where is the Love?” Will we the church that is called by His name ever sing to Jesus, “I want to see you…to see you frail and needing love, calling me to stand with the poorest?”
This statue may be one small step. Rather than what some neighbors see as an eyesore that demeans the neighborhood, could Jesus the Homeless open our eyes, our mind and maybe even our heart?
Rev. Ama Zenya is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ. The intention in her work is the liberation of human beings and all creation from the structures and effects of sin and alienation. Her life finds roots in the spirit and teaching of Jesus Christ, who in John’s gospel says, “I came that they may have life, and have it to the full!” She lives in Oakland, CA with her husband and two sons.