Thoughts on “A Jesus Manifesto”
I have to say that I’m disappointed in Frank Viola’s and Len Sweet’s latest internet push “A Magna Carta for Restoring the Supremacy of Jesus Christ, a.k.a. A Jesus Manifesto for the 21st Century Church.” Besides the crazy presumptuous title and slight affront to jesusmanifesto.com (which Mark has addressed nicely), the document really seems to be a step backward for the church. In essence “A Jesus Manifesto” calls Christians back to a Christ-centered faith. Which, in general, is something I heartily support. And, in fact, there is much in the document that I completely agree with. But when they say stuff like “What is Christianity? It is Christ. Nothing more. Nothing less.”, I start to have problems.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a Christ-centered faith. And unfortunately those of us who are uncomfortable with the document are now being accused of wanting to ignore Christ or question his divinity. So let me say upfront, that is not the case. Christ is central. Period. But the assertion that Christianity – the movement of the followers of Christ – is nothing more or less than the person of Christ just really seems to miss the point.
The attack and reason for the document springs from the talk about the Kingdom of God and social justice within emerging missional communities. Viola and Sweet insist that such talk turns Jesus into an abstraction and tempts us to ignore the person of Jesus. They say “Jesus Christ was not a social activist nor a moral philosopher. To pitch him that way is to drain his glory and dilute his excellence. Justice apart from Christ is a dead thing.” I’m sorry guys, but Jesus was both of those things. He can’t be reduced to those things, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t embody those things as well. To say that is all he was would yes, drain his glory, but to say he wasn’t those things too denies reality. What is going on here is really a discussion of which image of Jesus we want to embrace – a niche Jesus of one extreme or another or the full Jesus. More on that in a bit.
My main problem with the document lies in their assumption that those of us talking about justice and the kingdom are doing so apart from the person and power of Jesus. That’s just plain and simply not true. But it has become the favorite straw man argument for the opponents of the emerging missional community. I think in many ways it is based on a misunderstanding of us that projects the theology and history of the classic liberal social gospel movement onto the missional movement. Len Sweet even admitted that the document sprung in part from the lessons he’s learned from teaching a class on the history of the Social Gospel movement in early 20th century America. And while that movement was influenced by theological discussions that questioned the divinity of Christ and sought to find the “historical Jesus,” it is unfair and inappropriate to assume the same thing of the emerging missional movement.
I don’t know how many times we have to stand up and say that caring for the Kingdom, seeking justice, and loving others is all about choosing to focus more on Christ. As Christians we believe in him and follow him. He said, if you love me you will obey me. Not “if you love me, you will worship a ethereal, conceptualized version of me that is disembodied from action and the world I came to save.” When following Jesus becomes simply about doing works or simply about standing in awe of a divine person then we’ve got problems – and a Jesus that has nothing to do with the Jesus of the Bible. Those images of Christ are dangerous, but what I see the manifesto doing is attacking a (projected) incomplete image in favor of another incomplete image.
While Viola and Sweet may personally think that following the commands of Jesus is part of what it means to be a Christian (although they say it is just about Christ), to tell others that talking about the commands of Jesus takes the focus off of Jesus is unhelpful in the extreme. I grew up only hearing about the person of Jesus. Jesus is divine, he did miracles, I am to believe and worship (be in awe of) him. Nothing more. Ever. It is naive to believe that just by presenting this Jesus, people will start doing all that he commanded if those commands aren’t allowed to be talked about. For instance, my daughter attended one night of a neighborhood backyard bible club this week. Her lesson was on Jesus serving the poor and healing the sick. The takeaway was that Jesus did miracles so therefore we have to believe in him. No mention at all of the “go and do likewise” aspect of being a follower of Christ. At this same club, the leader presented the Wordless Book, but after doing the Gold (heaven), Dark (sin), Red (Jesus), White (substitutionary atonement) pages she turned to the Green page and couldn’t remember what it was for. (the green page, btw, is the grow in one’s faith page). It was the perfect representation of a faith that focuses on the need to believe in the person of Jesus to the exclusion of following Jesus. This is the faith I grew up with – one that cares a lot about the person of Jesus but which doesn’t even talk about following his commandments. An impotent faith that essentially tells Jesus that we don’t love him enough to obey his commands.
It is because I love Jesus that I talk about and pursue justice and the kingdom. Even Viola and Sweet mention that “the teachings of Jesus cannot be separated from Jesus himself.” I just wish they wouldn’t falsely accuse us of doing that. And I wish they wouldn’t encourage these dichtomized versions of Jesus by criticizing the actual following of his commands. It is a step backward into the faith my daughter witnessed the other night at the Bible club, and truly unhelpful to the church in the long run. I love Jesus, but I want nothing to do with a faith that is disembodied, disconnected, and impotent. I want to believe in, worship, and follow Christ (since those are all technically one and the same). I’m sorry, but a real Jesus Manifesto wouldn’t be about such a one-sided incomplete image of Jesus. No – it would present Jesus in the fullness of the gospels and not be afraid to tell Christians that following Christ involves a heck of a lot more than standing there slack-jawed in awe of him. I’d love that message to get out to the world, but this, “A Jesus Manifesto” was simply a disappointment in that regard.