Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
-Matthew 16:24-26 (NIV)
I’m not typically a big fan of Bill Maher. He’s no doubt a smart guy, but he comes across as a little arrogant for my taste most of the time. Not to mention that he’s pretty hostile toward religion in general, and Christianity in particular. In fairness, though, his criticisms of religion mainly have to do with the hypocrisy he perceives in many people who call themselves religious.
In a recent episode of his show Real Time, Maher takes on the findings of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that the majority of white evangelicals — 62% — believe that torture of suspected terrorists can “often” or “sometimes” be justified. (Against 49% of the total population of the US) Maher takes off on about a 4-minute rant that “if you’re a Christian who supports killing your enemies and torture, you have to come up with a new name for yourself.” He points out that “capping thine enemy — it’s not what Jesus would do. It’s what Shug Knight would do.”
Maher says that Martin Luther King can call himself a Christian “because he actually practiced loving his enemies,” and that Ghandi “was so … Christian he was Hindu.” He goes on to say that non-violence was “kinda Jesus’ trademark,” and, “to not follow that part of it is kinda like joining Greenpeace and hating whales.”
Maher admits that his favorite new government program is “surprising violent religious zealots in the middle of the night and shooting them in the face,” but that it’s OK for him to say that because he’s not a Christian — “just like most Christians,” he claims. “If you ignore every single thing Jesus commanded you to do, you’re not a Christian,” he says. “You’re just auditing. You’re not Christ’s followers, you’re just fans.”(You can watch the video here, if you want to. Just keep in mind that the show is on HBO and that Maher’s language will quite probably offend you.)
I don’t think non-violence and non-resistance necessarily work as foreign policy. But as a follower of Jesus I don’t think I should be excited about war, and torture, and targeted assassination. Even when it’s in the name of my country of birth, I don’t think I should feel vindication when a missile strikes its target or another face is crossed off the FBIs most-wanted list. Few of us, probably, would pull a trigger or launch a missile or interrogate a prisoner ourselves, even if we had the chance. But is it anything like Jesus to rejoice over it, to revel in the destruction of an enemy of the United States, or democracy, or freedom?
None of that is to attack those who do pull the triggers or launch the missiles. I’m sure the weight of those decisions, for most of them, is not borne easily. I guess I want to just agree with Maher’s statement: “If you ignore every single thing Jesus commanded you to do, you’re not a Christian. You’re just auditing. You’re not Christ’s followers, you’re just fans.”
Like I said, I’m not a fan of Maher, but in this case he’s more right than wrong. Believers have a long history of cherry-picking Jesus’ words, appropriating the ones we like for ourselves while explaining away the ones we don’t like. Crusaders knew that Jesus taught that his followers should pray for their enemies; they just apparently thought they could do that from behind swords, spears, and shields. Modern American believers know that Jesus cautioned against the love of money, and told his followers to give to those in need; we just convince ourselves that the people to whom we could give are in need because of some moral defect in them, and that the best thing we can do for them is make them stand on their own. We convince ourselves that we don’t really love all the stuff we’ve accumulated, we just need it to pay our mortgages and send our kids to college, and don’t question the lifestyles we’ve chosen for ourselves.
It’s a temptation for us in every generation to jettison the words of Jesus that are inconvenient for the times we live in. In America during the two World Wars, pacifism was a dangerous position. It was considered unpatriotic. It’s dangerous today to apply Jesus’ attitude toward sinners in the heavily-politicized issue of gay rights; not difficult to know that Jesus loved sinners, and called them friends, but difficult to live that out without being accused of compromising the gospel. It’s just as difficult to take seriously Jesus’ words about sinning no more in a world where words like that can be called religious bigotry or hate speech.
And yet it’s exactly those words of Jesus that are most inconvenient for our times, words about money and sex and love and power and revelation, that we most need to hear. The convenient words are easy to hear, comfortable to follow. It’s the ones that are hard, that force us to feel the tension between ourselves as we are and ourselves as Jesus wants us to be, that make us decide if we want to follow him, or if we just want to audit his class.
The thing is, we run from those encounters sometimes. We go out of our way to avoid hearing those difficult, inconvenient, words and satisfy ourselves instead with the easy ones. We resent it when someone points out what looks like hypocrisy in our lives, even if they don’t accuse us to our faces. We defend ourselves. We rush to interpret Jesus’ words in a way that takes the sting out of them. We justify our prejudices, greed, and pettiness, cloak them with religious vocabulary and religious actions. We turn angry words on those who would point out our inconsistencies.
In doing so, we forget that Jesus promised — promised — that following him would mean our deaths. It would be a life of denying and executing those parts of our natures that don’t easily bend to his will, and that any efforts to preserve our lives untouched and unbothered would mean losing the lives that he wants to give us. And we forget that the one who calls us to this life does so as someone who has carried his own cross, given up his own life. It shouldn’t surprise us when he asks us to do the same.
And yet it does. But may we be followers indeed, whose lives of love and sacrifice force even skeptics and unbelievers to admit our consistency and credibility. May we walk with him and follow his teaching even when it’s hard, even when it costs us something of our lives. And may we never doubt that in walking with him, we will gain the true life that he wants to share with us.