For many Christians, particularly LGBT Christians, guilt-laden theology has worn out its welcome — and for good reason. The theology that says we are so wicked that regardless of what good we do, we deserve to burn alive forever undercuts our worth as human beings. This guilt based theology also tells us that Jesus had to endure terrible suffering — having the guts whipped out of him (Roman whips had hooks on the end which tore off the skin and often exposed internal organs), having a crown of thorns put on his head, having stakes driven through his hands and feet, and finally a slow, painful death from asphyxiation on the cross. After all, only the most horrible death could possibly atone for our crimes. “YOU did this!” we are told by guilt-based theology. “YOU caused these horrible things to happen to Jesus!” Jesus was the great punching bag that stopped God from lashing out at we incorrigible human beings — or so the story goes.
This has led to “fire and brimstone” sermons from the pulpit, in which the wrath and “holiness” (read ruthlessness) of God is emphasized. Of course, many preachers who buy into guilt-laden theology talk about the love and compassion of God, but this is often done in the context of the wrath of God (i.e. God loved us so much that he didn’t smote us all off the face of the earth). I am convinced that this degrading theology is the root cause of the insidious culture of judgmentalism in Christian churches that drives many LGBT Christians out of the body of Christ.
In response to this image of God and rampant judgmentalism, progressive Christians have latched onto the image of Jesus. Part of this is due to the fact that his words clearly fly in the face of the judgmental theology that promotes “thou shalts and thou shalt nots.” The faith of Christ is a simple faith that comes down to two rules: “love the Lord your God with all your heart soul, mind a strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The simple faith of Christ deflates part of the guilt-ridden theology, which emphasizes following a complex network of regulations, or obsessively divining God to seek “his will.” But often, because we want to emphasize the love and compassion of God, we focus on Jesus’ commands to “love our neighbor,” to “judge not,” the story in which he disarmed a self-righteous crowd by saying “he who is without sin may cast the first stone,” his nonjudgmental attitude towards prostitutes and tax collectors, and his healing ministry. These are crucial aspects of Jesus’ character, but in our rush to distance ourselves from guilt-based theology and the culture of judgmentalism, a passive image of Jesus often emerges. We often create the impression that Jesus would never have a harsh word to say to anyone, that he didn’t get in people’s faces, or that he didn’t confront his opposition with intensity. In other words, we present Jesus as a “nice guy.”
But this image is unfair and limits Jesus. Far from being the “nice guy” that exists in the lore of progressives, Jesus was a revolutionary — and revolutionaries are not “nice guys.” Look at Tom Paine, Robspierre, Lenin or Trotsky. These leaders inspire millions, but they do not inspire because they were passive. These men were fiery, uncompromising defenders of their respective revolutions, and Jesus was the same way. The Jesus movement challenged the “theological monopoly” held by the religious elite in Roman Judea. Religion was dominated by two major religious parties — Sadducees and Pharisees. Sadducees, who accepted only the Torah (first five books of the Bible), represented a powerful and wealthy social class, while Pharisees promoted extra-biblical rules to “help” people avoid breaking the Torah. While the gospel writers’ opinions about what Jesus thought of the Torah differ (see Mt. 5:17-19), the overwhelming majority of instances show that Jesus downplayed the Torah and promoted a system ethics that transcend the Torah (or at least conventional interpretations of it). For instance in Mark 2:23-27, Jesus admits that he is doing something unlawful by invoking a story in which David broke the law, and in Matthew 5:38, he clearly dismisses the conventional belief in “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth.” Jesus’ revolutionary theology is emphasized by his claim that he would tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days (Mk. 14:58; Mt. 26:61). Indeed, he would overthrow the old way of thinking and replace it with a new one.
Jesus turns out moneychangers in the temple, turned over their tables (Mk. 11:15-18; Lk. 19:45-47; Mt. 12:11-13), and according to one evangelist he even made a whip out of rope to drive them out (Jn. 2:13-16)! The temple was not just the religious center of Judean culture. It was the treasury. Jesus confronted the religious, financial, and political center of Roman Judea — which had plenty of temple guards and a Roman garrison looking on. Not only is this incident symbolic of Jesus’ mission, it is indicative of Jesus’ willingness to confront the opposition head on. Furthermore, Jesus did not refrain from giving his opponents — the theological elite of Roman Judea — a piece of his mind. In Matthew 23:24-29, Jesus blasts the hypocritical theology of his opponents. In v. 17, Jesus even refers to his opponents as “blind fools!” In Matthew 12:34, Jesus calls those who challenge him a “brood of vipers” (cf. Mt. 3:6).
Promoting a passive image of Jesus takes away from the revolutionary character of Jesus and his message, and we can learn a lot from his example. For the church to respect LGBT Christians, we have to think the way Jesus did. It is imperative that the way that Christians think about sin, God, Jesus, and the Bible be completely revolutionized if we want to see the changes necessary for our acceptance into the body of Christ. We must understand that if we want liberation, we cannot ask for a few crumbs from the theological elite of the church. We must fight for revolution in Christendom — we have to tear down their church of rules and vicarious atonement and rebuild it with a church of liberation and love. This requires that we fight hard. Because must stage a revolution, we cannot shy away from head on clashes with the opposition. Yes, we should be harsh and firm. Mel White’s letters begging religious leaders to respect LGBT folks get the same superficial replies every time. Mel White sat in the congregation of Jerry Falwell’s church, and thought that significant progress was made, then Falwell turned right around and blamed LGBT people (and others) for the September 11 tragedy. It’s time to get serious. Jerry Falwell and others like him are standing in the way of progress, and Jesus’ example is that such people need to be told off — harshly. Forget about convincing them — we have a revolution to build! We must continue to build up those that are disenchanted by judgmental, guilt-based religion and we must challenge the status quo. That is our primary task, we must not shy away from being the revolutionaries that we are.
Brian Rainey is a rising junior at Brown University majoring in Religious Studies. He hopes to attend seminary after graduation.