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High Ideals and Hard Teachings: The Church’s Tradition of Evading Jesus

by Glen Stassen


May 1, 2014

High Ideals and Hard Teachings: The Church’s Tradition of Evading Jesus

Glen speaking at Peace Camp in 2007.

The following article is by Glen Stassen, a BPFNA founding member and dear friend. Glen recently passed away at the age of 78 after battling prostate cancer. He was a leading voice for peacemaking; dedicating his life to the study and practice of living the way of Jesus, and was an inspiration to many doing the work of peace and justice. Though his life among us has ended, Glen's impact will long be felt among his many friends, students, and readers.

Before his death, Glen (along with Rodney Petersen and Timothy Norton) released a new book titled Formation for Life: Just Peacemaking and the Twenty-First Century Discipleship, a collection of essays written from a variety of perspectives, religious traditions, nationalities, and ages that seek to answer the question: How are ''just peacemaking,'' faith formation, and discipleship connected within a twenty-first century context? Click here to learn more.

High Ideals and Hard Teachings:
The Church’s Tradition of Evading Jesus
by Glen Stassen

Gandhi read the Sermon on the Mount when he was young, and I think it influenced his development of the strategy of nonviolent direct action. It was a basis for his whole life. He said, "The Sermon on the Mount went straight to my heart," and was especially delighted in the section which begins: "But I say unto you, that you resist not evil; but whosoever smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." He wrote, "A life based on Christian truth was precious and indispensable to me, [but] the Church offered me rules completely at variance with the truth I loved."

The Koran praises the truth of Jesus’ teachings, but its main and repeated objection against the Christian faith is that the Christians do not obey Jesus’ teachings. Malcolm X made that statement stronger: because of his experience with white racism, he damned Christians as "white devils."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that Christians follow cheap grace: they do not repent, do not turn from evil, and do not turn to following Jesus. They just comfort themselves in the belief that they have Jesus on their side.

A man with whom I talked once during an airplane flight said he used to go to church, but it didn’t seem to make any difference in how people lived and how he lived, so he quit going.

I once took those criticisms as meaning simply that Christians are sinners and don’t fully practice what we preach and teach. But I think what is wrong is deeper and more deceptive. What we preach and teach has also gotten corrupted. It has become a tradition of evasion.

Christendom could not have functioned all these centuries without creating some kind of self-justification for its evasion of the way of Jesus. So it created the idea that the Sermon on the Mount is high ideals, hard teachings, impossible.

The problem is not just that we don’t practice what we teach. What we teach is: you’re not expected to practice it! And then, in our guilt, we hardly teach it at all in the churches. I recently made a survey of Christian ethics textbooks, and I was shocked. I could hardly find a Christian ethics textbook — whether from a liberal or a conservative or a middle-of-the-road perspective — that advocates anything constructive for Christian ethics from the Sermon on the Mount, the largest block of Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament!

In the Grand Inquisitor passage in Dostoevski’s Brothers Karamozov, the priest tells Jesus not to speak. The priest does not want to hear anything from Jesus; he wants to go on doing his dictatorial job, in the name of defending Jesus, without hearing anything from Jesus himself.

Is this what the church has done, in a kinder and gentler way?

Think of the long tradition that shapes our seeing, our thinking, our acting as Christians. In the first century of the church, the Sermon on the Mount was the most quoted of any biblical passage. But then in the second and third centuries, the apologists wanted the faith to appeal to cultured Greeks. So they not only translated it into the terms of Greek philosophy, but trimmed off the Hebraic teachings, the teachings of the prophets, and the prophetic teachings and way of Jesus as well.

Then Constantine became the first Christian Emperor, and the church trimmed off whatever might suggest criticism of Constantine’s way of ruling—including justice and peacemaking.

In the fourth and fifth centuries, the church councils defined Christianity in terms of some doctrines stated in abstract Greek and Latin terms. Larry Rasmussen writes:

The disabling and ultimately tragic development is that the focus soon shifts from Jesus and the particular way he incarnated with his community, the way of his God, to the metaphysical relationship of the individual figure, Jesus, to the church’s God, now become also the empire’s God. In the most un-Jewish of all possible moves, the Jew Jesus became a "detached" Jesus at the hands of the great ecumenical councils. He was detached from his own historic community and its way, and found himself metaphysically fused to God alone. So one searches in vain in the classic creeds, those pure distillations of the faith, for anything at all about Jesus as the way in any moral sense, or of his community’s way. (Moral Fragments and Moral Community: A Proposal for Church in Society)

Then came the Middle Ages and illiteracy. The Bible was in Latin, and the people could not read the gospels; therefore they could not read about Jesus’ teaching or Jesus’ way. They were even told not to read them; they were to let "the church," meaning the clergy and the hierarchy, tell them what they needed to believe. A split arose between the laity and members of religious orders. The Sermon on the Mount and similar teachings of Jesus were only for the monks to obey.

I recently went to the Medieval Art Museum in New York City, in the Cloisters. The beautiful paintings and sculptures there depict Mary and the baby Jesus, and Jesus on the cross. The tapestries there do include a few incidents from the life and parables of Jesus, but there was little from what happened between his birth and his death. It’s like the Apostles’ Creed and the comma: "...born of the Virgin Mary—comma—crucified under Pontius Pilate." All of Jesus’ prophetic teachings are hiding behind that comma, unseen and unheard.

Then came the Protestant Reformation. But Martin Luther taught that life is split into two realms. The way of Jesus was only for the inner, individual, spiritual realm, and what we do in the outer, social realm should be defined by the ruler or the boss. The result was secularism, which teaches that the gospel has nothing concrete to say about how we live our lives in the public realm. The arena of religious faith gets reduced to increasingly narrow parts of our lives.

This notion is accepted, in spite of the fact that the Bible, throughout its pages, teaches that there is only one God who is Lord of all of life, and never splits life into two realms, one ruled by a secular ruler and the other ruled by God. John Calvin was a little better on this score than Luther, with his emphasis on the sovereignty of God over all of life.

More recently, the churches have wrestled with questions like racial discrimination and economic greed. Does the Gospel of Christ have anything to say? Some still say no: that’s just politics.

The tradition of evasion that has resulted from this long history is our heritage still. We still have churches with cheap grace and vague praise of Jesus without Jesus’ way. We still have a Christ without a way to follow, imaging a God who blesses us because we are good people (though lacking a counter-cultural ethic). The Gospel is preached with little concrete direction (other than religious piety and civic virtue), and we sing praise songs about Jesus in which Jesus is not allowed to speak with any content that confronts our way of living.

This tradition of evading the way of Jesus, and relegating Jesus’ way to the realm of idealism, of impractical teachings, causes a disconnection between Jesus’ way and what we can actually do in the real world. This tradition needs to be overthrown, this disconnection begs to be overcome.

In the midst of all this evasion and accommodation, we notice that some people do take following the way of Jesus—and the Sermon on the Mount—seriously. And when they do, they tend to become peacemakers.

This is the tradition of discipleship. It includes the Anabaptists, whose watchword, nachfolge Christi (following Jesus), was posited over against the Protestant Reformers’ emphasis on faith alone. This tradition has been carried on in the lives of Florence and Clarence Jordan, Muriel Lester and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. and John Howard Yoder—and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America!

Taking the way of Jesus seriously and being peacemakers go together. If we are not peacemakers, much in us resists interpreting the way of Jesus concretely. We "dumb" Jesus down, we dilute Jesus’ teaching, in order to evade his way and his confrontation. Since the Sermon on the Mount is the biggest block of Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament, and since it represents the way of Jesus Christ so clearly, the attitude we take to the Sermon on the Mount shapes much of their attitude toward the way of Jesus Christ as a whole. Thus, coming to terms with the tradition of evasion is a key step to the renewal of the church.

The crucial step is to see the link between Jesus’ teaching and a concrete practice in the real world. When Martin Luther King Jr. saw the link between the Sermon on the Mount and Gandhi’s practice of Satyagraha (truth-force), the result was a brilliant and powerful fusion. When Clarence Jordan saw the link between the Sermon and the project of Koinonia Farm, the result was an empowering fusion. My colleagues and I wrote Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War to show those links between the Sermon and practices of peacemaking that are transforming our world, so no one should ever say again that the Sermon on the Mount is high, impossible ideals.

May God help us to counteract that tradition of evasion which undermines the powerful challenge of Sermon on the Mount. May God help us join the tradition that sees the way of Jesus as the way of realistic peacemaking, the way of creating a culture of peace, the way of abolishing wars. And may God help us to spread that tradition in our churches.

Also see: A Tribute to Glen Stassen by David Gushee - Associated Baptist Press

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