As we move further into the 21st century, I am confronted more and more by Christians demanding that I believe a certain way. They say, “If you believe in the inerrant teaching of the Bible, then you are a Christian.” Or if you believe as we do, as stated in our various position papers, you are “one of us.” Even worse, if you do not believe as we do, then I am NOT a Christian. My own church has a statement front and center on our web page called “What we believe.”
There is, of course, a scriptural basis for the need to believe. As Jesus says in John 11:26, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
The difficulty I have is with the word “believe.” Does our 21st century understanding of belief mean the same thing as it did in the first century? Or did it mean something different to those listening to Jesus in person?
Today people “believe” in a wide variety of things. Some believe that our bodies play host to disembodied aliens called “Thetans.” Others believe in the power of crystals to heal the sick. I believe that most people are good people and should be treated as such. The problem with our modern notion of belief is that it is passive. Belief requires no effort on my part. Therefore, I can “believe” in Jesus without having to expend any energy in doing so. Mere belief requires no action, no change in my way of life.
Belief is easy.
But is this what Jesus meant when he asked us to believe in him, or was he asking for much more?
Some scholars assert that the Greek word we translate as “believe” carries a much stronger connotation, more akin to “commit.” What if this is true? What if Jesus is asking us to commit to him and the life he espouses, rather than merely believe in him?
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus models this commitment expected of us. In Matthew 5, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Not blessed are the peaceful.
Not blessed are those who think peace is a good thing.
No, Jesus tells us that the truly blessed are those who make peace; those who take action, those who work to make peace a reality in their world.
And while the words of Jesus are often shrouded in allusion and parable, the Apostle James delivers a direct and unequivocal statement when he writes how “…faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Unlike belief, commitment requires action. It requires us to translate our belief into tangible steps. To commit to Jesus means to commit to the way of life he practiced.
What if Jesus is asking us to focus all of our being on bringing forth the kingdom of God here on earth? To love our enemies. To care for the poor and the sick. To love unconditionally. To treat our neighbors, in the broadest sense of the word, as ourselves. To not pass judgement on the lives of others. To resist the corporeal powers that seek to undermine the kingdom through war, cruelty, indifference, and greed.
Like Jesus, contemporary prophets call us to committed action as well. The Rev. William Barber II, through his Repairers of the Breach initiative, exhorts us to witness to our faith through advocacy for marginalized people in our society. Shane Claiborne travels the country advocating for the end of the death penalty and by quite literally transforming guns into ploughshares as he seeks to turn the tide of gun violence in America.
Adopting this alternative meaning of belief requires a radical realignment in our way of thinking. It requires us to inspect all aspects of our lives and make changes. It demands that we take risks. No longer can we sit in our pews and feel comfortable in our belief.
Like the prophets, both past and present, we must move out into our communities and work for the kingdom that is here and now. We cannot wait passively for the kingdom of belief that may await us after death. We must act.
I believe, after all, this is what Jesus demands of us.