EDITOR’S NOTE: Throughout July, we’re engaging in an online book study of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion. Each Friday, we’ll offer a guest reflection based on our readings and discussion. Follow along as we reflect on Chapters 1 & 2 of the book this week.
The memory has the feel of a Polaroid: the colors are washed out, the frame is small, the lines are indistinct and slightly blurred. I was four, standing in the middle of my bed, bouncing and trying to touch the low ceiling in the room I shared with my younger sister. My mom was putting away folded clothes. As I jumped, I was trying to recite the cross-stitched prayer that hung on the wall next to my bed. I can still remember it:
Father in heaven,
Hear my prayer.
Keep me in
Thy loving care.
Be my guide
In all I do
And bless all those
Who love me, too.
We memorized it, three words at a time, and prayed it each night at bedtime.
A thought. “Mom? Do you love Jesus more than you love Dad?”
A beat of silence. “Well . . . yes. But—“
I interrupted. “Do you love Jesus more than you love me?” (I knew the answer to this one. Mom and Dad loved each other, sure. But not like they loved me.)
A longer beat of silence. “Well . . . yes. But—“
I’m sure that somewhere there was an explanation of how there are different kinds of love, and some may argue that there were better ways to answer my question. But I wonder if God gave my mom the grace to respond the way she did for my sake, because her answer changed my life.
I stopped jumping. I was filled with something I couldn’t begin to understand but, even at such a tender age, I knew it was real. I want to love Jesus more than anyone or anything, too. And that was it. He had me.
Thus began my journey with Jesus, and thus it continues. As Jonathan says in the first chapter of Reconstructing the Gospel, “Whatever humanity’s problems, Jesus is the answer. This I believe.” Yes, and amen.
In the first couple of chapters of the book, the problem is made clear: for too long, we’ve been content with a version of the “good news” that is good news for some, but not for all. In fact, that “good news” has been actively used to oppress, to divide, and to protect a paradigm of power rooted in a gospel of hierarchy and supremacy — not the gospel of Jesus. “Jesus came to reconstruct God’s good news, which religious leaders had turned against itself. How had I missed this?”
It’s a diseased gospel, the good news weaponized by power. Jonathan writes,
Why are millennials choosing to part ways with the faith of their parents? No doubt the reasons are many and complex. But one clear factor in the decline of white Christianity is a prevailing sense that Christians are more likely to be racist, homophobic, self-righteous, and blindly patriotic. Not just in the past. And not just in the South. This is the lived experience of twenty-first century Americans. Theirs is not an angry rebellion against conservative values. It simply seems to them that the Christianity of this land makes people worse.
This idea, the way that people have experienced Christianity in this country, has largely dominated the discussion this week. Heartbroken people of all ages and from all walks of life have expressed their grief and frustration that what they believed Christianity was has been revealed as something else entirely: that the power of the gospel has been exchanged for a political sword.
Over and over again, as people shared their histories and their perspectives, I saw a disconnect from what the Jesus they saw in the Bible seemed to be saying and how they watched that message twisted in a way that holds the margins in place, rather than permeating them. There is a sense of both surety and uncertainty – for so many, the most recent election and subsequent couple of years have been revelatory. Faith communities have fallen apart, politics seem to divide us deeply, and on more than just the surface. Many of us have found ourselves on the outside looking in, our broken journeys spat back at us as “liberal” or “social justice warrior” curses. Those who come from places of privilege (whether that be race, gender, class, etc.) are often experiencing this for the first time, and it’s disorienting. Those who come from less privilege are compassionate. For many, this “new reality” isn’t new at all.
I’m a middle-class white woman from a little town in the heartland of the heartland. For much of my life, my exposure to my own race was nonexistent. But a few years ago, a young black man sat next to me weeping uncontrollably. There had been a completely intellectual discussion about how our society polices black bodies and, when he didn’t leave immediately, I asked him what was wrong. “How can they say it’s not about race?” he cried, “How can they say it’s not about THEIR race?” I’ll never forget that moment, never forget his pain, never forget the humiliation he felt at not being believed. I’ll never forget the realization that something had gone terribly wrong.
Any gospel that does not have a remedy for his pain is no good news. And any gospel that does not change my posture toward his pain, and recognize the part I play in the suffering of this world is not only bad news for the world, but it is also bad news for me.
I once heard one of my favorite theologians talk about the power of disillusionment. She said that losing an illusion, while painful, is ultimately a good thing. And even in this small “book club” environment, there is a sense of hope. Illusions are being lost. People are finding new community in that disillusionment. As Jonathan ends chapter two, Jesus on the road to Emmaus is an illusion revealed.
Are not our hearts burning?