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THE MESSY WORK OF JUSTICE
By Reverend Rachel Kessler
I have a confession: I am a big fan of hippy progressive Jesus. I like the Jesus I read about in the New Testament who preaches a message of God’s unequivocating love for all people and calls us to radical justice for the poor and the marginalized. I am a big fan of the Jesus who says “Blessed are the peacemakers” and who assures us that the meek will inherit the earth.
Despite my admitted inclination to emphasize the themes of abundant grace and love found in the accounts of Jesus’s teachings, I sometimes have to remind myself not to mistake hippy progressive Jesus with “nice” Jesus. I am not so sure Jesus was necessarily “nice.” In fact, I might go so far as to say that “nice Jesus” is an insidious heresy that has worked its way into many mainstream churches and, more broadly, into our collective consciousness.
I often find myself reminding my congregation that Jesus has some pretty harsh words about judgment in the Bible. Jesus does in fact talk about the causes of sin being rooted out and cast into the fires of Hell. Not exactly an image that we associate with hippy progressive Jesus.
Perhaps one of the most challenging statements attributed to Jesus is his assertion that he “does not come to bring peace, but a sword.” His mission is about severing families from one another and bringing division as much as unity. “Nice guy Jesus” does not fit this mold.
I have been reflecting quite a bit on the heresy of “nice guy Jesus” quite a bit in the days since the tragic and horrifying “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville. I have also been thinking about the importance of Jesus’s words of judgment when I hear the morally repugnant response to the Charlottesville demonstration from Donald Trump. And I realize how seductive, how insidious, the lure of “nice guy Jesus” can be when I read otherwise rational, sensible people defending the notion that “both sides” are to blame for the chaos and violence that erupted on the University of Virginia campus.
We live in a society where we put so much value on respectable “niceness” that we have lost the ability to speak those harsh, if uncomfortable, words of judgment and condemnation that are so desperately needed. We have been trained to be fair and strive for even-handedness. We have been trained to seek to pacify differences and disagreements. Even if we do not share in the sentiment that both the demonstrators and counter-protestors share the burden of guilt for what happened in Charlottesville, we may hold ourselves back from directly naming the hatred, the racism, and—quite frankly—the evil that incited the events in the first place. We might see it as not worth getting into an argument with those who disagree with us. After all, should we not seek to maintain peace in our communities and our relationships?
That way of thinking, however, is the heresy of the “nice guy Jesus” at work. Peace is worth nothing if it is built on a veneer of civility that hides evils which must be brought to light and named for what they are. There can be no true peace in our country as long as our president makes excuses for those who deny the fundamental humanity of anyone not white, straight, and Christian. There can be no peace in our country while monuments and memorials continue to celebrate historical figures who fought for the right to own their fellow human beings. To name more subtle, and perhaps more uncomfortable truths, there can be no peace in our country while public figures who have the respectability to condemn blatant Neo-Nazi demonstrations nevertheless work to suppress voting rights for minorities. There can be no true peace in our country until everyone who looks like me—white, privileged, and comfortable—is willing to admit how much we continue to benefit from societal structures that disenfranchised our black neighbors.
So, yes, I am a fan of hippy progressive Jesus. But I do not for a minute pretend that hippy progressive Jesus makes my spiritual life comfortable or easy. That is the job of nice Jesus. Let us avoid being nice and do the hard, inevitably messy work of justice. Let us name the evils that need to be named—those that are obvious in angry crowds bearing swastikas and those which may reside more deeply within ourselves. Hippy progressive Jesus would approve.
Reverend Rachel Kessler is a college chaplain and Episcopal priest. She enjoys commenting on the intersection of faith and popular culture.