It took 11 years, but the Red Bank Baptist Church in Saluda, South Carolina, finally decided that they had the wrong kind of Jesus on the front of their church: a whiter-than-snow statue of a bearded Savior, arms outstretched, but looking a little too “Catholic.”
The figure, sculpted by former church member Delbert Baker, remains on the building’s façade, soon to be passed along to a less Romanist-wary communion. According to Associated Press, sculptor Baker received a letter from the church’s pastor and deacon chair, inviting him to retrieve his Jesus-effigy should he wish to do so.
Baker responded by affirming his intent to depict the One who reaches beyond church walls, and his hope that the artwork could be offered to a less papacy-challenged flock. He also called the Baptists’ decision “crazy.” The pastor described the statue’s presence as a challenge to the congregation’s “theology and core values.” Jesus remains a troublemaker.
As a student of Baptist history, I’m the first to acknowledge that Red Bank Baptist is an autonomous faith community whose members are free to follow their collective conscience in actions they deem necessary, and by majority vote. Yet I wonder if the congregation has “counted the cost” (a longtime Baptist phrase) that dismissing Jesus’ statue might have on their “witness” (another well-hewn Baptist term) as the Body of, well, Christ. By disposing of the wrong kind of Jesus, the believers at Red Bank Church are removing one material symbol only to create a metaphor for the rest of us.
Jesus may be “the same, yesterday and forever,” but our cultural contexts invariably require continued reexamination – indeed, struggle – with who he is and what he means. It’s one of the gospel’s great paradoxes that: (1) Sometimes the Jesus we need most becomes the wrong kind of Jesus, too demanding, too radical, frequently requiring that “extra mile” we hoped we’d never have to walk. (2) At other times we formulate the wrong kind of Jesus in ourselves and our churches, demanding conformity or indulgence a long way from gospel grace and the transforming power of the cross.
Fear of constructing the wrong kind of Jesus is as old as the Church. Mark 3:21 says of Jesus: “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” In first century Palestine, some of his kinfolks apparently thought that Mary’s boy might be the wrong kind of Jesus!
By 325, debates over which Jesus was the right one had become an ecclesiastical cottage industry. The Council of Nicaea affirmed that Jesus was homousios, “of one substance with the Father,” but added “or those that allege, that the son of God is ‘Of another substance or essence’ or ‘created,’ or ‘changeable’ or ‘alterable,’ these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.” Anathematizing became life-threatening when medieval Catholics used Jesus’ suggestion that anyone leading “the little ones astray” could be cast into the sea as proof-text for the Inquisition’s torture and execution of heretics. It took centuries for that wrong kind of Jesus to be exorcised.
Right now in American religious and cultural life, we Christians often seem captivated by the wrong kind of Jesus, replacing the “come-to-me-all-ye-who-labor-and-are-heavy-laden” Nazarene with a weaponized Christ, suitable for intimidating and/or excluding each other right and left of center.
That reality struck me anew recently while reading that a Texas Baptist pastor filed a resolution urging the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to “decry and reject the terms and framework of social justice as insufficient to adequately reflect the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Christian worldview.” Apparently the pastor believes that Christians working for “social justice” represent Wrong Jesus, a bad news gospel allegedly corrupted by “Marxism and Postmodernism.”
Texas pastor and civil rights activist Dwight McKissic, who last year shamed the SBC into repudiating white supremacy, called the resolution “the most divisive” proposal brought to the Convention in his 40 years as a Southern Baptist. For McKissic, the resolution “spits on the grave” of such Christian social activists as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. If those folks had the wrong kind of Jesus (and justice), then we’re all without hope.
Sadly, we Baptists have a history of constructing the wrong kind of Jesus, and using the Bible to sustain the argument. Richard Furman did, in 1822, declaring in Jesus’ name: “That slavery, when tempered with humanity and justice, is a state of tolerable happiness; . . . [and] That a master has a scriptural right to govern his slaves so as to keep them in subjection.” Some 21st century Christians use a similar hermeneutic, advising endangered females to remain with their abusive husbands as a “witness” for Christ or urging them to forgive rapists rather than report them to the police.
Sorting out Wrong from Right Jesus is never easy. A year ago, participants in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) undertook an Illumination Project to address concerns regarding a hiring policy that forbade applications by LGBTQ Baptists. The project ended with a recommendation opening employment to LGBTQ persons, actions that led some congregations and conventions to sever their relationships with CBF, convinced Jesus would have none of it. The project also added an “implementation plan” that singled out LGBTQ individuals as the one identifiable group not to be considered for certain mission-related assignments. This led another set of persons and congregations to revisit participation in CBF, insisting that the “plan” took back what “illumination” had given. What now, for Jesus’ sake?
Frankly, distinguishing Right Jesus and Wrong Jesus won’t get any easier, and those of us who think that theology, doctrine, spirituality or scripture can ease the struggle will be disappointed or dismayed sooner or later. Culture never stands still, nor, so it seems, does Jesus. I guess that’s the gospel of it.
BTW, I hope the folks at Red Bank Church will commission another statue. I’m dying to know what a “Baptist Jesus” would look like. No tattoos? Well, maybe a small ICTHUS.