The picture to the right is the logo of the band Bad Religion. I must tell you that this used to offend me, but not anymore. In fact, I must confess that I resonate with it. Now your immediate response may be shock and bewilderment given the fact that I am pastor, but let me explain.
It’s always important to remember the context and culture from which such things come. Bad Religion is a California punk rock band that formed in 1979 on the cusp of the Reagan presidency. They are from the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles, which in many cases is the stereotypical middle class suburban neighborhood that has come to typify American life and culture (as an aside, I’ve been there as my brother used to live there). It is in such a neighborhood that the church in America has been fostered and grown by leaps and bounds. Out of the suburbs of America have come big box churches, televangelist preachers, church growth gurus and larger than life pastors such as Robert Schuller and Rick Warren (both of whom pastor or have pastored in Orange County, California which is another bastion of upper middle class to upper class suburbia). This is what many tend to associate Christianity with within our culture. Instead of offering a counter vision to the very world in which we live church has become the place where more often than not we go to feel good about ourselves and hear about our guaranteed place in heaven. Church has become the place where we go to network, where we put on a good image, look wholesome, moral and nice. The Cross is seen as nothing more as the way in which one gets to heaven. The Cross has become something that is normal not scandalous, it has become something that represents the Religious right, it has become something that gets you to heaven. I can understand why some people call Christianity a bad religion. I can understand why people view the Cross with disdain and a deep sense of boredom. It’s because we’ve lost the radical nature of the Cross of Jesus Christ and traded it for a Christianity that conforms to the culture in order to get more people “saved”. Get people saved and then tell them how to live their lives in fulfilling and godly ways which are supposedly based on Scripture but are in reality just teachings of conventional wisdom.
But what if we sought to recapture the radical nature of the Cross? One question that I find compelling and fun to ask lifelong Christians is “Why did Jesus die?” Almost always the immediate response that I get has been “for our salvation” – which is true. But again I ask “But why?” What compelled a bunch of religious leaders, some of whom were at odds with one another, to ally with one another and get rid of Jesus? And this is the part of the story that we so often overlook or at least don’t spend a lot of time pondering. If we did I think the Cross would have a different impact upon us and we’d have something of substance to share with people unfamiliar with the Way of Jesus. Yes, Jesus died on a Cross because it was the Father’s will for him but it’s because the Father gave Jesus up to the evil of men. Jesus was nailed to a Cross because he was too much for the status quo. His actions flew right in the face of religious and political pragmatism. We so often forget the words of the religious leaders in John 11:47 “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.” Forget about the fact that he is healing people, forget about the fact that he is freeing the oppressed from bondage, forget about the fact that he is bringing restoration and newness to a people beaten down and torn asunder by sin. No, instead it’s more important to not rock the boat and keep things as they are. It’s better for one man to die than for all of us to die. It’s better not to change than to change and risk defeat and death. Jesus was nailed to the Cross by bad religion.
And is that not our religion? A religion that wants things to stay the same. A religion that allies itself with normalcy. A religion that requires no sacrifice just that one be nice and polite. A religion that prefers law and order at the expense of mercy. A religion that understands justice as people getting what they deserve rather than making things right and working towards healing on all sides. A religion that lets things stay the same while I am guaranteed a spot in heaven because Jesus died for me on a Cross without realizing that I would’ve called for Jesus to be crucified. Yeah that sounds good but then again is it any wonder that we have been called a bad religion? Is it any wonder that the Cross has become a symbol of normalcy rather than radicality?
Remember that criminals were nailed to a Cross, political enemies of Rome were nailed to a Cross, those who didn’t do things Rome’s way were nailed to a Cross, those who went against the status quo were nailed to a Cross.
Imagine what could happen if this understanding of the Cross permeated our thinking. How exciting and how invigorating! I would say that the forever redundant discussions of how to grow the church, of how to be missional, of how to be relevant would wither away under the radical call of Jesus. For this call calls us not to seek our best life now or how to accept Jesus into our heart but to destroy our lives for his name’s sake, to deny ourselves and pick up our Cross and follow him. That is so contrary to the culture we live in that it is bound to get people’s attention and change many lives as it has done time and time again through the Holy Spirit.
Yours in Christ,