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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

They Looked at Him as a Radical

Say “radical” and then ask Americans to guess what the next word will be. Odds are, they’ll probably say “Islam.” “Radical Islam” is a pretty natural pairing in our day; almost as familiar as “global warming,” and easily trouncing “hanging chad.” Or so it seems to me.

Of course what people mean by “radical Islam” is the segment of the religion that combines a wish to impose strict Sharia law on Muslims with a militancy against the West unhesitant to use violence. Sometimes people say the word “extremist” instead, but I oppose using either term. “Extremist” implies a fringe view, and I don’t know that it really is a fringe. Consistently carrying out the implications may be “extremist”—characteristic of only a few—but the worldview itself seems straight out of the Koran.

It’s also not radical. I wouldn’t describe any version, sect, or flavor of Islam as being “radical.” Something is only radical when it goes to the root of something else. Going down to the root—to the fundamental nature—is what the word “radical” actually means. To push the analogy, a radical difference is one not merely evidenced by different fruit, leaves, or stem, but one growing from a different source, a different root nature entirely.

All versions of Islam have the same root, which is the Koran, which is rooted more deeply still in what is common to all man-made religions: They all attempt to earn God’s favor with good behavior. Some, such as Islam, have detailed prescriptions of what to believe and do so as to appease God, while others, like most New-Age religions, let you make up whatever you want so long as your intentions are sincere. They may even describe persons coming into their religion as undergoing a “conversion,” or “rebirth,” but always what they mean is a new view of one’s self based on a program of behavior. In this way, Mormons are the same as Buddhists, are the same as Unitarians, and the same as Muslims; at the root of all of it is human effort and works.

None of it is radical. It’s too natural to be radical.

Jesus, on the other hand, was looked on as a radical. His message was radical and disturbing, striking not only at the root of man-made religions, but even challenging assumptions at the root of Judaism. Sometimes the impression is given by liberal theologians that only Paul was the radical, that really Jesus (a misunderstood rabbi) never meant to found anything like Christianity.

A few quotes from Jesus should dispel that myth:

When [Jesus] heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mt 9:12-13)

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mk 2:5)

And Jesus said to [Zacchaeus], “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk 19:9)

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (Jn 10:10-11)

What do we have here in these verses? By his own words, Jesus is bringing forgiveness, salvation, and life to people who are still sinners and not following the prescripted behaviors to appease God. He’s dealing with them as people, and not simply as transgressors. Coming into their lives with suddenness, often unexpectedly (Zacchaeus), his presence and words soon change how people look at themselves. Seemingly in spite of themselves, they start to want to be different kinds of people.

Of course there’s also the assessment of the Scribes and Pharisees, which agreed as to the facts, yet found it disagreeable: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Lk 15:2)

Jesus said the kingdom of God was like a mustard seed that is planted and becomes the largest of all the garden plants. (Mt 13:31) He said the kingdom is like a net that catches up all kinds of fish, good and bad. (Mt 13:47) He said it was like a party thrown when a lost son returns to his father who was out seeking him. (Lk 15) So many different stories he told—a few that would possibly have made sense to his listeners, and a greater number that didn’t. But in all the stories, he made it clear that the mystery of the kingdom, and who was in it and who was not, did not go back to the expected root; it never came back to man’s effort or behavior, but always to God’s gracious initiative.

In other words, Jesus’ message is a radical departure from everyone else’s. No other teacher, philosopher, prophet, or bard ever announced, “Your own works avail nothing, and neither your sufferings nor sacrifices are enough to appease God.”

Jesus alone has made the claim, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6) He has become for us who believe, a new source, a better hope, a higher Way, and a different root. The grace he reveals corresponds to nothing else in religious history.

Radical Islam? Hardly. Radical Christianity is authentic Christianity that replaces the futility of works with God’s grace rooted in the Cross.

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