Not Following Jesus

If Christians fully embraced and lived their lives according to all of the teachings of Jesus rather just those which still allow complete integration into society, the history of the western world would remarkably different. Jesus preached voluntary poverty, radical pacifism and irresponsible spontaneity; he told his followers to sell all of their possessions, to actively do good to their enemies and even to avoid thinking about tomorrow! How many Christians do you know who practice all of these teachings? Even the vast majority of monks, friars and nuns live in communities where they share possessions and which require a certain amount of administration. There are some truly nomadic and mendicant groups, but they are extremely rare. Perhaps less than one Christian in a million actually lives their life completely according to the Gospels. The rest generally enjoy a more conventional and comfortable lifestyle, excluding the significant number in the third-world who are involuntarily poor. Why is there such a disparity between what Christians teach and what they practice?

The key to understanding this divergence is to realize that Jesus' ministry as portrayed in the Gospels was essentially an apocalyptic cult. The major theme of Jesus' preaching was that the “Kingdom of Heaven” was coming very soon and that his followers were to repent of their sins, ask for forgiveness and amend their lives. His followers expected that the end of the world would happen at any moment and only with that in mind can we make any sense of his directives to live so irresponsibly. If he had intended to found a religion that was supposed to last for millennia, then he surely would have given some more practical instructions. When Jesus' didn't return very soon, his followers did what they had to do in order to survive: they compromised with the world. All of the difficult guidelines, which technically appear optional in the Gospels themselves, have been de-emphasized, especially in Protestantism. The majority of believers don't seem to worry about their possessions making them larger than a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle. Christians today are no more likely to give money to charity than any other group and, here in the United States, they seem more likely to start a war than many other groups.

When I first started reading the Gospels on my own as teenager, I was very disturbed by what I read because I lived a normal lifestyle, not a radical Gospel lifestyle. I owned some possessions. I didn't start fights, but I would defend myself if attacked. I planned for tomorrow by studying. I wanted to get married. I loved my family and I didn't want to leave them to serve God. I didn't really spend any time volunteering. All of this made me feel very guilty and very afraid that God would damn me to hell for not obeying his commandments well enough, but I didn't want to live the insane life preached by Jesus. I didn't see anyone else worrying about this, but it was impossible for me to see Jesus' ministry for what it was, for that would mean that Jesus was mistaken and therefore not God. Eventually I learned the Catholic Church's teachings that one only has to die in a state of grace, not give away everything you own, to go to heaven. Similar yet distinct problems arose because of this, but that's another story. I knew I wasn't really following Jesus and it bothered me. I don't know why it doesn't bother more people.

I was prompted to write on this topic by the now annual coverage of Christians' war on “The War on Christmas.” I find it ironic for Christians to demand that minimum-wage employees explicitly say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays” while they spend hundreds of dollars on frivolous gifts, often manufactured in dirty and dangerous factories by malnourished children in third-world countries. What an odd way to celebrate the birth of their lord who instructed them not to own even a second pair of sandals!


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