A New State Religion Called Love

Column by Rev. Jaqueline J. Lewis, Ph.D. on 7 November 2019 6 Comments

I’m just back from a trip to Chicago to be with my Dad, who turned 85, and my siblings. While looking for birthday presents that would ship quickly, I was struck by the plethora of ornaments, Santas of various sizes, red accessories, and gold-trimmed dinner wear with hollies in the center. Retail Christmas was in effect, right after Halloween!!!

Although that’s annoying, I love Christmas. The Christmas story is the greatest story ever told. It’s why we’re still telling it two millennia later. We’re telling it all around the world. The story of God who loves the world enough to come all the way down to be present in the world, not as a soldier, but as a teeny, tiny, vulnerable infant. A baby who needs to be nursed when he’s hungry, who needs to have his nappies changed, who needs his blanket in order to fall asleep. He can’t fend for himself; he needs a community to love him into adulthood.

This is the greatest story ever told. The same God who spoke the universe into existence; the God who blew spirit into the world; the same God who animated the Ha’adam, “the human one;” the same God who sent judges and prophets to teach and raise the people comes in history; the same God that hears the cries of God’s people and rescues them from bondage– that same God enters into a time of occupation and oppression to once again rescue the ones God loves.

God showed up in a particular time and place, in a particular politically tough time for God’s people. In a particular town, God showed up, hovering over the one called Miriam. She is with child. They travel, she and Joseph, 80 miles from their hometown to the place where there is no room in the inn. It’s a particular time and place and a particular kind of baby. It’s a Jewish baby. The Gospel writers help us to understand, it’s an African-Semitic baby. That’s what Matthew’s genealogy is all about. It’s an African-Semitic baby, born in a scandal. “Hello, Joseph; it’s me, Mary. I’m pregnant, but God did it.” I’m sorry, that’s scandalous. Somebody believed it, but lots of people didn’t. So, it’s an unwed mother having a Jewish, poor, Israeli, Palestinian baby boy with a stepfather named Joseph who stuck around when he didn’t have to. This is the way God chose to come.

That’s how God showed up. To the marginal places, to the edgy places, to the scandalous place, to the un-reputable place. That’s what God chose to do, which tells us a whole lot about God, about God’s preference for the edge, God’s preference for the margins, God’s preference for the dispossessed, the outcast, the ne’er-do-wells, the funky shepherds– and they were funky– finding their way to the manger where the baby’s lying in the place where the cows eat. God goes there. That’s God there.

This is the greatest story ever told, and sadly, this story, this amazing story of God’s intervention to those occupied, those on the edges, God coming to heal the whole world–this story has been hijacked by empire and co-opted by greed.

What do I mean by hijacked by empire? As soon as Constantine sees the cross in the sky and makes Christianity the state religion, it’s empired. The church mirrors the world, rather than critique it, or call it to a higher consciousness. The church blesses oppression and derision as a way to convert people to a religion that is so far removed from faith in the God who is simply called Love. Let’s watch the crusades march across Europe and torture Muslims to be Christians. Let’s exterminate Jews because they’re not Christians. That’s what I mean by hijacked by empire. Neither that brown, Jewish baby in the crib nor the man he grew up to be demanded allegiance to power and greed. He didn’t ask for Christian armies to destroy the world in the name of God. I’m talking hijacked by empire.

And what do I mean by co-opted by greed? Who is that little white, shiny baby on the Christmas cards with sparkling snow cascading on his blond, haloed head? I don’t mean any harm, white people, but really. Have you been to Israel? There might be one blonde baby in the whole state. What happened? How did this story get commodified? How did Europeans get to be in the center of it? How did shopping get to be the main event in so many so-called Christian spaces? God came to the margins, my friends. God came to the powerless, to the poor, to the disenfranchised, to the ones overtaxed and overburdened. That’s where God chose to show up.

We only have a Christmas to celebrate because Mary and Joseph took their little Jewish baby to Egypt and were welcomed there. That’s a poor, brown, homeless, refugee baby. How in the name of Jesus can we cage migrating children, profit off the suffering of migrating people, and build jail cells to enlarge the coffers of the prison industrial complex? How in the name of the brown one, the poor one, are brown and black people dying from state-sanctioned violence? How dare we not welcome the stranger when it was the stranger who taught us how to love?

We need to get back to the story. If we go back to the story, if we skip the Christmas cards, if we skip the tinsel and go back to the story, we find there the meaning of life. Love comes all the way down and puts on baby flesh. That’s Love in the manger, wrapped in little Afro-Semitic baby flesh, swaddled in bands of cloth. That’s Love in the manger, needing a mommy and a daddy and a village to hold it. That’s Love in a manger needing us to raise Love, to make Love everywhere.

There is so much rancor and hatred in the name of religion, in the name of Jesus, in the name of God. What if this story is not about running up our credit cards to buy things people don’t want or need, and is actually about a bold new religion simply called Love? What if Love were the state religion?

When the baby grew up and was asked, “What does it mean to be faithful? How do we do this?” That rabbi, that African-Semitic rabbi said, “Love God with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love God with everything. Love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, Love, period. I think Jesus was saying that everything else is commentary. Everything else.

So, we are on the way to the Christmas holiday. People of many faiths and people of no faith will put up a Christmas tree, and stimulate the economy with the purchases of gifts. I’m not saying don’t buy a tree or gifts, I am saying let’s get back to the story. Let’s reclaim the story of God loving us enough to come as us to change us. Recall when asked to explain what love looked like, Jesus told the story of a so called other—A Samaritan. Even more striking is God chose to come as an “other,” someone outside the power structure of Rome, to teach us how to love the outsider in.

I serve this amazing congregation in the East Village of New York—Middle Collegiate Church. I came to study Middle Church and its leadership when I was earning my PhD at Drew University. I wanted to understand how to disrupt the racial inequities and tensions in our nation by building the beloved community. My dissertation became a book, The Power of Stories: A Guide for Leading Multiracial and Multicultural Communities . I also wrote a book with my husband, John, called The Pentecost Paradigm: Ten Strategies for Becoming a Multiracial Congregation .

On any given Sunday, I wish you could see what I see from my pulpit. We are Black, White, Asian, Hispanic and Indigenous. We love everybody. We look all kinds of different ways. This is what is required of us. This is the religion that’s simply called Love. This is the religion of Yeshua ben Joseph– Mary’s boy, Joseph’s baby.

When asked how to do this thing called the way, Jesus said love God, neighbor and self. You are not required to speak any particular language. You don’t have to say any particular creed. You don’t have to come from any particular ethnicity or race. Your culture doesn’t matter. Your gender doesn’t matter. Your sexual orientation doesn’t matter. All that matters, that you love God with everything and love your neighbor as yourself. He means love, period. Love, period. Love, period. Love, period.

~ Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis, Ph.D. 



Was Jesus’s treatment of women radical enough to call him a feminist? 


Dear Reader,
The human picture of Jesus and his relationship to women we may never know. However, the Christological depiction of Jesus in the Gospels shows an itinerant rabbi whose ministry was inclusive, intersectional, and iconoclastic. Jesus ministered to women, the physically challenged, the poor, and all of society’s outcasts, meaning the damned, the disenfranchised, and the dispossessed. He exhibited pro-feminist male sensibilities that violated the gender norms of his day. For example, in Luke 13:10 - 17, Jesus healed an infirm woman on the Sabbath, which was prohibited in Judaism. Another example is John 4:1-42, when Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman at the well. In this pericope, Jesus did three things unconventional and disturbing to the status quo of the day: 

In public, Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman knowing she had five husbands and was presently cohabiting with another man.

Jesus asked to drink water from the bucket of a Samaritan at a time it was perceived to be ritually unclean because of the schism between Samaritans and Jews.

In verses 21-26, Jesus and the Samaritan woman discuss theology that was solely the province of men. 

Women, unquestionably, were a part of Jesus's ministry. Sources suggest that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna assisted in bankrolling his ministry. Each of the gospels states that women were the first Jesus revealed himself to as a resurrected Christ. Mary Magdalene traveled with Jesus and his disciples as one of his followers, and was a witness to his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. 

However, a different Jesus appears in Matthew 15: 21- 28 when Jesus calls a Canaanite woman a dog. For any feminists, Jesus’s remarks are both troubling and problematic, and calling a woman a “dog” is no minor insult even in the 1st Century. 

Nonetheless, there continue to be various hermeneutical spins on this text. Some feminists suggest Jesus was expressing both ethnocentric and misogynistic sentiments.  It was quite common for 1st Century Jews to call Gentiles “dogs.” Feminist apologists contest that Jesus’s remarks to the woman were testing her faith. I suggest the woman’s boldness of not cowering to Jesus was a catalyst for Jesus to examine the true meaning of his all-inclusive ministry.

This scripture still leaves me scratching my head. One bad incident, if out of character, doesn’t erase Jesus's ministry. However, I wonder when I read this Matthew pericope, which Jesus was present- the human one or the Christological one? 

Thank you for your question.

~ Rev. Irene Monroe




6 thoughts on “A New State Religion Called Love

  1. Jacqueline,

    Because this is a progressive site, a next step to the work of Bishop Spong, I usually assume that many participants and all (?) contributors are progressive, including in their understanding of the Bible.

    I agree with much of what you have said and assumed you were taking the story at face value to drive home some very valuable insights. However, when you wrote that, “The Gospel writers help us to understand, it’s an African-Semitic baby. That’s what Matthew’s genealogy is all about” you seem to be taking this specific genealogy literally. However, the genealogy is different in Luke and I know of no critical biblical scholar who takes either story literally: neither are considered historically reliable. It is accepted that both were ‘created’ to establish that Jesus of Nazareth was from the House of David.

    We all know, I hope, that Jesus was Semitic but where does the African come in? Many of us have known for ages that Jesus did not look like a white Irish kid with freckles (and we probably were shiny – like most babies of all races) and that the European art was not true to the historical man. Jesus looked, it is assumed, like present native residents of the area where he was born. I actually don’t care what Jesus looked like (and seemingly neither did any of the NT writers) but I do like the fact that Jesus is pictured differently in different parts of the world: he is made ‘their own.’

    As you have said, the focus should be the Way – the God who is Love and this man of Love. Jesus showed what all are called to and capable of being: Love – divinity lived and expressed in humanity. At least that is what I think about when I decorate the tree, give the presents, share a meal and commit with Dickens that: “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” I will try to be Love all year, every year.

    You have left us with some powerful images which I will now adopt:
    “Love comes all the way down and puts on baby flesh.”
    “That’s Love in the manger, needing a mommy and a daddy and a village to hold it”
    “That’s Love in a manger needing us to raise Love, to make Love everywhere.”

    Good essay.

  2. Dear Jacqueline: Thank you for trying in this “Greatest Story Ever Told” by Matthew at least 60 years after Jesus had been dead and gone, or about 94 years after Jesus was born. It is one of the greatest fables indeed. Yes, you have mentioned the story of Mary having been pregnant from whoever had done it, as it had leaked out of the story of Mark which was copied by Matthew later. But Matthew wanted to make the story a glorified one by using his Genealogy and the makeup story of God having been involved. That story was Hijacked , however, by the Roman empire much later, or about 350 years after Jesus had died.
    We know that the distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 90 miles such that in the year Mary was pregnant, it was highly unlikely for a pregnant lady to travel that distance to look for an inn some where. There were no automobiles, not even a sedan chair carried by Chinese men. And where could she have found water in the hot desert? Let us compare the Bataan Death March in WWII which was a “mere” 63 miles long for the POWs! Even Joseph himself could not have walked that far without water in one day?
    Jacqueline: The distance from Bethlehem to Egypt was perhaps another 300 to 400 miles long. Could a young mother bring her new baby, brown or olive color, to navigate that distance without water for her and the new born child? This story that was told by Matthew was far fetched beyond anyone’s imagination without modern facilities.
    Matthew made up that story about 94 years after Jesus was born. By that time Mary was probably long gone. And Matthew had neither seen nor met either Mary or Jesus or his siblings. Then the Romans just “Romanticized” the story later with beautiful pictures and a stone statue to boot.
    And if God had come down to Nazareth to make Mary pregnant, as many people over the 2000 years have believed the old Jewish philosophy that God had spoken the world into what it is today, had blown the spirit into Adam and Eve, and had made every living thing over those long billions and billions of years ago, I guess we can all believe it to be true.
    Then why are we doing the ProgresiveChristianity.org
    Eugene Wei, from Suzhou, China

  3. Concerning the answer to the Question presented by Rev. Irene Monroe:

    “However, a different Jesus appears in Matthew 15: 21- 28 when Jesus calls a Canaanite woman a dog. For any feminists, Jesus’s remarks are both troubling and problematic, and calling a woman a “dog” is no minor insult even in the 1st Century.”

    The reference to being a “dog” in the story that appears in Matthew could be because the woman was a Canaanite. It might have had nothing to do with this Canaanite being a women. People who were Jews did not want to interact with people who were Canaanites. The interaction that Jesus had breaks a social, religious, ethnic, and a gender barrier all at the same time.

    The most significant part of the story in Matthew could appear in the last two verses.

    She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Mt 15:27f (NRSV)

    The point is that the woman was right. She made her case and she won the argument. She got what she wanted. What God had sent Jesus to share with other people who were Jews was not supposed to be limited to only people who were Jews. It was meant to be shared will all people, even people who were thought of as “dogs”.

    Jesus acknowledged that the woman was correct. Jesus acknowledged that he was wrong in refusing her initial request and thinking of her as “undeserving”. At the end of the story, her “daughter” was healed. The blessing of God’s healing was not given simply because she asked for the sake of a “son”.

    Is it not enough for Jesus to say, “Woman, great is your faith!”?

    John Crag

  4. I think we have to write off any answer by Irene Monroe who has shown to be a misandrist. Her take on the Canaanite woman just is a further demonstration of that. In the story Jesus says he is sent to tend to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. It’s not that this Canaanite is woman but that she is not of the house of Israel. The story is a break through for Jesus. His ministry is for everyone, including MEN by the way Irene.

    No Jesus was not a feminist. He was a humanist.

  5. Irene was responding to a question about Jesus being a feminist so it appeared to me that she provided an answer directed at the questioner.

    We probably can’t take 21st C labels and ask if they apply to a 1st C man but that was the question. I think there was more to the story of the woman at the well but Irene stated that this passage remains a head scratcher for her – she was honest, answered the question and even provided different feminist takes on the passage.

    It worked for me.

  6. Dear Rev. Jackie

    It’s amazing how the number of people who channel the voices of Jesus and Mary Magdalene has increased over the past 10 years. I’ve come across nearly a dozen of them on the internet, and recently read a book that detailed the twin flame love affair of Jesus and his wife, Mary Magdalene. Scripture scholars tell us that the early Christians misconstrued and distorted the message and the person of Jesus, and Yes, he was married to the Magdalene according to several channeled accounts; the love story of their lives is beautifully narrated by author Lea Chapin in her book “Divine Union”
    Collectively these channels who bring to the world several different accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus are essentially replacing the gospels. I’m wondering if Christian believers have yet to hear about these “new” gospels, and if so, how are they reacting to t hem? Would you care to comment? Thank you for your attention.

    Charlie Benedetti

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