Jesus Wants to Save Christians by Rob Bell
This is my fourth Rob Bell read, after Velvet Elvis, Sex God, and the infamous Love Wins. I’m also a fan of the NOOMA videos. A couple of years ago I liked his stuff but wasn’t really blown away by it. I think I’m coming around to see what he is saying a lot more now. So this one that was probably his worst-reviewed book may actually be my favourite, but maybe just because it lines up with so many themes I’ve been investigated in my own readings recently (personally and for school).
About six months ago for one of my classes, after reading some liberation theology work, I was amazed by how much it sounded like a lot of emerging church language. I then wrote a reflection paper basically commenting on this and postulating that the emerging church is very much liberation theology from within. For those who aren’t too familiar, liberation theology is basically any category of theology from the “underside” of theology. It may be feminist theology, or black theology, or latino/a theology, or any other number of theologies from those who have largely been oppressed. What makes the emerging church different is that it is usually saying a lot of those same things – whether they came to them on their own or by listening to the oppressed – but are saying it mostly as the majority who has done a lot of the oppressing: white men. Some would say then that it is failing since it is still largely white men leading the emerging church, but I see it as a promising first step. Maybe people aren’t ready to respect a latina leader but I’d rather they respect a white man saying something on her behalf than that it not be said at all. I think most radical changes in societies require some from the majority siding with the minority in order to bring change, and I see it happening.
So to the point, the main content of the book, it is essentially about the story of liberation. As a white male myself, who has always been a part of churches dominated by white men, it is a story that we haven’t heard often. And it is the reason why, to be blunt, the Bible doesn’t really make that much sense to us a lot of the time. The Bible is mostly written from the underside. It is a rare case in history where the winner didn’t write the history books. We see the story repeatedly of salvation – not in a Hell-avoidance sense although of course you can argue that that is also true – but first and foremost in a societal change sense.
Bell covers the whole range of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, although not necessarily in the order that it appears in our books. He talks about Cain and Abel and about how “Abel’s blood cries out from the ground” to God. This is a theme that runs throughout the book and throughout liberation theology: God listens to the cries of the oppressed. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love the oppressors, too, but he does seek justice – not in the retributive sense of just giving the bad guys the punishments they deserve and the good guys the rewards they deserve, but in the restorative sense of seeking a more equal world.
The Exodus is something that I’ve found Christians ignore other than in Sunday School. Yet it is the central event of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the story of God rescuing the entire nation from oppression. We tend to ignore it other than to point out that it shows how powerful God is. I don’t think that’s the point, or at least not the main point. I think the main point is that God listens to the cries of the oppressed, and he does something about it. After the Exodus, the people travel to Sinai and are given the Law. Interestingly, a lot of the Law is about not becoming the new oppressors. It identifies right away that if they forget their slavery in Egypt, they will become the slavers themselves. They are told that when they have power, they need to be different from everybody else and not use it to oppress.
Of course they don’t live differently, at least not for long, and they oppress just as much as any other society. The story of the Hebrew Bible is one of turning away from God, something bad happening because of it, turning back to God, getting rescued, and repeat. The largest example of course comes through the Babylonian Exile, and the preceding actions of kings like Solomon. Solomon became just like the Egyptian Pharaoh. Instead of seeking equality and righteousness, he enlisted slaves to build temples and military bases, just as the Egyptians had done to the Israelites. This is the cycle of empire at work. You get something, and you are willing to do whatever it takes to defend it, including slavery and genocide. It is a story that the human race seems unable to escape. And God basically said that ok, if they wanted to live by the rules of Empire, so be it, and the greatest Empire of the time came in and exiled them to Babylon. They would get to return to Jerusalem, only to be under the rule of another empire, the Romans.
Then Jesus comes. He didn’t come to save us from our individual sins so that we don’t burn in Hell for eternity, or at least not just for that. He came to institute a revolution. According to Jesus, the Gospel is that the Kingdom of God is near. I don’t believe that “near” was a slight exaggeration and that we are still waiting for it 2000 years later. I believe that he really did institute a new Kingdom, but we just haven’t done that great of a job continuing his work. Jesus instituted a Kingdom where all are welcomed with no national lines. He created a Kingdom where the enemy is loved and we are even willing to die for them, instead of an earthly Kingdom where we attempt to achieve peace by slaughtering our enemies.
We are meant to be the continuation of that Kingdom. We, the church, are called the body of Christ. Early on the church seemed to get this, with two prominent examples in Acts being Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch – a non-heterosexual “other” who would have been barred from worship according to the Jewish religious rules – as well as Peter with the Roman centurion Cornelius. Of course Paul is the prime example as the apostle to the Gentiles. It is a story of liberation as anybody is freed, including those who had been oppressed by the previous religious system: the Gentiles, women, slaves, etc. But that slowly faded out, and we settled back to the cycle of empire, excluding those not like us to the point of being willing to kill them for the sake of expanding the Christian Empire. It’s no different today as the United States, especially in the Bush era, still claims to be killing people in the name of God.
The title is that Jesus Came to Save Christians, which I hope you can see by now is a sarcastic one. We usually have that idea, though, don’t we? WE are the special people loved by God, which entitles us to acts of empire like hoarding the wealth or bombing the other religions who have oil that we need to sustain our lifestyle. We were called to be the subversive ones, overcoming the oppression of the world, but now we are the ones who need to be subverted. Now we are the ones who need to figure out how to break free of our Christian empire and our attitudes of “us” and “them”. The New Testament repeatedly tells us that we are all one humanity, all one family. But our churches don’t like that idea very much – we like to be the in-club empire too much, hoarding our exclusive ticket to God and heaven, our money, our political power, etc. But guess what? God hears the cries of the oppressed calling out to him, and I honestly believe that if the current manifestation of Christ’s body on earth doesn’t do something to turn itself around from being the oppressors to being the ones who free the oppressed, then we shouldn’t be too surprised that like Israel, we’ll end up in an exile until we can see our mission again.