We will fight for peace, but we will do no violence.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Scott Bartchy is a radical. He believes in a subversive system that embraces those on the fringes of our society and seeks to establish a new way of life that goes against the status quo.

Kind of like Jesus.

Bartchy, currently the Director of the Center for the Study of Religions at UCLA, notes a great gap between the original, early form of church in the first three hundred years of Christianity, and the modern concept of doing church today. “The biggest difference I see would be that those who became the followers of Jesus (in the early church) were convinced that Jesus was right about God,” says Bartchy. “They weren’t debating whether or not he was God, but simply said that if you’ve seen Jesus, you have seen God. As Jesus said to Phillip, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” (John 14:6-11)

For Bartchy, the difference between the modern church and the original church is summed up in a single question; “Was Jesus right about who God is?” Bartchy notes, “The earliest followers of Jesus believed that he had the authority to change the rules and to define how the God of Israel is to be thought of.”

So, what is it that Phillip and the other disciples had seen Jesus doing that would inform their ideas of who God is? “First of all they’ve seen Jesus at a wedding, turning water into wine. They’ve seen Jesus at the temple healing a man born blind, and addressing the question of whether or not sin is the cause of someone being born blind, or being sick. Jesus says that it’s not anyone’s fault, but it’s so that God might be glorified,” says Bartchy. “Phillip has seen Jesus comforting Mary and Martha, who are his personal friends, and raising their brother Lazarus from the dead, and of course he’s seen Jesus take the form of a servant and wash the feet of his disciples. Jesus says, if you’ve seen that, you’ve seen the Father.”

Bartchy is quick to make a distinction between the assertion that Jesus is God and the more radical concept that God is like Jesus. “Now, the profound irony of this is that Jesus is named after “Y’Shua”, or “Joshua”, Israel’s dominant warrior who fought the battle of Jericho and lead the children of Israel on numerous conquests. He (Jesus) is saying that the God of Israel isn’t acting that way anymore. Jesus is saying that the God of Israel loves his enemies and he’s not going to kill anybody.”

While much of what the media portrays concerning the “Religious Right” in America deals with the overtly political, Republican, Pro-War version of the Christian Church, Bartchy sees things a little differently. “I really do think that people are so eager for Christ to return today because they don’t like what he did the first time. They still want a kick ass God. They want a divine legitimation for what was done to us at 9-11,” he says. “That’s the only way I can understand how so many people in the Church are in favor of attacking Iraq, or killing people, or whatever. They certainly don’t believe that Jesus is right about God.”

But, the early followers of Jesus, Bartchy contends, did believe that he was right about God. “And for that reason they blew off Temple religion and the whole idea of priests and programs, and the like. They rejected the idea that what God really wants is to be served inside a church building rather than on the street. If Jesus is right about God then it means there are no more Holy Places, and for the first three hundred years Christians didn’t have any Holy Place other than their own homes where the churches met. So, they focused primarily in their relationships with each other because that’s where the Holy Spirit was manifested, in the very people who followed Jesus.”

The disconnect, so to speak, for Bartchy comes in the methodology of the modern church which has become so fixated with amassing large numbers of people, establishing political alliances and building larger facilities rather than simply acting out the compassionate example of the founder of the movement itself. “I think the big difference I see is that, today, the church isn’t really believing the same things about God that Jesus himself did and acted out,” he says. “That’s why the success of the Church today is seen not so much in doing the kind of things that we’re told that we’re going to be judged by when Jesus does return to judge us, as seen in Mathew 25, concerning whether or not we’ve clothed the naked or fed the hungry or visited those in prison, etc., and apparently doing so simply because this is the kind of people we have become.”

In Matthew 25 Bartchy notes a profound undermining of the modern apocalyptic rapture scenario depicted in most, if not all, Christian literature. “Yes,” says Bartchy, “The son of man is going to come on the clouds to separate the sheep from the goats. But one of the most fascinating things to me about those sheep is that Jesus identifies them as such because they have been visiting those in prison and they’ve been feeding the hungry, and Jesus says, ‘If you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me’ and the sheep say, ‘Hey, we didn’t have any idea we were doing it to you’, which is to say, they are doing it because of their new nature, they are doing it because of what they have become as followers of Jesus,” he says.

“The second bunch in this scenario are into what I like to call the ‘Save Your Butt’ religion. These people say, “Hey, if we’d have known it was you buddy we’d have done it” but only in order to save their own butt, not because of who they actually were.”

For Bartchy, what’s missing, sadly, is an emphasis on being a people who are transformed by the Gospel and who embody the example of their Lord. “We have preachers who come onto the campus today at UCLA down by what we call Bruin Walk and those guys all preach a version of the ‘Save Your Butt’ religion. They ask, “If you would die tonight where would you be?” So, it’s still a matter of appealing to the narcissism of the American public. It’s not an invitation to become a part of God’s new people,” says Bartchy.

Even though Bartchy spends most of his time instructing college students in the historical events of a fledgling movement several thousand years ago, he holds a very immediate passion that burns in him to this very day. “Now, what I’m saying then, is not only is Jesus right about who God is and what God is trying to get done, it’s that it’s supposed to be done here and it’s supposed to be done now. Jesus did not teach his disciples to pray, “Take me to heaven when I die”, what he says is, “Your will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven”, in the here and now. What we’re supposed to be praying for is for Heaven to come here, rather than for us to go to Heaven. Now, I do believe that Heaven is the bonus at the end of the road,” says Bartchy, “But there I’d be on the same page with the apostle John, or with Paul who held that Eternity was a quality of life, not a quantity of life. It was a quality of life that begins here.”

Rather than focus on the typical questions of faith that surround the discussion about who God is, or whether or not He exists, Bartchy feels that the fundamental question begins with whether or not we believe that Jesus is right about who God is. “I find people saying that what I need to say is that Jesus IS God, but the reason I’m reluctant to put it those terms is that people give themselves permission to define God as they please. So, God is whoever they say he is, in the Freudian sense that he fulfills the projection of your desires. So, people define God they way they want and then they make Jesus fit into that,” says Bartchy.

“People tell me that they believe that Jesus is God, and yet they’ve never read the Gospel of Mark from beginning to end, or even the Gospel of John. They may have a formal understanding of the book, but they don’t know what’s in it. In any case, the Jesus that you read about in the Gospel of Mark has a program, Pardon me, Mel Gibson, but there’s only one and a half chapters that deal with his execution, and then there are a few verses that have to do with his resurrection,” he says. “But there are twelve to thirteen chapters that have to do with his program. His program is everything I’ve been talking about so far, it’s the Kingdom of God. It’s everything that Jesus anticipates should be done here and now on this planet by his people. I know the literature of the early church up until the time of Constantine backwards and forwards and I don’t see any evidence there that the appeal being made to people was about ‘If you died tonight would you be in Heaven’. The appeal was to come and be a people of God.”

The questions on the minds of the earliest followers of Jesus reflected more practical concerns of a faith for the here and now. ”Instead of asking people the sort of salvation question we always hear, the early church asked people to consider things like, how would spend your money, how would you treat people, how would you respond to that person who just called you an asshole yesterday, and how would you deal with the real world stuff?”

“Because the church today hasn’t asked this question,” says Bartchy, “ It ends up thinking materialistically and since we’re so fragmented from each other we can’t imagine that we might help each other when we get older, the world plays on our fears. It seems to me that if a church was a real church they’d have their own social security program. Indeed in the early church that was how they got their reputation, it was that they cared for so many people.”

As Bartchy speaks, the chasm between the faith of the early church and that of the modern church begins to grow wider and wider. “None of the current signs of success in the modern church can be found in the New Testament. When the people laid their offerings at the disciples feet it wasn’t so that they could build a bigger building or give the disciples a salary increase.”

“One of the things that Jesus does, in contrast to all of the other teachers, including John the Baptist, was to say that we don’t have to wait for God to kill anybody. We don’t have to wait for Tiberius to be knocked off his throne, or for Pilate to go home, we can start living according to the rule of God right now and all they can do to us is to kill us, but they can’t stop it,” says Bartchy.

“Out of the conviction of Jesus being alive after his crucifixion, what we call resurrection experiences, they know that they can’t be stopped and I don’t think that it can be stopped. As a secular historian on the outside and as a follower of Jesus on the inside, I would say it cannot be stopped,”he affirms. “Now, sometimes the gears grind really slowly, but it can’t be stopped. We can be blocked by sin or by oppression or by dictatorship or by injustice and the like, but all I can say is in the midst of that there is still hope.”


Read the full interview in the book [Subversive Interviews] by Keith Giles available

1 comment:

  1. YES!

    This is what I've been going on about for quite a while.

    As long as we're longing for the carrot or afraid of the stick, we still DON'T GET IT.

    This is what was wrong with the rich young man who wanted to know what he needed to do to have eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell everything and give it to the poor, and the man walks away saddened. The problem is that the man was asking the WRONG QUESTION. He's still stuck in "how do I get _____ for me?" instead of "how do I give ____ to someone who needs it?"

    As long as we're worried about our own salvation, we are still not understanding Jesus' message. That worry will be more important than caring for those who are sick, lonely, thirsty, hungry, homeless, and suffering in other ways.

    "Take up your cross and follow me" said Jesus, but are we willing to live the sacrificial life Jesus did, to love others even at the cost of our own wealth, comfort, and perhaps our lives?