In his closing sermon at the 2019 Community of Christ World Conference, prophet-president Steve Veazey asked a guiding question for the church:
Are we moving toward Jesus, the peaceful One?
It’s pretty clear from the formatting of this question—and even clearer from its translation into French and Spanish, the other working languages of Community of Christ—that Veazey’s phrase “the peaceful One” is meant to describe Jesus as a being who is inherently peaceful and who exemplifies peace for the whole world. However, I’ve long enjoyed entertaining a different interpretation of Veazey’s wording—one that I know wasn’t his intent but that I think has some value to it.
In my reading of Veazey’s question, he is asking us whether we are “moving toward Jesus.” Then, as if we had asked which of the many available versions of Jesus we should be moving toward, he clarifies “oh, the peaceful one!” That is, not the warlike one, not the Christian nationalist one, not the homophobic one. If we are to move toward a Jesus, we ought to be moving toward the peaceful one.
When I was in college, I read a book by Matt Mikalatos called Imaginary Jesus that has a somewhat similar premise. Despite a couple of unnecessary potshots at Mormonism (two missionary characters named Elders Laurel and Hardy, and “the real” Jesus rolling his eyes at the Book of Mormon during what’s supposed to be a moving, spiritual resolution to the book), I really enjoyed the book for the way that it emphasizes all of the different Jesuses we have available to us to pick from. I’m less convinced than Mikalatos that there is a true Jesus lurking behind all of the different imaginary ones, but I do appreciate the idea that there are many choices available to us and that it’s important that we pick between them.
Some—many?—Christians might be uncomfortable with the idea that we have a choice between different versions of Jesus, but some version of this reality is evident even from the structure of the New Testament. As John Barton writes in his excellent A History of the Bible:
Modern Christians probably do not spend much time reflecting on this issue. Long familiarity with the Gospels prevents prople from noticing just how strange it is to have divergent official versions of the life and sayings of the founder of Christianity, and even atheist critics of the faith seldom batten onto this problem. Historically the diversity is what we should expect, given that the stories and sayings in the Gospels circulated orally over a long period before being written down; but it is remarkable that the Church decided to canonize all four versions and not to attempt to reconcile them.
Mark’s Jesus is different in important ways from John’s Jesus, and if that much is true, we must also recognize that Veazey’s peaceful Jesus is different than the far right Jesus that Gab CEO Andrew Torba blogs about from time to time. The question of which interpretation of Jesus we choose to follow is a crucial one. I’m continuing to read David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament, and I continue to be impressed by how radical some of Jesus’s teachings are when I read them as they stand (filtered through Hart, of course) rather than assuming I understand what they mean. Consider this passage from Mark 10:
28 Peter began to say to him, “See: We gave up all things and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Amen, I tell you, there is no one who gave up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good tidings, 30 Who does not—along with persecutions—receive a hundred- fold, in the present time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields, as well as, in the Age to come, the life of that Age. 31 But many who are first will be last and last first.”
When we consider just how uncompromising Jesus’s teachings are, the question of which Jesus we follow becomes all the more important. Does leaving family for Jesus mean that family should disown their queer children? Or does it mean standing up against our parents’ queerphobia even if it means awkwardness in future family gatherings? I can only accept the latter. Does it mean divorcing one’s atheist spouse? Or does it mean leaving a beloved church because it doesn’t make room for families that follow other paths? Again, only the second view of Jesus is tolerable in my view.
I don’t know that the Jesus that I choose to follow is any more self-evident than any of the other versions that exist out there. However, when I am presented with a variety of views of Jesus, I know that I will always pick “the peaceful one,” “the affirming one,” and “the radically accepting one.”
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