Chane discusses a radical Jesus, radicalism in Christianity

John Bryson Chane, retired Episcopal bishop of Washington, lectures in the Hall of Philosophy Wednesday afternoon. Chane questioned if Jesus should be considered a radical figure, and if then, by association, the Christian church a radical church. Photo by Eric Shea.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

“Was Jesus a radical?” Bishop John Bryson Chane asked the Hall of Philosophy audience during the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture.

On Wednesday, Chane continued Week Eight’s theme of “Radicalism: Burden or Blessing?” with a lecture titled “Radicalism… A Passion for The Possible in the 21st Century.” The title comes from the title of a book written by William Sloane Coffin, a Christian theologian, Chane said. In his lecture, Chane discussed the meaning of the word “radical,” whether Jesus was a radical, and whether the Christian church of today is or is not a radical church.

Chane was consecrated the eighth Bishop of Washington and was CEO of the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation. He is also an active participant and proponent of interfaith dialogue and a graduate of Yale Divinity School. Before attending Yale, Chane was a student at Boston University where he was a member of the Students for a Democratic Society.

Chane was a member of the SDS in 1967, a time when the United States was in turmoil. It was the height of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. The organization addressed issues of poverty and education inequality, Chane said. At the time, the FBI infiltrated SDS and labeled it a radical threat.

Chane left SDS in 1968, before the infamous August Democratic National Convention.

“My departure was over disagreements with tactics that liquidated the strategy of legitimate protest to that of confrontation and violence as the way forward to define the SDS’s anti-war, anti-establishment agenda,” Chane said.

He asked the audience if his involvement with SDS while in college made him a radical. The trouble with labels such as “radical” is people assign them indiscriminately in order to demonize others without ever truly thinking about the term, he said. “Progressive,” “regressive,” “pro-life,” “pro-choice,” “liberal” and “conservative” are all labels used to simplify and categorize other people with different opinions from our own, Chane said.

“In our country today, without understanding the root meaning of a label, we too often paint people who are different from us and think differently than we do, and we do this in a way that is often very destructive,” Chane said.

To discuss the term “radical,” it must first be defined, he said. He defined it as “the need for the necessary and perpetual reorientation toward root truths or core beliefs.” The word “radical” comes from the Latin word “radix,” which means “root.”

In light of the defined term, Chane said that he believes that he and the early SDS were radicals. They sought to go back to the root of democracy at a time when they felt the government had strayed too far from democratic processes.

When debating the issue of radicalism, it is also necessary to define the term “extremism.” Too often the terms are used synonymously, he said.

“Extremism is behavior and action that violates commonly held moral and ethical standards of the behavior of the culture or a society,” Chane said.

Killing innocent civilians and killing people in the name of God are examples of extremism he gave.

“Today, I want to look at radicalism as it applies to religion and, more specifically, Christianity, and I’m going to put forward to you another question: Was Jesus a radical?” Chane asked. “Would you say Christianity is a radical religion as you know it today?”

True change can only come from a change of a person’s heart; it is the hardest to accomplish and requires radical thought, Chane said. Often in governments, change is legislative and does not reflect a change of heart. He spoke from the Episcopal and Anglican perspectives, because they are the forms of Christianity he is most familiar. In those traditions, theology is governed by a constitution and canon law, Chane said.

“Change in canon law or the constitution in the Episcopal Church often happens slowly, and, in my opinion, tends to protect the status quo rather than generating the energy for the ultimate search for theological language, meaning and constructs that are necessary in addressing the challenges and the changes that we are all exposed to in the second millennium,” Chane said.

A question that should be asked by all is what does it mean to be a Christian during the second decade of this new century.

— Bishop John Bryson Chane

The church government does not address postmodernism, globalism or growing secularism, he said.

Change can only come from a change of the human heart that begins to embrace and align itself with the common good of others, he said.

Chane placed his question of whether Jesus was a radical by reading Jesus’ spoken words.

Chane read the eight Beatitudes and other verses including: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not done so. I have come to fulfill, for truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter or stroke of the letter will pass away from the Law until everything is accomplished,” and “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” he said.

He also read other lines by Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:3-20, and from the Sermon on the Plain as recorded in Luke 6:17-49.

“Both of these reflect the teachings of Jesus and were formed from the collected, memorized words spoken by Jesus to instruct his followers. These teachings were clearly challenges to the formality of religious and political authorities,” Chane said.

There are even more radical teachings of Jesus, he said. The teachings, which traced back to the root and core values of God’s teachings, challenged people to leave their comfort zones so their hearts would be transformed. The teachings highlighted the essence of how people must live and act in order to enter the Kingdom of God, Chane said.

They included teachings like, “Love God and everything that defines you, your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind,” Chane said. Jesus’ teachings, which promoted spending time with and giving a voice to women, tax collectors and those who were routinely shunned from religious society were very radical, Chane said.

“These were teachings so radical as to be heretical. They were threatening, they were overwhelming, controversial and radical then and carry the same weight today even in the second millennium of the 21st century.”

The mere fact that Jesus, a rabbi, associated with women flouted the religious authority of the time, Chane said. Also, his followers called Jesus “the son of God,” a phrase used only in reference to the emperor during that era.

“The Roman government saw Jesus and his followers engaged in a quasi-political movement that suspicion was based on the content of Jesus’ oral teaching as they heard it and eventually what was written in the four gospels,” Chane said.

The early theology of the Christian church practiced an active form of socialism, he said. A major tenet of the early Christian way of life was to share with all those who were in need, to give to the poor and the sick. The idea of wealth was only important in the sense that it determined how much one could help others, Chane said.

“It was radical then and a threat to the Roman governing system, and, today, it is a big challenge as we go through the process of who shall be elected the next president of the United States,” Chane said.

Today in the U.S., people are asking the same questions about who they will care for and how much they will pay for it. Jesus taught that all people had value and no one should be excluded. The root of the way of life Jesus taught was not about following specific rules and standards, but about loving every person and the world with compassion and forgiveness, Chane said.

“How does this core or radical — radix — teaching relate to your understanding of Jesus if you are a practicing Christian today? Is this the Jesus of your earthly journey? Is this the Jesus of the church you attend worship services in?” Chane asked.

Chane then approached the question of whether Christianity today is a radical church.

Christian denominations are on the decline; church attendance and membership are decreasing, he said.

Some argue it is because Christian denominations have strayed from biblical teachings and theological values. Others say it is because they have failed to keep up and adapt with a changing culture and society.

In a recent survey, 44 percent of Americans polled by Gallup said they had confidence in organized religion — something that has been waning since the 1970s, Chane said.

Pew Research Center recently conducted a poll and found that “Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and lead figures of major religions including their own,” Chane said.

Marcus Borg recently wrote that “today, Christianity and Christian theology is experiencing a struggle between what was and what is becoming,” Chane said.

Lines of division are not drawn between Christian denominations, but rather schools of thought approaching theology. It is a division between those who adhere to the fundamental readings of the Bible and those who have thought radically about faith and reformed their churches so as to stay abreast of the moral and ethical issues of our time, Chane said.

Photo by Eric Shea.

“A question that should be asked by all is what does it mean to be a Christian during the second decade of this new century,” he said.

There is a new, young generation that rejects Christianity, because it sees Christianity and Christian institutions as more caught up in membership numbers than in thinking and studying theology in order to understand God in a morphing world, Chane said.

“This contingent believes that Christianity is not radical at all and has replaced the teachings of Jesus with a comfortable pew, a corporate church and personal piety,” Chane said.

He said when he would visit universities, students would tell him they saw the church as a “self-righteous, bigoted and judgmental” institution.

“Students I met with expressed views that organized Christianity had chosen to stray from its radical roots, its radical core as an Eastern Oriental religious experience,” Chane said.

Students said Christianity had once been a strong, transformational and radical church that worked for the common good and the empowerment of all people, but it has since lost its way among the institutional politics and present-day structure, Chane said.

Today, Christianity must deal with issues like postmodernism, secularism, a growing sense of indifference and “an emergence of a culture of disbelief,” he said.

Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale, wrote a book called the The Culture of Disbelief. In the book, he wrote: “When faith is removed from public life, when we divorce religion from politics, we marginalize religion to the point that the values that ultimately guide and help society behave in a reasonable and compassionate fashion are lost to current and prevailing values of the culture,” Chane said.

In closing, Chane said he believes Jesus was a radical and Christianity was a radical religion, like all of the Abrahamic faiths were during their infancies.

When faith is challenged as a guide for the treatment of others with the values of compassion, kindness and love, a vacuum is created. When a vacuum is created, small groups from within faiths corrupt the radical teachings and core values of the religion to fit their agendas.

“For these impactful elements, the end always justifies the means,” Chane said.

“When that happens, we are witness to violence that human beings do to one another in the name of religion and God to support their quest for power, personal gain and political co-option.”