Why I speak of Jesus (Why I don't call myself a "Christian")

Updated: May 15, 2019

I am often asked why I continue to speak about Jesus, given the fact that I left professional Christian ministry and much of my Christian theology with it.

If you have followed my journey through my five books, you know that since 2006 I’ve been sharing my story out of organized religion and particularly Christianity. My first book was, Divine Nobodies: Shedding Religion to Find God (and the unlikely people who help you). This was my "coming out" book - coming out of organized religion and leaving it behind in search of a more authentic and non-religious spirituality. My follow-up book, Wide Open Spaces: Beyond Paint-by-Number Christianity, was a book that described my process of deconstructing my entire Christian belief system and how my beliefs and life changed as a result.

The third book I wrote was: Being Jesus in Nashville: Finding the Courage to Live Your Life (whoever and wherever you are). This book tells the story of how I came to answer the question of the significance of Jesus for my life. The answer stirred up a lot of controversy. I was labeled a heretic and my Christian publisher refused to publish the book and cancelled my writing contract.

My next book was, Notes from (Over) the Edge: Unmasking the Truth to End Your Suffering. In this book I chronicle my discoveries and experiences in addressing the root cause of my own inner suffering. It shares a distinctly different way from my traditional Christian background that I had come to understand myself, life and the divine. My most recently published book, Inner Anarchy: Dethroning God and Jesus to Save Ourselves and the World, is my re-framing of the Jesus story, which is a departure from how traditional Christianity understands and interprets Jesus - his message, significance and relevance. There are two groups of people who are likely to be bothered by this book: those who have fixed Christian beliefs about Jesus, and those who have written him off.

These last several years I have deconstructed, dismantled and discarded much of my Christian belief system, which is an interesting path for a guy who has a Master of Divinity degree and spent many years preaching the traditional Christian message. Yet in all of this, my interest in Jesus has deepened and expanded. What I now understand to be the message of Jesus' life and teachings holds a place of great significance in my life. However, speaking of Jesus as I do is not a popular endeavor.

On the one hand there are those who have “shed religion” and shed Jesus with it. For many of these folks, the mention of Jesus reminds them of everything that was wrong and damaging about their particular Christian belief-system and church involvement. There are also those who have never been Christians themselves but negative experiences with those who are turned them off to all things Jesus. Many atheists and agnostics don’t really see any point in giving a lot of credence to Jesus. After all, there’s not a very kind historical record of what has often happened in his name. The Crusades of the Middle Ages come to mind. Westboro Baptist church is another. There is no shortage of examples of how Christian religious fundamentalism has done great harm in our world.

All of this hubbub over someone who some say never even lived and whose existence is just a myth. So there’s definitely an anti-Jesus or feeling of indifference toward Jesus that is prevalent. There are many contemporary spiritual teachers who say we need to forget about Jesus, and adopt more progressive and enlightened understandings.

Then on the other hand, the typical person who holds a strong belief in Jesus, namely Christians, aren’t too fond of me talking about Jesus either. This is because what I say about Jesus doesn’t support the beliefs, mindsets and orthodoxy of traditional Christianity. As mentioned, I ran into this pretty early in my writing career when my Christian publishing house sent me packing. My most recent book Inner Anarchy sent some Christian folk through the roof. I received emails from Christians who condemned me to hell, called down God’s wrath upon my head, and likened me to David Koresh and Jim Jones.

So, talking about Jesus these days is a dangerous thing to do for lots of different reasons. So why do I continue?

There are a lot of people for whom their rejection of or ambivalence toward Jesus is because the Jesus they were exposed to was filtered through one stripe or another of the Christian religion. It’s unfortunate because what often passes as "Christianity" doesn't do Jesus any favors, and in my view does not accurately represent his life and message. The Christian religion has made Jesus’ truth and teachings exclusive. According to this mindset, one has to “become a Christian” and “accept only Jesus” in order to have the truth. So either you belong to the Christian club, or you’re out of luck, doomed, and destined for Hell. This view is unfortunate. The truth Jesus bore witness to and demonstrated has universal significance and it doesn’t require one to become a Christian. Jesus never intended for himself or his teaching to become a religion. Instead, Jesus confronted the problem of the typical religious mindset, and lifted up truth that any person can embrace if they are willing to look inside themselves.

Contrary to what some might assume, Jesus did not start the Christian religion. If Jesus were alive today I believe he would be appalled by much of what has been created in his name. If Jesus lived and taught the way he did 2,000 years ago, some Christian folk would be the first ones to crucify him. Jesus was not a religious person, and vehemently opposed religion and the way it separated people from God, and divided them against each other. Once speaking to a group of religious leaders, Jesus called their “God” an impostor, a liar, and a murderer—even the Devil!

The Christian religion does not own Jesus, and until a person digs a little deeper than just what they might have been told about him in church, they are likely to miss what I believe are the most significant parts of who Jesus was. People often ask me if I am still a "Christian"? It's not an easy question to answer. My own understanding of Jesus over the years has evolved.

Regardless of one’s religious faith there is little doubt among contemporary historians that Jesus was a real person who lived in Palestine in the First Century. Historians agree that Jesus was an itinerant teacher who traveled and taught throughout Palestine gathering followers around him through the force of his personality and the compelling nature of his message. There is general agreement that Jesus was perceived by the Roman occupiers of Palestine as a dangerous religious radical and a disturber of the peace. It didn’t help that Jesus infuriated the religious establishment for refusing to legitimize it. Consequently, he was arrested by the local authorities and summarily executed by the Romans in a public crucifixion, the standard method used by the Romans to deal with political troublemakers.

There is near unanimity among scholars that Jesus existed historically, although biblical scholars differ about the beliefs and teachings of Jesus as well as the accuracy of the details of his life that have been described in the Gospels. There are countless resources that delve into the matter of the historicity of Jesus. Here are a few I’ve read:

  • The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian by Robin Lane Fox

  • Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart D. Ehrman

  • Jesus and the Politics of his Day by E. Bammel and C. F. D. Moule

  • The Historical Jesus in Context edited by Amy-Jill Levine

  • Beyond Belief by Elaine Pagels

  • Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels by Michael Grant

  • Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Over the years, all kinds of non-Christian spiritual writers have vouched for Jesus. A couple interesting perspectives on the topic are: An atheist defense of the historicity of Jesus and The irreligious assault on the historicity of Jesus. I think one of the challenges in sorting all this out is how the Christian religion has added quite a few extracurricular ideas and teachings about Jesus that aren’t historically verifiable. I’ve been sharing these ideas for years now, which includes the 15 Things Jesus Didn’t Say post.

Jesus has a message and I believe it’s worth considering. In fact I believe he bore witness to and demonstrated a truth that has the power to save ourselves and a world that is careening down a path of planetary doom. In my view, as a reaction against the absurdities of the worst of the Christian religion, people want to write off Jesus entirely.

There are people who have found Jesus to be significant outside the box of the Christian religion. For example, there is a very robust tradition of “Christian humanism,” emphasizing the humanity of Jesus, his social teachings and belief in universal human dignity, and his propensity to synthesize human spirituality and the material world. There has also been a “Christian anarchist” movement, most notably championed by Leo Tolstoy, who claims that anarchism is inherent in the life and teaching of Jesus. Jesus is far more radical than many would have you believe, and for good reason – it threatens the status quo and all religious and cultural institutions of authority and power.

Jesus’ primary message was what he referred to as the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven.” When people questioned Jesus about when this Kingdom would arrive, Jesus said it already had and was within them. Jesus taught that this “Kingdom” was an innate sense of goodness, justice, beauty, harmony and solidarity inside us. You don’t have to be a religious scholar or enlightened guru to access it. Jesus said instead you have to become like a child and be willing to trust and follow what you know in your innermost self is true. It's uncomplicated but it's difficult. It takes courage to confront and oppose the status quo. It takes courage to be human the way Jesus was.

What Jesus was saying to his generation was that the Kingdom of God was not a future political kingdom to anticipate but rather a present reality to the degree that his message was heard and acted upon by those who "had ears to hear." His teaching was not to anticipate a future kingdom but rather to bring about the Kingdom of God in the present through one’s actions and commitments, and lifting those deep feelings up out of us and into the world. That “heavenly dimension” within us is the source of the power, authority, love, freedom and togetherness that can transform our current human situation.

I wrote Inner Anarchy because I believe that reconsidering Jesus and the truth he bore witness to and demonstrated can birth a new world. That truth is not a religious truth or contingent upon any religious ideology – it is universally significant and accessible to any and every human being. It’s the Christian religion that shortchanged the world by making it all about Jesus the person rather than Jesus the message. Jesus died but his truth is still alive in each and every one of us, waiting to be born and brought out into our world if we have the courage to embrace it. There are 2.5+ billion Christians on our planet. I sometimes wonder how different our world would be if we stopped worshiping Jesus and started trusting and following what we all know is true and real deep inside us that Jesus told us to listen to. For me, that message is worth sharing… even with the hate mails I receive daily.

The Christian church is fond of telling the “sinners” of the world that they need to “accept Jesus,” but it seems to me that it's the Christians who need to. They are the “unbelievers” who turned Jesus into a religion and failed to embrace his truth. Accepting the truth that Jesus bore witness to and demonstrated will make you a heretic like he was. That’s the kind of inner anarchy we need now.

Jesus might well be the world's most famous missing person. What Jesus was and what was made of him are two different realities. Once you clear away the spin and hype, you discover a lot of remarkable things about Jesus. Jesus died as a political provocateur and disturber of the alliance of convenience between the Roman occupiers and the corrupt Jewish leaders. The Romans did not waste crucifixion on nobodies. Jesus was a somebody. It wasn't a surprise that Jesus was killed, only that he was not killed sooner.

Jesus' rhetoric and way of life was a threat to the occupiers and the priestly caste that benefited from it. Jesus spoke of a different kingdom and stirred the hopes of the people. Hope is the energy of revolution. Hope and excitement can disturb the pseudo-peace on which tyranny depends. The truth that Jesus shared and demonstrated debunked the foundational premises on which those religious and political systems were built.

Jesus called for people to stop listening to them and start listening to the spirit of truth within themselves. He attacked the credibility of those systems and told people to find their authority inside themselves. Each time Jesus opened his mouth, he was pulling out another wooden Jenga block, making these religious and worldly powers vulnerable and unstable. Jesus himself was no threat—he had no position of religious or political power and wasn’t campaigning to be the worldly president—but his truth made him a one-man wrecking crew.

Jesus is the world's most famous missing person because the religion that bears his name worship him as God, and have mostly lost who he was as a human.

Despite having had a Master of Divinity degree and serving many years as the Senior Pastor of a church, I had not truly grasped the full significance of Jesus. Once you untangle the mess the Christian religion made of Jesus, you see that the hope Jesus represented is not a god or heaven up in the sky, but is within each of us. We are the people we've been waiting for.

I've been accused of coming down quite hard on my Christian brethren, but it's only because I believe we (including myself) can do better in how we represent Jesus and live his truth in the world. I am pointing the finger at myself because of the years I mishandled the life and message of Jesus. It's not my intent to claim that all Christians and all quarters of the Christian religion or Church are making a mess of things. I know of many Christ-followers, churches and Christian leaders who are making an extraordinary impact in this world. These days, rather than label myself a "Christian," I try to be more descriptive of why Jesus matters to me and why I believe he matters for our world.

©  2019 Jim Palmer Author. All Rights Reserved
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