Last Christmas, a church in Auckland, New Zealand put up a billboard that some people found so offensive they defaced it with graffiti. One person even attacked it with a knife. The billboard depicted Joseph and Mary in bed with the caption: “Poor Joseph. God was a hard act to follow.”
That church, St. Matthew in the City, is again cleaning up after vandals attacked the latest billboard it erected for Easter. The billboard features “a cartoon of a bearded Jesus nailed to the cross with the caption: ‘Well this sucks. I wonder if they’ll remember anything I said. . .’”
Vandals were not amused by the church’s cheeky sign and again defaced it—only this time, the vandals didn’t just indulge in mindless destruction. Instead, as church spokesman Rev. Clay Nelson said, the graffiti was an actual rebuttal:
“It took me a while to read the graffiti, but it’s definitely a biblical reference, rather than just a tagging.
“Clearly they objected to the theology on the billboard because they wrote John 3:16 on it, which they feel is their response to the billboard.
“This is a quote from the gospel of John which says God gave his only son for the salvation of everyone. It’s a view of what happened on the cross after Easter.
“Our billboard shows Jesus before Easter. Some Christians believe Jesus knew what was going to happen to him in advance, but we disagree with that. That’s what the vandals were objecting to.”
The church’s web site shows a before and after photograph of the billboard.
While one can argue about whether a billboard is an effective way to start a deep theological conversation, the same conversation between the church and its vandals has been going on for a long time in Christianity: “Is our religion simply about what we believe about what Jesus’ death accomplished, or is it about how we live out our lives in the light of Jesus’ life and teachings?”
For many Christians, perhaps the majority, Christianity is a religion about beliefs. I grew up in the Southern Baptist church where the slogan is: “The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Nothing else had to be thought, no questions had to be asked—you believed what the Bible said, or what the pastor told you the Bible said, and that was the end of it. The most important part is that you believe that Jesus died for your sins and that you are “washed in the blood of the lamb,” and your sins forgiven by Jesus’ intentionally sacrificial death on the cross.
Progressive Christians, like those at St. Matthew, however, believe differently. Instead of being God’s patsy—sent to die in mankind’s place no matter what he said or did before he got to the cross—Jesus was a dangerous rebel whose talk of love, unity, and peace were a subversive and real threat to the Roman rulers of the day. In short, progressive Christians believe it was Jesus’ words and actions that got him killed, not God’s fait accompli for his life no matter what he said or did.
The billboard Jesus asks an important question: “I wonder if they’ll remember anything I said.” Indeed, we do remember the words of Jesus—we even print them in red in some editions of the Bible. But remembering someone’s words and acting on them are two very different ideas.
I believe we are currently living in the kind of society that gets built when we emphasize belief over action. We get a society where the very words “social justice” are turned into a dirty phrase—one that talk show hosts urge their followers to flee from at all costs. We get a society that is selfish and narcissistic. This society says that if you’ve got your beliefs right, then you’re done—no need to actually help anyone—because belief is the only thing required. Indeed, we get a society that reduces action on Jesus’ words to that of the heresy of “works righteousness.” Instead of honoring those who follow Jesus’ example, we’re told, “Love your neighbor all you want, feed the poor all you want, clothe the naked all you want, help the least of these all you want, but nothing you do will buy you a ticket to heaven. You can do all these things and be ever so nice, but if you don’t believe Jesus died for your sins, you’re going to hell.”
To those who feel that way I say this: Call those pursuing social justice in this world heretics and deface billboards if it makes you feel better about neglecting the poor and suffering. But I think that Jesus could give two flips about what we make of his death on the cross. It was a horrible tragedy no matter how you look at it. The only true miracle that can make a difference in this world is when we resurrect the work Jesus started in his life and carry that through to complete fruition.