Above a local bank that has been serving our village for decades, there is a large window looking out over the heart of downtown. This past December, with little fanfare, many of us noticed that the window was suddenly filled with a banner reading “JESUS.” Memories both ancestral and recent could not recall a time in which such a banner had been displayed, but there it was, like a newborn baby wailing in a manger. Most of us shrugged and went about our holidays. As January winded to a close and the sign was still atop the bank, the people began to murmur. There was gnashing of teeth and renting of clothes, at least metaphorically, over the sign. Tom Waits-like voices intoned all over the village, “What is he building in there?”
It was not the work of the bank. Rather, an undisclosed religious group has placed the banner and lighted it. The poor employees of the bank have to explain this almost daily to people who come in and ask. Apparently there have been some hostile comments. People feel affronted, confronted, perhaps even inundated with a message about which the intention remains unclear. “Jesus!” Well, yes. Jesus. But so what? What about Jesus, we’d like to ask.
I sit in my office in the Presbyterian Church that has been next to the bank even before the bank was a bank. 1860 was a long time ago, but our sanctuary has stood here since then. Through the Civil War, Jim Crow, desegregation, women’s suffrage, GLBT rights, and a whole host of other movements, local and national, and we’ve been flying our Jesus flag. We’ve been putting the gospel at the center of what we do, as have the Methodist, Baptists, African Methodist Episcopals, Catholics, and Quakers in town. We are not a community bereft of Jesus.
But we are also a community of Wiccans, Buddhists, Bah’ais, Jews, Muslims, Unitarian Universalists, Rastafarians, and every other tradition and non-tradition of which you can think. I don’t know if a sign that said “Buddha” or “Allah” would have received as much attention. I don’t think that conversation needs to happen because that is not what the sign says; and I don’t think anyone should cry “Christian persecution” because some villagers are asking why the Jesus sign is overlooking our town square.
What this does bring up is Christian privilege and Christian history. Look, I am just about the most Jesusy guy I know; I can’t really go five minutes without talking, writing, thinking, or praying about Jesus. Hopefully, it is not obnoxious because my Jesus obsession is more about action than talk. I take this whole Christian thing seriously, so seriously I know that I really don’t know that much about the secrets of the universe and it is better to be a loving, compassionate, kind person who admits his own limitations than an arrogant, assured, fundamentalist asshat. I’m serious about Jesus because I am serious about love. But let’s be honest. Christianity is not so good about living and letting live. Christianity has been pretty much in your face constantly in this country, and it is not a kinder, gentler Christianity. It is one that hates gays and tells women to shut up in church; it is a Christianity that has married itself to a particular kind of politics. It is a largely White Christianity that screams “All Lives Matter” and ignores the Black and Brown bodies piling up in the streets.
We can cry out that signs and symbols do not equate the thing unto itself. We can quote Wittgenstein and Focault, and give arguments about how the name Jesus means more than the fear of religious oppression; but we shouldn’t. We who are Christians should focus on transforming our actions and words into ones of love, compassion, and justice-seeking. Through our lives and the ways that we commit ourselves to relationship, we should seek to transform the ways that people think of Christianity when they see a sign bearing the name “Jesus.”
The problem is not the people who object to the banner. The problem is we who do not get why and how we’ve failed as Christians. How great would it be if we Christians acted in such a way that when non-Christians see the name of Jesus, they would smile and say, “Now that’s a great man. Good people follow him, too. Not my cup of tea, but keep on keepin’ on, followers of Christ. Y’all good people.”