In a post of the Living Church’s blogsite, the Bishop of Springfield, the Rt. Rev. Dan Martins published a post that utilized one’s preference for or against Mel Gibson’s epic, The Passion of the Christ, as a litmus test for whether one would fall on the side of Christianity as a social justice movement or oppositely, at least a the Bishop of Springfield sees it, Christianity as a global operation to save souls. Yesterday, my friend and colleague, the Rev. Megan Castellan, used none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer to offer a strong critique of Bishop Martin’s dualistic worldview. I strongly encourage you to read her post, as it is most assuredly better than this one.
What strikes me as odd in the Bishop’s article, is that I can’t find my own place in his dualistic world. I didn’t like The Passion of the Christ, not because I don’t think that Jesus’ sacrifice is the lynch pin in salvation history, and not because it has the theological nuance of Thor’s hammer, but because the Good Lord did not bless me with the spiritual gift of a strong stomach. Rarely do I watch a movie that includes graphic violence, not out of some moral repugnance, but a more physical one. In fact, I planned to never see The Passion of the Christ on just those grounds, but when the Presbyterian youth pastor asks you to join his youth group’s discussion on it because “you’re an Episcopalian who has walked the Stations of the Cross and maybe can explain the extra-biblical bits,” you feel compelled to oblige.
Based on my reason for disliking The Passion of the Christ, am I supposed to all about social justice or evangelism? Thankfully, as I re-read Sunday’s Gospel lesson, I realized that I have none other than John the Baptist to point to as an example of a holistic discipleship that allows for both. You’ll recall that in the Gospel lesson for Advent 2, we heard JBap proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. This JBap would have loved The Passion of the Christ (if it wasn’t about the brutal death of his cousin, of course) because he is focused on the need for atonement in the lives of human beings, or what the Prayer Book calls “proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” Fast-forward to this Sunday, and we hear the crowd responding to JBap’s proclamation by asking: “What then should we do?”
Note that JBap doesn’t take the crowd down Romans’ Road in search of a conversion experience, but rather, he offers practical advice of how disciples of the Kingdom should live: “If you have two coats, give one away. If you have food to eat, share.” In Bishop Martin’s dichotomy, this JBap wouldn’t have been impressed with The Passion of the Christ, choosing instead to focus on the politics of the Kingdom, or as the Prayer Book calls it, “striving for justice and peace” and “respecting the dignity of every human being.”
Both are true to who John the Baptist was and what he taught because the reality is that evangelism and social justice are both at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus and to be a disciple of the Kingdom. John is essentially proclaiming the need to be born again and then describing what the new life looks like. Despite what Bishop Martins (from which he later retreats, albeit somewhat unconvincingly, but let’s be fair, it is a dualism held by many on the progressive side of the debates of yore as well) posits, the discipleship we learn from none other than John the Baptist calls us to believe that both the conversion of self and the conversion of the whole world are important. As followers of Jesus, we are to proclaim him as exemplar of the faith in the fullness of the Incarnation: his life, his death, and his resurrection.