During these weeks of Lent, it might be nice to consider what the church could look like if we got rid of Jesus, especially the hard stuff.
The stuff about sin and forgiveness, or the cross and resurrection; the stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with our daily lives.
In about 1843, Karl Marx wrote, in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.” This quotation has been taken out of context by all sorts of folks to suggest that Marx is critical of religion, as it dulls the senses of ordinary people and creates an illusory world, one in which they don’t have to face reality.
But that’s a misreading, because he was not critical of religion as much as he was critical of society, whose structures and institutions he viewed as heartless and oppressive. When life is so difficult, every day so strenuous, one needs something to soften the blows. In Marx’s view, religion could do that for ordinary people. However, his call was not to do away with religion but to reform society, to create living situations and institutional systems that were more humane. Marx believed that if life is brutal and unrelenting, who among us would not long to seek solace in a religion that promises relief in an afterlife?
Context has changed, but Marx’s insight still haunts us as the church tries to find a spot to land in this culture. More and more, we are called to be relevant. Good and faithful people in our pews are asking that their pastors and leaders preach spiritually uplifting messages. It seems we long to numb ourselves with a religion that pacifies us. And more and more, preachers and leaders are giving in.
Because of these demands, it is natural that a church leader would be drawn toward certain questions: should religion be a way to mediate our lives so we can soften its harsh realities? Is there any reason to even consider scripture as vital to our lives? (I speak far beyond relevancy.) What is the point of the Bible, or biblical preaching, much less church anymore? Why even bother preaching about the cross and resurrection? Why take time to point to God’s on-going work in the world and the claims that it makes a difference for us and our lives? What do we have to offer? In our own fears about dying, are we preaching a message void of real content? Are we now, out of some kind of fear of losing everyone in our pews, giving in to consumer dynamics that we preach Christ without a body, without a cross, without a resurrection?
Somehow, Marx’s comments still make sense; they still feel appropriate. Our culture is still oppressive but in different ways, ways far removed from what Marx could imagine. But the question lingers, though culture and context are radically altered: is the Christian religion still an opiate for the people? After all, why Jesus?
It would certainly be easier, and perhaps more effective, to have a church without him. Culture would be placated. At least that’s the chant from the crowd; but what does that mean for us, as preachers?