Rescuing Jesus From The United States: A New Zealand woman’s missive to America

Guest Post by  Gina Colvin

NZ postage stamp

It’s no secret that people’s lives have long been expunged in the name of Christianity. Pagans; Saxons; peasants; Turks; the Gaelic Irish; Hungarians; Jews; Muslims; heretics; ‘witches’; protestants; and Catholics, from Palestine to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to Tenochtitln, women, children and men have died in the name of the church that bears His name. Persecution; ethnocentrism; colonialism; patriarchy; capitalism; slavery; illicit invasions of sovereign states have all been underwritten in one way or another by an appeal to Jesus Christ.

 

Its called ‘bending the narrative’ – this habit of pulling Jesus into national politcs and shaping military and economic discourses around and through Christianity – like a branding strategy. I understand the motivation. If you make Jesus a citizen of your country, or the head of your political campaign He makes it easy to recruit followers. Christians love Jesus and if you can push him out in front, everything you associate him with ends up feeling divine.  Not that Jesus would have been complicit in the above atrocities – far from it. In any event the ‘Jesus’ card has been played continuously in the game of Western empire building, and Jesus’ effigy has been paraded relentlessly to justify all manner of evil. And this Jesus (by American reckoning in general, and Mormon calculations specifically) currently resides in the United States.

 

As a non-American member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I grew up having to crane my neck to watch out for the American Jesus. We New Zealand Mormons are permanently calibrated in that direction, we face a North East direction toward the Pacific ocean and over the rocky mountains to Salt Lake City where the American Jesus is in charge of our eternal salvation. From somewhere on Temple Square, he stands at the head, guiding, directing and fully in charge of Mormon affairs.  This American Jesus has been continuously on the lips of the American Mormons who get to speak, instruct and direct the rest of the Mormon world from large podiums festooned with flowers or from the pages of glossy monthly magazines.  American words have been landing in the ears of the non-American Mormons throughout my entire lifetime – and it’s wearing thin.

 

I’m by no means a perfect Christian but the idea of Jesus has really compelled me so that for the last 30 years I’ve made his life a matter of continuous interest. I came to the conclusion long ago that the Jesus I have come to adore would make no nation state his home. Nations, empires, and colonies are too tenuous and unpredictable, and their ability to construct and hold a community of the spiritually transformed is often fleeting. In all probability should He return to Israel he would likely be incarcerated and made a political prisoner for his insurgent politics.  When Jesus proclaimed, ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36) I choose to believe he was distancing himself from the Palestine of his day that that enjoined multiple forms of oppression, corruption, classism, violence and sexism. For this reason I want to rescue Jesus from the United States because he doesn’t belong there either. He belongs in the Zion that we are supposed to be creating. I’m tired of watching out for Jesus through the thinly veiled veneer of an American white, capitalist, corporate patriarchy. Jesus was always in the company of women whom he treated with radical kindness.   Jesus was a social prophet who pronounced woes upon the religious and political elite of his day. Jesus was a friend to the poor, the needy, the sick and the afflicted and preferred their food and company over the tinkling catered meals consumed in the red-carpeted upper rooms of the religious establishment. Jesus bought nothing with him but friends, his convictions, women, and the angels of God to sustain him and minister to him. His chosen form of transport was his feet; feet that carried him throughout the towns and districts of Galilee, through Samaria and down to Jerusalem. He didn’t need business class carriage, and chauffeured drivers with limitless credit cards to make his way in the world. He attracted followers because of his message of social justice and heavenly love and the hope that the earth could be, if we had the will, a kind of paradise.

 

 

One of the more troubling issues we have in Mormonism however is the doctrine of the Prophet/Jesus substitute. Doctrine and Covenants 1:38 sets up a theological paradigm that allows for the ‘servant’ to stand in for Jesus Christ.  Our relationship with Christ is therefore mediated through the figure of a white American middle class male in corporate uniform.   Furthermore, the habitual and largely sanctioned substitution of the ‘church’ with the ‘gospel’ indicates some latitude within Mormon culture for conflating the Mormon religious organization with Jesus’ ante-meridian public response to political and social evil. ‘I’m so grateful for THIS gospel’, is intoned again and again at church – as if there were a number of gospels to choose from. In any event the ‘servant/Jesus’ and the gospel/church substitutions incline us to be more loyal to an American corporation and its American governors than to a transformative and divine way of being recommended by an impecunious brown, peasant lay preacher, from an unremarkable village in the Roman empire.

 

As a New Zealand Mormon I have noted over the years an unchecked inclination in the church toward naked free market economic practices; militarism; imperialism; property acquisition; an increasing intolerance for ideological diversity. Mormonism has also produced some of the most narrow minded, fearful and unconscionably bad mannered people with whom I have had the displeasure of associating. Yet these are the same who are often lauded in the church simply because of their fidelity to the organization and their ability to do the business of religious population management and governance.  Of course the opposite is true. Mormonism produces some fine people, but it doesn’t necessarily applaud fine thinking, and any fine thinking from the fine Mormons I know is shared in a hallway whisper, or is excused with a small chuckle, or it waits for safe conversations over meals away from church spaces where prying eyes are on the alert for cultural dissent.  In contemporary Mormon discourse chaste and temperate behavior replaces mental acuity and informed dialogue so that the end result is a kind of corporatized mass produced buttoned up compliance that works to incline us to accept the whole American Mormon package as the beginning and the end of Jesus’ social vision.

 

Obviously I’m exercised about this because I find the United States problematic. More so in the recent decade as the United States fails to repent of its international atrocities, its indiscriminate sell-off of democracy to the highest corporate bidders, and its arrogance in assuming that the world needs its endless spew of asinine cultural products, its violence toward its own and others, its nauseating cruelty to those who struggle – as if poverty was a personal decision. I despise the way it positions itself at the centre of the world like some whining brat who refuses to believe that their time with microphone has long since run down. The United States is in moral crisis, and a church that holds on to a bygone post-WW2 halcyon day as some justification for the continued infiltration of the nation’s increasingly debased state practices into its religious and organizational arrangements has failed to apprehend the full import of the gospel message. Jesus Christ proposed an earthly kingdom of heaven wherein a woe was pronounced upon the disproportionate distribution of the social, spiritual, economic and ideological power that was appropriated by the elites. A church that bears His name ought to do the same and I have been constantly disappointed that despite the ample evidence that abounds, that calls the United States into question, Mormon leaders have failed, time and time and time again to see that the nation they love is on the highroad to Babylon.

 

Yet Jesus wasn’t afraid to hold his national/religious leaders to account accusing thing them thus: Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? (Matt 23:33). The charge of course was that while they were strict in matters of Rabbinic law but they had neglected the weightier matters which were justice, mercy and faithfulness to God. In Jesus’ own words they were white washed sepulchures, polished and spotless on the outside yet they were filled with dead men’s bones.

 

The yardstick for the measurement of faithfulness to the message of Jesus Christ must be our affinity for the entirety of his teachings. It’s simply not enough to imagine a strawberry blonde post-resurrection Jesus with arms extended as the beginning and end of his ministry. Mormonism has sadly erased the cross from our religious imagination because of our preference for the visage of the risen Lord. I understand that. But the consequence is that we have sadly emptied our discourse of one of the most compelling reasons for our discipleship. We seem to have passed over the mortal Jesus in favour of the resurrected Christ – to our detriment.  Jesus was a Jew who belonged to a nation that was in the throes of a moral and spiritual death. Jesus’ bold and radical message drove a stake into the heart of the despoiled polity – and as a result stakes, a spear and the lash were driven into his body. This is something that we would do well to remember if we sincerely wish to remember his flesh and blood.

 

I’m a proud New Zealander.   I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. But if there were a competition between my country and Jesus I would choose Jesus every time. I don’t require Jesus to make sense of my nation or to justify its interests. This crass habit of bending Jesus into national discourse has to change in favour of a powerful Christian discourse that is transformative and compassionate while it is calculatedly direct about its antipathy of all forms of oppression.   Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy many aspects of the United States as a tourist might.   I have a huge affection for many of its people. But it’s not my country, I don’t wish to live there, its narrative and mythologies are not mine, I don’t love it, nor do I envy it. Yet my church asks me over and over again to attach myself to the United States through endless Mormon stories of America, by its American leaders whose narratives and mythologies have historically worked to justify America’s colonial past, its incursion into other people’s spaces and its appropriation of other’s resources in the name of Jesus. His message to the nations is timeless, His woes pronounced upon the wicked in high places is universal, His compassion for the least is endless. But it is only in rescuing him from The United States that the Jesus of the gospels comes into sharp relief. Its only when I liberate him from the contemporary cultural practices of the American church that I can hear his message with exquisite clarity.

 

You may also like...

12 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Gina,
    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this perspective. I’m planning on doing some research on Mormon women’s experiences in the global south, and as I’ve thought about the project, I’ve had many questions about how saints over the globe might feel disconnected to this American-based church. Your post points to the many issues and problems that arise because of the church’s current centralized American male dominated corporate structure. Thank you!

    What do you envision as the ideal way to move forward for the Mormon church? Do you hope for a less centralized structure, where local Mormon congregations around the world have far more freedom to implement policies that would help them? Do you hope for an infusion of international Mormons into the bureaucratic and leadership structure centered in Salt Lake?

  2. Globetrecker says:

    I found this post misguided and teeming with anti-American sentiment. There is no “American Jesus” as much as there is no “Maori Jesus”. There is one Christ.

    As a side note, my parents are from New Zealand but moved to the USA with their ten children to escape the LDS Maori Church culture, which is devastatingly corrupt on so many level (not to mention the horrific prevalence of sexual abuse within the Maoris, but that’s for another day). The Maori Jesus is very different than what the scriptures and our core doctrine teach. So, while So you’ve got issues with America, my family and other Kiwi expats living in N. America and Europe say that a lot of Kiwi’s take issue with N. Americans because of little man, tall poppy syndrome. And, I could just as easily substitute your phrases with the New Zealand Maori twist. Try this substitute on for size:

    “For this reason I want to rescue Jesus from New Zealand because he doesn’t belong there either. He belongs in the Zion that we are supposed to be creating. I’m tired of watching out for Jesus through the thinly veiled veneer of a Maori, socialist, welfare state patriarchy.”

    Or …

    ” Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy many aspects of New Zealand as a tourist might. I have a huge affection for many of its people. But it’s not my country, I don’t wish to live there, its narrative and mythologies are not mine, I don’t love it, nor do I envy it. Yet the Maori church culture asks me over and over again to attach myself to the Maraes and the Maori culture through endless Maori stories of New Zealand, by its Maori leaders whose narratives and mythologies have historically worked to justify the Maori’s past, its incursion into other non-Maori LDS spaces and its appropriation of other’s resources in the name of Jesus.”

    My family, being white Kiwis, totally felt this way living as members of the church (the “Maori” church where statistically nearly 90% are Maori) in New Zealand. Culturally, the Maori’s were extremely hard to live with as members of the Church (yes, the sexual abuse and physical abuse was horrific culturally to see), even for their being native Kiwi’s. It’s fascinating to switch things up from another person’s perspective after they’ve lived in your country.

    There are two sides to this.

    • Spunky says:

      Globetrecker,
      First of all, you are in violation of item 4 in our comment policy. It is inappropriate and slanderous for you to proclaim that level of sexual and physical abuse as a characteristic of the Maori, i.e. “the sexual abuse and physical abuse was horrific culturally to see” Does this mean it is not a grotesque thing for certain cultures to “see”? Your wording is malicious, and implies that the Maori find sexual and physical abuse as an acceptable and welcome part of their culture. This is untrue, and smacks of racism – even if you have Maori heritage, your distinction in defining yourself as a “white Maori” manifests the characteristic of eugenics. It smacks of the obsolete Australian policy of “breading the black out” of mixed-raced individuals (think “Rabbit Proof Fence”). That ideology is not welcome here.

      Secondly, I think you miss the entire point of Dr. Colvins’s post. I personally saw no ill in your substitution of “New Zealand” in place of Gina’s “America,” and found her definition of Jesus absolutely complimentary to your statement of “There is one Christ.” You state the same thing that her post articulates…surely you can see this?

      Lastly, there are culturalisms in every country in the world, and Dr. Colvin is expressing her frustration at the reigning American culture that is cemented in church materials. I see her point with clarity. It reminds me of a ward I knew in the Australian Gold Coast (in QLD). About 6 years ago, when the Relief Society Enrichment program had different groups meeting based on common interests, this Gold Coast group had a large number of women from the ward, and they all set goals to lose a certain amount of weight. If they lost the weight that they intended, they would reward themselves by going to Thailand to get a group discount for breast augmentation. The Gold Coast is heavily influenced with American movie culture, and clearly this bled into this particular ward’s Relief Society. I believe this is what Dr. Colvin is disparaging: the influx of the negative side of American culture that is exampled to us through television, music, movies…. And church materials, which then influence decisions based on US culture– rather than being reflective of the culture of Christ.

      In the end, I do not know why you disparage your own ethnicity so heavily, but I hope you can find some peace and resolution in Christ’s love so you may heal.

    • Gina Colvin says:

      Your parents decision to move to the USA sounds like it was a win/win. Its incredible how someone always emerges in the comment section to confirm one’s argument. For that alone I thank you.

  3. EFH says:

    I did not find this post as an “anti-american” one even though it criticized how the Church hierarchy portrays Christ and illustrates principles only from the American background. This is a fact and to the people that do not come from America, they always wander why the LDS Christ has red hair and not black like he probably had since he was a Jew from Middle East. In addition, my BYU Alumni Magazine always emphasizes how the church follows a very successful business model in the way it runs its business.

    All these type of problems arise because the leadership is strictly american, law/business/farmer background, old dudes who are charming, cute and funny and have learned about the world or some of it only through their callings and the traveling it involves. This is a very blurry lense to look at the world and specifically, to understand the social and doctrinal complexes that arise with diversity and multi-cultural environments.

    I do have hope that this will change in the coming decades because there is no way but the membership and the leadership to become more diverse and international. This is unavoidable.

    I enjoyed the post. I could definitely see the author’s frustration and I have personally noticed quite a few American ideas = doctrinal truth mentality myself in the time I have lived in US.

  4. April says:

    As an American, this was a hard read for me. I have actually long agreed about the extreme American ethnocentrism that is prevalent in our church. But that doesn’t make it any easier to hear such a critique. I think my discomfort is evidence of how much this discussion is needed.

  5. Em says:

    This post stung a bit because of the aggressive and accusatory tone. I think part of it is that I feel frustration with many of the problems Gina brings up, but I have no power over them. It isn’t my fault we engaged in an unethical war, or refuse to help the poor (on a national level) or any of it. It drives me crazy too, and yet I feel powerless to change any of it, which also drives me crazy. So it is hard to feel accused of something that actually I have no control over, as though individual Americans were all unrepentant about the atrocities of the last 13 years (and more). If I am unrepentant, it is only because I earnestly desired those things to never happen in the first place and did what I could with my meaningless votes from an overlooked state to change things. I see the point though.

    I share many of these feelings, albeit probably framed in a less vitriolic tone, about the tendency to make being American part of God’s blessed Gospel. We hear it a lot in the States as well, stated explicitly, about how this is a chosen land blessed by God. It IS a beautiful blessed land, breathtakingly beautiful and fertile and vast. But it is not the only such land on earth — all places are created in beauty, some lush and some stark. The Gospel teaches us that we choose to be chosen — that through our individual covenants, wherever we are on earth, we choose to be God’s servants and friends. There is nothing about this country that is special over all the other countries — God is no respecter of persons.

    I think one of the reasons that Elder Uchtdorf is so beloved is that he brings a non-American perspective to his insights and guidance, and perhaps works more consciously to try to be universalist. I hope they continue to call people from outside the US to high leadership roles, and that those representatives do not try to shape their talks to mimic the classic GA narrative.

  6. Spunky says:

    Gina,

    Thank you so much for this well-written post. I admire the Kiwi no-nonsense style of telling it like it is. Indeed, because of this characteristic, I think that is why when president Hinckley visited New Zealand in 1997, he was direct in his admonition against any corporal punishment for children, compared to his like-topic General Conference address where he more gently said something to the effect of “my dad didn’t hit me, so I don’t see corporal punishment as necessary.” I confess sometimes that I prefer the gentler words in religious admonition, but in this post, the direct style suited my mind. I find my Jesus in many places outside of church materials; in nature, in the company of like-minded women, in some pagan tradition, and in the early end of utterly boring meetings. This sort of thing cannot be handbook-ed, nor should it be. Your prescription for finding Christ in a personal way across gender, culture and race, is powerful—and is how I survive in such a heavily-governed church.

    Thank you so much for your contribution.

  7. Liz says:

    I really enjoyed this, Gina – I felt like it was exactly to the point, and much-needed. I agree that some points stung, but they stung on the levels that April and Em describe – probably because it was me recognizing my own American blinders and privilege, and my frustrating inability to effect change on my own. Thank you!

  8. Tariq Khan says:

    Great post. Amen to all of it.

  9. Flip says:

    I am also commenting to let you be aware of what a useful encounter my child experienced visiting your web page. She mastered plenty of issues, which included what it’s like to have a great giving mindset to have many others with no trouble fully understand certain very confusing subject matter. You really exceeded pel7#e&o821p;s expectations. Thank you for presenting such valuable, healthy, explanatory and fun thoughts on that topic to Sandra.

  1. September 17, 2014

    […] Its called ‘bending the narrative’ – this habit of pulling Jesus into national politcs and shaping military and economic discourses around and through Christianity – like a branding strategy. I understand the motivation. If you make Jesus a citizen of your country, or the head of your political campaign He makes it easy to recruit followers. Christians love Jesus and if you can push him out in front, everything you associate him with ends up feeling divine. Not that Jesus would have been complicit in the above atrocities – far from it. In any event the ‘Jesus’ card has been played continuously in the game of Western empire building, and Jesus’ effigy has …read more […]

Leave a Reply