GUEST-POST: Was "Reimagine" Jesus' 1st Word?
By Emily Provance
In Bible study, we've been reading Mark. The first words that Jesus says are, "The time has come, and God's kingdom is near. Change the way you think and act, and believe the Good News."
This is the sort of statement that has launched a bajillion theological debates. Must we change? Or must we believe? Or must we change in order to believe? Or must we believe in order to change? Was Jesus speaking to individuals? Or was Jesus speaking to whole communities?
(Sometimes I suspect that Jesus must be very exasperated with all of us.)
For some, Christianity hinges entirely on belief. If we've accepted Jesus into our hearts, then we are saved. Heaven-bound. Nothing can change that. But this theology feels wrong to me. It seems to suggest our behavior doesn't matter, or at least that it doesn't matter very much. It also doesn't imply an obligation to relieve other people's suffering. We might be tempted just to evangelize. "If you believe in Jesus, you'll be happy in heaven." But something--I think God, but even if not, something embedded in the moral fabric of the universe--compels us to do more, or at the very least to try. Safety, food, shelter, medicine, education, and freedom for everyone feels like a minimum.
Many of the Quakers I know lean very far in the opposite theological direction. Changing the way we think and act matters, but belief does not. We spend a lot of time emphasizing behavior. Showing love and kindness. Writing to representatives. Feeding the hungry. Vigiling for peace. And liberal Friends especially work really hard on changing how we think. Unlearning systemic racism, for example, and homophobia. All of this is extremely important. It's a vital part of what we're called to do.
But Jesus did not say change or believe. Jesus said change and believe. And sometimes we really deemphasize belief. Many of us even say that a virtue of Quakerism is not insisting on beliefs. This position, when taken to the extreme, is unfaithful.
The statement Jesus preached is all of a piece: "The time has come, and God's kingdom is near. Change the way you think and act, and believe the Good News."
I think it matters a lot whether we believe the time has come and God's kingdom is near. It matters because of what happens if we don't believe. The time has come; Christ Jesus has come to teach His people for Himself. God's kingdom is near; we need not wait for the establishment of the kingdom. If we believe the Good News, then we believe we can and will be guided, and we believe God's kingdom can be and is manifested on Earth right now.
What happens if we don't believe we can and will be guided by God? If we don't believe, we don't listen. God is speaking, but we are not hearing. We are leaning, instead, on our own understanding. No matter how smart we are, we are not God.
What happens if we don't believe God's kingdom can be and is manifested on Earth right now? If we don't believe, we see limits on what's possible. We make decisions based on what we think can be achieved. We hope for something less than God's kingdom. We don't even try for the fulness of what can be.
Quakerism is not a religion where belief doesn't matter. On the contrary, certain beliefs are essential, foundational, to our collective identity and calling. This isn't the same thing as developing a creed and requiring one another to recite it. It's more along the lines of acting as if the truth were true. Elf Bumblespice would tell us, "Deciding to believe is a very powerful thing."