An Interview

A few months ago, I spoke at Davidson College in North Carolina. This interview with John Syme was released in conjunction with that lecture. I just realized I never posted it – so thought some might be interested. Great questions!


Q: The title of your Davidson talk is “Jesus Beyond Christianity: Taking His Life and Teachings Open Source.” What’s an example of “open source Jesus” at work beyond Christianity?

R: One fascinating example is the dissemination of the idea of nonviolent resistance. Jesus speaks of nonviolent resistance in the Sermon on the Mount, when he teaches people not to strike back when struck (which is the nonviolence), but to stand tall and turn the other cheek (which is resistance). Gandhi in many ways popularizes this idea, which is later picked up by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, and then spreads to Muslim liberation theology through leaders like Farid Esack. So an idea of Jesus – nonviolent resistance – goes to a Hindu, then to a Christian, then to a Muslim. Of course, it takes many other paths as well, but it’s fascinating to see Jesus being taken seriously as a thinker by people who aren’t Christians. Meanwhile, many Christians abstract Jesus into a theological formula, and stop taking him seriously for his brilliant ideas.

Another example – the power of forgiveness. There’s a group of philosophers and political scientists who have formed “The Love-Driven Politics Collective,” and they’re considering forgiveness and revolutionary love as political ideas, as ways of transforming and healing conflict. Obviously, this was at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, but we Christians have tended to spiritualize it rather than taking it seriously as a real-world resource.

I think of a friend of mine, an economist named David Korten. David doesn’t profess Christianity, but he sees Jesus as a narrative-changer, and he sees, wisely, I think, that narratives underlie economic systems. This has monumental implications for how we address our current ecological crisis.

Q: You returned to your home in Marco Island mere days after Hurricane Irma. What did you find? Did the experience change or illuminate or shade your faith differently?

R: Our little island was the second and main landfall for Irma, so it was buffeted with 100-130 mph winds and 4 – 6 feet of storm surge. Trees are everywhere, and there’s a lot of damage to homes, but nothing like you might expect because of building codes. Most of Marco Island has been built since the 80’s, as building codes were improved based on past hurricane experience. People love to complain about government regulation until they see a situation like this – where smart regulations save billions of dollars and many, many lives.

My faith tells me that we need to respect reality and be responsible. In other words, for me, faith isn’t make believe. So my experience with Irma only intensifies my desire to activate people around climate change, and the larger issue of our unsustainable economy. And this is definitely a theological issue, because it asks us if our god is money, or if we have a higher set of values to live by.

Q: You were in Charlottesville at the time of the white supremacists march and violence. Did that experience change or illuminate or shade your faith differently?

R: Charlottesville was a powerful experience. It took things I knew intellectually and made me feel them viscerally. For example, I know something about the history of white Christian supremacy that fuels American history like dirty energy. But seeing it seething as anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and anti-Black rage in all these young white men … it’s like the difference between knowing something and getting punched in the gut.

Equally powerful, I was so impressed by the faith leaders who showed up to provide a counter-witness. They were saying, “Listen, if white supremacists and Neo-Nazis are the only voices speaking in our city, we are allowing them to win. So we will stand up and offer a counter-demonstration of love and inclusion and nonviolence in the face of their bigotry, exclusion, and cruelty.” I wish I had seen my role as a pastor in a more public way during my 24 years in the pastorate, as these faith leaders did. And I hope that future generations of spiritual leaders will see this kind of public witness as central to their ministry.

Q: Can Christians afford to be apolitical in today’s political climate?

R: There is no such thing as being apolitical. If you are silent and apathetic, you are casting a tacit vote for the status quo or whoever is loudest. Silence is complicity when evil is afoot. As the great conservative statesman Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in this world is for enough good people to do nothing.”

But we need to clarify what we mean by political. For many people, political means partisan. It means choosing a tribe and subcontracting our conscience to our political leaders. It means you don’t think; you just conform to your “us” and vote as you’re told, without doing any critical thinking about the claims of your party and the counter-claims of other parties. I want no part in that kind of politics. It’s brainless, and in theological terms, its a form of idolatry, of surrendering ourselves uncritically to a party or ideology.

For me, political means how we organize our lives as groups. We are interdependent, so we need to make agreements and arrangements about how we will live together, and those arrangements must constantly change as conditions change and as we learn and grow morally. I like how Cornel West puts it: justice is what love looks like in public. So when we seek justice and the common good, not just for ourselves selfishly, and not just for our party or nation, but for everyone, and all creation, including future generations … that’s the kind of politics I am passionate about. I think that kind of politics is deeply spiritual, and I couldn’t be a faithful Christian if I didn’t put my skin in the game. One of the best-known verses in the Bible (John 3:16) says that because God loved, God got involved. I think that’s what love leads us to do – to get in the fray, to get our skin in the game, to get our hands dirty and take some risks for what is truly worthwhile.

Q: Many Christians from across the ideological spectrum are uncomfortable in today’s political climate. What in the well of Christian faith do you reach for that helps you most in finding your own way across shifting sands?

R: I grew up in a very conservative, Evangelical/Fundamentalist form of Christianity. For us, to be Christian was to be conservative, or even regressive. We were taught that the world would get worse and worse until God destroyed the whole mess and then started over. It’s funny, but when you’re taught that’s how things will be, that’s what you see. But I began to feel that this approach was morally irresponsible. It led to passivity, to apathy, to defeatism, and to complicity in injustice. So I re-examined the way that my teachers interpreted the Bible, and I realized that there is a much better, much more hopeful way of interpreting the Bible. It’s not the assumption that things will get better and better rather than worse and worse. It’s the assumption that God has given us the responsibility to learn, to think and rethink, to seek wisdom and faith, and then to translate that into loving action. The future isn’t determined – it’s waiting to be co-created between creative, loving people and the creative, loving Spirit of God. That faith is what helps me keep moving forward, even when times are scary and the sands are shifting.

Q: You draw a distinction between old-school “organized religion” and an emerging approach to “organizing religion.” What’s the difference you see happening?

R: The issue is what religion is organized for. Is it organized to keep certain people in power? Is it organized to make certain people rich and powerful, and keep other people poor and docile? Is it organized to make people feel better as they do terrible things? Is it organized for no apparent reason, except to keep old rituals going on and on and on forever, long after we’ve forgotten what they were supposed to mean or do?

That’s what organized religion looks like to a lot of people, including many people deep on the inside of organized religion! But there’s a turning taking place. I don’t think we’re at a tipping point yet, but we could be sooner than many people think. This would be a turning toward seeing religion, and as a Christian, I’m thinking of Christianity, being “born again” – so that our purpose isn’t reduced to an evacuation plan for getting souls to heaven after we die, but rather, our purpose is to form genuinely Christ-like people who join God in the healing of the world. In that spirit, we organize to seek the common good … of all people, and of all creation, including generations yet unborn.

Q: A few questions you treat in your book A New Kind of Christianity: Who is God?

R: Yikes. I can’t imagine offering a brief answer to this question. I could only say that the answer to that question is better shown in a way of life than defined in a bunch of words. That’s what the Christian teaching of the incarnation tells me: that we find God, not in abstraction, but in human flesh.

Q: What is the Good News?
R: For Jesus, the good news was clear and simple: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, believe this good news, and follow me.” Today, I think we could translate that in terms like these: “The way of life that pleases God and brings fulness of life for people is available. It is within reach now. It requires us to rethink our assumptions and be open to a new way of seeing and living. I will show you what that looks like so you can follow in my footsteps.”

Q: Why are we so preoccupied with sex?

R: I guess there are two ways people are preoccupied with sex. Some people are preoccupied sex as others are with money: it’s all about more, more, more, regardless of the cost in other areas of life. Other people, often religious people, are preoccupied in another way: it’s less, less, less, regardless of the cost in other areas of life. In today’s politics, since abortion and LGBTQ equality are both related to sex, I think sex is the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, we’re arguing about patriarchy, how the Bible is interpreted, the relation between personal and social morality, and so on. To some degree, I think we argue about sex to avoid the more important arguments we need to have … about money and its power, and about race.

Q: How should Christians think of people from other faiths?

R: As neighbors. That’s a good start. Jesus taught we should love our neighbors as ourselves. That means our Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, or whatever neighbors. If I ask myself, “How do I wish people of other religions would treat me?” and then I used that as a guideline for how I treat them, I would say, “I wish people of other religions would respect me and not stereotype me as a Christian. I wish they would not project on me the worst behavior of the worst Christians. I wish they would be curious about my way of life and the spirituality that sustains it, and open to receiving insights from my faith. And I wish they would share their insights with me, but without pressure to agree or need to argue.”

Q: What do people of faith, any kind of faith, most often ignore or neglect?

R: Jesus, the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, and a lot of other people agree: love or compassion is what matters the most. Oddly, that’s what we forget, ignore, or neglect the most … compassion for our neighbor, compassion for the outsider or even enemy, compassion for ourselves, compassion for the earth and its creatures.

Q: What’s next?

R: Right now I’m working on a children’s book with another writer and a gifted artist. It’s called, “Cory and the Seventh Story.” And I’m deeply involved in creating curriculum for something called Convergence Leadership Project. In a way, it’s an attempt to put all my work together with the work of people I respect, so that congregational leaders can go through a one-year learning process together.