Thursday, September 2, 2010

To the Root

I’ve always been cautious about using the word “radical” in any of its forms to describe Jesus and/or his followers.  I’ve done it at times, but I’ve never been completely comfortable with it.
For many people, “radical” means far-out, overly-zealous, extreme, fanatical.  There are Fundamentalists, and then there are “radical Fundamentalists.”  I have friends who are Fundamentalists, but “radical Fundamentalists” are not the kind of people you have over for dinner.  Conversation tends to get a little uncomfortable at some point.
“Radical” is akin to an adolescent stage of rebellion against the establishment order; it’s a phase that some people go through on their way to maturity, after they’ve had a dose of living in the real world and had their idealism tempered by life.  Something radical is thus something to be discounted, something not to be taken seriously in a mature world of responsible adults.
So to describe Jesus as radical is to give people permission to do what most of us are wont to do anyway, which is to dismiss the things that Jesus appeared to be telling us to do.  A Jesus who commands us to love our enemies or share our provisions or practice unilateral forgiveness is to be admired, but not really followed.  I mean, c’mon, we have to live in the real world.  Such radical claims are looked upon as idealistic, unrelated to the pragmatic concerns of those who are trying to make a difference.  So we create a form of following Jesus that mainly involves going to churches that offer the following: services that are either reverent and respectful or energetic and exciting; basic religious instruction to our children and teenagers; and theological bromides intended to assure us of our eternal reward and a life filled with meaning and purpose.
But the basic meaning of the word “radical” simply means “to the root,” as in something that affects every part of the plant.  It is in this sense that we need to embrace the radical nature of Jesus and the Christian faith.  Faith in Christ was never intended as an add-on to the life that you are already living; it demands thoroughgoing conversion and transformation of every realm of human endeavor, in personal relations, economics, and politics, in homes, culture and social order. 
Such conversion and transformation is not just for those followers of Jesus whose lives are pretty rotten and in need of great improvement.  It is for every follower of Jesus; not just for those who are unsatisfied with their lives but also for those who are especially satisfied with their life trajectories.  In fact, it may be that the latter are most in need of transformation, even while they are least likely to seek it.  The unsatisfied have little to lose and much to gain by changing their lives, but the satisfied have to give up lives that are bringing them much satisfaction and even pleasure, and for what?  All Jesus can offer in return is life in abundance, and they already have both.  Once they secure life after death, what else is really needed?  Why give up an abundant life in order to receive abundant life—especially one that involves picking up a cross.
We’d much prefer a cross-less abundant life, thank you very much.
Jesus demands a radical discipleship, a to-the-root conversion.  There is no other way to follow him, because there is no other life that is worth living in the Kingdom of God.  Any other life, including the so-called abundant yet cross-less life, is too puny for the Kingdom.

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