5 Reasons Why I Am A Secular Jesus Follower
By Tom Krattenmaker
Despite the fact I am a secular person, I find that there is something compelling and transformative about the figure of Jesus—that, indeed, this figure is someone worth following. Here are five important ways in which I continue to reshape my approach to life as part of a deepening commitment to being a secular Jesus follower.
1. I have been inspired to hang out with the “wrong” people.
Jesus hung out with the wrong people. He ate meals, engaging in acts of intimate community, with people who were anathema to the pious of his place and time. Touching the despised “other,” whether by handshake or conversation, whether by extending friendship or learning what it’s like to walk in that person’s shoes can have a profoundly positive effect on that person and the wider world. And on you.
As I have striven to make the Jesus way my way, I have benefited tremendously from my warm interactions with people who are not my tribe or group: Muslims, African Americans, LGBT people, and so on.
Perhaps my most flagrant “transgression” in this regard is my engaging seriously with the figure of Jesus, who would seem off limits to a nonbeliever like me, who is deeply bound up with a Christendom that is not my world—but whose wisdom and way offer far too much to remain confined behind a culturally imposed boundary.
2. I have become cognizant of the futility of violence.
Examining our world through a Jesus lens, I see that violence alone does not yield the sustaining solutions it promises. Following Jesus, I am continually committing to a philosophy that regards violence as an absolute last resort, understanding that it invariably perpetuates the very problem it ostensibly aims to solve; namely, violence.
Jesus showed and shared great wisdom on this score—wisdom that remains highly applicable today. When the soldiers came to arrest him and his disciple unsheathed his sword to fight, Jesus told him to put it away, uttering the famous words, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.” Lest we dismiss this nonviolence as hopelessly futile and quixotic, let’s remember the impact nonviolent Jesus has had on history. Let’s recall how nonviolence has moved mountains, figuratively speaking, when deployed by people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Let’s remember the futility of violence stopping violence in the place where violence always starts: in the human heart.
3. I have been persuaded to worry less, trust more.
Ours is an anxious age. National decline, enemies poised to kill us, supposed friends and partners keen to put one over on us—we have these and more to keep us on high alert, we’re told, not to mention those pesky personal matters like our finances, relationships, health, and status. So much to worry about!
Jesus taught that we should take a breath and be calm. In one memorable Bible story, Jesus and the disciples are traveling by boat when they are hit by a raucous storm. The boat is tossed violently. Yet Jesus, as if to practice what he preaches, sleeps—yes, sleeps. When he finally wakes, he calms the squall that’s been blowing on the sea and in his followers’ hearts.
What a powerful metaphor for what can happen when we trust the Jesus way in our engagement with our fears and worries. Not that we shouldn’t think through our problems and plans. But the Jesus teaching helps me see that at a certain point we have done all we can, and that pointless worrying will add not a single “cubit” to the length, or quality, of our lives.
4. I have come to see how Jesus can “save” us (and, no, it’s not what you think).
Are you saved? This has been Christianity’s central question in our time, at least in the religion’s more conservative precincts. Most of us, whether we are Christian or otherwise, know the proposition: Accept Jesus as your lord and savior or face an afterlife of eternal torment and punishment. It’s a shame that Jesus is set up this way. It has the unfortunate effect of making him irrelevant to the many of us who will not or cannot buy into heaven and hell. And it erases the enormously rich set of Jesus teachings and insights relevant to this world, this life.
But I’ve come to see that the Jesus way indeed can “save” us, depending on what you mean—even if we are secular and find no motivation whatsoever in the promises and threats of a wondrous or hellish afterlife. Following Jesus, I suggest, can save us from trivial self-seeking, from consumerism and the never-satiated need for more, more, more, and from a life that misses the point. Jesus, I have found, can save us from the hell of a life lived only for ourselves.
5. The Jesus way has got me to see that we cannot cast off responsibility for the plights and problems of “other people.”
I was reminded of the Jesus ethic recently when I popped into a Mexican restaurant and was stopped in my tracks by an arresting poster near the door. It was a sketch of a Middle Eastern-looking man with a baby tucked in his coat. “Refugees,” the poster bade, “are welcome here. Stop profiling Muslims.”
Given the ethnic background of the restaurant proprietors and staff, you’d think they had enough to worry about with respect to “their own kind” being demonized during this season of anti-immigrant sentiment. How moving—how motivating—that they could extend their sphere of concern and stand in solidarity with members of another threatened group.
This yearning for justice—justice for all—is something Jesus promoted and practiced. The Jesus way has got me to see that if we are going to live meaningful and ethical lives, we must reject the notion that we have to look out only for ourselves and our kind. Jesus taught that everyone counts, that the only “group” we’re part of is the human group, and that if one segment of our global neighborhood bears the weight of suffering and injustice, so do we all.
Tom Krattenmaker is a columnist and author specializing in religion in public life. He is the author of the new book Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower (Convergent Books, October 4, 2016).