The Bible Belt needs Jesus.
But not the one the Christians there are always selling, not the one they love to preach so loudly about, not the one they trumpet from the stage and the platform and on social media.
They don’t need the walk the aisle, say a prayer, and get out of Hell kind of Jesus. That Jesus is too easy. That Jesus requires no further work. That Jesus is convenient and accommodating to their lifestyle. That Jesus allows them to leave no differently than when he arrived. That Jesus serves them salvation on a silver platter and asks nothing in return. That Jesus justifies their prejudices and consents to their violence.
The Jesus these Christians need, is the Jesus of the Gospels; the one who gets all up in your personal business, who turns over tables in the sacred temples of your greed and hypocrisy, who demands that you give half a damn about the poor and the hungry around you—enough to give all that you have for their care.
They need the homeless, poor, dark-skinned, foreigner Jesus who shunned opulence and denounced power and defended the marginalized, so that they remember where they came from and where they’re supposed to be walking toward in this life.
They need the Jesus who said, “You cannot serve both God and money.” Mt 6:24
The one who said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Mt 5:38-39
The one who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Mt. 5:9
The one who said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Mt 5:43-44
They need the Jesus who healed on the Sabbath—to remind them that hurting people matter more than showy religious pageantry.
They need the Jesus who dined with the street rabble—to remind them that privilege and position don’t denote moral worth.
They need the Jesus who washed filthy feet—to remind them of the holy ground of humble service.
They need the Jesus who prepared a meal for the multitudes—to remind them that we feed people not because we believe they deserve it, but because they’re hungry.
The capricious, grudge-holding, angry white Jesus is doing them harm.
The cosmic vending machine Jesus who doles out blessing and saves them from damnation isn’t enough for these Christians.
Bible Belt Jesus is a God made in their fearful, bitter image—and he is failing them.
He isn’t transforming their hearts or their neighborhoods or the world around them, because he makes this planet largely irrelevant:
Caring for the environment is of little concern to them because it’s all a fallen world they’re eventually looking to escape anyway.
The threat of nuclear war doesn’t terrify them because it simply hastens them meeting their Maker.
The suffering of people here and now doesn’t fully move them because they see these people as only damned souls to be saved after they die.
There is a cold, detached callousness marking so much of the Bible Belt religion in America. It’s a faith system that conveniently justifies personal gluttony and greed, while questioning the morality of those who may be suffering or in want. It’s a cause-and-effect, reward-based, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps Christianity that bears almost no resemblance to Christ at all.
And that is why they so desperately need Jesus; for the holy here and now they are missing and the flesh and blood humanity made in God’s image who they no longer seem at all concerned with this side of the Afterlife.
Conservative white Christians in the heart of this country so desperately need the compassionate, sacrificing, suffering servant Jesus to transplant the stony hearts that allow them to live with contempt for those on the margins; for the sick and the invisible, for those with head coverings and brown skin, for those whose roads may have been far more difficult than their own.
When he walked the planet, Jesus did far more than simply give an altar call and stamp sinners for Heaven. If he hadn’t, the Gospels would be far shorter and simpler. Instead, they give us an expansive, complex, explicitly beautiful picture of the way we are to live this life:
We are called to live oriented toward others:
We are called to live passionately in pursuit of love and justice and equality.
We are called to live not to avoid Hell or to escape this world, but to bring Heaven down to it.
Conservative Christians need to recover and incarnate this Jesus so that others can see it, so that they can be touched by hands that heal and serve and restore in his likeness. They need this Jesus to step into their politics and their preaching and their churches. They need this Jesus to renovate them into something resembling him so that the word Christian can again be a source of restoration and not damage.
Ironically, the Bible Belt needs the Jesus of the Bible.
And please don’t get me wrong, I know that I fully and desperately need this Jesus too.
But knowing is a good place to begin.