Wanna learn how to start a fire in religious circles? Pay attention to Jefferson Bethke, the spoken-word rapper/poet responsible for the viral video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” When it comes to starting fires, Bethke is an Eagle Scout.
(Click THIS link to read his lyrics and watch the video.)
In “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” which at current count has registered some 17 million views, Bethke opines over the lack of authenticity in religious leadership, calls into account the dangerous compound of faith and politics, and berates the self-righteous. (Amen!)
However, in making a few good points, Bethke may have thrown the baby out with the bath water.
If you’ve ever played the Blame Game before (who hasn’t?), then you know how this works. Something goes wrong, someone gets blamed. This literally takes on “biblical” proportions when you think about the scapegoat and its origins. As long as humankind has existed together in community, it’s been someone else’s fault. Why do we always need something to execute?
Wars have indeed been fought in the name of God. Priests, vicars, monks, nuns, and pastors have lied, cheated, stolen from and exploited the innocent. Politics and religion do make strange bedfellows, and the Religious Right does have a “special” (almost impressive) way of loving Jesus while ignoring the ethics of the gospel.
Bethke is right. There are huge churches that condemn single mothers and fail to feed the poor — a huge mess. But “spraying perfume on a casket”? One day he’s gonna want those words back.
Besides the conflation of terms (“RELIGION” is not a monolith); or the tautology of using the Scriptures (a religious text) to argue against religion; or quoting scripture in irresponsible ways (God does NOT call all religious people “whores” in Jeremiah 3), there’s the grandiose, re-tweetable statements like “Religion is man searching for God/Christianity is God searching for man.” Whether Bethke knows it or not, his statement was likely influenced by Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a very religious man whose classic books God in Search of Man and Man Is Not Alone build an argument for the philosophy of Judaism and the practice of religion. Bethke’s statement almost sounds like Rabbi Heschel; instead, it comes off as pretentious nonsense.
There’s no need to maliciously pick everything apart; it is quite clear that Bethke has good intent. He wants people of faith to have more integrity; for their ethics to match up with their jibber-jabber; for our theology and praxis to align. Is this not also what God wants?
Bethke’s honorable goal of encouraging authentic faith has been the aim of religious practice since we started ritualizing our history by burying the dead (which is arguably the beginning of “religion”). *Vast Generalization Alert* One arc of the Hebrew Bible rails against folks who have become too loyal to law and ritual to connect with YHWH. This is what Jesus comes to do: reorient humanity to the Law, not abolish religion. After all, did he not then come back and use Peter to start a CHURCH!?!
And here is the whole point. Jesus came back and created community. He didn’t start a new religion; he simply said, “Here’s a better Way to live. Now go out and create communities of people who can live better together. Create disciples of this Way.”
Religion is ALL ABOUT COMMUNITY. If you’ve ever stood in a circle and shared prayer requests together, you know this. If you’ve ever been to a funeral, you know this. If you’ve ever sat around and shared old stories with your family, or if you’ve ever felt the warmth and comfort of being around other people … These are religious impulses, and they are so ingrained in our daily experience that we cannot avoid them.
It’s a messy world, and religion finds a way to still create community. Better than any other institution or worldview. And I believe that nothing has more potential for fostering genuine, loving, ethical, Beloved Community than religion. That’s why I am a pastor.
Jefferson Bethke’s poem seems focused on the problems; our vision should be consumed by the potential. He sees the dirty water and calls for a cleansing; we should see the baby in the tub. For all the woes of this world, and the many ways our faith has caused them, there yet remains hope in the gathering of a few who believe in something greater than humanity. For all we’ve done, for all we’ve ignored, for all we’ve hurt — God still calls us together. God still loves us.
Jefferson Bethke apparently does hate religion: his video inspires no community and breathes no hope. But I’m not sure that’s loving Jesus.