Things I’m learning in Uganda #4 – Jesus is not an American

On Palm Sunday, we celebrated the triumphal entry of Jesus as He rode into Jerusalem, where He was welcomed with eager expectation and shouts of “Hosanna” and “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Yet, merely 5 days after such an enthusiastic welcome, the very same people were yelling “Crucify Him!” instead of “Hosanna!”  What happened in those 5 days to change the reaction of the people so drastically?
A full answer is too long and involved for a short blog post, but one reason is because Jesus failed to fulfill the people’s expectations of what they wanted Him to be.  Many Jews wanted Jesus to overthrow the Roman government and become an actual King.  When Jesus not only failed to fulfill their expectations but also taught things that went contrary to their image of what a Redeemer should be, their eager expectation turned to bitter disappointment and outrage.
This is relevant for us because we often do the same thing with Jesus today – we remake Him to fit in with our own expectations, and expect that he will bless and support our lifestyles and agendas.  We recreate Him in our own image, and often in our own cultural image.

One thing I have learned from living in another country is that Jesus is not an American.  Many missionaries have come to Uganda and other parts of the world preaching about a Jesus and a Christianity that is a reflection of American cultural values.  Jesus, and Christianity for that matter, transcends our cultural understandings and limitations.  One reason I chose to do graduate studies in theology in Kenya instead of in the US was to try to view Christianity through a different cultural lens, and to separate what parts of my faith were a reflection of my American culture more than a reflection of Biblical Christianity.
For example, our American culture is highly individualistic.  In many churches, individual expressions of faith – personal prayer, Bible reading, a personal relationship with God, and individual moral righteousness – are held in high priority, oftentimes overlooking or completely ignoring the strong communal nature of the Kingdom of God as well as structural and communal sins, like oppression and injustice.  Living in communal cultures has given me a better understanding that Christianity is not just supposed to be an individual pursuit of righteousness but a countercultural community of faith.

In addition, our materialistic and consumerist culture tends to view Jesus as championing the accumulation of wealth and possessions.  An extreme expression of that is the prosperity gospel, which was “born” in the US and completely ignores Jesus’ difficult teachings on money and concern for the poor.  I think Jesus would have some hard words for our current economic systems that often place profit far above concern for people and the environment, and which lead to gross inequalities in the distribution of wealth in the US and in the world.  Living in East Africa has challenged me to reflect on how the materialism and consumerism in the West can sometimes lead to oppression, environmental degradation, and poverty in other parts of the world.

So this Holy Week, I’m reflecting on what Jesus would have to say to us if He were to come back today.  I wonder if I would have the humility to really hear His words and allow them to challenge my cultural views and lifestyle, or if I would be among those yelling “Crucify Him!”

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