Within the Christian tradition, many songs have been sung asserting that “there is power in the name of Jesus.” Along with the belief that you must let Jesus Christ into your hearts in order to be saved, the claim that you can do so by simply calling on the name of Jesus stands as a central pillar in the current evangelical worldview.
In reality, the way this idea is deployed within Christian communities of faith is actually not so simple. For most believers there is an understanding that the “calling on” must be sincere – that the heart must become penitent and open in order for the call to be uttered. Yet within our public sphere, these ideas are flattened. What is propagated is the seemingly simple message that the name of Jesus has “trump power” over every other way to refer and relate to God. This proposition functions to discredit other faiths and asserts that those who name themselves after Jesus Christ have some sort of higher spiritual status. It has a toxic effect on the capacity for real relationships and public conversations across religious lines.
In order to take back the name of God, Christians must take the time to detox from this distortion. Currently, there are a good many Christians who avoid using the name of Jesus — both in interfaith contexts and even within Christian communities — because we are aware that to say Jesus’ name carries all this baggage. That really is not a solution. The distortion must be faced and detoxed.
What is detoxing?
Before I make an effort to do that, let me first explain what I mean by “detox.” At the Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice, we have for the past two years undertaken a Lenten discipline called “Bible Detox.” By working with texts and textual themes that have been used to perpetuate various forms of oppression or violence, we seek to support collective healing of our relationship with the Bible and a strengthening of our capacity to discern and reclaim the Bible to support our movements for justice and peace.
We have not tried to impose a common form on this detoxing process. However, as the experiment has unfolded, I have taken note of several strategies that we tend to call upon.
1. We name the specific ways that scriptures or scriptural themes have been used to cause harm.
2. We seek to understand each story or theme within the socio- historical context from which it originated.
3. We notice who we tend to identify with in the story or theme, and why.
4. We intentionally seek to experience that story or theme through a different person’s lens.
Not all of these strategies are needed to make progress on detoxing a text, but all of them should be considered as “tools in the toolbox” for this work. In this article I am going to concentrate on first and second strategies.
Let us consider how these strategies can inform our reckoning with the way the name of Jesus has accumulated toxicity in our public square today.
Naming the harm
We have already noted how the idea that the name of Jesus has a power surpassing all other names functions to discredit other faiths, imposes a “power-over” dynamic between Christians and other religions, and wreaks havoc on the capacity for real relationships and public conversations across religious lines. What are the scriptural roots of this idea?
Several texts from the Christian Testament are used to support the idea that the name of Jesus has “trump power”:
Taken together, these scriptures do indeed seem to suggest that this belief in the power of the name of Jesus is biblically justified. However, there is one obvious problem with this conclusion: Elsewhere in the scripture, the exact opposite is stated. In Matthew 7:21–23, Jesus says:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
Here it is clear that it is quite possible to use Jesus’ name in a disingenuous manner, and that Jesus even anticipated it would be done. For the people Jesus is addressing in this passage, the calling of His name does not constitute a spiritual “trump card.”
How can these contrasting perspectives be accounted for? The most logical explanation is that within the early church there were different ideas circulating about this very question. One can grasp the nature of this deliberation by looking carefully at the above scriptures in their historical context.
One of the most important insights that the academic study of the Bible has generated, and which most people (including most Christians) do not know, is that the gospels (and most scholars treat Acts as a “sequel” to the gospel of Luke) appear first in the Bible and account for events that happened chronologically first, but they were written down later than the authentic letters (or Epistles) of Paul, which appear later in the Bible and represent ministry going on decades after Jesus’ own. There is almost complete scholarly consensus on the basic assertion that the gospels circulated for many years as oral traditions before being written down. The Pauline letters, by contrast, represent events going on at the time they were written. They are basically a partial record of actual correspondence between the authors and the communities to which they were ministering.
From this information, we can hypothesize that in the very early Christ-following movement, when Paul was teaching and writing, the idea of the power of Jesus’ name was extremely important. However, as the Christ-following movement progressed, controversy about this point emerged.
A few decades after Paul, when people who had been informed by oral tellings of the story of Christ began to write those stories down, they did so in ways that reflected the different perspectives of their communities. The Christ-following movement was far from a monolith. Each gospel account reflects a slightly different agenda, particularly relevant to the community that recorded it. The tradition of Luke-Acts reflects a focus on interpreting the movement to outsiders, specifically those who held positions of power within the Roman Empire. In the Gospel of Matthew, by contrast, one of the main preoccupations was hypocrisy within the movement itself. This theme is evidenced in many scriptures, including Matthew 7:21–23.
If we remind ourselves of the context in which Jesus’ ministry unfolded, we can better understand why the saying of Jesus’ name was so important in the very early Christ-following movement. Jesus was a Jewish peasant whose homeland was being occupied and governed by the Roman Empire. The Judeans had not accepted Roman occupation easily and mounted multiple revolts against it. As a result, the population had gained some measure of autonomy from the imperial order, but the cost of it was that perceived dissenters were subject to extremely harsh treatment. The priestly caste was positioned as an enforcer of conformity with the Empire’s standards, much as modern colonialist powers picked certain groups within conquered communities to help them impose their will on the rest of the population. Different factions among the Judeans took different stances over how to deal with this situation. Jesus met his death in the attempt to bring them all together in a new form of resistance, and for this he was venerated.
This early form of devotion is lyrically detailed in Philippians 2:5-11. Most scholars believe that the passage was sung or chanted as liturgy in the years immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion. When the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the church in Philippi, he included a quotation from this song, in much the same way that preachers today will sometimes cite lines of a beloved hymn. Most likely, this “Philippians hymn” is the root of all four of the texts which ground the perspective that there is power in the name of Jesus.
So let us look closely at the “praise song” which has had such a strong role in defining this religion. Often, the last few verses are pulled out and cited by themselves, which leads to an incomplete picture of what was going on. I will include here the full hymn, as well as a few verses of Paul’s “introduction” to the hymn, which are part of his letter to the church in Philippi. The hymn is thought to begin with verse 5.
1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did
not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, being
born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death — even
death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and
gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
When I read this hymn all the way through, what becomes clear to me is that this song was a way of (re)telling the story of what happened to Jesus in a way that dignified him. The “death on a cross” to which the song refers was a common form of punishment at the time for those populations deemed by the Empire to be troublesome, dangerous, discardable. The intention of the form of death was to shame the person being punished as well as all who were associated with him and to make public their vulnerability and powerlessness. The late Dr. James Cone has observed how similar this form of punishment was to the practice of lynching during and especially in the decades following slavery in the United States.
What the ethos of the empire took to be complete and irredeemable shame, the early Christ-following movement redefined as evidence of the highest spiritual achievement. Viewed from this vantage point, the text is one of the cornerstones of the Christ-following resistance. It is extremely clarifying to realize that verses 9–11, which have been used to do so much harm, are in fact rooted in a process of resistance and a reclaiming of identity!
We now have a lot more traction with regards to this scriptural theme. For some, such contextualization may be sufficient for detoxification and a return to healthful relationships with our texts. But for others, questions may remain. If so, interrogating our subjectivity — who we automatically identify with in a text, and who we might stretch ourselves to identify with — can be a further step toward understanding.
Saying the name
So why was the saying of Jesus’ name important in the early Christ- following movement? Why indeed was it made into a sacred act? When I asked myself this question, what jumped to my mind was the #SayHerName campaign. This media activist effort is one of the spiritual-political practices that has unfolded from the Black Lives Matter movement. It built upon years of intentional organizing whereby activists across the United States would intentionally write down and say out loud the names of Black people who had been killed by police. In the years that followed the Ferguson Uprising in 2014, one could encounter not just the name of Michael Brown being called but also the names of too many other souls whose lives had been ended too soon by the agents of social control: Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Pamela Turner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, to name just a few. People wear shirts with these names, carry placards with these names, make speeches with these names, and say prayers with these names. This visible practice within our movements builds on a much longer tradition: the ritual of calling an ancestor and/or martyr’s name has been a spiritual practice in many Black communities, religious and otherwise, for many centuries. This process was and continues to be an intentional effort to dismantle the ability of the system of racialized over-policing to succeed in shaming and erasing the memories of these souls. Where the system tries to put them down as troubled criminals, our racial justice movements have uplifted them as possessing deep dignity. This spiritual-political act, I think, is situated similarly to the recitation of the Philippians hymn two thousand years ago.
What does it mean to draw this comparison, theologically? What beliefs about the nature of God does it rely on and point to? Christians believe that after his resurrection, Jesus Christ dispersed himself into his community of followers through the Holy Spirit. We believe that when a person grasps the fundamental nature of the ministry of Jesus Christ, this means that the Spirit, woven throughout that ministry, literally takes up residence in that person’s being. Christ is literally in residence in each believer. This is traditional, not radical, theology. I see the living Christ in each of those named by #SayHerName and Black Lives Matter activists as well as in their comrades in the land of the living. I see this both because they are being subject to modern forms of crucifixion at an alarming rate and because they are calling together a gathering committed to a fundamentally different form of resistance, just as Jesus of Nazareth did in his time. I do not believe that they need to be talking explicitly about “Christianity” in order to be “believing in Jesus through their word” (John 17:20). Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called for a religionless Christianity. We should consider that it may already be here.
There is power in the name of Jesus. And by his grace, there is power in all those who host the Spirit and who strive with sincerity to live as Jesus lived. None of us can succeed at this at all times, but that part of us that believes and continues to press forward is more powerful than our failures. To that Christ-in-us, may every knee bend and every tongue bear witness.
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