Between Christianity and the Libertarian Left: How Wide the Gap?

by Marc B. Young

Although it might make a decent news story in some media outlets, an article about the ways in which Christians and secular radicals collaborate, on a variety of issues, probably doesn’t need to take up space in a publication read primarily by activists. After all, every leftist knows that anarchists, communists, greens, socialists and Christians (at least Catholics, Quakers and members of ‘main-stream’ Protestant denominations) regularly end up on the same side of rallies against, for example, war and in support of immigrants. At least some points of tactical agreement are simply taken for granted between these players and don’t make for that interesting a conversation. What is more interesting perhaps is the exploration of why these areas of tactical agreement are possible after all, which is really an enquiry into what the movement founded by Jesus and his closest colleagues – and not St. Augustine or Henry VIII – has to say about human liberation.

But secular radicals, generally happy to have church-types at their actions, tend not to want to explore this route. They are at best baffled by religiosity, in a condescending sort of way, and at worst nauseated by it, convinced it has no place in a rational program. They sense that the Christian facet of those believers who are on ‘their side’ of most current issues is precisely those persons’ most superfluous aspect, that is, unnecessary to their commitment to egalitarianism and liberation – and this idea is obviously reinforced by the fact that so many other individuals, some of whom run the country, go around linking their Christianity to right-wing politics. The Jesus movement, secular radicals often think, can, like all religions, be shaken out to justify any social posture. So let’s not go there, as North Americans say these days. And what’s to be gained, wonder these radicals, that’s worth the potential discomfort that occurs when religious beliefs are made explicit and then challenged?

Some insights, possibly. Men and women on the radical left tend not to be absolute relativists (or nihilists) of the sort who hold that all opinions have equal merit; on the contrary, they insist that different interpretations of historical phenomena are either more or less correct – and that different points of view and different actions are either more or less ethical. Certainly there are left-wingers who claim to be Christians and right-wingers who do the same. Precisely because this is so, we will, in this article, proceed on the assumption that one of the Christian camps is wrong about their man. Either Jesus was primarily a prophet of domination and mass passivity, offering consolation to the destitute in some world beyond death, or he proclaimed solidarity and sustenance for all in this world. If the former is true (or truer), then radicals’ disdain for the Good News is sensible enough. But if the latter is the case, an open-minded review of what Jesus and the early Christians proclaimed could provide secular radicals with ethical and other insights they have perhaps undervalued. Or it could, practically and strategically speaking, help promote an alliance between some Christians (genuine ones?) and certain secular activists that reaches further than many think possible. Which in turn could prove a minor boon for American radicals especially, citizens and residents of a country where polls show most people desire more equality and justice, are inheritors of a tradition of mistrust toward government and proclaim their belief in God.1 At the very least, secular activists could improve the way they address believers.

For radical Christians, an enterprise of the sort proposed here, even if it tends to repeat things they already think, might help them tackle the frequently heard argument that faith is either not about society – it is a personal affair – or that it fits comfortably inside a liberal agenda of political progress that John Kerry or Barack Obama might support. (Naturally, we assume that radical Christians discount the possibility that Pat Robertson and George Bush – at least with their current programs and opinions – belong in their church.) A reiteration of atheists’ critique of faith, something that will also arise in this piece, might also help leftist Christians look more closely at what they believe – with an added dose of reason, as it were. Is their faith soft and flabby? What of it can be discarded, what saved? Can one’s religious commitment be thought through, or is there an irreducible element of belief that is inevitably ‘feeling,’ that revelation that precedes, skips over or, conversely, is a sort of condition for rationality? These are some of the hard, never-entirely-answered questions to keep in mind in the course of this discussion.

Gerald Brenan, that student of things Spanish and a sympathetic observer of Iberian anarchism, once wrote that “The Bible, and especially the New Testament, contains enough dynamite to blow up all the existing social systems in Europe, [but] only by force of habit and through the power of beautiful and rhythmical words have we ceased to notice it.”2 Although some readers may be willing to take Brenan at his word, those who prefer to see the gospel as a pillar of reaction probably won’t, so it is useful to reiterate the case for this claim with the help of some scriptural citation.

Christianity is the subject at hand, so the bulk of this section won’t be devoted to the Old Testament. But it is essential in reviewing the program of Jesus and his followers to acknowledge that the Torah was his gospel. For those who embrace a theology of liberation, there is probably nothing more powerful than Psalm 82. In these 17 lines, God appears to inaugurate monotheism by pronouncing on the record of those other gods who have had a crack at things. A full quotation is appropriate:

God takes his stand in the court of heaven
To deliver judgment among the gods themselves.

How long will you judge unjustly
And show favor to the wicked [He asks]?
You ought to give judgment for the weak and the orphan,
And see right done to the destitute and downtrodden,
You ought to rescue the weak and the poor,
And save them from the clutches of wicked men.
But you know nothing, you understand nothing,
You walk in the dark
While Earth’s foundations are giving way.
This is my sentence: Gods you may be,
Sons all of you of a high God,
Yet you shall die as men die;
Princes fall, every one of them, and so shall you.

Arise, O God, and judge the Earth;
For thou dost pass all nations through thy sieve.3

The wealthy damned

The many references in the New Testament to the worth of the poor as well as the dubious ethical status of the rich are generally better known. Notable of course is the response attributed in the Gospel of Mark to Jesus himself after a well-meaning and prosperous young man addresses him as “good master” and enquires into the route to eternal life. As the author presents the scenario, the Nazarene is mildly annoyed with the question and its apparently sycophantic tone, for he begins his response with a brusque, Whatta-ya-calling-me-good-for. “No one is good but God alone.” (Incidentally, this verse, this declaration of humility by Jesus makes problematic any assertion that the historical figure regarded himself as a divinity or God incarnate, but this isn’t our point right here.) He rhymes off some of the commandments after reminding the enquirer that, as a good Jew, nothing he’s going to hear should be news. Jesus’ mood is clearly one of impatience. But he softens when he understands that the young man is in earnest. “Affection” marks his tone as he identifies the one, very material barrier blocking the young man (not from “eternal life” but from initiation into that space or community Jesus refers to as God’s Kingdom). Wealth. He must sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor and then join Jesus’ movement. What follows is not often reflected on by New Testament readers. According to Mark, Jesus is not satisfied with making his point once. After the young man goes away depressed, Jesus repeats his thesis twice more. How hard it is for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God, he tells the disciples and then, as if things aren’t clear enough, he comes up with that extraordinary if now overly familiar image of the camel more easily passing through the eye of a needle than the wealthy man accessing the kingdom. Assuming that this particular scenario, or something like it, actually occurred, we have to conclude that Jesus was interested in flagging a decisive point. Certainly the writer of the gospel was.4

Other materials are equally well known. What contemporary New Testament scholars refer to as the Sayings Gospel Q (an undiscovered source that, it is argued, nourished those sections of Matthew and Luke known as the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes) reveals a Jesus devoted to the material and spiritual interests of the poor, a principled non-violence, a practice of mutual forgiveness and a willingness to “lend” with no hope of return. “But woe to you who are rich, because you have had all your consolation. Woe to you who are filled now, because you shall be hungry.”5 Most radical and arguably most difficult to handle of all this content is the call to love one’s enemy. In a world of violence and oppression where, nevertheless, people naturally love their friends – and hate their foes – Jesus offers a revolutionary ethic: Reject the means and the ends of those on the other side. Fire, he seems to imply, is only truly vanquished by soft, pleasant water.

Nor are all the radical words in the synoptic gospels placed in Jesus’ mouth. Think of Mary’s song, a favorite of feminist theologians. Having learned of her pregnancy, despite her unmarried state, Mary exalts a God who blesses the “low estate of his slave girl,” who “has pulled down the dynasts from their thrones and raised up the humble; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away.”6 Of course her praise, despite the tense of the words, is more of hope than of praise for things already accomplished, but it is a revolutionary hope about things on Earth – and invocative of that God from Psalm 82.

One could go on with radical citations from those gospels that purport to portray Jesus’ career, but that will only bog us down in repetition. The point that should be emphasized is that words fill only a small part of the package. The Nazarene’s life (apparently uninteresting to the likes of Mel Gibson, like many other Christians focused on death and blood sacrifice) is portrayed as one full of action. A life of including, touching and healing the sick, people with, for example, diseased skin considered unclean in the society of the day. Of engaging with women as full human partners rather than mere serving girls. Of leading a life based on looking out for oneself precisely by looking out for others. And of laying down one’s life (not tossing it away), if that is to be the price of fidelity to standards the powerful refuse to tolerate. Possibly Jesus riled the temple authorities in Jerusalem during Passover. Common sense suggests that the Roman occupiers would have been nervous about a holiday that celebrated Jewish liberation from Egyptian bondage; they would have been quick to neutralize a troublemaker who had an already demonstrated penchant for going off with gangs of men into the countryside to lecture on a sort of polity that was in its very description contemptuous of the prevailing order. Did Jesus decline to behave quietly in a socially sensitive situation, possibly provoking protest in a tension-charged city?

Incidentally, and on the subject of his crucifixion, the Easter stories (with the exception of the later version in John) do not depict a Man-God serenely welcoming a false or temporary passing, a pseudo sacrifice in which the joke is actually on the killers; rather, they tell of a human in anguish, asking that, if it at all be possible, confrontation with the authorities and death be avoided, as the accounts in Mark, Matthew and Luke observe. But to the radically principled, the world, then and now, promises no such breaks.

So that’s Jesus, the critic might say. But that isn’t Christianity. What about Paul of Tarsus, so often made to wear the ‘Agent-of-Reaction’ button. Didn’t he really establish the Church? Shouldn’t he have to answer for its errors and crimes? These are of course fair questions, though it has to be pointed out right off the bat, with New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, that insofar as Paul initially persecuted the movement, before beginning his career as a Christian, he could not have set it up.7 Nonetheless it is inarguable that Paul’s contribution to the young faith was decisive – and his views cannot be passed over on the simple ground that he wasn’t a literal companion of the Nazarene.

There is no question that Paul writes certain things in those epistles scholars attribute to him that are objectionable to contemporary radicals. But the case against him from the left, as it where, is by no means a clear-cut one. As Pauline analysts like Crossan and Tom Wright (an evangelical and no doubter of the historical, literal truth of scripture) have asserted, the apostle’s overall political message is neither tame nor in tune with imperial order. Their argument emphasizes the need to place Paul’s proclamation that Jesus is Lord in the context of the 1st century Roman world. At that time, the world had already received its official Lord, Redeemer and Savior, one who through conquest and force had allegedly ushered in an era of peace, multi-ethnic collaboration (if not fraternity) prosperity (for some) and justice (of a sort), and his name was Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Julius and himself promoted to official godliness. In other words, these scholars assert that when Paul says Jesus is Lord, he is emphatically stating that the Emperor and his successors are not. As Crossan observes, the Caesars say the sword brings peace; Paul, like Jesus, says non-violence and justice bring about that end.8 To cite Wright: The gospel claims “to be the reality of which Caesar’s empire is the parody; it claims to be modeling the genuine humanness, not least the justice and the peace and the unity across traditional racial and cultural barriers, of which Caesar’s empire boasted.”9
Luther preferred the propertied

As there is both explicitly political and religious content to Caesar’s empire, so there is in Paul’s version. In what does the latter consist? Clearly, Paul believes that divine intervention of a dramatic sort will occur with the Christ’s return, bringing with it social revolution. As he writes in I Corinthians, “…then comes the end, when he [Christ] delivers up the kingdom to God the Father, after abolishing every kind of domination, authority and power.”10 That’s pretty clear, and while the new era, in the Pauline version, will apparently owe its realization to some sort of magic rather than, say, human insurrection or general strike, it is very much about life on planet Earth. In the meantime, while followers of Jesus wait for this transformation, they must neither be idle nor pursue false idols, but rather model the new life, one imitative of the hoped-for, rejuvenated and radically different world. “For through faith…You have all put on Christ as a garment. There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes in Galatians.11 Love is what must determine conduct, starting now, he counsels. That is the dominant theme of all Paul’s correspondence to the small, struggling Christian communities in the decades after Jesus’ death: Act as though the new world is upon you.

But no defense of the man from Tarsus, who says a resurrected Christ spoke to him on the road to Damascus, can be so simple. Reactionaries throughout history have also found in the text of his letters the intellectual ammunition needed to justify oppression and the slaughter of those who dare defy authority. One of the most famous is Martin Luther who, seeing the Reformation he had led getting out of hand and feeding social revolution, turned to his copy of the New Testament. German peasants and oppressed city-dwellers had interpreted Luther’s call for scriptural authority over Church practice as an invitation to make real life conform to biblical recommendations. In other words, they were in tune with yet-to-be-born Gerald Brenan. Luther, a sometimes troubled friend of princes and landlords, but a friend nonetheless, had no such intentions. As they prepared for the battle of Frankenhausen in May 1525, the members of a large but not especially well-equipped peasant force unfurled a banner that bore the picture of a rainbow and possibly a reference to the community of goods – that is, socialized ownership. Luther had earlier that month launched a written attack on the militant rural folk destined to die by the thousands, peasants who had had the temerity to welcome religious radicals like Thomas Münzer into their ranks and believe in that verse from the Book of Acts that describes how amongst the earliest believers, “not a man claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything was held in common,” where money was “….distributed to any who stood in need.” 12

“…Let everyone who can,” Luther wrote in response to the radical tide, “smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel…Strange times these, when a prince can win heaven with bloodshed, better than other men with prayer.”13

What was the theological fuel Luther employed to launch his written assault? He pointedly rejected notions about the piety of common property with the suggestion that while the peasants might have been free to pool their resources, they had no right to oblige landlords to do the same. Perhaps he thought it was up to God to discipline those wealthy believers who didn’t radically share; in any case, this defender of nascent German nationalism saw no reason to read the Book of Acts as requiring at least some mandatory redistribution of wealth among believers. Luther did acknowledge that things might have been free and common in Genesis, but “under the New Testament Moses does not count.” So who did he think was running to his rescue from the NT? Why, Paul of course.

The verse employed by Luther is the famous section of Romans 13 where the apostle offers advice on appropriate Christian behavior before the authorities. According to the New English Bible, it reads as follows:

Every person must submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God and the exiting authorities are instituted by him; consequently anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution and those who so resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they will receive. For government, a terror to crime, has no terrors for good behavior. You wish to have no fear of the authorities? Then continue to do right and you will have their approval, for they are God’s agents working for your good. But if you are doing wrong then you will have cause to fear them; it is not for nothing that they hold the power of the sword…That is also why you pay taxes…14

The reader gets the idea, if he or she is not already well-acquainted with the verse. Undoubtedly this is the most developed of Paul’s apparently reactionary remarks. But only a superficial, out-of-context reading allows one to employ it as a timeless, universal injunction to cower before political power of whatever sort. For as we know, Paul never regarded Roman imperial authority as even resembling God’s ‘political’ project for the world, except perhaps as a power heretofore tolerated (and hence entrusted with some role in preparing the ground for the dramatic changes ‘on the way’). The empire’s modus operandi, conquest and violent repression, is precisely the opposite of the program Paul outlines for followers of Jesus in Romans 12 – not to mention other places. In chapter 12 appear the usual calls to embrace peace, “practice hospitality,” to not seek revenge, and “use good to defeat evil.” And then, in Chapter 13, immediately following the above cited passage on appropriate conduct vis-à-vis the authorities, Paul returns to the theme of obligations between human beings, telling his readers that “all are summed up in the one rule, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself…’ The whole law is summed up in love.”

But what is the political point? How does this Christian conduct relate to the empire? Is it just Goody Two Shoes stuff to model as a contrast to the way earthly powers behave? Paul’s answer is “…remember how critical the moment is.” He suggests that “it is far on in the night; day is near.” In other words, he believes, he hopes, that the divine revolution is just around the corner, even then emerging from its chrysalis. “Let us behave with decency as befits the day.”15 Paul was, secular radicals would argue, wrong on timing and flawed in praxis, although we might add that revolutionary movements, when still small and vulnerable, have also counseled members to submit to power, for their own safety as well as in the interests of future growth. Certainly Paul had a pre-Enlightenment view of how historical events occur. Along with this, his apocalyptic sense of the Kingdom of God possibly differed somewhat from Jesus’, who does not seem to have thought of the kingdom as coming in with that same sweep-all-before-it sort of force that Paul seems to imagine. But saying the apostle endorsed domination doesn’t hold water. “And yet I do speak words of wisdom to those who are ripe for it, not a wisdom belonging to this passing age, nor to any of its governing powers, which are declining to their end…[but] God’s secret purpose.”16

At this point we should allow some other analyses of Romans 13 to be at least mentioned. Mark Nanos has made the suggestion, and he has convinced many of the merits of his case, that Romans 13 has little to do with conduct under the Roman imperial state but contains Paul’s advice to Gentile converts, in the capital, attending synagogue and still under the religious supervision of its ‘government.’ The scenario, in this case, involves followers of the Jew Jesus worshipping together with other, orthodox Jews (which is to say, ones who don’t regard the Nazarene as the Messiah) prior to the definitive institutional break between the two faiths. These new followers, runs the argument, didn’t understand the movement’s relationship to Judaism and couldn’t see why they should have to do what the religious authorities told them.17 If Nanos is right, then of course traditional readings of Romans 13 lose all their force.

Other left-leaning Christian commentators, not inclined to this interpretation, have tended to regard Paul’s advice to the Roman believers as a display of tactical savvy meant to help shield the brethren in the imperial capital from official violence and hostility. Look Rome, this sect preaches obedience after all, and it’s in writing! There’s no good reason to hurt its members! But then there are the apostle’s words urging slaves to obey their masters in Ephesians 6. How can a prophet of liberation counsel this? It is probably the same story. The divine re-ordering of the world is on its way. Moreover, Paul goes to the heart of the matter of domination. Masters must “do the same by them [their slaves] and give up using threats.” In other words, discipline and violence are to be renounced by slaveholders who accept Jesus, ripping the coercive heart out of the owner-servant relationship. And again, there is most likely a bit of the tactician at work here. The Roman authorities’ reply to servile rebellion and incitement to rebellion was not complicated; a sect that preached such a doctrine was inviting state violence down upon its head.

End of part I. Part II continued in next issue.

1. For data suggesting that most Americans favor ‘radical’ socio-economic options, I rely here in part on Noam Chomsky. See, for example, Chomsky, Failed States (Metropolitan Books: New York, 2006) pp. 225-228. As for polls showing the religiosity of Americans — these virtually grow on trees. Both the February 2003 Harris Poll, for example, and a Fox News poll from June 2004 show 90 per cent or more of U.S. adults believing in God, while a Harris poll from the fall of 2003 shows a more modest but still considerable 78 per cent of U.S. citizens as believers. After studying 8,000 adults from 1988 till 2000, the National Opinion Research Center concluded that about 80 per cent believed in a “traditional, personal God,” according to journalist John Dart.
2. Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth (Cambridge, 1969), pp. 190-191
3. The Bible, a new English translation with the Apocrypha (Oxford, 1970), Psalm: 82
4. Richmond Lattimore (translator), The Four Gospels and the Revelation (Farrar, Straus, Giroux: New York, 1979), Mark:10 pp.27-28
5. Ibid., Luke:6 p.136
6. Ibid., Luke:1 p.122
7. John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity (Harper: San Francisco, 1998), Preface, x
8. J.D. Crossan, In Search of Paul. This note taken from an excerpt of Crossan’s book at http://www.beliefnet.com
9. John Dart, Jesus and Paul Versus the Empire. See author index at http://www.religion-online.org
10. I Corinthians:15, verse 24, The Bible, A new English translation
11. Galations:3, verses 26-29
12. Acts:4, verses 32-35
13. Martin Luther, Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants (1525). I found the tract at http://zimmer.csufresno.edu/~mariterel/against_the_robbing_and_murderin.htm
14. Romans:13, verses 1-6
15. Ibid., verses 11-13. Paul doesn’t mind using military imagery either, but his soldiers don’t shed blood.
16. I Corinthians:2, verse 6
17. For a summary of this position, see: http://www.yashanet.com/studies/romstudy/text13.htm

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