“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Jesus’ politics.

As the few who have actually read the Gospels know, Jesus said relatively little about sex. For him, it was a thing that occurred in the structure of families. Jesus didn’t much like families. He was only half joking when he said that he had no patience for him who didn’t hate his mother. He thought if you entered into a marriage, that was the end of it – no divorce for you. Of course, marriage, back in Jesus' day, wasn't the love match it is today, but an exchange between parents and clans in which the individuals exchanged had little say. So this is a hard saying to understand -- was it a way of warning men not to desert their wives and children?

In any case, he looked upon the marriage and family racket as hopelessly perverting -- there'd be no giving and taking of wives and husbands in the Kingdom of Heaven.

On the other hand, Jesus had numerous opinions about wealth. He unequivocally thought that the wealthy would not be in the kingdom of heaven. He thought that they were scanty in their sacrifices, and pushy in their lives, and in general a diabolical nuisance. Just getting wealthy, Jesus thought, probably entailed doing things that would send you to Hell. He had no hesitation about saying so. When a rich man came to him who had sacrificed much of his wealth, Jesus famously said that it was harder for the rich to get to heaven than for the camel to get through the eye of a needle. This saying is one that the most literal American fundamentalist suddenly gets all liberal about. But the meaning is made clear by what Jesus did before he made that comment – he clearly thought that the rich man hadn’t given enough. He hadn’t really destroyed his wealth.

While there is, currently, a great deal of kowtowing to a bunch of pissants who call themselves Christian in contemporary American culture, one can be confident that, if Jesus is within the ballpark of being right, most of the Christian right, from George Bush to Pat Robertson, are going straight to hell. It isn’t really even a close call. All are wealthy. All retain their wealth in the face of a world in which masses starve. All have let these people starve during the whole course of their lives. Some, such as Pat Robertson, have acquired their wealth through such bloody associations that they are obviously immoral. But Jesus really didn’t make a lot of distinctions here. Gays are never condemned by Jesus. The wealthy are, time and time again. As for the clergy that coddles the wealthy and themselves become rich, they are what Jesus called Whited Sepulcres, filthy on the inside. Among the certainly and for sure damned, one can spot some easy prey: the creators of the Left Behind series (sin against the holy ghost, wealth), Dr. James Dobson (wealth, refusal to visit those in prison, definitely on the left side of the Son when he judges the quick and the dead), Newt Gingrich (are you kidding me) and many others who are going to go where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. It is, of course, Limited Inc’s burden that, as an atheist, we are probably ending up spending the afterlife with a bunch of yahoo evangelical leaders. Just our luck. Many of these men are under the misapprehension that Jesus gives his unconditional approval to heterosexuality, confusing viagra with virtue. Jesus made know his contempt for the family whenever he got a chance; his contempt for the mere industriousness that leads to wealth (behold the lilies of the field), his contempt for profiteers on the poor (you have made my father’s house into a den of thieves), etc. As for the collectivity of Congress, they have as little chance of making it to heaven as a vampire bat has of winning best in show at your local kennel club. If there is one crowd that has beast written on their foreheads, it is this one. Hopeless, from the divine point of view.

However, as George Bernard Shaw pointed out long ago, hardly anybody believes Jesus anymore, especially Christians. Shaw said that Christians are, almost to a man, followers of Barabbas: worshippers of ostentatious power, self-pitying about their cruelties, absolutely unable to sympathize with those lower than them if they aren’t allowed, at the same time, to strip those lower than them of all dignity – in other words, cannibals and freaks and the usual good booboisie you see buying steaks in the grocery store. Shaw thought certain of Jesus’ communistic ideas might work in today’s society. We don’t. That is, as a majoritarian stance, what Jesus taught leads to chaos and cruelty. The Grand Inquisitor is right about that. But as a minority stance, here and there, it is an experiment well worth doing.


Paul craddick said...


You offered a possible qualification of Jesus' dicta re: marriage by noting that "Of course, marriage, back in Jesus' day, wasn't the love match it is today ..."

Well, pace Lefitsts, the accumulation of wealth wasn't back then as it is today. Sure, under the market order, people acquire riches through luck - but never, ever has there been a closer relationship between the accumulation of wealth, en masse, and such virtues as thrift, hard work, entrepreneurial insight and daring, and generally "returning value for value" (fraud and outright theft exist, of course, but both are antithetical to the market ethos).

Jesus' condemnations of the wealthy are more plausible in a super-static social milieu - especially a world not alien to the tender mercies of the Roman Tax Collector.

By the way, I'm not trying to defend or "save" the reputation of Jesus - I happen not to admire him much. But it seems to me that there's a difficulty in treating his statements and claims as timeless edicts. As to his attitude re: homosexuality, there are ample condemnations of the male variety in the Bible - hence it seems not unreasonable to assume that he would have shared them.

roger said...

Paul, nice comments.

I have to disagree with you about wealth accumulation in the Meditteranean. There's a wonderful book by Paul Veyne about the Greeks under the Romans (Le pain et le cirque, which might be translated into English -- it should be) that makes the case that the virtues you speak of, with regard to the accumulation of riches, were certainly in operation at the time of Jesus. In fact, the state, far from acting as a ravager of the peasant and the merchant, provided a security that lives up to what Gibbons said about it: it was, in many ways, the ideal time to be alive.
Now if Jesus had been born in Sicily and had seen the way slaves were treated on the latifundia there, I'd be inclined to agree with you. But in Syria-Judea, the sources of wealth were not different in kind from the sources of wealth in 16th century Britain.

In fact, one of the peculiar things about Jesus was that he seemed not at all enthused by the Protestant ethic. He was a man who liked a bottle of perfume dumped on his feet on occasion, beheld the lillies of the field, and felt strongly the first shall be last, the meek should inherit the earth, and that there was no real value in the virtue of prudence.

I think sodomy would probably not have been Jesus' cup of tea -- he was no Greek, nor was he in Tiberius' circle. But it was not something that he thought too much about.

Paul craddick said...


I don't disagree about the economic milieu afforded by the matrix of Pax Romana. Let's add to the list of luminaries the great M.I. Rostovtzeff, whose Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire buttresses your claims - to a degree.

Part of the genius of the Empire was that it had a kind of "federalist" quality - in a way it exhibited subsidiarity. So, local practices and mores would be left largely undisturbed in the outer provinces (recall that the authorities were enlisted against Jesus because of his role as a rabble-rouser, i.e., a disturber of local life). While I don't know, I think it's a fair guess that in Palestine the bazaar was the bailiwick for the local homo economicus, and thus the social dynamic would have been one of a higgling/haggling tribalism. Not only was Jesus temperamentally opposed to anything like a Protestant ethic, but similarly there's scant evidence that Palestine back then was a proto-Netherlands.

J said...

As the boys of Monty Python showed us, the romans, however great at engineering, law, etc. were soldiers, and the soldiers--centurions--were, after Caiaphas' verdict, the executioners. The militarists and rightists are obviously missing out on that; he was a bit of a birkenstocker I think.

A leftist reading of the Gospels seems reasonable to me (and also perhaps objectionable as Nietzsche might have realized); the Beatitudes seem closer to ,uh, a Dead concert, than to some baptist sunday school service. And yeah JC, though not queer (tho one might wonder) was no supply-sider or Reaganite dats for sure.