Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
Sunday, June 28, 2020
Jesus’ politics.and mine
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.
There's an odd strain in the Gospels that shows Jesus's affinity with outcast women. This has been massively understated, since of course churches are male-controlled, but once you think of the society in which Jesus existed, the uniqueness of the protagonist of the Gospels comes into focus. One must always remember not to substitute the bourgeois society of 2020 for the Eastern Mediterranean culture in which Jesus lived. The status of women in that culture was complex. An anthropological generalization about these societies is that the mother, at a certain age, within a household that often contained grown up sons and their wives, had a large tacit power, even as their recognized political power was null. This power was often exercised massively against the wives of their sons. Within this society, freefloating women were rare - the prostitute, the unmarried daughter, the woman who'd outlived her entire family, these were types for whom Jesus had an affinity. It was the outcasts, those who had a position at the bottom of society - the quintessential last - to whom he was called.
In the only gospel story of Jesus losing an argument, it is a Samaritan woman who rebukes him for making a typically ethno-racist comment to her when she needed healing: that wonderful phrase about how even the dogs under the table were allowed to eat the master's crumbs. That immediately went to the heart of the Jesus's hypocrisy in rejecting her, and he owned it. This is a remarkable instance in the vita, for it is unusual for the revered hero, the sage or savior, to feature in a story of loss of face. But the remarkable thing about this story is that it questions the worth of face. I do not remember the name of the critic who remarked, about Henny Pollit in Christina Stead's The Man who Loved Children, that this character understood the essential "outlawery" of women - the kind of soul formed literally of being outside the law, which refused to recognize in her a sovereign person - but I like that phrase. From whatever source inside himself, Jesus recognized some essential virtue in that outlawery too. This sensitivity to the outlaw prefigures a radical doubt about the law. Paul wasn't making this up entirely.
Donc, donc, there is that. 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 interpreting - surely he was referring to a narrow street in Jerusalem! Cause otherwise what he said is too terrible! 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 Franklin Graham, are going straight to hell. (Although to be clear, I do think the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth is a metaphysical place, within the individual and collective consciousness - just as geographical coordinates of the Kingdom of Heaven are within you). 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 Sepulchers, filthy on the inside with death. 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 the inferno route. . It is, of course, my burden that, as a non-Christian I am probably ending up spending the afterlife with a bunch of yahoo evangelical leaders. Just my luck. Although God has infinite mercy, and I can't imagine him so cruel as to put me next to Billy Graham's deluded son. 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 membership of the political class, 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.