Jesus is one of those figures who is used to justify just about everything. Hitler appealed to Jesus, as have multiple socialists. The Religious Right drops Jesus at the drop of the hat to justify anything they do.
So it was with interest that I read Phil Zuckerman’s take on how evangelicals “hate Jesus.” Zuckerman’s thesis is that evangelicals misinterpret Jesus in order to attach their political agenda to him. They do.
But then Zuckerman appears to do the same thing. After reading his essay I assumed he wanted to use Jesus to support his political agenda. The first clue was that he misstates what Jesus said, or didn’t say, as much as the people he opposes.
He claims evangelicals “are the group least likely to support politicians or policies that reflect the actual teachings of Jesus.” Of course, the “actual” teachings of Jesus are all left wing, if one accepts Zuckerman’s views.
Zuckerman wants a Jesus who is left wing. Most evangelicals want a Jesus who is right wing. But the reality is that Jesus had no real politics at all. He had an ethical system that simply wasn’t made for this world. Particularly he had no economic perspective at all. The ethics of Jesus implied an anti-capitalistic viewpoint. But that doesn’t allow us to jump to the opposite conclusion either. This is not to say that multiple Christians haven’t tried to use Jesus to push a socialist agenda. They have.
The ethics of Jesus implied contempt for wealth, which pushes people toward socialism, which shares those envious sentiments. But Jesus did not have a political agenda. He most certainly did not have an economic agenda, or even an economic theory. Jesus never contemplated a system for living on this earth. Jesus told his disciples to take no thought for the morrow. He told them to not worry about production at all. Jesus said that the kingdom of God would be established shortly so there was no need to worry such things.
Even the early communism of the church, described in Acts of the Apostles, was seen as a temporary measure. The assumption was that the kingdom would be established soon so they could all just live off the savings of what their individual members had accumulated. As Prof. Anthony Waterman has noted, “the early Christian Church, not only in the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic times but also well into the patristic period, had no recognizable body of social thought. The view of the early church was exemplified by Tertullian: ‘I have no concern in this life except to depart from it as speedily as possible.’”
Edward Gibbon, in his classic The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, explained the early Christian viewpoint. It was wholly otherworldly without a regard for economic systems of production, or the distribution of production.
“The ancient Christians were animated by a contempt for their present existence, and by a just confidence of immorality, of which the doubtful and imperfect faith of modern ages cannot give us any adequate notion. In the primitive church, the influence of truth was very powerfully motivated by an opinion which, however, it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity, has not been found agreeable to experience. It was universally believed that the end of the world and the kingdom of Heaven were at hand.”
The Right wants a Jesus who was a card-carrying NRA member, Republican. The Left wants a peace freak, environmentalist who wants redistribution of wealth. The Jesus of the gospels, whether accurately described or not, is neither.
Zuckerman attacks evangelicals for supporting the death penalty, draconian sentencing, punitive punishment and “government use of torture” along with “little-to-no regulation of handgun and semi-automatic ownership, not to mention violent military invasion of various countries…” But Zuckerman says: “Jesus exhorted humans to be loving, peaceful and non-violent.”
According to Matthew what Jesus said was a bit less 60s hippie-like: “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword.” In Luke he is quoted as saying: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” That is not particularly peaceful or loving.
As for government torture Jesus didn’t speak of temporal torture at all, neither to condemn it nor condone it. But he did speak of eternal torture. He said at the end of the world “the angels shall come forth and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be waling and gnashing of teeth.” The New Testament book of Revelations describes it as a “lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.” Elsewhere in Matthew Jesus refers to hell as “everlasting fire.” Eternal torture is what that sounds like to me, but Prof. Zuckerman isn’t out to be accurate, he is out to promote his own agenda.
He accurately quotes the New Testament about Jesus urging his followers to give away their wealth. The New Testament crackles with contempt for wealth and the wealthy. But, as far as I can find, nowhere did Jesus advocate coercive redistribution of wealth. Zuckerman properly and accurately notes the contempt of Christ for wealth and then condemns Evangelicals for being “most supportive” of “capitalistic excess, and they are the most opposed to institutional help for the nation’s poor—especially poor children.”
Zuckerman does what the Religious Right does to the Bible. They take issues of personal ethics, from a Christian viewpoint, and try to impose them into the legal system. The Religious Right opposes homosexuality, which strikes me like being opposed to blue eyes, and therefore want government policy to punish homosexuals. Zuckerman finds a Jesus that reflects his own politics and uses him to try to push Christians into supporting “institutional” programs for that purpose.
Zuckerman engaged in some of the same bait and switch tactics of the Christian Right. He discusses how Jesus wanted his disciples to give their wealth away and then turns that into “institutional help” instead. By institutional he means governmental. He criticizes Evangelicals because, “They hate anything that smacks of ‘socialism,’ even though that is essentially what their Savior preached.” While Zuckerman points to verses about giving away one’s own wealth he never points to a single reference supporting “institutional” redistribution of wealth. He doesn’t because he can’t. Jesus was no socialist; he wasn’t even an advocate of the welfare state.
But this doesn’t mean Jesus was supportive of wealth creation or material existence either. He was no socialist, no conservative, no libertarian, and no liberal (classical or progressive).
There is little coherent politics in the teachings of Jesus but people tend to impose on him their own values. There is much to find in the Bible that is opposed to wealth and material existence. One can argue that the ethics of Jesus undermined western liberal economic freedom, certainly Ludwig von Mises did so in his work Socialism. But Jesus never endorsed the political policies of the Left, anymore than he did the political agenda of the Right. The accurate portrayal of Christ is one who opposed wealth and wealth creation, didn't believe production was necessary as the "kingdom" was at hand, but who had no economic system in mind. Both socialism and capitalism, or any other economic system, are systems for living in a word where production is necessary and Jesus simply didn't believe in that kind of world.