Jesus as a Revolutionary

I want to talk about Jesus.  But first, I want to talk briefly about religion and socialism.  I’ve never really been of the persuasion that revolutionary or socialist politics are inherently combative to religion.  While I think revolutionary politics must reject the notion that a God or some spiritual force controls or determines all human activity (and are then are able to struggle against exploitation and oppression), I think there’s a great deal for revolutionaries to gain from trying to relate to those with a religious persuasion.  I say this in spite of the fact that I believe my own rejection of the Christian religion as a teenager bears some responsibility for my eventual embrace of revolutionary politics.

While I spent a great deal of my life as an activist as a self-described anarchist, I never felt comfortable with the notion that “if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him,” as the anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin put it.  I have had more appreciation for the spirit expressed by Karl Marx in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, which serves to explain religion (and, I think, is more sympathetic to people who hold religious ideas).  Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering,” Marx wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

The point, for Marx, isn’t to declare war on religion (or God, for that matter) as Bakunin sought to do, but instead to declare war on the social conditions which cause such suffering that people search for salvation in heaven, or for explanations from God, because they feel they cannot find them here.

Furthermore, while revolutionaries must combat religious ideas that deny human agency, we can still be sympathetic, and relate to religious communities.  In this sense it is not our task to combat religion, per se, but a certain element of religious understanding that acts as a barrier to collective activity.  There are real stakes here.  The former notion that it is the responsibility of revolutionaries to combat religion at large can practically mislead activists in to fostering unnecessary divisions in instances where we should be building alliances and strengthening solidarity.

For example, a huge debate erupted over this very question of how revolutionaries should relate to religion when I was more active in the anti-war movement a couple of years ago.  As one of my friends pointed out: the organizers who were arguing for a superfluous principled stand against religion were going to find it incredibly difficult to build any strong bonds with the Muslim student groups on campus (which is especially relevant since so much pro-war imperialist policy was and is still bound up in Islamophobia, including anti-Muslim rhetoric, but also political repression on the Muslim community).  Put another way, attacking religion in general at a time where people are facing religious persecution is the wrong position, and implicitly takes the side of the status quo.  How can one, for example, effectively ally themselves with others to defend Muslim’s right to build a mosque in Murfreesboro, or a community center in Lower Manhattan, if one argues that Muslim’s shouldn’t exist as a religious community in the first place?

So, I think it’s not only unnecessary for radicals to oppose religion, but often impractical.  But, to go on to the original reason I started writing this.  I’ve been increasingly interested recently in Leftist readings of Christian scripture.  Since, becoming a socialist I’ve always been somewhat familiar with Jesus’ sayings in the Bible having some Leftist connotation, but I’ve never taken on a real active interest in the subject.  I still haven’t really for that matter, but I’m starting to.  I recently picked up a copy of The Meek and the Militant by Paul Siegel, which clarifies the Marxist analysis of religion and the history of religion and politics, and also I plan on picking up a copy of Atheism in Christianity by Ernst Bloch very soon, in which Bloch, a Marxist, argues that “a good Christian must necessarily be a good atheist.”

https://i2.wp.com/media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l7omg6J9z81qzzh6g.jpg

William Defoe as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ

I think that this fascination has been fanned by my love of the movie The Last Temptation of Christ (based on the book, which I also plan to read soon, by Nikos Kazantzakis, who was a sympathetic to Marxism), where I feel like the real revolutionary characteristics of the biblical Christ are really emphasized.  For example, every time I watch it I can’t help but get goosebumps as Jesus debates with John the Baptist:

JESUS: Isn’t love enough?
THE BAPTIST: No. The tree is rotten. You have to take the ax and cut it down.
JESUS: If I was a woodcutter, I’d cut. If I was fire, I’d burn. But I’m a heart and I love.
THE BAPTIST: I’m a heart also but I can’t love what’s unjust. I can’t love evil. What I can’t love I attack. God demands it. God demands anger.

Jesus is sent to the desert to talk to God and ask, “love or the ax?” He’s given the ax and returns to his disciples, he reaches into his chest and pulls out his heart and offers it to them and says:

JESUS: This is my heart. Take it. I lead the way to the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God’s inside us. It’s the Devil’s kingdom that’s outside, all around us. We’ll turn an ax against the Devil’s kingdom, against the world. If you have sheep, give them away. If you have nets, let them rot. If you have a family, children, leave them behind.

Jesus now stands before them no longer holding his heart,
but an ax.

JESUS: I once believed in love, now I carry this. Who’s with me?

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8c/Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-27-_-_Expulsion_of_the_Money-changers_from_the_Temple.jpg

Jesus casting out the money changers from the temple.

These scenes illustrate the excellent way that The Last Temptation emphasizes Christ’s love while celebrating his militant opposition to injustice, which is often obscured by liberal readings of the Bible, that plays up Jesus saying things like “Turn the other cheek” or “Love your enemies” over Jesus announcing that he “did not come to bring peace, but a sword” as he cast the money changers from the temple.

I posted a quote from Christ on my Facebook recently and a friend asked me if there was a collection anywhere on the Internet of some of Jesus’ best Leftist sayings.  I don’t know of such a thing, so I thought in lieu of one I figured I would provide some of my own favorites.

  • “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” – Matthew 6:19-21
  • “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” – Matthew 16:21
  • “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” – Matthew 10:34
  • “Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but the corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.” – Matthew 7:17-19
  • “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” – Matthew 6:24
  • “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” – Matthew 16:26
  • “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when [men] shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” – Matthew 5:3-12
  • “Woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.Woe unto you, ye that are full now! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you, ye that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for in the same manner did their fathers to the false prophets.” – Luke 6:24-26
  • “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” – Luke 10:25
  • “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” – Luke 12:15
  • “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. ” – Luke 14:13-14
  • “And he looked up, and saw the rich men that were casting their gifts into the treasury. And he saw a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites. And he said, Of a truth I say unto you, This poor widow cast in more than they all: for all these did of their superfluity cast in unto the gifts; but she of her want did cast in all the living that she had. And as some spake of the temple, how it was adorned with goodly stones and offerings, he said: As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in which there shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” – Luke 21:1-6
  • “Godliness with contentment is great gain: for we brought nothing into the world, for neither can we carry anything out; but having food and covering we shall be therewith content. But they that are minded to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and hurtful lusts, such as drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil: which some reaching after have been led astray from the faith, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.” – Timothy 6:6-11
  • “In the temple courts Jesus found men selling cattle, sheep and doves and other sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!'” – John 2:14-16

These are the most immediate passages I can think of and find.  But if you know of any that I missed than please add them in the comments!

I want to leave you with two great songs written by the famous folk singer, Woody Guthrie.

“Christ for President” (lyrics)
Performed by Billy Bragg and Wilco

“Every year we waste enough
To feed the ones who starve
We build our civilization up
And we shoot it down with wars.”

Jesus Christ (lyrics)

“Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land
A hard-working man and brave
He said to the rich, “Give your money to the poor,”
But they laid Jesus Christ in His grave.”

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11 Responses to Jesus as a Revolutionary

  1. Aside from the page of quotes plucked from 3,000 pages scripture 🙂 the two following passages stood out:

    “While I think revolutionary politics must reject the notion that a God or some spiritual force controls or determines all human activity (and are then are able to struggle against exploitation and oppression), I think there’s a great deal for revolutionaries to gain from trying to relate our politics to religious scripture.”

    “How can one, for example, effectively ally themselves with others to defend Muslim’s right to build a mosque in Murfreesboro, or a community center in Lower Manhattan, if one argues that Muslim’s shouldn’t exist as a religious community in the first place?”

    First quote:
    Relating Marxism to religion is not only unproductive, its an exercise unrelated to marxism. Marxism is a critique and a self-conscious development of the free individual under capitalism— Finding sympathetic passages from Christianity, the quintessential premodern philosophy (philosophy and not social form BECAUSE of the enlightenment and capitalism) and ‘relating’ marxism to Christianity distorts the politics of marxism into a project in pursuit of some egalitarian utopia, only with a more creepy collective religious lefty twist. Its only reasonable to acknowledge that Leftist Christians are not marxists because they base their world view on pursuit of a Christian utopia. Premising a critique of capital and commodity relations in a cherry picked biblical interpretation only obfuscates politics and doesn’t provide any assistance in the task of creating a historical consciousness of capitalism.

    Second Quote:
    You can critique the irrationality of religion while also fighting against an irrational prosecution of religious believers. Critiquing the anti-modern Christian reaction embodied in our “War on Terror” is not incompatible with the critique of the anti-modern revival of Islam. It is entirely consistent and eminently necessary to do both.

    Appealing to religion will not reverse the flagging fortunes of the Left.

    • Aaron Ptkf says:

      Word, I don’t totally disagree and I think that I should have been more careful with some of my choice in wording here. I only have time to give a brief reply, but my real point was simply to say, that I don’t think it’s politically necessary nor strategic for socialists to principally oppose all religion.

    • “Relating Marxism to religion is not only unproductive, its an exercise unrelated to marxism… Appealing to religion will not reverse the flagging fortunes of the Left.”

      Agreed, if your way of “relating marxism to religion” is comprised of sympathetic proof-texts. Otherwise, it seems that religion is a site of class struggle like anything else, so Marxism seems applicable.

      “Finding sympathetic passages from Christianity, the quintessential premodern philosophy”

      I’m not sure you can meaningfully call Christianity a philosophy – it’s a concrete and historical body of people working with texts and traditions that manifest differently throughout time. Not sure what you’re trying to say here.

      “(philosophy and not social form BECAUSE of the enlightenment and capitalism)”

      And I really have no idea what you’re trying to say here. What distinction are you making between Christianity as philosophy and Christianity as social form, and why is that difference BECAUSE of the enlightenment?

      ” Its only reasonable to acknowledge that Leftist Christians are not marxists because they base their world view on pursuit of a Christian utopia.”

      I know plenty of Christians who consider themselves Marxist, and I’m sure they aren’t waiting for you to revoke their Marxist membership cards. They use a materialist conception of history, a dialectical method, accept the notion of class struggle and are committed to the human political project of socialism. What else does it mean to be Marxist? That one be an atheist? What does that mean? It’s a little more complex than that. Even Marx criticized the bourgeois atheism of the day.

      And what do you mean by “pursuit of a Christian utopia”? As opposed to another secular utopia? Eschatology has little to do with utopianism. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, but I’m not sure I’m agreeing with the hard lines you’re drawing.

      “Premising a critique of capital and commodity relations in a cherry picked biblical interpretation only obfuscates politics ”

      And again, I’d agree with you here. It’s not that a cherry-picked bible study will show that Christianity and Marxism are really the same thing (a similar philosophy), but I think Aaron’s point was rather that religion is not necessarily an obstacle to united action toward the goal of socialism. In fact, he’s not suggesting watering anything down or entryism, but simply that it’s not necessary for socialists to OPPOSE religion. Connolly and DeLeon argued over the same issue.

    • j.c. says:

      fool ! you just dont get it….none so blind that will not see….

  2. The text of the debate is here:http://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1904/condel/index.htm

    …though a Google search will also show a bunch of later historical analysis surrounding the debate as well.

    In my opinion, DeLeon is correct that religion is a social phenomena, not a private matter as bourgeois thinkers have labelled it. On the other hand, I think that Connolly is correct that its social nature is not an impediment to socialism, and that to oppose religion in essence on its own ground (rather than simply criticizing its use in political oppression) is needless and dangerously close to the metaphysical speculations Marx criticized in Theses on Feuerbach.

  3. gbuddha2012 says:

    Christ’s mission in his eyes was not to expound some complex dialectic either in a material or spiritual sense. It is his simple uncomplicated language that is so compelling….

    • I’m not sure what Christ’s expounding or not expounding some complex dialectic has to do with the entry. Aaron isn’t saying that Jesus preached Marxism, he’s saying that he didn’t believe that “revolutionary or socialist politics are inherently combative to religion” and that it’s not “politically necessary nor strategic for socialists to principally oppose all religion.” He also suggests “there’s a great deal for revolutionaries to gain from trying to relate our politics to religious scripture”. I can agree with two out of three, but Jesus as expounding a dialectic is not part of the argument.

      Anyway, if Christ’s language was so simple and uncomplicated, why are there so many interpretations of those words floating around? I don’t think religion has anything to do with a simple “message received” from a figure in the past – religions are living cultural traditions.

  4. gbuddha2012 says:

    Points well taken, however IMHO the poor cannot help but hear the clear call to fight injustice and power in the NT. This is one big reason the Catholic church tried to control popular access to the bible. Nothing like keeping the poor folk stupid and in line.

  5. bemartz79 says:

    I think the problem comparing the two dogmas is very basic.

    Christianity is a faith based system at its core.

    Socialism is a fact based system at its core.

    Kinda apples to oranges, or apples to tomatoes might be more fitting.

    Both are fruits, and have many similarities, but from the ground up (pun intended) are very different.

    To use either as a replacement for the other just doesn’t quite work.

    Just my two sense.

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