You Could Call It the Spirit of Christmas

This is part of an interview Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times did with theologian and activist Jim Wallis:

WALLIS: How I “take Christmas” is defined in the famous prayer by the mother of Jesus — Mary’s Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Meaning: The coming of Jesus is intended to turn things upside down. The power of the Bethlehem narrative includes the inn having no room for Mary and Joseph, and the lowly shepherds being the first witnesses of the new baby as hope for the world born in a manger with his homeless parents. This is not the conquering messiah many were hoping for, but one from the bottom of society in a time of political unrest and massive inequality — sort of like now.

KRISTOF: What is it with the modern evangelical movement? Historically, evangelicals were people like William Wilberforce, fighting to abolish slavery. More recently, they included Jimmy Carter. But these days the big cause of many evangelicals has been a philandering politician who rips children from parents at the border.

WALLIS: The word “evangel” comes from Jesus’ opening pledge to bring “good news” to the poor and let the oppressed go free. Txxxx evangelicals have turned Jesus’ message upside down. That’s called heresy. And, in the United States, this has created a toxic melding between white evangelicals and the Republican Party. We’ve seen the conversion of too many white evangelicals to the narcissistic and nationalistic cult of Txxxx, where the operative word in the phrase “white evangelical” is not “evangelical” but “white.”

KRISTOF: I struggle with this. I’ve seen conservative evangelicals do heroic work, including Chuck Colson’s work in prisons, and George W. Bush’s leadership in fighting AIDS in Africa that saved 20 million lives. But some of the grossest immorality of my life came when evangelicals like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson smirked at AIDS and resisted tackling the disease because it was killing gay people. How do we understand a faith that can produce so much good and so much evil?

WALLIS: The religious right leaders you name hijacked the word “evangelical.” Result: White evangelicalism has destroyed the “evangel.” When “evangelical” strays from the radical love of Jesus into hateful partisan faith, we see the worst.

KRISTOF: Do you think about abandoning the term “evangelical” because it has too much baggage?

WALLIS: I understand why so many have moved to “post-evangelical” or “adjacent evangelical” as the old term has become so tainted by right-wing politics and hypocrisy. Many of us call ourselves “followers of Jesus” who want to return to the original definition of a gospel that is good news to the poor. And we believe that any gospel that isn’t good news for the poor is simply not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Period. . . .

KRISTOF: But if faith drives your work on behalf of the poor, why does the same Scripture seem to lead others to cut funds for the homeless?

WALLIS: Because they aren’t reading those Scriptures with over 2000 verses in the Bible about the poor and oppressed! Those white evangelicals have cut all those texts out and their Bible is full of holes.

KRISTOF: For many evangelicals, the paramount political issue is abortion, which Jesus never directly mentions. What’s your take?

WALLIS: Abortion is used by the political right as a distraction from all the other issues that would entail a consistent ethic wherever human life and dignity are affected. Everyone in the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” polarizations should want to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions — and there are clear policies to do that, especially in support of low-income women

In America, Christianity Ain’t What It Used To Be

If you want to understand how America got this way, reading Chris Lehmann’s book The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity and the Unmaking of the American Dream might help. This is from a review by Barrett Swanson at Dissent:

Though few contemporary Christians would likely admit it, many of the American colonies were built upon the idea of redistribution. Those dour Puritans who first populated the territories of New England were not lured by the promise of windfall profits. Nor had they endured months of seasickness and disease for the chance to start a small business. Instead, they were hopeless utopians, runaway apostates of the established church who yearned to embrace a higher manner of being, one founded upon a system of communitarian ethics.

John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sketched the tenets of this new society in a sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity,” which he delivered in 1630 while on board a British ship headed across the Atlantic. A gusty ode to American exceptionalism, the homily christened the new continent “The City Upon a Hill,” a metaphor that Ronald Reagan would make a watchword for Republicans some three-hundred-and-fifty years later. But in Winthrop’s eyes what gave the New World its luster were the egalitarian principles of the Protestant gospel, central among them the commitment to redistributing wealth on the basis of individual need. “We must be willing,” Winthrop said, “to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the sakes of others’ necessities . . . we must bear one another’s burdens.”

It is stupefying to consider how, over the course of four centuries, American Christianity would forsake these humble sentiments for the telegenic hucksterism of preachers like Joel Osteen. This Pentecostal quack with a garish smile doesn’t tout the spiritual benefits of communal interdependence. Nor does he acknowledge the ethical requirements of the Christian social contract. Instead, like so many stewards of the “prosperity gospel,” Osteen thinks individual wealth is a hallmark of Christian virtue and urges his followers to reach inside themselves to unlock their hidden potential…. “It doesn’t please God for us to drag through life feeling like miserable failures,” Osteen warns. “God wants you to succeed; He created you to live abundantly.”

How we got from Winthrop to Osteen is the subject of Chris Lehmann’s new book, The Money Cult. Lehmann is interested in how the communitarian spirit of mainline Protestantism was eventually tarnished by the logic of private enterprise. But in the end what he discovers is that, far from being pious victims of a rapacious economic system, mainline churches were very much complicit in “the gradual sanctification of the market.” In fact, throughout the history of the United States, Christian theology was routinely contorted to fit within the narrow priorities of capitalism.

One of the reasons Christianity caught on in the Roman world was that it functioned as a mutual aid society. Helping one’s fellow Christians made a difference in people’s lives, because Rome wasn’t big on universal healthcare or unemployment insurance. But neither was 17th century England. So it makes sense that redistribution (something along the lines of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”) was a guiding principle for the Christians who founded Plymouth Colony.

Today, of course, our fellow citizens who call the U.S. a “Christian” nation think that “redistribution” is a dirty word. A headline in The Washington Post earlier this month noted that “the debate over the Affordable Care Act is really a debate over wealth redistribution”. From Karen Tumulty’s article:

Redistribution of wealth — one of the most radioactive subjects in American politics — has moved from being a subtext in the national debate over health care to being the core of it….

[There is] a bedrock philosophical and ideological question that has always been in the background of any argument about the government’s role in health care: What is the minimum that society should provide for its poorest, most vulnerable citizens, and how much should be taken from the rich and powerful to do it?

…There [are] many ways that Obamacare [redistributes] the burden of medical costs — from the sick to the healthy, with provisions such as the one denying insurers the ability to refuse coverage to people with preexisting conditions; from the old to the young, with a mandate that everyone have coverage or pay a penalty; from the rich to the poor, with an array of new taxes.

It’s almost as if right-wing opponents of the ACA don’t understand what insurance, including health insurance, is. Tumulty quotes economic historian Bruce Bartlett:

“Republicans argue that redistribution is inherently immoral without acknowledging that the very nature of insurance is redistributive. You’re taking money from people whose houses don’t burn down to give it to the people whose houses do burn down.”

As far as I know, Jesus never talked about health insurance and neither did the Puritans. But Christianity in its pure form is clearly pro-redistribution. Any preacher or politician who says otherwise shouldn’t claim to follow Jesus.

If you’re interested in reading more about Christianity as it’s frequently practiced today, I recommend a long article from 2014 by the journalist Kurt Eichenwald. It’s called “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”: 

…With politicians, social leaders and even some clergy invoking a book they seem to have never read and whose phrases they don’t understand, America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy.

The Bible is not the book many American fundamentalists and political opportunists think it is, or more precisely, what they want it to be. Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is well-established. A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that evangelicals ranked only a smidgen higher than atheists in familiarity with the New Testament and Jesus’s teachings. “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it,’’ wrote … pollsters and researchers whose work focused on religion in the United States. The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, found in 2012 that evangelicals accepted the attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees—religious leaders depicted throughout the New Testament as opposing Christ and his message—more than they accepted the teachings of Jesus.

No doubt, Paul Ryan would beg to differ. But who sounds more like Jesus? Was it Ryan when he said the healthy shouldn’t be taxed to help the sick, or John Winthrop when he said “we must bear one another’s burdens”? Here’s a hint from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10:  

“One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

How Religious Persecution Was Justified by the Church

Continuing on through J. B. Schneewind’s The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy, I came to the section on the 17th-century philosopher Pierre Bayle. He was a Huguenot (a French Protestant) who lived the last 25 years of his life in Holland as a refugee from religious persecution.

One of Bayle’s books, published in 1686, was written in response to a single passage in the Bible: A Philosophical Commentary on These Words of the Gospel, Luke 14.23, ‘Compel Them to Come In, That My House May Be Full’. Here’s how Bayle explains his decision to write it:

French Gentleman … having fled for Refuge into England … told me, as we often discoursed on the Subject, That among all the Cavils with which the Missionaries [monks, priests, etc.] had pestered him, none appeared to him more senseless, and yet at the same time more thorny and perplexing, than that drawn from these words of Jesus Christ, “Compel them to come in”, in favor of Persecution, or, as they termed it, the charitable and salutary Violence exercised on Heretics, to recover them from the Error of their Ways. He let me know how passionately he desired to see this Chimera of Persecutors confounded: And fancying he observed in me not only an extreme Aversion to persecuting Methods, but something too of a Vein for entering into the true Reasons of things; he was pleased to say, he looked on me as a proper Person for such an Undertaking, and urged that, succeeding in it as he expected, I should do great Service to the Cause of Truth, and indeed to the whole World. 

Luke 14:23 was interpreted by the authorities (most famously, by St. Augustine) as one of the strongest (and possibly the strongest) biblical justification for religious persecution. It’s part of the Parable of the Great Banquet or Great Supper:

Then [Jesus] said unto him:

A certain man made a great supper, and bade many:
And sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were bidden, Come; for all things are now ready. And they all … began to make excuses.
The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused.
And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused.
And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.
So that servant came, and showed his lord these things. Then the master of the house being angry said to his servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.
And the servant said … it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room.
And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.

For I [Jesus] say unto you, that none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper.
And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said unto them,
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

Being forced to toe the religious line, by whatever means possible, was supposed to be for a sinner’s own good, but a story about “a certain man” who makes his invited guests show up for a banquet, without any mention of violence, is an amazingly weak justification for imprisoning, torturing or executing anybody. 

Bayle responds from an ethical point of view. He argues that “persecution cannot bring about the sort of inner religious devotion that would alone be pleasing to God”: 

He announces … that his mode of interpreting the [Biblical] text is entirely new. Leaving textual criticism, philology, history and mysteries entirely aside, he bases his reading on just one principle: “any literal interpretation which carries an obligation to commit iniquity is false” [281-282]

Since religious persecution was “iniquitous, unjust and destructive of any moral order in society”, Bayle concluded that Luke 14:23 couldn’t possibly justify such behavior. The Catholic officials who were persecuting the Huguenots must have misinterpreted the Bible.

I don’t know if Bayle ever responded to another passage that was used to justify religious persecution. That’s Leviticus 24:16:

And he that blasphemeth the Name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the Congregation shall certainly stone him: As well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the Name of the Lord, shall be put to death.

It’s not a parable and doesn’t seem to demand much in the way of interpretation, except for what it means to “blaspheme” or what constitutes a “congregation”. In cases like that, maybe Bayle would have responded this way: the religious authorities should have assumed God was talking to someone else, namely, the ancient Israelites.

That’s a point Spinoza made in his Theological-Political Treatise, first made public in 1677: 

But with regard to the ceremonial observances which were ordained in the Old Testament for the Hebrews only, … it is evident that they formed no part of the Divine law, and had nothing to do with blessedness and virtue, but had reference only to the election of the Hebrews, that is, … to their temporal bodily happiness and the tranquility of their kingdom, and that therefore they were only valid while that kingdom lasted. 

When others are speaking, it’s presumptuous to assume that you’re part of the conversation! A generalization like “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God” may apply to all rich men (and even rich women), but when God said unto Moses: “Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and Israel”, it doesn’t seem he was talking to the rest of us. Assuming that you’re going to give any credence at all to the words attributed to God or Jesus in the Bible, why further assume that when God commanded Moses or when Jesus said “compel them to come in”, they were giving instructions to you?

Here’s a bit more about Pierre Bayle (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

His life was devoted entirely to scholarship, and his erudition was second to none in his, or perhaps any, period. Although much of what he wrote was embedded in technical religious issues, for a century he was one of the most widely read philosophers. In particular, his Dictionnaire historique et critique was the single most popular work of the eighteenth century. The content of this huge and strange, yet fascinating work is difficult to describe: history, literary criticism, theology, obscenity, in addition to philosophical treatments of toleration, the problem of evil, epistemological questions, and much more… Said Voltaire: “the greatest master of the art of reasoning that ever wrote, Bayle, great and wise, all systems overthrows.”

In Favor of Jesus of Nazareth

Resa Aslan was involved in one of those periodic Fox News controversies last year. He was interviewed about his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and the Fox interviewer implied that Aslan, being a Muslim, wasn’t qualified to write about Jesus (that’s entertainment, folks!). In fact, although Aslan is Iranian by birth, he became a Christian after his family emigrated to the United States. Having since learned more about the origins of Christianity, however, Aslan now describes himself as “a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than [he] ever was of Jesus Christ”.

As Aslan tells the story, Jesus was born in the humble village of Nazareth, not in a manger in Bethlehem (despite what the Bible says, the Romans never conducted a census that forced everyone to stop work and travel to their birthplace). Jesus was illiterate, worked as a laborer and was probably married (almost all young Jewish men got married in those days). When he was roughly 34 years old, he left Nazareth and began preaching a politically-charged message to his fellow Jews.

At the time, there were lots of angry but hopeful Jews in Palestine. They were anticipating the arrival of a messiah, someone who would establish the Kingdom of God on earth and get rid of the Romans. Some claimed to be the messiah. Others were thought to be the messiah by their followers. Some, including Jesus, were said to have performed exorcisms or miracles. What the various preachers, dissidents, rabble rousers and zealots had in common was their nationalistic desire to kick the Romans out of Palestine and restore Israel to its former glory. 

None of these supposed messiahs claimed to be divine, however. The Jews, of course, were strictly monotheistic. It was enough that the messiah do God’s work by overthrowing the Roman oppressors. Many also hoped for economic reforms, like lower taxes. Jesus, in particular, apparently had a very low opinion of the wealthy priests and merchants who cooperated with the Romans.

Crucifixion was a common punishment for Rome’s enemies, so it was no surprise that Jesus was found guilty of sedition after a few years and executed. Being crucified, however, showed that Jesus wasn’t the messiah after all. The Romans were clearly still in power. Jesus had failed to institute the Kingdom of God. Aslan suggests that some of Jesus’s followers wanted to explain away his apparent failure. They spread the idea that Jesus rose from the dead and would one day return to finish his work. That’s when the Romans would finally be overthrown.

We know that the various books of the New Testament were written decades after Jesus’s crucifixion. We also know that almost all of it was written by men who never met Jesus, never heard him speak and never saw him perform any miracles. Aslan points out lots of inconsistencies and omissions in the New Testament and plausibly argues that many stories told about Jesus were designed to satisfy political and theological agendas. For example, claiming that Jesus was born in Bethlehem was a way to make his birthplace consistent with earlier prophecies about the messiah.

What I found especially interesting in Zealot was Aslan’s discussion of the apostle Paul, who wasn’t one of the original twelve apostles. He was a Jew and a Roman citizen who is said to have encountered an otherworldly Jesus on the road to Damascus a few years after Jesus’s crucifixion.

Whether or not Paul had a vision while traveling to Damascus, he doesn’t seem to have written anything saying that he did (the road to Damascus story is now attributed to Luke, who was apparently one of Paul’s disciples). But, according to Aslan, Paul was mainly responsible for the birth of Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism.

Jesus, of course, was hardly a Christian himself. For example, Aslan says there is no evidence that Jesus ever referred to himself as the “Son of God”. That was a title reserved for the past kings of Israel, like David. It was Paul who promoted the story that Jesus was divine and began referring to Jesus as “Jesus Christ”. Paul also founded churches in other parts of the Roman empire. In fact, more than half of the New Testament was either written by Paul or is about Paul.

Paul’s distinctive views were rejected by the other apostles (the ones who had known Jesus and were still alive), including James the Just, the younger brother of Jesus and the leading figure among the apostles after Jesus’s death. Since Paul couldn’t convince the other Jews that Jesus was divine, he concentrated on convincing the gentiles, some of whom were receptive to his relatively monotheistic message.

Of course, the historical record is extremely spotty with regard to Jesus. Some scholars no doubt disagree with Aslan’s interpretation of the evidence. A Christian, being convinced that Jesus was a unique individual who actually did perform miracles, actually was resurrected and actually was (and is) God’s son, might say it’s pointless to try to understand Jesus from an historical perspective.

In addition, Aslan never really explains why he holds Jesus of Nazareth in such high regard (even if Jesus was anti-Rome and a champion of the poor). Aslan doesn’t even emphasize Jesus’s role as a moral teacher, arguing that the idea of turning the other cheek, for example, didn’t apply to people in general – it only applied to one’s Jewish enemies (and certainly not to Romans, for whom the sword was more appropriate). But I found Aslan’s account extremely interesting and very plausible. Here is part of his concluding summary:

Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem [by the Romans in 70 C.E.] was almost exclusively a gentile religion; it needed a gentile theology. And that is precisely what Paul provided. The choice between James’s vision of a Jewish religion anchored in the Law of Moses and derived from a Jewish nationalist who fought against Rome, and Paul’s vision of a Roman religion that divorced itself from Jewish provincialism and require nothing for salvation save belief in Christ, was not a difficult one for the second and third generations of Jesus’s followers…

Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history.