Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter and Commie Jesus: New Testament or Second Bill of Rights?

or Jesus told me to vote for a Caesar that would take your money and give it to me

WWJD? He'd have you vote for Progressive Caesar.
Been noticing a lot of memes about what a communist Jesus was and how he thought everyone should be communist.

This got me thinking about, among other things, the shift in thinking over Christianity's first century from a communal bunch of disciples waiting for the Second Coming to more independent Christian households looking to occupy themselves as the salt of the earth.  The statement "If anyone will not work, neither let him eat"* has such a realist, capitalist character to it for the years in which Christian communities started to dig in for the long haul (which would last thousands of years).

Another distinction: Obama's
kingdom IS of this world.
It is only in the early years of Christianity that there is the general expectation that converts will give up their worldly goods to the community of believers--an expectation so irresistible that new converts lie about the goods they elect to keep to themselves.  The emphasis on helping the unfortunate and vulnerable becomes a more general injunction to not "be so heavenly that one is no earthly good" (as the modern saying goes).

A related meme I saw recently was one showing the Pope flying in his private airplane and comparing him to Christ who supposedly would have been toting around the poor with him in his private airplane.  Jesus did travel by private boat, and while we don't know that he never took "the poor" with him, we are given the impression that he often sought conclusion and often traveled with only his inner circle of disciples with him.

Jesus irritates Judah Iscariot at some point by accepting a lavish gift from an acolyte.  Judah maintains that the gift could have helped so many poor people, and Jesus claims (in so many words) that the wasteful misuse of wealth was inspired by the Holy Spirit.  The narrative indicates that like a scandalous televangelist Judah was planning to misuse the funds himself.

Jesus routinely lives by the hospitality of others.  It would appear that Lazarus and his sisters own property and not only entertain Jesus but large groups of his followers.  How much the travels of Jesus and his companions are funded by the businesses of his followers we don't know.  Some of his inner circle abandon their fishing businesses in Galilee and we don't know how well those businesses ran themselves.  It should be said that Jesus probably spent many a night on the ground and was likely at least as accustomed to poverty as to opulence.  He has a reputation as a partyer, as he didn't seem to avoid feasts where there were wine, women, and song.  He no doubt seemed wasteful to many.  His own mother fully expected him to solve a wine shortage at a wedding.

Given the interaction between Iscariot and Jesus, and the reminders in the gospel narratives that the apostles were often missing the point of what Jesus was saying, it could make one wonder whether the idea that Jesus wanted them to live as a commune until his return was as mistaken an assumption as the idea that he was returning to them in the same generation.

But there is an interesting tension in people's thoughts about the person of Jesus, specifically with those who are looking for grounds to reject organized religion or traditional religion.  Many of those who do, it seems, will gravitate to Jewish Jesus or to New Age Jesus, that is, to a story of Jesus as merely a Jewish reformer in the spirit of Gamliel or a story of Jesus as a Hindu guru who is trying to convey New Age truths to backward monotheists.  Some people, inexplicably, assent to both narratives in  some vague conceptual fog, allowing them to criticize Saul of Tarsus for being too Jewish (in his morĂ©s about gender roles) and for being too anti-Jewish (in his supposed expanded concept of grace beyond what Reformer Jesus intended).  Jesus becomes at once becomes an advocate against the Christian concept of grace and a reformer rejecting Mosaic morality.

This is all a thought-provoking backdrop, I think, to the cultural battle over whether Christianity means entrusting the government with our Christian duties (as Elizabeth Warren seems to believe).  Is the Mosaic  respect for property rights (thou shalt not covet, thou shalt not steal) something unbecoming to modern Christians, making libertarianism (along with the republicanism of the Federalist Papers) antithetical to Christianity?  Or is both libertarianism and Christianity in accord with voluntary support for the poor?  Are they not both antithetical to involuntary support for the poor?  The only act of coercion attributed to Jesus was against the commercialization and merchandizing of spirituality in the Temple.  In this he does not seem to be railing against either commerce or capitalism but against a Temple-trader monopoly that allowed people to be charged/taxed with exorbitant fees to fulfill their religious obligations, and against the the profanity of it being allowed in the Temple itself?

There is a conflict in many Christians between the reality of being community members providing for their families and the austerity suggested by Christ in abandoning familial responsibilities for the cause, between trusting fully in grace and the perfection of "go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven", between the simplicity of penitence and the implication that heaven will reject the one that doesn't loudly and proudly claim Jesus as his spiritual leader.  Between the gospel spoken of by Paul in his letter to the Galatians and the hard gospel described in John MacArthur's The Gospel According to Jesus.  Between the burden that is easy and light and the small gate to the narrow road.

Ironic anti-capitalist
merchandizing of spirituality
Also, buy the baseball cap
And what about Jesus' death?  I don't think it makes much sense to most people, Christian or not, that God would require a man, perfect or otherwise, to suffer an agonizing death before being willing and able to forgive transgressions.   Perhaps it is something that we can only understand imperfectly, if at all.  If it is unlikely that the Apostles were willing to die terrible deaths themselves for a man whose resurrection was faked, maybe the man that survived crucifixion might be a little on the inscrutable side.  I don't think people have tried that hard to understand the nature of the "good news" that he taught before he died for our sins.  What basis for forgiveness did he teach?  How did he say people could be put right with their Creator?  What specifically was the good news?

But it seems more than a little insipid to say that he simply said that people should all be nice to each other and that this is the crux and gist of his message.  And at least as insipid--and irresponsible--to suggest that his message was essentially that people are obligated to trust in a worldly empire that defines and enforces a right to other people's money.  Are we to no longer make distinction between what is Caesar's to take and what is God's?  "Render unto Caesar that which is God's, because Caesar is God's man"?

All of this makes me wonder whether it is neither the case that Jesus was simply a wise teacher, nor that Christendom (or the New Age movement, for that matter) has well understood the spiritual life offered by Jesus.  It's a deeper mystery that shouldn't be exploited -- not for the financial gain of "ministers," not for the opportunism of "altruistic" politicians, and not for the self-righteous glory of social reformers.

Anti-capitalist propaganda equating supply-side economics
with a celebration of wealth and a lack of concern for the poor.

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