28 March 2013

For Good Friday – a meditation on the political economy of Our Lord

It may seem ill-fitting to speak of the economics of Jesus Christ on the day on which we remember his death. After all, that death was the means by which death itself was defeated, and the powers of the earth (though they did not know what they were doing) ultimately failed to wield death, their ultimate power, against the Son of Man who will one day sit in judgement of us all. To speak of something as this-worldly as economics in the awe-inspiring, numinous light of Jesus’ death and holy resurrection may seem somewhat… petty. But we have to remember that the combined powers of the Sanhedrin, the Roman Empire and their Herodian puppet-king executed Jesus because they feared him for his message, and that message carried political and economic implications as well as spiritual ones. Indeed, because many in the Sanhedrin (such as the Sadducees) simply did not believe in Jesus’ message of eternal life, the political and economic dimensions were of greater concern to them. If we are to believe in the way of Our Lord, the true manner in which he lived his own life and by which we are to order our own, of course we are called to heed his spiritual message. But if we take seriously the message of Jesus, that thought, word and deed are of equal importance, that theory and practice are to be united rather than separate, we ignore the political and economic inferences of his message at the world’s peril and our own. We risk becoming like the Essenes or the Gnostics rather than like the early Christians.

It is only analogically and in literary terms that we can hope to understand the meaning of Jesus’ self-sacrifice. (As one of my references, of course, I take Ched Myers’ excellent literary-historical reading of the Gospel of St Mark, Binding the Strong Man.) If we crudely try to impose the economic and political categories of (post-)modernity on Jesus and his world, it stands to reason that we will get a warped view of the end result. Thus you will see everywhere online lazy exegesis and quote-mining to prove a ‘cookie-cutter Jesus’ – it’s common to see ‘Jesus was a socialist!’, ‘Jesus was a capitalist!’, ‘Jesus was an anarchist!’, ‘Jesus was a liberal!’, ‘Jesus was a conservative!’, with each interpretation using its favourite out-of-context Scriptural quotes (with the Sermon on the Mount and the Parable of the Talents being subject to the greatest degree of such abuse) to prove its point. The Gospels are not allowed to speak for themselves, but are used as tools to promote modern-day political agendas which have very little to do with the Kingdom of Heaven Our Lord proclaimed has come near.

Some of these abuses are easy enough to debunk with counter quote-mines. The people who believe that the Parable of the Talents indicates that Jesus was a neoliberal who approved of usury are obviously, studiously missing the point of the parable, whose broad context is the Parable of the Bridesmaids, the Parable of the Wicked Servants and the foretold Judgement of the Nations. Jesus was very clearly not encouraging literal investment or literal usury (by literal slaves, for that matter), but criticising those in positions of trust and authority who did not do their duty: people who claimed to tend to the law, but failed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick. Others are not so easy to parse. Instead, it is wiser to review the political and religious context in which Jesus lived and preached, and attempt to reason by analogy from those, rather than working backwards from a modern political ideology which we attempt to impose back onto Scripture.

During Jesus’ time, the Hasmonean kingdom had been replaced with a Roman client kingdom, the Herodian state. Religious authority was invested in the Second Temple and its legal scholars. Various political-religious parties had variously formed around (or in opposition to) these nuclei of political, economic and cultural power. What follows are ‘rough sketches’ of their beliefs, along with some parallels to modern-day groups which might be drawn from them:
  • The Seduqim (Sadducees) – Scriptural literalists who accepted only the Torah and a selection of written works as authoritative, and who preached ontological and metaphysical voluntarism along with a denial of the afterlife. They were one of the parties who dominated the Second Temple establishment of the time, and can be analogically likened to Scriptural literalists in our own time – conservative evangelicals and fundamentalist Protestants, who are likewise narrowly voluntaristic and dogmatic, and who (though they proclaim a literal afterlife) are notably worldly in their concerns, with their afterlife often taking the form of a physical ‘rapture’.

  • The Perushim (Pharisees) – followers of the oral traditions which would become Midrash, the Perushim were the forebears of modern Judaism, who placed a high priority on ritual purity and cleanliness. Also one of the parties which dominated the Second Temple establishment, they did believe in an afterlife and also in a form of predestination – but they placed an emphasis on individual moral self-sufficiency. Though not ‘bourgeois’ in the narrow use associated with Marx, they were certainly quite ‘bourgeois’ in Berdyaev’s sense of the word: focussed narrowly on material concerns and individual piety through the Law. Being so focussed on individual health, property and purity, they had insufficient concern left over for the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the sick and the indebted. Modern liberals, libertarians and followers of moralistic therapeutic deism take note!

  • The Isiyim (Essenes) – ascetics with an intentional-community lifestyle who withdrew from society and preached an immanent end to the world. In common with some religious communist communities, they shared all their property in common and treated each other as equals, but believed that the rest of the world was damned. In modern times, they can be compared with the various schismatic and sectarian millennial movements which have chosen self-isolation to the neglect of the community: in the United States, the Radical Reformers (particularly the Amish and the Hutterites) are perhaps the best-known examples.

  • The Kana’im (Zealots) – people who preached an immanent (and violent!) end to the Roman occupation of Judaea, often associated with assassins (Sicarii) and ‘social banditry’. Often they came from, and preached liberation to, the lower rungs of society – and were often the targets of crucifixion by the Romans. It is understandable to find in their preferred methods and ideology some distinct parallels with Marxism, liberation theology and other forms of revolutionary socialism… and it should be noted that at his crucifixion, Jesus was placed alongside two such ‘criminals’ (as over-against the Roman Empire and the Second Temple establishment), indicating empathy as well as solidarity.

  • The Herodian clique – people who collaborated with the Roman puppet regime, most notably including ‘tax collectors’ (who may have been aligned with Rome for purely pragmatic reasons) along with more ideological collaborators who had Roman sympathies or religious affiliation. The ideology of power is certainly not a new one; nor is apologetics for the Kingdom of Caesar. One can certainly find echoes of it in modern liberal interventionism and neoconservatism.

  • The Baptisers – led by St John the Baptist, this small group taught non-violent rejection of Roman rule and ‘repentance of sins’, which amounted to a radical renunciation of involvement in debt structures and purity codes. Our Lord was explicitly a member of this group, until he began taking followers of his own.

In Scripture, it becomes clear that the approach of Our Lord in the social realm is opposed in a number of ways to several of these movements. Obviously there are strong and direct denunciations of the Second Temple establishment in Scripture – the scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These take direct issue with a number of the basic tenets of their political and economic approaches, of course – the Pharisees he charges with tithing mint and dill and cumin but neglecting the weightier matters of the law, like justice and mercy, so concerned are they with individual piety. He told his followers to do as they do in terms of following the law, but also cautioned that it wasn’t enough. Our Lord also took issue with the Sadducees’ propertarian treatment of women in marriage, turning their own loaded question about the afterlife back upon them. Jesus was neither a classical liberal convinced of the self-sufficiency of individual moral judgement and practical reason, nor was he a fundamentalist concerned with legalistic and literalistic interpretations of Scripture.

Likewise with Our Lord’s approach in the realm of economics. If he is to be analogically likened to the socialists, he is emphatically not of the parliamentary sort or the authoritarian sort. The libertarian criticisms of Jesus-as-state-socialist are actually valid; the kingdom of God is not like the kingdom of Caesar (which is not, of course, to say that the kingdom of Caesar has no place – he cautioned those indebted to Caesar to repay to him what they owed him, and repay to God what they owe to God). But it has to be noted likewise that neither is he a fan of the marketplace, as is shown in the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes. The disciples ask Jesus if he should send the multitudes away to buy food at the market – and Jesus told them that wasn’t necessary. He told them that sharing what they had with the multitudes would be enough; and to their surprise, it was. The communal, mutualist economics of Our Lord are shown to be diametrically opposed to the self-interested logic of markets. (I think I hardly need make mention of that scuffle Jesus had with the Temple moneychangers?)

But, unlike the Isiyim, Jesus did not advocate seclusion from or disengagement from, let alone damnation of, the world. He told his disciples to be leaven: the ingredient in the bread, though transient and of a different nature from the bread, which transfigures it from within. And he told his disciples to live by example. The kingdom of God would not come about through political violence – whether of the imperial-interventionist or of the revolutionary kind. Nor will it come about by taking the Pharisaical, atomistic individual attitude of ‘it’s not my problem’ endemic to bourgeois liberals and libertarians, or by withdrawing completely from and refusing to participate in society as the Amish do. It starts with solidarity, and with hearts and hands in the heavy labour of engaging the world where they are.

The mystery of the Resurrection which this week we commemorate stands at the centre of what we are as the Body of Christ. Our Lord dies to be risen again, and dies so that the world might again know life. He dies and is risen to remind us that we are not sufficient to ourselves, but need each other as we needed him. These are not mere empty pieties, recited half in sleep on a Sunday morning; they are directives. They make claims not just upon our beliefs but upon our words and deeds as well. This is something the Church must remember.


  1. I suspect that most of the mainstream Left uses “socialist Jesus” more or less as a way to annoy the Religious Right. I am not sure about how serious they are about the depiction, whereas there is a very large literature on the Right devoted to proving that Jesus was a supporter of capitalism or at least not very critical of the wealthy or markets or usury, etc.

    That being said, I still think Christian approaches to economics should probably fall on the Left somewhere, with the main controversy being the role of the State, which is a hard question to deal with.

  2. Oh, absolutely. The fact that Yeshua ben Yosef was executed beside two of the Kana'im demonstrates within the Gospel narrative that his sympathies were with those who at the time were on the radical 'left' (as against the Herodian clique, the Romans and the Temple establishment, which conspired to have him executed). There's no doubt in my mind that Our Lord was 'on the Left somewhere'.

    But, as you say, the hard question is how we deal with the post-Enlightenment transferral of the demands of caritas (welfare, health-care, homeless shelters, etc.) from the Church to the State. The Randroids, the Paulbots and the devotees of Norquist and Arthur Brooks who say that the Church is and should still be able to front the whole cost of that burden are, at best, delusional. At worst, they argue in bad faith toward those who deserve our caritas. The Pope emeritus is clear on the matter: states do and should have a role to play whether we like it or not.

    But we still have to deal with this paradox that Pilate is not (as one Protestant theologian once said in critique of Niebuhr) the 'man of the hour' in the Gospel story.