On Jesus and social justice

A poster from Cuba depicts Jesus the revolutionary. 

By Phil Shannon

Christmas seems an appropriate time to turn to the question of the relationship between Christianity and social change. Do pacifism and non-violence, and social change through personal change — which are among the values shared by progressive Christians and secular greens — offer a way forward?

Two thousand years ago in Palestine, exploitation by Rome and its quisling Hebrew ruling class meant severe poverty, political repression and an average life expectancy of around 30 years (less if it was found out that you thought the Romans should go home).

Of the contending politico-religious groups, the Sadducees advocated collaboration with Rome. A moderate wing of the Pharisees, who represented the middle class and the lower and middle priests, embodied the strategy of timid liberal dissent — one proverb said of them "when arms clash in the street, retire to your chamber".

A more militant wing of the Pharisees supported direct action against Caesar and Herod. They eventually split to form the Zealots with a rebel force of peasants from Galilee. Intensely nationalist and religious, the Zealots adopted armed struggle and led large popular uprisings.

The Essenes rejected all political strategies in favour of cultivating personal spiritual perfection.

There were also a number of millennial sects which placed their hopes in a religious, cosmic overthrow of Rome brought about by the Messiah. The poor were comforted by this messianic hope for the reversal of the social order, a hope which has been preserved in Luke's "Sermon on the Mount":

"Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you that weep now for you shall laugh."


Where did Jesus fit into this spectrum — if he existed? The Gospels are a poor source of evidence. They were ghost-written, then rewritten by many authors, many decades after the events they purport to describe, and they are full of contradictions.

The early Jesus sect members left no written records (they were, after all, expecting the imminent Kingdom of God on earth). None of the Jewish or Roman writers of Jesus' time affirm his existence. Josephus, the major Hebrew historian of the first century AD, paid much attention to the Zealots, and to John the Baptist and other holy men who had mass followings, but he did not mention Jesus.

None of this necessarily means that Jesus did not exist, but rather pact, being just one of the many mystics, faith-healers, miracle-workers and Messiah-claimants of the time.

What is more important, particularly concerning mythologised figures such as Jesus, is the social forces these figures embody. A number of Jews had come to believe they had found in Jesus the Messiah or Christ. The variation over time from the beliefs of the early Jesus sect Jews to the later Christian Church reflect changing social conditions and outlooks.

The Gospels contain evidence of both the militant messianic Judaism of the early sect members and the conservative religion of a church making its peace with Rome.

One Jesus of the Gospels preaches an end to oppression and injustice. In Luke, "He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away".

This sort of thing was enough to have Jesus arrested. His trial and execution, however, as presented in some Gospels, betray the hand of the later church in constructing their desired image of a non-seditious Jesus. He is depicted as politically harmless, advocating pacifism and payment of tax to Rome. Another Jesus can be seen in Luke, which records the charge against Jesus as "subverting the nation, forbidding payment of tribute to Caesar".

Similarly, in the Gospels there is a Jesus who recommended loving your oppressor. Matthew's Jesus says, "resist not evil ... love your enemies ... and pray for them which despitefully use you". There is other evidence, however, that the Jesus sect had some similarities to the Zealots and their militant politics of armed struggle. Jesus' disciples carried swords and used them when Jesus was arrested.

Like the Zealots, the Jesus sect would have been regarded as a manifestation of unrest by the Roman and Hebrew ruling classes, who were unable to see much difference between the evangelical enthusiasm of religious extremists and the zeal of political activists. Josephus described the Nazarene sect (what the Christians were called prior to about 43 AD) as "another body of villains, with purer hands but more impious intentions, who ... ruined the peace of the city".

Peace with Rome

When Jesus went the way of other messianic leaders, the hopes of his followers were shattered until they came up with the belief in Jesus' resurrection and "Second Coming".

Their expectation of the imminent return of Jesus cooled during the decades of waiting. Eventually, the original messianic impulse of the Jesus sect became a pallid faith in a never-never time. The Christian Church's advice on the trials of life was now resignation and the acceptance of suffering. According to this new Christian view, the roots of people's troubles were not to be found in the political order, nor a solution in political action. This new Christian politics of resignation to suffering was born out of the crushing defeat by Rome of messianic Judaism in 70 AD. The Jesus sect had withdrawn at the start of the uprising in 66 AD and saw the attempt and the result as evidence of the futility of struggle.

Jesus was now more strongly recast as an other-worldly, divine figure, his earthly mission finished. Paul (approx. 10-64 AD), the major founder of the new Christianity, had set this trend earlier.

Paul's followers had bitter conflicts with the still recognisably Jewish Jesus sect. A major dispute over circumcision or baptism as the ritual of belief reflected a cleavage over the meaning of liberation and how to achieve it. It was of the essence of "Pauline" Christianity to separate itself from Jewish nationalism and religion in favour of a "catholic" or universal religion of the individual. Salvation in the new Christianity was to be personal, not political.

Christianity took distinctive shape during Rome's "Golden Era" from around 69 to 180 AD. With the empire at its most powerful, political conditions favoured a religion of acquiescence.

Nevertheless, Rome remained suspicious of Christianity because of its origins in messianic Judaism. In this climate, Paul's writings were used to present Christianity as politically safe. These texts instructed the Christians to behave peacefully, pay their taxes and honour and pray for the emperor and his representatives.

The Gospels were written in the political spirit of conciliatory Pauline Christianity. Mark, the earliest Gospel (about 71 AD), dissociates Jesus from Jewish nationalism, initiates the whitewashing of the Roman Pilate from tyrant to an innocent tool of a Jewish plot, and the disciple "Simon the Zealot" becomes the more pacific "Simon the Cananean".

The Gospels' anti-Jewishness was calculated to separate Christianity from the Jews and their opposition to Rome. The anti-Semitism of the early Church reinforced its message that liberation was a matter of individual salvation and not political struggle. To be sure, there was a social levelling in Pauline Christianity — rich and poor, slave and free, male and female "are all one in Christ Jesus" (Paul in Romans), but this equality was only in the realm of the spirit.

Religion and rebellion

Gradually the church convinced Rome's rulers that not only was there nothing to fear from Christianity, but that there were also gains to be had from a quietist and individualist religion. Slave-owners were also to be part of the Christian family — the first "Letter of Peter" urged slaves to be "submissive to your masters with all respect", as did Paul's letters.

Church and state gradually realised a mutuality of interests. Its usefulness to institutional power was made possible by its dual role. Christianity attracted yet immobilised the oppressed.

Subsequent ruling classes also recognised the social utility of Christianity. Napoleon Bonaparte was particularly blunt: "Christianity", he wrote, "relegates to the Heavens the idea of equality so that the rich are not massacred here on Earth".

Yet for every Constantine, Napoleon or Billy Graham, Christianity's appeal to the oppressed has also acted as a spur to revolt. Peasant revolts in England in the 14th century, for example, were stoked by Christian propagandists such as John Ball who based their egalitarianism on the Gospels.

In the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, revolutionary artisans displayed posters of Jesus which read "Jesus of Nazareth, First Representative of the People". South Carolina Baptists produced a defence of slavery in 1822 citing Paul's letters, but in 1831 the black preacher Nat Turner led a Virginia slave revolt in which 60 white plantation owners were killed.

The 20th century found the Reverend Martin Luther King, Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Australian priest Brian Gore in the forefront of people's struggles. Catholic Cubans made a socialist revolution. Catholic Nicaraguans overthrew dictator Somoza. Liberation theology swept Central and South America with its message that to be truly Christian, Christians must oppose the capitalist class — by force, if necessary. 

[In the 21st century, Catholic Venezuelans are deepening their revolution as it winds it way towards the socialist goal. In the Islamic Arab world, dictator after dictator are being toppled or toppling.]

While there is exploitation and oppression, religion, as Marx put it, will act as "the expression of real distress and a protest against real distress", particularly where people lack confidence in their own capacity to remake their world anew. Religion can be an inspiration and aid to their struggle against the Caesars of our day, or it may stifle and divert it into ineffectual prayer and introspective spirituality.

[A version of this article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper, on December 11, 1991.]