The Radical Jesus: A Revolutionary Gospel?

The gospel of Jesus was one of the earliest influences on my life. Raised Pentecostal, the teachings of Jesus and the stories of the early Christians came together with my childhood experiences to shape a radically countercultural theology. Jesus wasn’t just a savior promising us heaven above, but a revolutionary forming a nonviolent organized counterforce in the context of Roman Imperialism. The parallels seemed obvious, then, and in some ways still do.

About 14 years ago, my orthodox core beliefs dissolved into a more worldly radical politics. Though somewhat fluid, my present religious views could be called post-Christian pantheist-leaning naturalism. My primary community for living into this is a liberal Quaker meeting.

I will draw from a variety of lines of thought on the gospel passage in question, from historical criticism, atheist skepticism, traditional doctrines, philosophical approaches, social context analyses, my own personal experience, and doubtless others. How this will work together is, no doubt, problematic. However, the conversation is one that seems to me is begging to be had.

A basic starting-point is the question of Jesus’s historical status. Was he a singular human being identifiable in the way we recognize one of the Caesars of that era? Having read dozens of pieces that both reject and defend that possibility, I will take for the present an agnostic stance. Jesus may have been one single human being, a fused portrait of several different persons, a personification of a certain community’s prophetic aspirations, or he may be a complete fiction.

However, in focusing on a single passage as I will, the intent is to put forward the question, is the character of Jesus necessarily bound up with the conservative religion that dominates our society? Can Jesus’s character be claimed for a more progressive and radical view of social questions? The answer seems to me to be that, indeed, Jesus is obviously inspirational for significant segments of today’s progressive social movements. How that inspiration arises from the text in question will hopefully be illustrated as I proceed.

Luke 6:17-49 (New Living Translation)17 When they came down from the mountain, the disciples stood with Jesus on a large, level area, surrounded by many of his followers and by the crowds. There were people from all over Judea and from Jerusalem and from as far north as the seacoasts of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those troubled by evil spirits were healed. 19 Everyone tried to touch him, because healing power went out from him, and he healed everyone.

 

The character of Jesus described here is that of a teacher with dedicated students (disciples), widespread popularity, and healing power. Whereas popular evangelicalism pictures Jesus as preaching individual salvation, this passage is about the gathering of a community, an organized mass of followers. What is teaching if it is not intended to shape the behavior of the learners?

The disciples/students of Jesus left their various work-lives to follow Jesus. Their new work was to learn from Jesus in order to spread his teachings and practice. They shared all their financial means in common, not by selling, buying, or other kinds of work, seemingly living by the generosity of their avid listeners.

Modern approaches to Jesus tend to ignore the assertions that Jesus was a healer, however, this is a constant theme throughout all four gospels. Moderns tend to see this as obviously mythical, or at best religious fanaticism at work. There are many modern examples of healing preachers in our world, and many of them have been exposed as frauds.

My personal testimony may be instructive here. My native Pentecostalism emphasized the healing ministry throughout my life. At an early age, I experienced a “healing” episode that is still claimed by most members of my family as a genuine miracle.

While I remain skeptical about the supernatural, what is important here is to point out that in this era, practically all of humanity believed in miracles, gods, demons, and other mythical realities. The difference between the early Christians and Graeco-Roman culture on this point was literally zero. There was no such thing as a radical activism that wasn’t also a religious activism.

Supernaturalism cuts both ways, in my view. If the supernaturalism of the early Christians was in many ways indistinguishable from that of the Greeks and Romans, why do we insist that all Christians today must be supernaturalists? Is it possible to be a modern, secular Christian? Many have openly argued so, and many more hold it secretly.

However, it is important to also respect what it meant to be a healer in that culture, for people to believe they were healed of their diseases and evil spirits. On a general level, this means physically approaching the sick and demon-afflicted people and listening to their needs. As is often stated in the gospels, this means being full of “compassion.” As a modern, I don’t believe that Jesus literally expelled viruses and invisible beings from people’s bodies and minds. However, I do believe that genuine compassionate acts of listening, offering comforting advice, and invoking the power of the God in whom the people believed willl prove powerfully therapeutic.

My own experience shapes this assertion. For several years, I was personally involved in healing prayer ministry with a charismatic church. In hindsight, this practice didn’t produce absolute miracles, but it did produce powerful emotional encounters with hurting people. Even as a modernist, I can appropriate that ministry of compassionate listening to hurting people.

What do I mean by “radical” in this connection? This will become clearer in the closer analysis of the Sermon, but for now I will commit myself to not arguing anachronistically that Jesus was identical with modern socialists or anarchists. While anachronism is ultimately unavoidable, it is still good discipline to seek to understand the past on its own terms. After all, popular Christianity is very much guilty of importing modern assumptions into their doctrines.

The context of the radicalism that I will identify is that of a minority culture’s,  that is, 1st Century Judaism’s protest against the imperialism of Rome. The gospel of Jesus was one expression of this protest. In this context, modern concerns about democracy, for example, are not immediately relevant. I will try to identify key themes within this Sermon that connect with our modern social concerns, but also illuminate how the early Christians criticized the dominant social order in their own terms.

20 (Contemporary English Version) Jesus looked at his disciples and said: God will bless you people who are poor. His kingdom belongs to you! 21God will bless you hungry people. You will have plenty to eat! God will bless you people who are crying. You will laugh!22God will bless you when others hate you and won’t have anything to do with you. God will bless you when people insult you and say cruel things about you, all because you are a follower of the Son of Man. 23Long ago your own people did these same things to the prophets. So when this happens to you, be happy and jump for joy! You will have a great reward in heaven.

 

It is very easy for modern readers to miss the political character of these lines. This is why I chose this gospel rather than Matthew’s version, which adds the phrase “poor in spirit” which weakens the social dimension, at least for modern readers. In first century cultures, “in spirit” actually meant to emphasize the divine favor towards the poor, not describe some sort of interior attitude of neediness.

From my post-Christian pantheist-leaning viewpoint, I would translate the first part of passage in this way, “Universal principles of justice demand favor for all who are poor, a perfected social order is their rightful possession. Universal generosity demands favor for all the world’s hungry, giving them more than enough to eat. Universal compassion demands favor for those in sorrow and distress, joyous laughter must be given to them.”

God, in the early Christian view, was the infinite or universal giver of justice, abundance, and compassion. A modern mindset that these “gifts” are just constructs or abstract ideals was foreign to that era. However, as we examine the origins of Western philosophy in Plato, for example, we see that the Eternal Ideas which Plato proposed arose from his consideration of the truth of Greek myths about their gods. Plato proposed cleaning up those stories and giving them a rational form, which leads directly to our modern philosophy where these qualities of justice, beauty, and good are now taken as ideals.

I propose that we read “kingdom” as a somewhat generic term for any social order, not just monarchies. When linked with the ideals of justice, generosity, and compassion we have the formulation “perfected social order.” While we moderns are suspicious of promises of perfected societies, there was no such hesitation among early Christians, who had faith in a miracle-working God of Love and Justice.

The next phrases are aimed less at general groups like the poor and hungry and more directly at the followers of Jesus’s movement. Even if the existing society and its powers reject them, as they almost inevitably will, these followers have the reminder that their calling is to the universal ideals, even in the face of ridicule and apparent defeat.  This willingness to stay committed in hard times certainly has something to say to modern radicals.

The reward for staying committed to the struggle is said here to be in “heaven.” Marx and other radicals have often taken umbrage at this apparently otherworldliness. In this context, it need not be taken as referring to an afterlife, but as we noted earlier to an ideal realm that is the source of justice. In other words, the reward of committed radicals won’t come from the present system, but from the fulfillment of their ideals, whether that is understood as something abstract or as future.

24But you rich people are in for trouble. You have already had an easy life! 25You well-fed people are in for trouble. You will go hungry! You people who are laughing now are in for trouble. You are going to cry and weep! 26You are in for trouble when everyone says good things about you. That is what your own people said about those prophets who told lies.

 

For social radicals, this passage is bound to spur some pleasure. Yes! Let the capitalists starve! While some liberals may have some pause about the apparent vengefulness in these warnings, such worries don’t trouble the gospel writers.

The attitude towards social injustices taken here isn’t the liberal idea of simply spreading wealth around, but the more realistic view, at least in that context, that if we give wealth to the poor as they deserve it, the rich will literally starve. Our modern industrialized agricultural abundance wasn’t even a remote possibility.  Not just economic injustice, but also more intangible privilege is criticized here, “You are in trouble when everyone says good things about you.”

27This is what I say to all who will listen to me: Love your enemies, and be good to everyone who hates you. 28Ask God to bless anyone who curses you, and pray for everyone who is cruel to you. 29If someone slaps you on one cheek, don’t stop that person from slapping you on the other cheek. If someone wants to take your coat, don’t try to keep back your shirt. 30Give to everyone who asks and don’t ask people to return what they have taken from you. 31Treat others just as you want to be treated.
32If you love only someone who loves you, will God praise you for that? Even sinners love people who love them. 33If you are kind only to someone who is kind to you, will God be pleased with you for that? Even sinners are kind to people who are kind to them. 34If you lend money only to someone you think will pay you back, will God be pleased with you for that? Even sinners lend to sinners because they think they will get it all back.
35But love your enemies and be good to them. Lend without expecting to be paid back. [a] Then you will get a great reward, and you will be the true children of God in heaven. He is good even to people who are unthankful and cruel. 36Have pity on others, just as your Father has pity on you.

 

This passage follows directly upon the passage about the reversal of the fortunes of the rich and the poor, the privilege and exploited. In a sense, it is answering the question, how should we prepare ourselves for the great reversal? Do we arm ourselves to kill the rich and seize their property?

It seems to me that Jesus rejects that idea in favor of recognizing that a perfected social order cannot be built on insurrectionary violence or vengeance killings. While overthrowing the privileges of the wealthy and even a fairly destructive process of redistribution aren’t ruled out, what is ruled out is treating anyone, even former enemies and oppressors, as objects of hate and violence. The motivation for such generous nonviolence is the appeal to God, to the universal ideals of justice.

In fact, this passage is followed up by even more pointed advice to those committed to this movement for a perfected social order of justice, generosity, and compassion. It directs comrades to practice impartial and generous forgiveness with each other. Jesus seems to be less concerned with exactly how to overthrow the system than how to keep that system from infecting his mission. While today we have models of nonviolent rebellion such as Gandhi, Dr. King, and others, recalling the concerns of this gospel is nevertheless an important note.

If nonviolent revolution is simply about pursuing the same goals as a violent one without lethal means, how is that really any better than the violent revolution? This message of Jesus seems to be if we are really committed to universal ideals of justice, we can’t betray them without doing damage to their eventual realization.

We all know about revolutions that were carried out with high ideals only to descend into inhuman destructiveness. I won’t name any specific ones, but only emphasize that if we don’t want to repeat that recurring mistake, today’s would-be revolutionaries would be well-advised to take a few lessons from Jesus.

37Jesus said: Don’t judge others, and God won’t judge you. Don’t be hard on others, and God won’t be hard on you. Forgive others, and God will forgive you. 38If you give to others, you will be given a full amount in return. It will be packed down, shaken together, and spilling over into your lap. The way you treat others is the way you will be treated. 39Jesus also used some sayings as he spoke to the people. He said: Can one blind person lead another blind person? Won’t they both fall into a ditch? 40Are students better than their teacher? But when they are fully trained, they will be like their teacher.
41You can see the speck in your friend’s eye. But you don’t notice the log in your own eye. 42How can you say, “My friend, let me take the speck out of your eye,” when you don’t see the log in your own eye? You show-offs! First, get the log out of your own eye. Then you can see how to take the speck out of your friend’s eye.
43A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit. 44You can tell what a tree is like by the fruit it produces. You cannot pick figs or grapes from thornbushes. 45Good people do good things because of the good in their hearts. Bad people do bad things because of the evil in their hearts. Your words show what is in your heart.

 

This passage obviously doesn’t touch on many questions that today’s radicals would have in addressing the question of religion. Atheists will doubtless still insist that the illusory character of modern religion is an open invitation for absurdity and atrocity. I can only offer a bit more of my personal story and some reflections.

In the early 70s, while living in a small town in Illinois, my father invited a group of “Jesus Freaks” – long-haired folk-rock singing evangelists – to give a concert in the park. My father was encountering disaffected young radicals as they dropped out of the nearby university and set up crash pads and communes in our town and hoped this effort would reach them. This concert in the park changed forever my perception of what Jesus was doing. My religious and social conscience began to protest against the alienation and suffering around me, the evils of racism, capitalism, and militarism. Even after my religious views shifted, I still have to admit that my politics came from my religion, not instead of it.

In a nation such as the USA, where over 80% identify at some level with the Christian message, how can anyone expect a social revolution to succeed without directly appealing to that cultural tradition? In fact, there is evidence, which I’ve barely touched on, that some form of progressive egalitarian society is much more in keeping with the teachings of Jesus than the militarized capitalistic racist society we now have. I remain convinced that without a Religious Left movement, the Religious Right will become our future, not the blessings promised to the poor and hungry.

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4 thoughts on “The Radical Jesus: A Revolutionary Gospel?

  1. Charlie, really great essay! I’ve been working on a book along the same lines and my Bible blog shares some of my thinking on Jesus as radical, nonviolent anti-imperial insurgent. Specifically, there’s a thread on the Beatitudes that I think you might find interesting, and one on the politics of passion week. Check out the Categories links in the column to the right with these titles, if you’re interested.

    Also, I wonder whether you know the work of Walter Wink on The Powers? These books present what amounts to a modern sociology of New Testament angelology angled toward social justice witness in our time. Truly remarkable work. He argues that Jesus was offering what Wink calls a “third way” as an alternative to violent oppression and violent revolution, a way of radical nonviolent resistance coupled with the building of a true alternative way of living together.

    For instance, in Engaging the Powers, he develops an analysis of the “resist not evil” passage you quote (“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, etc”) that he had first published in an earlier work against South African apartheid that casts these sayings in an all new light, one of creative, radical nonviolent resistance. Fits right in with your message.

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the potential of a radical religious movement for social change, not just as a counterweight to the Christian right, which has it all wrong, but as a positive, creative force in its own right. The teachings of Jesus offer a coherent, comprehensive vision for a more just and compassionate society, what I call the planks in the platform for a common-wealth of God. They are, at the least, a great place to start. And religious communities offer a ready-made infrastructure for living in that commonwealth.

    The problem, as I see it, is that modern Christianity is the religion of Paul, not of Jesus. Pauline Christianity accommodates empire; it spiritualizes the religion, abandoning the “kingdom of God” as you have defined it for metaphysical states, the afterlife and the endtimes, rather than building concrete alternatives to oppression and suffering; and it pathologically focuses on sin, judgment and salvation, rather than on healing, creativity and community. The inertia of this tradition, now nearly two millennia old, is—well, I can’t really imagine turning it around.

    What to do? I keep studying, thinking, and writing, praying, meditating and worshipping, trying to be faithful to my own leadings, hoping that G*d (whatever is behind my own religious experience) is working not just in me but in the always surprising, emergent movement of the spirit everywhere. It is the characteristic of spiritual movements, like all geometric progressions, that, by the time you realize that something is actually happening, you’re already pretty far along the curve.

    Anyway, I am really glad to find a fellow-traveler. I look forward to exploring your work more fully.

    Steven

  2. Luke 6:24 (New Century Version) “But how terrible it will be for you who are rich, because you have had your easy life.” Luke 6:24 in the context of Luke must include the understanding that the “rich” that the LORD is referring to are those that will not lend to the poor or if they lend it will only be with the intent of themselves becoming richer. Luke 6:35 shows that it is good to have riches, so that you will be able to lend to the poor to help them not be poor. The very rich want the general public to renounce money so that they can have it all.

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