As the election draws closer, we will hear more and more about the politics of Jesus, as liberals and conservatives jockey to place the shining halo of Christianity over their own heads. Without saying it, they will imply, “Jesus would have voted for me!”
Putting aside for a moment the rudeness of regularly forcing the inert pill of religious piety down the gullet of non-Christians, I think such politics are an insult to the message of Jesus as well.
My hunch is that Jesus wasn’t liberal or conservative in the traditional meaning of those words. “Liberal” and “conservative” are poles on the continuum of our political system. If the system itself is violent and exploitative, then it is not enough to be on the kindler-and-gentler end of that system. That’s like being the nicest guard in a concentration camp.
Liberals and conservatives may seem very different to most of us in the United States, but for “the wretched of the earth,” a U.S. election boils down to whether the poor will be robbed by guns or by economic agreements. In Iraq, for example, Bush’s shooting war followed by neoliberal economics has meant massive civilian death. During the Clinton administration, the harshest economic embargo in modern history peppered with occasional bombings meant massive civilian death. And through it all, the First World continues to extract wealth from the Third World.
This scenario offers us gloomy choices in the short term. So, even as we debate the merits of candidates and vote, we must keep one foot outside the sorry continuum of available options. If being spiritual means anything it means not accepting the societal conditions one has been given.
My hunch is that Jesus would be closest to what used to be called an “anarchist.” Jesus taught that any system of power is violence in the seed. He implied that any economic system that withholds a living wage from the poor is robbery. The original gospel was not meant to become the basis for the apolitical theological gymnastics taught in seminaries, nor was it a scheme to impose sectarian Christianity on the rest of the world. The “good news” the angels sang at Christmas was, “Peace on earth, good will to all!” The gospel is the message that love must reign on earth. For that peace to become a reality, the weak must be lifted up and the mighty brought low.
True Christianity is one voice in a choir that includes the prophetic voices in all religions and among those who reject religion as well. A follower of Jesus is closer to an atheist who serves humankind than a cruel but orthodox theologian who would impose a sectarian image of God on others.
The common message that every human being should be free is terrifying to those in power, whether that power is political, economic, or ecclesiastical. Two thousand years of the church’s capitulation to power and privilege does not erase Jesus’ initial call to stand with the poor and naked and nonviolently resist every empire, especially one’s own.
A Jewish defense of anarchy might similarly point out that, in the book of Samuel when Israel wanted to appoint a king, God was not happy. It might also point out that later, in 2nd Samuel, when Israel wanted to build a religious temple, God was not any happier. So in the founding stories of Israel, God rejects hierarchies of power whether national, economic, or even religious (perhaps we should say especially religious).
I know that the word “anarchist” in the propaganda of our acquisitive culture has come to mean a bomb-throwing nihilist, but the word simply means “without a leader.” It is bitterly ironic that refusing to be dominated by a leader is so frightening in the land of the “free.” Obviously anarchy is not ever completely possible in practical terms; it stands as an unobtainable polestar calling us to a world belonging to us all, where no one is slave to another.
The recent Batman movie is an expression our culture’s corporate propaganda against real freedom. The face of anarchy presented is not an actual anarchist like the Christian pacifist Tolstoy, but is caricatured in the painted face of the evil Joker who “simply wants to see the world burn.” The movie perfectly captures the hole in our nation’s view of the world. Those protecting the system of violence which exploits us are seen as saviors; those who would sabotage the systems of our captivity are lumped with the criminals and terrorists.
Anarchy is the visceral longing for a world freed of the chains of hierarchies of power. Obviously, it cannot become a large-scale political system without become a self-parody. And it becomes a nightmare when we try to impose it on the world through violence. In truth, nothing is less anarchical than violence. When anarchists sabotage systems of power or destroy property, they are not being violent. One can only be violent against living beings, which anarchy chooses as life’s ultimate value. When Jesus overturned the tables of the temple, he did not strike the money changers, but he did destroy the vessel of their exploitation of the suffering peasants.
Anarchy is a coin that does not fit any machine just now, but anarchists remind us that as long as we follow leaders who use coercion, our “freedom” is just a slogan. Christianity, like many of the world’s religions, began as a call to freedom. It’s true that in our day, most religions have become nothing more than sacred bunting for systems of oppression, but while their heart is still beating they call us to freedom even now.
So, as a Christian, while the conventions drone on I will be reading the old-time anarchists. Their simple love of humankind brings me to tears, and their outrage against all that shackles the human spirit always makes me shiver. I will remember the union organizers shot by factory “representatives.” I will honor the peasant workers in other countries who have been murdered for standing up to U.S. financial interests. And, I will remember the silence of Democrats and Republicans alike in the face of this oppression.
Finally, I will hear a call from the core of my religion to move beyond the categories of liberal or conservative, atheists, or believers, and to join hands with everyone who works for a fairer world.
The Rev. Jim Rigby is pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas and a longtime activist in movements concerned with gender, racial, and economic justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.