Being a radical in the Midwestern United States, one is often confronted with images of a conservative Jesus. A figure that is not only divine, but one that preaches social peace and obedience and deference to state and corporate power. Yet, when the traditions of Christianity, in all their variations, are investigated a radically different picture of Jesus, now largely lost, begins to emerge. Here I am speaking primarily about the conception of Jesus presented by socialists, communists, and anarchists from the the late 18th century until this representation largely disappeared in the early 1970s with the rise of the Christian Right in the United States. This Jesus was presented in varying degrees, from an absolute pacifist to a social revolutionary. Here, we will be attempting to resuscitate Jesus the social revolutionary.
Two caveats need to be stated before diving into this discussion on a “radical” Jesus. Firstly, I write this as an unapologetic atheist. I am fully aware of the irrationality, harm (both physical and ideological), and oppression that Religion has engendered. However, I am also keenly aware that religions of all types exist on a spectrum and often crop up in interesting, and often unexpected ways, something which my own personal experience can attest to. During my years as an undergraduate, and as a graduate student, I unconsciously ended up taking several courses relating to the academic study of religion. In graduate school I was also a supplemental instructor for a World Religions course, as well as acting as a graduate assistant for the same course during a different semester. The chair of my thesis committee, a person which I worked very closely with for the better part of a year, further opened my eyes to the unique intersections between religion, labor, and radical politics in everyday life, a point that often goes unnoticed or unappreciated by my fellow communists. That being said, I do not uphold the supernatural claims of any religion, although I do have respect and admiration for those who are religious and have used their religion as a weapon against oppression throughout the centuries.
Secondly, for the purpose of clarity, it is important to distinguish between Jesus and Christ. By this I mean that we should draw a clear separation between the historical figure of Jesus, and the divine figure of Christ. It is my intention to focus solely on the historical Jesus, primarily because I feel that Christ is not compatible with revolutionary politics, and because issues of divinity, attributed miracles, theology etc. are of little to no concern to our reconstruction of a radical Jesus.
Beginning from here we must ask the simple question of, “who was Jesus?” Outside of the Bible we have two accounts of Jesus’ life (from Tacitus and Josephus), however, no details survived regarding his life before his ministry. Consequently, here we must turn to the biblical account, which is still lacking in specificity, and say simply that Jesus was the child of an artisan that grew up poor in the backwaters of the Roman Empire. According to biblical accounts, and the Christian tradition, Jesus occupied a position amongst the lower to middling classes in the region of Galilee. It was Jesus’ class position that past radical interpretations of Jesus have focused on, and have suggested is crucial to understanding the doctrines of Jesus and their social origins.
By the time Jesus began his ministry, after his baptism by John, he had collected a small band of followers (disciples). While Jesus, through parables and preaching, expounded many new doctrines and buttressed old ones, here we will focus on three specifically. Firstly, Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of God. In most modern interpretations of Christianity this is described as a spiritual kingdom in heaven that will eventually become manifest physically with the return of Christ. However, the tradition of the radical Jesus presents this much differently. Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God in the Book of Luke,
And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, ‘The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’ -Luke 17:20-21, KJV
The followers of the radical Jesus have interpreted these lines quite literally. Here the kingdom of God, and Jesus himself, are not present physically (or even spiritually!) but exist as relations between people. The real kingdom is amongst the believers and amongst those who have obeyed the call to love their brothers (and sisters!). So while the kingdom of God is not a spiritual or physical place inhabited by Christ, the radical Jesus’ kingdom, according to Ernest Renan, a prominent promoter of the radical Jesus is
…’the gospel preached to the poor’. The gentle and idyllic nature of Jesus here resumes the ascendent. An immense social revolution in which ranks shall be inverted, in which all that is authoritative in this world shall be humbled, such is his dream. – The Life of Jesus, 1863
So the kingdom of God closely resembles the “brotherhood of Man” so often expounded on by Eugene Debs, himself a Christian socialist, in which social relations will be transformed and re-founded on a radically egalitarian basis. This implies a certain universalism in the message of Jesus, one that stretches across national boundaries, beyond race, sexuality, creed, and even religion. Here the message is one of a mass emancipatory project aimed at revolutionizing society by liberating humanity from oppression and alienation.
The establishment of this teaching on introducing new social relations should then lead us to examine what Jesus had to say about existing social relations and the position of the powerful in relation to this life as well as the supposed afterlife. Here, despite the twisting lies of the modern day worshipers of mammon (the Christian Right and those who preach the “Gospel of Prosperity”), it is unambiguous what Jesus said on these matters.
‘How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, ‘Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.’– Matthew 19:23-25, KJV
Having already established that the kingdom of God is new set of egalitarian social relations, it is clear that the rich of Jesus’ day are not present within the confines of these relations. This does not mean that they are personally excluded, but that their former class position is rendered extinct, through a social revolution (more on that later). Jesus’ teachings against the ruling class of his day don’t end there. Regarding the position of middlemen and financiers, Jesus held nothing but contempt for their defilement of not only the house of prayer (synagogue), but also their corrupting influence on the rest of society.
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, ‘And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.’ -Matthew 21:12-13, KJV
And what did Jesus have to say about the exploitation of Labor, was he on the side of Capital and absentee landlordism as the modern purveyors of right-wing Christianity would have us believe?
Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you. – James 5:1-6, KJV
It was this Jesus, so admired by Eugene Debs and the author Bouck White, who penned the first radical interpretation of Jesus in his Call of the Carpenter, that must be resuscitated. Both Debs and White considered the message of Jesus, which had cultivated a small but devoted following as striking fear into the hearts of the religious and political powers of Jesus’ day. According to Debs, this was the reason for Jesus’ execution.
He denounced the profiteers, and it was for this that they nailed his quivering body to the cross and spiked it to the gates of Jerusalem, not because he told men to love one another. That was a harmless doctrine. But when he touched their profits and denounced them before their people he was then marked for crucifixion.
Historically we know that this interpretation is correct, due to the fact that crucifixion was a punishment for a political crime against the State, not religious heresy. Jesus was executed because he was leading a nascent peasant and artisan based revolution in a region of the Roman Empire that was under less stringent controls due to its lack of proximity to Rome. The tradition of the radical Jesus also posits that the destruction of the temple, and the tearing of the curtain, after Jesus’ death was not a supernatural event, but a riot launched by followers and sympathizers right in the seat of the regional religious and political power.
But what does this mean in our contemporary setting? Because religion is still with us, especially now that Christianity serves as a part of the dominant ideological state apparatus used to oppress the masses, we must soberly grapple with our own interpretations of Jesus. For communists I find this question to be negligibly important. However, I do believe it is important for us to challenge the prevailing narrative, so often used to justify the existing economic and political order, on its own terms, but with a revived counter-narrative based in a biblical tradition that is just as revolutionary as it is spiritual. Even in our own secular political tradition, which correctly eschews religious dogma, many revolutionaries which we admire were at least formally like Jesus. Both Lenin and Mao operated on the peripheries of empire, and based themselves amongst the poor and downtrodden, just as Jesus did. However, we should not claim that Jesus was a communist or socialist of any sort, precisely because neither political position existed, nor could have existed during Jesus’ time. Both could only arise from a scientific assessment of capitalist society and with the emergence of the proletariat as a class, neither existed in Jesus’ time, which was marked by a pre-capitalist mode of production and social classes.
Unlike today’s Christians, many of which often uphold the “justness” of our own society, the communists are the ones who advocate for the end of the exploitation of labor, for the radical transformation of social relations, and for a mass emancipatory movement to smash the old society and build a new one, as Jesus himself did. The radical Jesus, whether we believe in the supernatural elements of Christianity or not, is an integral part of our own revolutionary tradition, one that is in dire need of resurrection.