Observing Jesus as a political figure



Opinion Columnist Caleb Stekl poses the question of why people should view Jesus as a political figure.

CALEB STEKL, Opinion Columnist

Christianity gets a bad rep these days, especially among left liberals who think that any religiosity whatsoever is inherently oppressive, anti-feminist and most definitely patriarchal. Having a god is the ultimate recipe for disaster, both politically and socially. Does not the history of Christianity confirm this, from genocidal and racist crusades to the contemporary fundamentalism of the evangelical Right? Social and political harmony could be achieved if only people gave up on their dogmatic and irrational beliefs in a transcendent deity and, instead, believed in the cold rationality of late capitalism. Such easy solutions, however, are always suspicious.

There are certain quotes by Jesus from the New Testament that should make not only left liberal atheists uneasy but also the hardline evangelicals who proselytize the good Word in the name of discrimination and xenophobia. For example: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law…” (Matthew 10:34-9). This is just one of many passages in which the traditional picture of Jesus as the olive-branch-wielding pacifier is flipped on its head.

What we are presented with here is the image of a Jesus who is violent, not peaceful: a Jesus who seeks to incite disorder and upheaval, rather than creating the harmonious society left liberals and conservatives both like to envision. One should be very attentive to the targets of such violence, though. In these passages, Jesus is not saying we should actually hate or kill our parents or family. His message is much more politically explosive: we should hate the inherently exploitative and unequal power relations that dominate our social and political existences, and our violence should be directed at destroying those relations.

If Jesus is a political figure, then, and if we are going to be good Christians, we must take this message seriously. The patriarchal relations that Jesus was railing against are the same relations of domination that sustain contemporary capitalism. We still suffer from the same oppressive family relationship and, at a more political level, we have simply exchanged the imperial Roman empire and its authoritarian character for our own American empire. It is perversely ironic that the same place Jesus was heroically proselytizing against the Roman empire is today the site of the Palestinian fight against Israeli domination. This is precisely what Alain Badiou meant when he said that, observing the (lack of) historical progress of western civilization, “We are still Neolithic.”   

So, what are we to do with this message of violence? Our first target should be the left liberal atheists who demand we renounce any politics based in theology. As soon as we renounce any transcendent belief in a greater Good and demand that people shed their ideological attachments, we surrender ourselves to the logic of market-based identity politics. I am certain that Jesus, the man who believed in the illegitimacy of private property, would scoff at the idea of inequality being sustained no matter who occupies the seat of power. If it is the egalitarian image of Jesus that motivates people to fight for the Good instead of the spitting image of Karl Marx or Michelle Foucault, so be it! Our second target is, of course, the Right who distorts and manipulates the Gospel for their own filthy purposes. The worn out saying ‘what would Jesus do?’ should be applied most forcefully to those people who claim to defend the legacy of Christianity most vehemently. Jesus was no friend of Roman nationalism, and he would see Western exceptionalism no more favorably.

As Paul said, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Is this not the communist Idea par excellence?