The Jesus the Emperors Kidnapped
Who will lend me a ladder
to climb up the timbering,
to remove the nails from
Jesus the Nazarene?
A few days ago the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, referred to Jesus as the greatest socialist in history. I am not interested here in making a defense or an attack on his person. I would only like to make a few observations about a typical reaction caused by his words throughout different parts of the world.
Perhaps saying that Jesus was a socialist is like saying that Tutankhamen was Egyptian or Seneca was Spanish. It remains a semantic imprecision. Nevertheless, those who recently have approached me with a look of horror on their faces as a result of the words of the “bad boy,” did they do so on the basis of some reasoning or simply on the basis of the codes imposed by a dominant discourse?
Personally, I have always been uncomfortable with power accumulated in just one man. But although Mr. Chávez is a powerful man in his country, he is not the one responsible for the current state of the world. For an elite few, the best state possible. For most, the source of physical and, above all, moral violence.
If it is a scandal to imagine Jesus to be socialist, why is it not, then, to associate him and compromise him with capitalist culture and ethics? If it is a scandal to associate Jesus with the eternal rebel, why is it not, in contrast, to associate him with the interests of successive empires – with the exception of the ancient Roman empire? Those who do not argue the sacrality of capitalism are, in large number, fervent followers of Jesus. Better said, of a particular and convenient image of Jesus. In certain cases not only followers of his word, but administrators of his message.
All of us, or almost all of us, are in favor of certain economic development. Nonetheless, why is social justice always confused with economic development? Why is that Christian theology that considers economic success, wealth, to be the divine sign of having been chosen to enter Paradise, even if through the eye of a needle, so widely disseminated?
Conservatives are right: it is a simplification to reduce Jesus to his political dimension. But their reasoning becomes manipulation when it denies categorically any political value in his action, at the same time that his image is used and his values are invoked to justify a determined politics. It is political to deny politics in any church. It is political to presume political neutrality. An observer who passively witnesses the torture or rape of another person is not neutral. Even less neutral is he who does not even want to watch and turns his head to pray. Because if he who remains silent concedes, he who is indifferent legitimates.
The confirmation of a status quo that benefits one social class and keeps others submerged is political. The sermon that favors the power of men and keeps women under their will and convenience is political. The mere mention of Jesus or Mohammed before, during and after justifying a war, a killing, a dictatorship, the extermination of a people or of a lone individual is terribly political.
Lamentably, although politics is not everything, everything is political. Therefore, one of the most hypocritical forms of politics is to assert that some social action exists in this world that might be apolitical. We might attribute to animals this marvelous innocence, if we did not know that even communities of monkies and of other mammals are governed not only by a clear negotiation of powers but, even, by a history that establishes ranks and privileges. Which ought to be sufficient to diminish somewhat the pride of those oppressors who consider themselves different from orangutangs because of the sophisticated technology of their power.
Many months ago we wrote about the political factor in the death of Jesus. That his death was contaminated by politics does not take away from his religious value but quite the contrary. If the son of God descended to the imperfect world of men and immersed himself in a concrete society, an oppressed society, acquiring all of the human limitations, why would he have to do so ignoring one of the principle factors of that society which was, precisely, a political factor of resistance?
Why was Jesus born in a poor home and one of scarce religious orientation? Why was he not born in the home of a rich and educated pharisee? Why did he live almost his entire life in a small, peripheral town, as was Nazareth, and not in the capital of the Roman Empire or in the religious capital, Jerusalem? Why did he go to Jerusalem, the center of political power at the time, to bother, to challenge power in the name of the most universal human salvation and dignity? As a xenophobe from today would say: if he didn’t like the order of things in the center of the world, he shouldn’t have gone there to cause trouble.
We must remember that it was not the Jews who killed Jesus but the Romans. Those Romans who have nothing to do with the present day inhabitants of Italy, other than the name. Someone might argue that the Jews condemned him for religious reasons. I am not saying that religious reasons did not exist, but that these do not exlude other, political, reasons: the Jewish upper class, like almost all the upper classes of peoples dominated by foreign empires, found itself in a relationship of privilege that led it to a complacent diplomacy with the Roman Empire. This is what happened also in America, in the times of the Conquest. The Romans, in contrast, had no religious reason for taking care of the problem of that rebel from Nazareth. Their reasons were eminently political: Jesus represented a grave threat to the peaceful order established by the empire.
Now, if we are going to discuss Jesus’ political options, we might refer to the texts canonized after the first Council of Nicea, nearly three hundred years after his death. The theological and political result of this founding Council may be questionable. That is to say, if the life of Jesus developed in the conflict against the political power of his time, if the writers of the Gospels, somewhat later, suffered similar persecutions, we cannot say the same about those religious men who gathered in the year 325 by order of an emperor, Constantine, who sought to stabilize and unify his empire, without leaving aside for this purpose other means, like the assassination of his political adversaries.
Let us suppose that all of this is not important. Besides there are very debatable points. Let us take the facts of the religious documents that remain to us from that historical moment. What do we see there?
The son of God being born in an animal stable. The son of God working in the modest carpintery trade of his father. The son of God surrounded by poor people, by women of ill repute, by sick people, by marginalized beings of every type. The son of God expelling the merchants from the temple. The son of God asserting that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to ascend to the kingdom of heaven (probably the Greek word kamel did not mean camel but an enormous rope that was used in the ports to tie up the boats, but the translation error has not altered the idea of the metaphor). The son of God questioning, denying the alleged nationalism of God. The son of God surpassing the old and cruel laws, like the penalty of death by stoning of an adulterous woman. The son of God separating the things of Ceasar from the things of the Father. The son of God valuing the coin of a widow above the traditional donations of the rich and famous. The son of God condemning religious pride, the economic and moral ostentation of men. The son of God entering into Jerusalem on a humble donkey. The son of God confronting religious and political power, the pharisees of the Law and the imperial hells of the moment. The son of God defamed and humiliated, dying under military torture, surrounded by a few followers, mostly women. The son of God making an unquestionable option for the poor, for the weak and the marginalized by power, for the universalization of the human condition, on earth as much as in heaven.
A difficult profile for a capitalist who dedicates six days of the week to the accumulation of money and half a day to clean his conscience in church; who exercises a strange compassion (so different from solidarity) that consists in helping the world by imposing his reasons like it or not.
Even though Jesus may be today the principal instrument of conservatives who grasp at power, it is still difficult to sustain that he was not a revolutionary. To be precise he did not die for having been complacent with the political power of the moment. Power does not kill or torture its bootlickers; it rewards them. For the others remains the greater prize: dignity. And I believe that few if any figures in history show more dignity and commitment with all of humanity than Jesus of Nazareth, who one day will have to be brought down from the cross.
Translated by Bruce Campbell