Radical christianity and social resistance

The CPGB's Communist University 2003 was addressed by Ray Gaston, vicar of All Hallows church, Leeds, and a member of the Socialist Alliance. This is an edited version of his speech

A radical christian perspective needs to root the understanding of Jesus in the historical realities of his time.

In this context I want to look at the question of Jesus and resistance, and the relationship between Marxism and christianity. There is much that radical christianity and revolutionary Marxism could learn from each other. For me this revolves around questions of power and social change. Questions of resistance and revolution.

Jesus lived at a time when the Romans ruled the world. There were two perspectives on this. One is illustrated by a Jewish collaborator historian called Josephus, who said: “Without god’s aid, so vast an empire could never have been built up.” However, a Caledonian chieftain, quoted by Tacitus, had a different view: “The Romans are the plunderers of the world. If the enemy is rich they are rapacious, if poor they lust for dominion, nor east nor west has sated them. They rob, butcher and plunder, and call it empire and, where they make a desolation, they call it peace.” Pax Romana.

So Roman imperialism was a reality in Jesus’s time. It was the only superpower. They had dispelled the Carthagians, they had dispelled other empires and defeated them. The Romans ruled and controlled. It was not only about political control: it was also economic necessity, in terms of the growing population. Rome was growing to a million inhabitants. In order to feed this mass of people and keep them happy, they also had to economically exploit the world, to provide the bread and circus.

They did not treat their enemies kindly. The whole known world was dismantled by the Romans, and even great Greek cities like Corinth were plundered and flattened to the ground. Palestine was an outpost of the empire - a place where no soldier wanted to go. It was a place where there was a strange religion where they worshipped one god. The Jewish people were considered by the Romans to be a backward people, for whom there was very little respect.

The history of the Jewish people has at its heart the liberation from slavery. Their foundation story was the story of Exodus, the liberation from Egypt of the slaves. The old testament - the Hebrew scriptures, or in jewish terms the Torah - is about the struggle to build a community. And the struggle against other societies, where they felt there was no purpose in attempting to change things - the pagan world was a world in which you are at the mercy of the elements: you had no power. The root of the Jewish story was a god who was part of human history, who is leading a people forward to liberation.

It was the story of a people who ended up in antagonistic relationships and longed for a sense of stability. A conflict emerged within this community with the anointing of David, and the growth of a more hierarchical power structure. There was a struggle, described in the Old Testament, between the kingly tradition, and the prophetic tradition, which sought to go back to the original values, back to the story of the liberation in Exodus, to hold on to the understanding that the land is the people’s - the ancient radical element within the Jewish story.

We need to bear in mind that context when we look at the historical study of Jesus within the bourgeois academy. In the 19th century the Germans created a Jesus made in the image of a bourgeois gentleman, living an ethical life. In the early part of the 20th century Albert Schweitzer wrote a book challenging this perspective, and tried to get behind the gospels to the real Jesus. Schweitzer criticised the mirror image bourgeois scholars had made and said Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet whose whole world view was so far away from us that we cannot begin to grasp it. He said we have to sense, in a mystical experience, the power of that message, in some way living within us. He debunked the bourgeois historian Jesus and ended up becoming a missionary.

More recently there has been a much more interesting perspective on historical Jesus study, which comes from some scholar activists, predominantly in the United States, called the Context Group, who are concerned to put together an historical analysis drawing on archaeology and social science and looking at the gospel stories in relation to this. They painted a picture of Jesus where the central issue is not the teaching of allegorical parables about the ways of god, but about the economic and social realities at that time. The Context Group argues that he stood against economic and social injustice, and challenges the other wing of Jesus scholarship, again based in the United States, which goes back to the individualist, ethicalised Jesus.

The class nature of the Galilee, Samaria and Judea of Jesus’s time is important for us to grasp. Galilee, where Jesus was said to be from, was very much the centre of religious power. Samaria was where the scum of the earth lived, and Judea was supposedly a sophisticated, cultured place. The high priest of the temple was appointed or sacked by the Roman governor and was therefore a collaborator, while the client kings ruled very brutally in some areas. All three - Romans, client kings and the temple - charged the people taxes, which weighed heavily upon them. The big tradition was very much Judea and the temple. The little tradition was very much Galilee and the countryside, and the populus.

There were different kinds of resistance to Rome and the temple. There was the movement of educated, religious scribes who had broken away from the elite. Basically they were terrorists, who attempted to assassinate collaborators and Roman soldiers. They were the Jewish al Qa’eda.

There was also the popular resistance of the crowd against the imposition of the Roman religion, the worship of the emperor, and attempts to take over the temple. The Romans would place images there, which often led to popular revolts. There is a whole range of writing and analysis about resistance to taxes. Everyone knows the story of the good Samaritan, set on a particular road, which is frequented by bandits and robbers. They were bandits and robbers because they had been completely disenfranchised economically from the system.

The whole question of land ran deep within the Jewish tradition. Horsney has written a very good book called Jesus and empire, the kingdom of god and the new world disorder, which places Jesus’s resistance to the Roman empire alongside the need to resist the Pax Americana today.

With that in mind, how do we then read the gospels, which are the primary scriptural texts of christians? We begin to look very differently at certain things, for instance the parables of Jesus. If you analyse them from the viewpoint of liberation theology, you can see they are located very much within the historical, economic and social reality of people. If you do that, they come out very differently.

I will give two examples, to demonstrate that Jesus was raising political questions about tactics, about how to struggle against oppression:

“He went on to tell the people this parable. A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers who went away for a long time. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants, so they would give him some of the fruits of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love. Perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him they talked over the matter: ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. When the people heard this, they said, ‘May this never be.’ Jesus looked directly at them and asked, ‘Then what is the meaning of that which is written? The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’ The teacher of the law, the chief priest, looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew that he had spoken this parable against them, but they were afraid of the people.”

The standard interpretation of this parable regards it as an allegory, that god is the vineyard owner. But more careful study raises important questions. In William Herzog’s book on parables, he studies the social anthropology of the Mediterranean cultures and demonstrates the plight of the poor tenants. He portraits the parable as the story of a peasant revolt, concluding in a rhetorical question designed to get Jesus’s hearers to consider the futility of using violence to assert their land rights. In this view the tenants are the oppressed people and the vineyard owner is their oppressor. After all, the vineyard owner is an absentee landlord, and the tenants by contrast are struggling to make a living. Most of Jesus’s hearers would undoubtedly have identified with the tenants and not their landlord. The point is clear. The Pharisees identify with the elites. The peasants with the tenants.

Another well known parable. The parable of the mustard seed: “Jesus asked them, ‘What is the kingdom of god like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed which a man took and planted in his garden, and it grew and became a tree and the birds of the air perched in its branches.’”

There are people, including Herzog, who believe that this parable illustrates what Jesus’s movement was like in relation to the existing power structures. The statement about the birds of the air ties the parable back to Old Testament imagery. It emphasises the concrete political nature of the kingdom. The mustard tree is not so much a tree as a shrub, and a nasty shrub at that. In fact it is a dreaded weed, partly because it is so hard to control. It rapidly takes over the whole garden. So, to those in power, the image that is presented by the mustard tree is that the kingdom of god, the rallying call of Jesus’s movement, was spreading like dangerous weed. It was a movement resisting attempts to separate, compartmentalise, control the garden. It is the weeds, the nobodies, who, according to the image of the kingdom of god, and according to the image of the parable, will be the ones who overrun and control the garden.

There are parables of resistance, parables of social change. Jesus’s turning over the tables in the temple is a premeditated form of direct action. The march into Jerusalem is actually like a poll tax march.

Jesus’s perspective was very much one of non-violence, which in its context is extremely revolutionary. Turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile - these are actually very strong forms of non-violent direct action, designed to shame the oppressor.

At public meetings there were agents of the state present, trying to catch Jesus out. They would ask, for example, about paying taxes to caesar. Jesus’s answer is amazing. He says to the Pharisees, “Give me a Roman coin.” When they do so they already expose themselves because the vast majority of the people do not have such coins and to hold the coin of the imperialists is in fact to be a collaborator. Jesus says, “Give to caesar what is caesar’s [ie, this stupid little coin, with caesar’s head on it] and give to god what is god’s” - ie, the whole of creation, your life, your purpose, your meaning. He is exposing the hypocrisy of the agents of the state when they are trying to trap him, in front of the crowds.

Marxism, in my opinion, comes out of the Judeo-christian tradition. Marx was a Jew and, because of the particular circumstances of political oppression in Germany at the time, his father converted to Lutherism. So he was rooted in both the jewish and christian traditions.

Marxism is a theology. I am being provocative and reductionist perhaps, but the communist future is like the kingdom of god on earth. The god element is missing, but it can be compared to the Jewish yearning for land and liberation, the journey towards the promised land. The language and imagery are certainly comparable. Marx’s economic analysis is very much influenced by that story of progress towards, and hope for, the promised land. Both are concerned with the whole question of power and social change. Jesus was for struggle to achieve social change through resistance to oppressive powers.

In the Russian Revolution, wonderful things happened following the seizure of power. But then there was the need to keep hold of that power and actually start to institute practices that were oppressive in themselves. So the counterrevolution took place anyway, a counterrevolution within the revolution. And that is the difference between the radical christian perspective and the revolutionary Marxist perspective: the manner in which you struggle for change actually makes a difference to the outcome.