Jump to content
The Education Forum
John Simkin

Was Jesus a Revolutionary or a Conservative?

Recommended Posts

I like Kurt Vonnegut's idea from Slaughterhouse Five.

The aliens travel back in time to the time of the Crucifixion in order to try to understand how a message of love ended up justifying so much killing. They worked out what was wrong. The mob had killed this rather ordinary man, and then afterwards they'd found out that he was really the Son of God. 'Crucified the wrong man there, didn't you' was the message. However, this message has a friend: if we killed the wrong man this time, there must be plenty of 'right men' to crucify, so we just have to be more careful who we pick next time.

The aliens suggested that men change the story a little. In the revised version the mob crucified a bum … and then God told them that, from now on, he'd decided to see this bum as his Son. And that you'd better watch out - any time you turn on a bum, I might make him my Son too, so don't crucify the weak and helpless!


I've read a few bits of the Koran in my time (I've lived in several Muslim countries), and a lot of the statements of the prophet Mohammed (PBUH) read this way to me. "You must pay the labourer before the sweat on his brow has dried", for example. Why have a commandment like that if people were already doing it? A lot of the dietary requirements make sense, if you look at the context of the Red Sea region, too - just about everything local that Muslims are not allowed to eat happens to be poisonous, like just about all the amphibians along the coast of the Hejaz (the region the Two Holy Mosques are in).

Edited by David Richardson

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

David, interesting post.

I think a lot of the dietary instructions and restrictions in the Old Testament made sense as well.

I grew up in a Protestant denomination so conservative that grape juice rather than wine was served at communion, and drinking any alcohol was of course strictly forbidden. I respect most of what I was taught and certainly alcoholism can be a scourge (easy to observe that in Key West!), but the denomination was, I believe, wrong about that.

The Bible says that a little wine is good for the stomach. Only recently has science started to understand that there are in fact medicinal qualities in red wine.

Got to run now--tomorrow I'll try to post my answer to "Was Jesus a Revolutionary?" In many ways the answer is "Yes, indeed!".

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

" But I can't recall ever reading anywhere that Jesus "encourage[d] his followers not to serve in the Roman Army." Maybe John is thinking of some later Christian who did encourage this."

Nor can I, Daniel, But I think Jesus did ‘encourage his followers not to serve in the Roman Army’ in the totality of his teaching - rather than any specific instruction. Certainly the early church, the moment it began to consider the issue, urged soldiers who had become Christians to leave the army. Until the 4th Century this was the normal Christian position. I have chronicled this development as a footnote to the “Just War” debate in the Philosophy/Debates section.

Jesus talked of ‘turning the other cheek’ in the realm of personal conduct, an action more like passive resistance than being passive. In the context of 1st century body language you were forcing someone who had given you a ‘humiliating’ backhand blow to hit you properly, thus acknowledging your existence. (Walter Wink ‘The Powers that be’ page 101 Doubleday 1998)

At the end of his short career, Jesus seemed to invite his disciples to bring a sword or two to the Garden of Gethsemane:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfilment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” Luke Chapter 22 verses 35 – 39

A commentary explains as follows: ‘The story of the upper room ends with a conversation which shows how deep was the gulf of misunderstanding which still separated the disciples from Jesus. He begins by reminding them (in words drawn from the mission charge to the seventy) of the halcyon days of the Galilean mission, when they were able to go out on their missionary tours relying wholly on hospitality for their maintenance. Now times have changed: Jesus is about to be executed as a criminal, and they, as the criminal’s accomplices, will find every man’s hand against them. The instruction to sell their coats and buy swords is an example of Jesus’ fondness for violent metaphor, but the disciples take it literally, as pedants have continued to do ever since. The words ‘It is enough’ indicate, not satisfaction with the disciples’ military preparedness, but a sad dismissal of the subject.’ (Saint Luke by G.B.Caird, Pelican 1963)

Matthew provides us with an account of the tail end of this incident, after one of the disciples has actually used his sword against the arresting party:

“Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” Matthew Chapter 26 verses 52, 53.

He is certainly saying that his kingdom does not depend on military force or coercion. He seems to be saying that violence doesn’t work and isn’t appropriate. However, it was not just then that his disciples weren’t listening.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

"I am telling you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

"If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer your other cheek as well. If anyone grabs your coat, let him have your shirt as well.

"Give to anyone who asks, and if someone takes away your belongings, do not ask to have them back."

Has anyone put this point of view to millionaire George Bush and his church?

"Turning the other cheek" is conveniently enjoined upon the exploited and the poor. A rather convenient morality for your slaves to practise so long as it does not apply to their masters.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I agree with your general point, Derek. Jesus’ words have been used by the rich and powerful in such a way as to keep the exploited and poor exploited and poor. The political activities of some religious conservatives in the USA have given ‘authority’ to some of Bush’s worst policies. Not quite so worrying, but closer to home, is the way their money and influence has recently played a part in the UK in raising the profile of Creationism, for example as a ‘respectable’ theory to be introduced into some English schools.

All this does, I admit, help to build a case that the influence of Jesus Christ has been conservative.

However the ‘Q’ passages that Daniel provided are more or less primary sources. As Daniel says: ‘We seem to be on the firmest ground when we assess what are most likely to be original sayings of Jesus’. I personally think that almost on their own they provide proof that Jesus was a Revolutionary. The passages certainly provide a useful focus for discussion - on the Jesus of the 1st Century rather than what people have made of him since. Not that I imagine for one moment that any further discussion would or should be confined to that!

Of course, if it is more widely accepted that Jesus was a Revolutionary, this particular prop of reactionary and repressive policies would be removed, because many religious Americans (rightly or wrongly) believe that religion should be applied to how they cast their vote.

I did read ‘The Death of Jesus’ by Joel Carmichael (40 years ago, I note with some surprise) but was not convinced by his arguments that Jesus was the leader of an armed insurrection. Thank you, Daniel, for re-opening this discussion.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

"The devil can quote scripture to his purpose."

The church has been a consistent agent of conservatism, "rendering unto Caesar" and incidentally lining its own pockets.

And at the same time Christians have been on the other side of the barricades, tending to the poor, comforting the sick, fighting for social justice, and using the words of Jesus to support their position.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites
Jesus did not condemn money in and of itself.  He did say, however, that the "love of money" is the root of all evil....But Jesus meant that placing an inordinate emphasis on money and material success was wrong.

It is my belief that Jesus Christ was a revolutionary philosopher. This is best expressed in his teachings on power and violence.

Jesus said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” As it is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle I think he is suggesting that rich individuals will find it very difficult to get to heaven. After all, Jesus made it clear that he wanted people to share their wealth with the poor. If they did not decide to do that then they didn’t deserve to go to heaven. Anyone who has spent anytime at all studying the life and words of Jesus knows that he was probably the world’s first socialist.

However, it was the pacifism of Jesus Christ that caused him more problems than his socialism. The most revolutionary thing that Jesus Christ did was to encourage his followers not to serve in the Roman Army. This was the reason why Christians were “thrown to the Lions”. The Romans were very tolerant of other religions as long as religion did not become political. When persecution did not work, the Romans nationalized Christianity. Once under its control, Christianity was used to justify the status quo. The same is true today.

Over the centuries some true Christians have attempted to return to the teachings of Jesus Christ. The best recent example is Martin Luther King. He did it so well that he became as dangerous as Jesus Christ and had to be treated in the same way. However, killing pacifists will not destroy the movements towards a non-violent society. We will eventually get there, with or without the Christian Church.

Here is an article by Bob Murphy you might be interested in reading:


Jesus was clearly a revolutionary thinker who challenged the seemingly natural idea of retribution. Rather than vengeance, Jesus commanded forgiveness (Mt. 18:22). Instead of the pagan ideals of strength and power, Jesus offered the Christian ideals of humility and meekness (Mt. 5:5). Jesus went so far as to demand that His disciples love their enemies (Mt. 5:44).

The above is not in dispute. Even most atheists would agree that Jesus’s teachings were wise precepts concerning the uselessness of hatred and revenge. But did Jesus literally require pacifism?

A straightforward reading would suggest that He did. He literally (given the translation) commanded "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Mt. 5:39). But perhaps this was just a specific rule? Well, immediately before this famous injunction, Jesus also gave the general rule, forbidding resistance to evil. It is this passage that inspired Christian pacifists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Leo Tolstoy, and I find their interpretation entirely plausible.

Of course, Jesus often spoke in metaphors; one should be very careful in deriving categorical conclusions from a few Gospel passages. When studying not merely His words, but His actions, does it seem that Jesus was a pacifist?

I for one think this is the only sensible conclusion. He rebuked Peter for drawing his sword during His arrest. And of course, the entire purpose of Jesus’s coming to Earth was to suffer unjustly at the hands of evil men, despite the fact that He obviously had the power to prevent this. Such an argument alone doesn’t prove the case for Christian pacifism, but it does show that the doctrine is consistent with Christianity.

Horrible things happen to good people all the time. The use of violence won’t ever "solve" this. Most people would agree that it is impermissible to murder someone, even if so doing would save (through a heart transplant, say) a child from death. Yet most people believe that it is permissible to kill someone in order to prevent him from killing a child. The apparent inconsistency is evaded by classifying the latter case as justifiable defense, and by classifying the dead man as a criminal, worthy of less respect and rights than "civilized" people.

Yet it is precisely this mentality, I claim, that Jesus sought to overthrow. The kingdom of God can only be approached when everyone voluntarily renounces violence against his neighbors. And isn’t it just possible that the best and surest way to reach that goal is for each of us personally to renounce violence, for whatever reason, right now? To say, "I will lay down my arms just as soon as all the evil people do first" is to guarantee that you will never see the kingdom of God during your life.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

John, the Commandment does not say, of course, "Thou Shalt Not Kill". Properly interpreted it says thou shalt not commit murder.

Just a for instance, if you see a child pervert with a knife raised about to kill an innocent five year old, and you ARE armed and can shoot and maim (or even kill) the pervert, I submit the only moral thing to do is to protect the innocent life--not to lay down one's arms.

Best of course if the police maintain order and not individual citizens. But as long as evil exists, we will need force to overcome it and prisons to keep the evil-doers off our streets.

Certainly the war against Hitler was a just war. Hitler was not going to listen to sweet reason; he was about as close to evil incarnate as their could be.

John, man is inherently evil and selfish and the only real solution is when an individual accepts Jesus into his or her life. Jesus' principles can only be followed in their entirety only when one has the power of God in their lives. Which is, of course, not to deny the obvious fact that there are Christian sinners and hypocrites, not to deny that I myself do not routinely commit sin.

Jesus said God's greatest commands were to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself--indeed love your enemy. That is pretty hard for anyone to do. But what a world it would be if we could all follow those commands!

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Who financed Hitler?

Who benefited from Hitler?

Who made Hitler possible?

Hitler did not emerge from nothingness.

World War II was NOT just. And it is not over.

Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not murder.


Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Not only was Jesus a pacifist, but most early Christians were pacifists, until the 4th Century. During this period bishops throughout the Roman Empire urged soldiers who became Christians to give up soldiering (which also shows that they did not always do so.) There is evidence that some Christian soldiers thought it was O.K. to play the role of peacekeepers within the Empire but not to fight wars! Many early Christian martyrs were soldiers who found obeying both God and the authorities impossible, for example St Alban (the first British martyr).

These early Christian attitudes grew out of a version of pacifism which was deeply rooted in the Christian world-view, which included the Christian belief in the ‘Lordship’ of Christ: the earliest Christian creed was simply ‘Jesus is Lord’ –i.e. he demanded total allegiance. For a Roman soldier this conflicted with the sacrifices to the Roman gods he was supposed to take part in. The process of training soldiers to obey orders without question would also have been repugnant to Christians at that time.

In the 4th Century the Emperor Constantine took over the Church (and the Church took over the Roman Empire). The result was that the Church became part of the power structure, whereas previously its membership had been associated with (and very often were) the poor and underprivileged. Because our Western Civilization (and hence our Global Civilization) evolved out of the Constantinian settlement it is difficult to imagine any other way than relying on brute force for our security.

However, there is no doubt that renunciation of violence – a revolutionary idea indeed - was part of the Christian message for the first three centuries after Christ. Ludicrously impractical though it may seem.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in

Sign In Now