THE IMPERFECT HUMANISM OF JESUS

Posted: 2021-01-16

The political philosophy of Jesus is a profoundly reactionary message which fails to provide any practical scheme for the good of society.

VERY little is known about Jesus. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are the only near contemporary sources and they are not reliable, especially in their supernatural claims. That he was a Jew is found repeated in diverse literature, including the letters of Paul. There is also a consensus that he was crucified by order of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, on the grounds that he claimed to be ‘King of the Jews’, a blasphemy according to the Jewish Sanhedrin, the supreme council of elders.

 

In the traditional narrative it is the Jewish Messianic tradition that Jesus allegedly seeks to fulfil. The Messiah or ‘anointed one’ would prepare the way for God. He would be an eschatological prophet, a preacher of the end of days, a soldier of liberation in the royal line of King David. Jesus himself said: “Think not that I have come to abolish the Torah and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them”, he says in Matthew 5:17. Nevertheless, he was not acceptable to all Jews since it was the Jewish council in Judea which called for his crucifixion. It rejected his claim to be the Messiah, but there may have been other aspects of his teaching that its members didn’t like.

 

Arguably, Jesus challenged orthodox religion. In some respects, he was ethically a humanist. He rejected the Old Testament philosophy of revenge. Consider the Sermon on the Mount:

 

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:38-44).

 

He also placed morality above ritual: “First be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matthew 5: 24). And as a general ethic he espoused the humanist Golden Rule dating back to Confucius and also repeated in Leviticus and by Rabbi Hillel a few years before Jesus: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12).

 

So far, so good. There is hardly anything there to which Humanists would strongly object. We might say that both Jesus and Humanists strongly believe in love and compassion. But we cannot ignore other remarks of Jesus which cloud the picture. He also made statements like: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34); “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one” (Luke 22:36); and “But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me” (the last was spoken in a parable in Luke). 

 

The message is clouded in other ways. Jesus showed tolerance to the lepers, the paralytics, the deaf and blind, to Zachaeus the tax collector who was ripping the people off, to his disciples even when they lacked faith, to Peter when he denied him three times, and to the thief on the cross. In John 8 we also read about the woman caught in adultery who was brought to Jesus. He showed love to this woman by not condemning her, yet telling her, “Go and sin no more” (vs. 11). He tolerated the woman, but he did not tolerate the sin. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) he taught tolerance of difference. Last, but not least, he showed tolerance to those who arrested him, tried him and crucified him. He prayed, “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

 

The people to whom he was intolerant were rival religious leaders and doubters. He condemned the former for their hypocrisy and he certainly wasn’t afraid to get in their face. In Matthew chapter 23 he laid into them in no uncertain terms, calling them hypocrites who “go over land and sea to make a single proselyte and then make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15) and who are “like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones” (Matthew 23:27). He even went as far as to condemn them to eternal hellfire: “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:33). And, of course, there was also the occasion when he went into the temple and turned over the tables of the moneychangers (John 2).

 

As for the doubters, Jesus continually threatened them with eternal burning in hell for not believing in him: “He that is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30). In his view, you were either a sheep or a goat, and to the latter he showed no mercy: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). A similar point is made in Mark’s Gospel: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). Again, in John 16:16: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a brand and is withered and men gather them into the fire, and they are burned” (a verse cited by the Inquisition). His vision of hell is pretty graphic: “And shall cast them into into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42).

 

And what are we to make of his attack on family values? “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother”

(Matthew 10:35). And again: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). When one of Jesus’ disciples asked for time off to go to his father’s funeral, Jesus rebuked him, “Let the dead bury the dead”. Of course, Jesus never used the word ‘family’. He never married or fathered children.

 

This decidedly mixed picture also applied to his attitude to freedom, liberty and justice. Humanists tend to believe strongly in the need for social and political change. Was Jesus, as some argue, actually a socialist? The answer is that his political philosophy – if we can give a series of disjointed and contradictory pronouncements such a grandiose title  – is not at all progressive, and certainly not Humanist. In no way was this man a socialist, as is sometimes claimed. For a start, he encouraged the beating of slaves (Luke 12:47). He never denounced slavery and incorporated the master-slave relationship into many of his parables.

 

As for poverty, he certainly seemed to align himself with the poor and oppressed and condemned the rich, who would find more difficulty than a camel going through the eye of a needle in entering heaven. Luke 6:24 is quite explicit: “Woe unto you that are rich, for you have received your consolation”. When the rich man asked him what he needed to do to ‘inherit eternal life’ (Mark 10:17), his reply was unequivocal: “Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21). But, although he condemned the rich and lived among and preached to the poor, he did nothing or said nothing that could be construed as a coherent policy to alleviate poverty. On the contrary, “Ye have the poor with you always” (Mark 14:7).

 

The message instead seemed to be that the poor should be content with their state, for their reward would come in the next life: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). The essence of the Sermon on the Mount is that the poor, the hungry and the wretched should accept the status quo because they will receive justice eventually in a spiritual dimension beyond this world. 

 

As such, the political philosophy of Jesus is a profoundly reactionary message which fails to provide any practical scheme for the good of society. To tell people to ‘trust in god’, to disregard the world, to have no thought for tomorrow, to welcome poverty, to neglect their home and families, to let evil happen is really to compel them to opt out of the human struggle in favour of an escape into an unreal mental world. Jesus is saying that religion is a drug. In his teachings he thus confirms the words of Karl Marx that religion is the opium of the people.

 

Ernest Renan, who wrote a Life of Jesus, knew his subject well. Jesus, he says, ‘had no knowledge of the general conditions of the world’, was unacquainted with science, ‘believed in the devil, and that diseases were the work of demons’, was ‘harsh’ towards his family, was ‘no philosopher’, went to ‘excess’, aimed ‘less at logical conviction than at enthusiasm’, ‘sometimes his intolerance of all opposition led him to acts inexplicable and apparently absurd’, and ‘bitterness and reproach became more and more manifest in his heart’.

 

These are less the qualities of a Humanist than of a mystical, deluded lunatic. If there really was a preacher in some ways similar to the one depicted in the Gospels  – without the supernatural powers, of course  – then he said some good things which are indeed worthy of remembering, but he contradicted himself so often and talked so much nonsense on other occasions that we have to say that he is a very imperfect humanist indeed. The Jesus package, taken as a whole, is hardly the ideal purchase.

 

Brian McClinton, January 2021