I’ve been seeing quite a few misguided protest signs around the net lately, so I feel it may be time to re-publish an essay I wrote in 2008 regarding the use and abuse of Jesus’ teachings.
The Personal vs. the Collective Jesus
Originally Written in July, 2008
Years ago, an individual who is no longer on my friends list for reasons that will become clear claimed that Jesus would want us all to be liberal Democrats and announced her intention to write a book detailing her stunning insight. I never got around to writing up my violently opposing view, but tooling around on conservative (paleo- and neo-) blogs where the anti-Christian viewpoint is criticized quite frequently (e.g. Vox Day) has reminded me that I have a few thoughts of my own on the subject.
Let us refer to my ex-friend’s argument as the Hypocrisy Claim – or, perhaps, Jesus Collectively Applied. It works like this: “Jesus said when you are struck, you should turn the other cheek. So if you claim to be a Christian, you should oppose war and the death penalty and support rehabilitation instead of punishment for criminals – or you’re a hypocrite.” “Jesus said it is easier for a goat to be threaded through the eye of a needle that it is for a rich man to get into heaven and that we all have a duty to care for the ‘least’ among us. So if you claim to be a Christian, you should support welfare for the poor and punitive taxes for the rich – i.e. redistribution of wealth – or you’re a hypocrite.” Or: “You are against abortion but for the death penalty? How does that make sense? Does human life only matter before birth?” (That last one is a rephrasing of a comment from one of Day’s perennial attackers.)
Leaving aside the fact that yelling “hypocrite!” – in essence, rejecting the possibility of nuance – is a childish way to argue, the assumption beneath many of these statements is fundamentally flawed. The notion that Jesus meant his sermons to be prescriptions for state behavior is not, in fact, supported by the scripture; indeed, quite the opposite would seem to be case, as Jesus also advised his followers to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” (A doctrine, by the way, that has allowed Christianity, after some struggle, to coexist peacefully with secular governments.) No – as has been understood for centuries, Jesus taught rules for personal behavior, not national behavior; we are commanded to be personally charitable, personally peaceful, and personally humble. When we are wronged in our daily lives, we are commanded to forgive; there is no such command in place for governments. In our daily lives, we are commanded to be giving; there is no evidence that Jesus wished civil institutions to take by force what should be given with a compassionate and Christian spirit. Granted, the longevity of an understanding is no instant validation of said understanding; after all, slavery was accepted by the whole of humankind for most of the history of human civilization (until, interestingly enough, Christianity gave us the tools to understand why slavery is, in actuality, an offense against God). But I am more inclined to believe our Christian predecessors, many of them thoughtful philosophers, actually did know what they were talking about than I am to believe that modern man has, in the last few centuries, stumbled upon “the real truth.” Why? Because a collective understanding of Jesus’s message leads to injustice on a massive scale.
First, as is evidenced by my ex-friend’s first general claim, Jesus Collectively Applied recognizes neither the possibility of a just war nor the necessity of retribution (which I should note is different from revenge; retribution as I am using it is punishment prescribed by societal agreement according to widely understood codes of conduct that is applied after guilt has been established by just means; revenge is someone taking matters into their own hands for the express purpose of making the wrongdoer suffer). History, on the other hand, recognizes both. Surely my leftist ex-friend doesn’t mean to suggest that we should’ve “turned the other cheek” while Hitler was running roughshod over Europe burning Jews to cinders (after torturing and gassing them, of course). Surely she doesn’t mean to suggest that the Civil War should never have been fought, slavery or no. And as for the societal value of retribution, the evidence is in and it is overwhelming: in places where leniency-disguised-as-mercy has become the norm, decent human beings live in fear for their property and their lives. As Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed, American women used to be able walk alone out of doors without fear; now, in too many places, we need concealed weapons to secure such a privilege. In some places in Europe, meanwhile, “understanding” and “compassion” have left our counterparts vulnerable to gang rape (among other abuses), and uncivilized hooligans are permitted to prowl the streets accosting innocents with virtually no threat of consequences. Thank goodness we have not yet descended quite so far – we still try, at least, to incarcerate our hooligans, despite the concerted efforts of people like my ex-friend. As a Catholic, I believe in the possibility of redemption, which is why my feelings on the death penalty are mixed. But as I have continually emphasized in other posts, I believe that redemption has to be earned. That’s where retribution comes in.
(Speaking of the death penalty, my aforementioned mixed feelings, as you’ve probably already deciphered, have nothing to do with a desire to stay “consistent.” The anti-abortion and pro-death penalty positions can actually coexist quite comfortably together without hypocrisy once the perfectly valid distinction between innocent and non-innocent human life is drawn. A fetus is arguably among the ‘least’ of Jesus’s formulation and is utterly innocent. A murderer, on the other hand, has violated one of God’s high commandments; a Christian supporter of the death penalty is not necessarily in the wrong when he or she asserts that said murderer has thus forfeited his place in human society. One can argue that death is too final a sentence for a state to hand down. One can argue that my basic prerequisite for retributive justice – that guilt be determined in a fair manner – has been violated too frequently for death to be a punitive option. One can argue that death should only be God’s purview. But the Hypocrisy Claim is not persuasive to my mind. In truth, I think the distinction between innocent and non-innocent human life makes infinitely more sense than the modern secular distinctions between (supposedly) “conscious” and “unconscious,” “born” and “unborn.”)
Secondly, Jesus Applied Collectively, if the history of popular revolution is any indication, sanctions vengeance and jealousy, violations of another of God’s high commandments. Collective Christianity assumes that because rich men will, according to Jesus, have difficulty getting into heaven, that stands as evidence that rich men are, to a man, irretrievably corrupt and must be brought low. Nothing could be further from the truth; if rich men were irredeemable, there would be no such thing as philanthropy – no such thing as noblesse oblige. Rich men must work harder to gain access to the kingdom because they have more reason to remain attached to the world. Think about it this way: If you had a mansion, six sports cars, a private jet, and the ear of the powerful, how inclined would you be to surrender to God’s will? I don’t know, but I think most of us, if we were that well-off, would tend to think we are doing quite all right on our own, thanks, and therefore have no need of God and his meddling. This is precisely the attitude Jesus wished us to abandon. Really, it’s no wonder he advised us to get rid of our earthly possessions – that’s the easier, safer course because it is less tempting. The poor – the ‘least’ of us – live closer to the true “wretchedness” of fallen mankind, and are thus closer to surrendering; the rich have further to go because they are comfortable, not because they are evil. It is socialist heresy, not Jesus’s doctrine, to say that the poor must concern themselves with the affairs of the world and take what is “rightfully theirs” from the rich by force of state or revolution. According to Jesus, no one “deserves” wealth and worldly goods. NO ONE. According to Jesus, we would all be better off without them.
No, there’s no reason to believe Jesus would support the Democratic Party over the Republican Party – or vice versa, for that matter, though as a conservative, I believe the right is closer to correct than the left.