Liberal/progressive/leftist Christians like to paint Jesus as an exceptional figure who fought for human rights centuries before anyone else did. You’ve probably heard, or said something like the following (I know I have):
Jesus was the first feminist, the first Marxist, the ultimate humanist/democrat/anarchist. Jesus was [fill in the blank depending on your preferred political associations].
I’m sure most people who use these statements use them as attention grabbers and conversation starters and not literal statements. They know that we don’t know enough about the historical figure of Jesus and his culture to really place him in these categories that are framed by our modern, Western world views. We all know that Jesus wasn’t really a feminist. But when you walk into a room of conservative complementarians and say, “Jesus was a feminist,” you definitely shake things up a bit. That can be a good thing.
A problem comes though, I believe, when we begin to say that Jesus was the ultimate feminist. That Jesus was the first humanist. That Jesus was exceptionally progressive for his culture. Sometimes, in our efforts to put Jesus in modern categories like “feminist,” “humanist,” etc., we end up presenting an incorrect, unfair picture of the culture that Jesus was born and raised in.
The liberal Christian narrative of Jesus as the ultimate feminist/humanist/etc. too often goes like this:
Jewish culture in Jesus’ day was horribly misogynist, ageist, classist. Women, children, and poor people had no agency at all, and were just helpless victims being oppressed by barbaric Old Testament religious customs. Then Jesus descended from heaven as a baby–the perfect, objective male child who would not be influenced by his terrible culture. He brought with him all the modern, enlightenment sensibilities that these Pharisees were missing out on and he saved the day!
With this narrative, we end up continuing a long, ugly tradition of Christian imperialism and anti-semitism. The whole “folks from the Middle East are savages that need Christians to rescue them from themselves” trope has led to colonialism, genocide, hate crimes, oppression.
Though we white, left-leaning Christian folks are quick to mock representations of embodied Jesus that depict him as white, we still promote a “white Jesus” mindset when we repeat this narrative.
When we divorce Jesus from his Jewish culture, when we treat him as exceptionally progressive and contrast him with the Jewish world around him, we are promoting “white Jesus:” Jesus as the white, Westerner who drops in from a higher, more enlightened and objective world, to save Middle Eastern people from themselves.
This is wrong. We need to do better.
Would Jesus have been considered a “progressive” person in his culture? I don’t know enough about history to say that for sure. But I can say this: Jesus was not the progressive person in his culture, and Jesus was not progressive in a way that was somehow outside of his culture.
In the gospel narratives, Jesus often treated women with respect. He invited them to sit in the places reserved for his disciples. Is this because Jesus was the first feminist? No. As Sharon H. Ringe points out in The Women’s Bible Commentary,
Palestinian Jewish life in Jesus’ day is probably mirrored in the ambivalent picture of women’s roles in the teachings stemming from the Jesus movement…While it seems that women were active among the followers of Jesus, their roles in that context were probably similar to those of their other Jewish sisters in the religious life of their families and local congregations. (p. 7)
Ringe believes that women in Jesus’ movement were likely treated ambivalently, as were women in other religious movements of the time. The women in these movements likely faced their share of intersecting oppressions, but they also probably didn’t fit the stereotype of the “silent, veiled Jewish women shut away in her kitchen.” (p. 7) The gospel narratives show women speaking their minds, but they also show at least one woman having to correct even Jesus himself for being oppressive toward her because of her ethnicity.
In Luke’s and Matthew’s gospel, Jesus scolds his disciples for turning away children. This is another passage that is often used by left-leaning Christians to show how Jesus was above and beyond his culture, giving extra attention to the marginalized.
Of course Jesus’ words can be challenging and influential in a society (like much of the current U.S. society) where children are often treated as less than. The words of his disciples suggest that at least some people at the time of Jesus were less than thrilled at the idea of treating children with respect.
Still, we forget that just a few chapters earlier, Jesus was still a child, and religious leaders allowed him to sit with them, learn from them, and ask them questions. Even if Jesus’ treating children as an important part of the kingdom of Heaven was a progressive act, he was not the first or only person to see children in this light. He learned this value from others in his culture.
These stories suggest that the values Jesus held as an adult were not unique to him because he was God. These values were instilled in him from the time he was a child, by people around him.
If Jesus was progressive, it was not because he transcended his culture and was somehow better than everyone else in it. He was likely influenced by his strong, liberation-minded mother. By his outspoken female friends. By his religious traditions and his knowledge of scripture. By the Jewish religious leaders he respected and looked up to. His culture wasn’t perfect (because no culture is) and he got caught up in his culture’s systems of oppression [update: see Wayne's comment in the comment's section for alternative readings of this passage that I think are important to consider] and had to be called out for that. But he also learned to work toward liberation under the influence of others in that same culture.
If Jesus is, as Christian tradition suggests, God embodied in history, we must remember the embodied part and the history part.