Jesus was not a progressive.
As my readers explored last week, U.S. Christians commit many identity thefts on Jesus. We’ve seen American counterfeits such as “the Intellectual Sage,” “the Great One,” and “the Alien Lifeform from Planet Kitsch.” Today we examine yet another American counterfeit Jesus—”the Progressive Liberator and Rebel.”
Here is a video about this American Progressive Jesus—
Progressive & Congenial
Many in the U.S. today, Christians included, are committed to social justice advocacy. Like the historical Jesus, they have a lot to say and do regarding politics and economics. Thank God for them. These people take a costly stand for the marginalized and oppressed and back causes in noble, even sacrificial ways. Like Jesus, they include the excluded (not constantly, but often). They are in solidarity with the poor (sometimes even when those poor are cisgender white males).
There is great truth, goodness, and beauty in this. Theirs are not bad ideas or actions. In fact, these human siblings are heroes.
But what often happens, unfortunately, is historical dishonesty when they look at Jesus, the first-century Galilean peasant and folk healer. Quite often, Jesus becomes an idealized autobiography of what they want to be: an egalitarian forming a perfect community of equals. Hence, Jesus becomes a socialist, a feminist, a pacifist, and everything else progressive. In other words, another culturally congenial identity theft of Jesus is produced.
Stuck On Ideas
Yet again, we have U.S. Christians confusing the historical Jesus with being a 21st-century Western person, in this case, a progressive hero. For U.S. Christians along these lines, Jesus was a first-century equivalent to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dorothy Day. For many Christians who think this way, Jesus becomes the ultimate egalitarian.
But Jesus wasn’t an egalitarian, progressive liberator. Therefore, he did not establish a community of equals. Thus, Jesus wasn’t socialist, communist, feminist, pacifist, or a 21st-century social revolutionary. In short, he was not the progressive liberator imagined popularly. Ultimately, people who mistake him for being such are guilty of the idealist fallacy.
Remember what we’ve already established—U.S. people will not tolerate a Jesus who is not buying American values. Do you think that rule only applies to conservatives? Think again. Politically and socially liberal Christians are the same as conservatives, fundamentalists, and devotionalists in this regard. They want to see their own personal Jesus cast in their image and likeness.
So Jesus becomes an individualist and introspective personality. He has a sexual orientation just like us 21st-century people do. And therefore, Jesus defines “self” the way all Western individualists do.
Jesus Wasn’t Progressive or American
Except Jesus was a collectivistic Middle Eastern peasant with a group-centered personality and a group conscience. Anti-introspective, he wasn’t psychological at all! No one in his time had a sexual orientation—”straight,” “gay,” “bi,” “queer,” “trans,” “queer,” “asexual,” etc., as our understanding goes. These expressions would be meaningless to Jesus and his contemporaries. Disagree? That just means you are distorting the actual historical and social nature of Jesus and his movement.
But all Christians, including progressive ones, say they want to follow Jesus! I get it. But how can you follow Jesus if you don’t know who he is? And how can you know who he is if you reject the real Jesus in favor of whom you want him to be (i.e., a Western progressive social liberator and egalitarian? The medicine of this blog post is not only for conservatives and fundamentalists but also for U.S. liberals.
Don’t get me wrong! We should expend every ounce of our lives in reforming injustices both in society and the Church! If you are prophetically leading the way in that regard, blessed are you! You are following Jesus sacramentally, spiritually, and indirectly in the here and now. But please don’t commit historical dishonesty, folks! Don’t disrespect the past, and rewrite Jesus and the New Testament with your ideological pens.
Deaf But Progressive
But what U.S. Christian will listen? United States society is the most individualistic culture ever. We are borderline solipsists. So we dig rebels, those with or without causes. Rebels with causes, so much the better. Therefore, Jesus becomes an iconoclast and rebel. Nobody tells me what I should do, and the same goes for MY Jesus!
What good news for Americans!—Jesus is a rebel with a cause. We like rebels with causes, and if the cause is just and noble, even better still. Progressives, pacifists, feminists, environmentalists, socialists, communists, and various activists are attracted to seeing Jesus as a Progressive Liberator and Rebel. He challenged the traditional structures of politics and family to establish a community of equals. Then came that misogynist bastard Paul and friends who screwed it all up.
But where in the Bible, or anywhere in the ancient world, can we find our modem concept of equality? Nowhere. So whenever we read it into Jesus, we are, in fact, doing this via eisegesis. Ultimately, we have distorted Jesus and the Bible into being a Western progressive and egalitarian.
Although many of us would like to see Jesus as a progressive 21st-century social justice advocate or egalitarian, such was not the case. Jesus’ nonviolence is not equivalent to later pacifism.
Jesus VS Western Progressives
Sister Joan Chittister is a hero of mine. She is a brilliant and marvelous person with so much to teach the Church and the world. But when she goes on Oprah Winfrey and claims that Jesus was the first feminist, it is ridiculous. Jesus was not a feminist or any current category related to progressive liberation or egalitarianism.
Neither Jesus nor his movement rejected the traditional Mediterranean family in favor of a society of equals. In fact, as Context Scholar John Elliott explains, Jesus and his followers base their model on the traditional Mediterranean kinship structure, patrons and all. So, therefore, without Mediterranean kinship, there is no foundation for the sociality, mission, and worship of the Jesus Movement. So too do all of its identity, solidarity, loyalty, and obligation stem from it. Sorry, but that’s just how it is.
In contrast, the congenial Jesus we produce is romanticized and anachronistic. He thus becomes a first-century Mahātmā Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. Or worse, a first-century Bono or John Lennon (but without the physical abuse of women). He is seen as a post-Enlightenment, post-Industrial activist, or even a revolutionary-type.
Despite the Matthean Jesus’ very typical stance on Samaritans and Gentiles (Matthew 10:5-6) and that foreign women he called “dog” (Matthew 15:26), Americans distort Jesus into being a progressive universalist, accepting of all and tolerant of everyone.
Progressive, Congenial Jesuses
This is just another congenial Jesus that celebrates Western individualism and many good, important things. But Jesus wasn’t this. He indeed appeared as a rebel to elites. Jerusalem elites saw his dietary and washing habits as a shameful rebellion against the Great Tradition. Hellene Israelite elite scribes (the Evangelists) interpreted these breaches of Judaean custom as honorable but rebellious all the same. The historical reality was that Jesus was a poor peasant who, like so many Galileans, could not afford to keep the Great Tradition even if he wanted to.
Any notion that Jesus was an egalitarian who established his political-religious movement to be a “community of equals” must be rejected. It is culturally implausible and without evidence.
Jesus the Progressive Feminist
Did early Jesus groups have women managing them, even breaking bread in shamanic ways with them? Why not? Most ancient Mediterranean men and women did not eat together, for one thing. I have no reason to doubt that women broke bread in the earliest centuries—yes, Catholics, you should understand what I mean by that. Throughout the Mediterranean at this time, females ruled the insides of homes, were the intelligentsia of villages and often told the males what to do in public. To automatically assume that it would be impossible in the domestic-religion Jesus groups that nowhere women were “in charge” is unwarranted.
Yeah, I believe that in some Jesus groups, this went on for several centuries. But don’t jump to the conclusion that women were considered equal or superior to males by those Mediterranean communities or egalitarian. Other explanations exist why these early Jesus groups would be led thus.
While it might make many American Christians feel good claiming the earliest Body of Christ was a “community of equals,” where is the concrete historical and social evidence? There is none. How about a coherent explanation of how this might have come about? Again, nothing.
Gospel Proof Texts
The New Testament documents never employ the words “equal” or “equality” to assert the equality of all believers. Never does it use these terms to describe the socio-economic relations characterizing the Jesus movement entirely.
All 21st-century ideas and valuation of equality are entirely lacking in the ancient world. Therefore, whenever someone tries to interpret these being present in biblical texts, they are being anachronistic. The anachronism of making Jesus into a progressive is founded on their idealist perspective, which is at home in our Western, postmodern world, but not that of Scripture.
Any Gospel passage you can employ as a proof-text that Jesus was egalitarian can be used, in context, to show contrary and opposite interpretations. Don’t believe it? Try me.
Early Jesus Groups = NOT Progressive
Explore the actual socio-economic disparity and perennial inequalities inside the Jesus Movement before and following Jesus’ death. Do you see any idea of it being a socio-economic “community of equals”? If so, check your reading glasses.
Contrary to spurious familiarity, Jesus was counter-structural, not countercultural. Did Jesus criticize or alter pan-Mediterranean patriarchal relations? Nope. Consequently, that’s also incompatible with any false notion that the Jesus group was a “community of equals.” It flies in the face of what the New Testament tells us about the social state of the Jesus Movement following Jesus’ death.
And please don’t cite Galatians 3:28. This deals with the unity of all believers in Messiah Jesus, civilized and barbarian Israelites alike. It doesn’t level all social roles and relations!
None of this attacks the prophetic work of today’s heroes for justice, both inside and outside the Church. The Spirit of Jesus keeps blowing past our expectations. The Spirit keeps unpacking with us the Mystery of Christ. Our understanding has broadened in who belongs and who does not belong.
Our foundations lie with the prepaschal Jesus, sure. But it is stupid and unfair to think of Jesus as a first-century feminist, socialist, environmentalist, sexually liberated person, egalitarian of any sort. To imagine him that way is just another identity theft and congenial idol.